Siren Stories: The Blog

Siren Stories: The Blog

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Zoe Bartlet's Studies

Writing CraftPosted by Jonathan McKinney Wed, February 01, 2017 20:18:40
So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a series of blogs that can help.


Every scene, as you know, must have tension. Someone wants something they don’t have. Tension. It might be that a character wants to chase his departing sweetheart through an airport, to declare his endless love. That’s what he wants, that’s what he needs to do. Until he’s done it, there’s tension. It might be something more everyday: a woman is late for work, a kid wants to reach the cookie jar, or whatever. But there has to be dramatic tension. Otherwise, you don’t have a scene, you just have people talking and doing stuff.

This week I’m thinking about how to layer a scene with multiple layers of tension.

The dialogue in the first four seasons of The West Wing is incredible. Aaron Sorkin wrote an absurd amount of the scripts during those years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say absurd. He pretty much wrote all of them. And, because his characters talk so fast, his scripts were almost twice as long as the industry standard for a forty-two and a half minute piece of televised fiction.

But, while the output is staggering in and of itself, it’s downright astounding when you consider the quality of the work actually being produced. As a writer myself, I am floored by the feats Sorkin performed during those years. (As a fan of TV, I’m just grateful.)

So I’m going to try my best to unpick some of the techniques applied by Sorkin so that we can benefit; and, for now, I’ve chosen a scene from the seventeenth episode of the first season, entitled The White House Pro-Am.

The American President, Jed Bartlet, who is a white man, arranges a meeting with his daughter Zoey, who is also white. She’s planning to go to a club opening with her African American boyfriend Charlie, but because the Secret Service has been receiving death threats from white supremacists, who ‘don't like that the daughter of the President is dating a young black man’, President Bartlet has to tell his daughter that, while she can go, Charlie can’t.

So, that there is President Bartlet’s primary motivation. He wants to break the news to his daughter. But Sorkin doesn’t jump straight in with that. He has Bartlet ask Zoey, a college student, about her studies, asking her what her schedule for the day is. This is Sorkin grounding the scene in something not related to the current storyline, which fleshes out the character of Zoey—in that she’s at college—but, also, of Bartlet—in that he takes an interest in her life.

Anyway, she tells him that she has ‘Intro to Cinema and 19th Century Studies’, and this opens up a really effective, lighthearted running tension between the two characters. President Bartlet wants to know why she isn’t studying “math”, as the Americans call it. She jokes that she’s not studying math because she already graduated high school, and her father tells her she should be studying it at university too.

He teases her about her studying Intro to Cinema, and finally gets to the point, bringing up the death threats, and explaining about the club opening.

So, the whole math thing serves as a kind of humorous back and forth before the meat of the scene. We immediately call back to it, though:

Bartlet says: ‘I met with Butterfield and some Secret Service Agents this morning.’

Zoey replies: ‘What did I do?’

And Bartlet says: ‘You didn't do anything. They think you should be taking more math.’

The quick call back keeps the dialogue light and energetic, and now the scene drops the math thing and focuses on the Charlie thing. Zoey understands, and tells her father that she’ll break the bad news to her boyfriend over lunch, and then Bartlet’s assistant comes in and we move on.

But Sorkin isn’t done.

One of the other storylines in this episode is the death of the Federal Reserve Chairman, Bernie Dahl, which Bartlet finds out about a few scenes prior to this one. So, as Zoey is leaving the room, she stops and consoles her father. He explains that he didn’t know Dahl very well, and Zoey asks who is going to replace him.

Bartlet says: ‘I don’t know. You want the job?’

Zoe says: ‘Yeah.’

Bartlet says: ‘Can’t have it. Know why?’

Zoe says: ‘Why?’

And Bartlet says: ‘Not enough math. Bye.’

I genuinely love this scene. I think it’s outstanding. In just over two minutes, Sorkin delivers this weighty, hard story, of the interracial romance and the white supremacists, which is going to bubble along right up until the end of the season. But he also nods to the events going on within the span of this episode, with the mention of the deceased Federal Reserve Chairman—but what really elevates it to an A+ scene for me is the running math tension.

So, say you’re writing a scene and you have your Character A driving the scene and Character B responding. Ask yourself what the relationship between the characters is. What is going on with them, in their daily lives?

You have your primary tension: the “club opening”, for example. If you can introduce a secondary tension that grows out of the pre-existing relationship between the characters, as Sorkin did with the math tension, you can really lift your scene from good to brilliant.

See, so much character work is coded into the math tension. You see Bartlet disappointed that his daughter isn’t following the wisdom that guided him as a young man, but you also see that he’s playful with it, and she doesn’t leave feeling like he’s really disappointed by her. You see what I feel is a strong, if not quite perfect, father daughter relationship.

And in addition to all that, it’s funny. But look again at the punchline, when Bartlet tells Zoey she can’t have Dahl’s job because she’s not studying math. It would be easy to construct the joke using fresh events. But Sorkin does it by folding in the events of the episode. This is fantastic work. When you’re writing, try to do this as much as you can: try to fold in details that you’ve already specified in the text, where you can.

Have a think, right now. Your work-in-progress—what events have occurred, which you can fold in to future scenes? Doing this really settles your reader, and lets him or her feel like you know what you’re doing, and it glues otherwise disparate events together in a truly satisfying way.

Go and watch the scene if you are able to. It’s fifteen minutes in to episode 1:17. And think about your characters, and how you can layer their interactions with character-developing, secondary tensions.

Find me on Facebook and Twitter and get in touch, and, by all means, buy my books, which you can find out about here.

Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.



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Mr Vandermar's Pigeon

Writing CraftPosted by Jonathan McKinney Sat, January 21, 2017 08:00:29
So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a series of blogs that can help.

You sit down to write a scene. You’ve got two characters, and you know where your story is going, so your two characters discuss the necessary plot details, and your scene ends. It works. It moves your story forward. It all makes sense. But it’s pale. It’s dry.

This is an easy trap to fall into.

You attempted one thing with your scene, and you accomplished it. But to elevate your writing, you want to be looking to accomplish as many things with your scenes as possible. This is what brings your stories to life, makes them dense and crunchy and vivid.

So, how do we do it?

In Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Neverwhere, the author has such a scene to write. Around the middle of the story, the two most prominent bad guys, Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar have a conversation that moves the story forward.

The context is: Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar are assassins. Slimy, stinky-breathed assassins. They’ve been hired by someone, whose identity is at this point in the story a mystery, and who we refer to only as “the governor”. Mr Croup, who is the smarter of the two, is growing frustrated that the governor keeps changing his mind about what he wants the assassins to do.

Mr Croup says: ‘Kill her, kidnap her, scare her. Why doesn’t he make up his mind?’

When this scene happens in the story, it’s important, because I was starting to wonder the same thing. This conversation reassured me that the author was also aware of the problem and that it was all part of the plan, and not simply inconsistent character work.

But, the author wants to do more than merely tidy up his plot. He wants to entertain. He wants to reveal and develop his characters to his readers.

So he doesn’t start the scene in Mr Croup’s POV, with what would be a perfectly good, but somewhat perfunctory: ‘Mr Croup was confused’.

No, he starts in Mr Vandemar’s POV, with a simple: ‘Mr Vandemar was hungry’.

By rooting this scene in the terribly mundane, utterly relatable short term goal of “find food”, Gaiman is able to deliver the actual story momentum via Mr Vandemar’s companion Mr Croup, who, while Mr Vandemar goes about sourcing some sustenance, rants about his confused frustration:

‘Scare her,’ muttered Mr Croup, disgustedly. ‘Scare her. That we should be brought to this.’

While Mr Croup has his little moan, Mr Vandemar takes ‘half a prawn and lettuce sandwich [from] a waste-bin’ (notice the detail). Now, reading the book, my first thought was: “Oh, that’s gross. Mr Vandemar is eating an old sandwich from a bin”. But Mr Vandemar doesn’t eat the sandwich. He tears it up and begins throwing it to the stones to attract pigeons.

At this point, I’m really grossed out because I realise that Mr Vandemar is probably going to eat a live pigeon.

Mr Croup gets back to moaning about the governor’s intentions, and when Mr Vandemar runs out of sandwich, he rushes into the crowd of pigeons and grabs one. Mr Croup congratulates him on his catch, and, with a sigh, he closes his part of the scene, saying, ‘Well, anyway. We’ve certainly put the cat among the pigeons now’ (referring to their actions in the previous scene, where they scared the “her” he keeps talking about).

Finally, the scene ends thus: ‘Mr Vandemar held the pigeon up to his face. There was a crunching noise, as he bit off its head, and commenced to chew.’

Now, see what Gaiman has accomplished here.

1: He’s demonstrated that Mr Croup is aware of the fact that the governor’s actions are inconsistent. As I said before, this reassures the reader that the governor is not just acting in ways that allow our heroes to succeed for no reason. Gaiman hasn’t sacrificed the governor’s character so as to allow his protagonists to survive, to allow his story to keep going. No. Something is going on, and we will find out what.

2: He’s provided clear, disturbing insight into the quite grotesque eating habits of Mr Vandemar. Those habits tell you quite a lot. The scene demonstrates Mr Vandemar’s rudimentary problem solving skills, and, given that catching a pigeon probably isn’t easy—I’ve never tried—the scene also demonstrates Mr Vandemar’s impressive physical proficiency.

That’s quite impressive for a scene that lasts for little more than one page. And, fellow writer, keep in mind that Gaiman has done way more with this scene than he was required to do. No, the scene would have been perfectly fine if it had just been Mr Croup ranting to Mr Vandemar, with Mr Vandemar responding. But “perfectly good” isn’t “excellent”, and this scene is excellent.

So, the next scene you sit down to write, try this. You have your main story purpose in your head already. That’s the first thing on your mind. Character A wants this or that. Try to get into the heart and soul of Character B. What does Character B want? It’s likely not what Character A wants. Find it, and root your scene in Character B’s POV, and allow the A story to move forward reflectively.

Food is a strong, mundane character goal. But unless you have an interesting character like Mr Vandemar, you might find that ‘Bill went to the kitchen and took out a biscuit’ doesn’t really cut it.

No. Try and reveal whatever it is that’s exceptional about Character B. See, it’s not the fact that Mr Vandemar is hungry that makes him exceptional. It’s the fact that he catches a pigeon and bites its head off. And that’s what elevates this otherwise C grade scene to an A.

Find me on Facebook and Twitter and get in touch, and, by all means, buy my books, which you can find out about here.

Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.





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Intro to Story Craft For Writers

Writing CraftPosted by Jonathan McKinney Sat, January 14, 2017 08:50:28
So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a helpful series of blogs that can help.


Welcome to the first instalment of my new blog series, Story Craft For Writers. Every Saturday, I’m going to take a piece of existing fiction and deconstruct it, and analyse it, so that together we can learn from it. It might be a scene from a book, or from a TV show or movie; it might be, for example, the way that an entire story is structured—but it will always be a critical look at something that’s made its way into the world and, to some extent or another, succeeded.

If you’re wondering how it’s going to work, I’ll explain. I might take a scene that’s been really expertly put together. I’ll take it apart, explain what the author was doing, what techniques he or she was using, and put it back together; and in doing so I’ll reveal how we can apply the same techniques to the composition of our own scenes.

Some weeks I’ll focus on creating strong dialogue. Other weeks, I’ll focus on strong character moments. As we go forward I’ll look at theme, and at conflict; I’ll look at particularly effective foreshadowing; and I’ll look endlessly at one of the greatest, most important things of all: character goals.

(Quick tip: Unless every single one of your characters wants things, you have a problem. But you know that already.)

Now, it’s important that you, dear writer, understand that you won’t have to have read everything I talk about, or watched it if it’s a movie or TV show. This is not a book club. This is like school. Within each blog I will provide all of the context necessary for you to understand what all the characters want, what they’re working towards, and what the stakes are. So, obviously, there will be massive spoilers in every blog. I will make it very clear which work I’m looking at well before you dive in, if there are things that you’re precious about keeping unspoiled.

(My advice, though: forget spoilers, come learn. It’s going to be fun, and I swear it’ll get your brain all excited to sit down at your keyboard and start writing.)

Next week, when I begin this series properly, I’m going to look at a scene from Nail Gaiman’s fantasy novel Neverwhere, from 1996. Again, please don’t rush out and read the book in order to prepare for this. You won’t have to. It won’t help at all. By all means, go and read it, but do so for the fun of it.

For, I will explain the necessaries.

The following week I have it in my mind to talk about a scene from an episode of the increasingly idyllic-looking TV show, The West Wing—but I may change my mind before then, if something else jumps out at me.

I will try to mix things up. I want to get to a breakdown of the climax of Matt Haig’s The Radleys; I want to deconstruct Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy; and, when it comes to storytelling excellence, I will fall back regularly on the works of Joss Whedon (the overlord), as well as regularly checking into Stars Hollow for examples of incredibly energetic dialogue.

I may occasionally want to throw a Tarantino in. (Trigger warnings at the ready.) And, I would like to look closely at some of Terry Pratchett’s work too, especially for the construction of wonderful characters.

So there’s your basic gist. Come with me. If you don’t learn how to put together better scenes, better characters, better stories … your money back.

Oh! I should also mention that, from time to time, the analysis might not be positive. I might want to look at storytelling choices that maybe don’t work. I promise, though, I’ll be respectful. I don’t like hating on stuff people work hard on and invest themselves into. That said, if we can improve by looking at scenes that fail, I’m cool with it.

And that’s about it for now.

(Final point: I’m not going to perpetually crucify the adverb. For, ‘Adverbs are fine,’ I said tiredly.)

Find me on Facebook and Twitter and get in touch, and, by all means, buy my books, which you can find out about here.

Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.



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