Asking “what” to aid effective character creation

what character creationAre you struggling to create focused characters in your writing? There’s a gem of advice in Syd Field’s classic screenwriting guide, Screenplay, that I feel is really worth dwelling on. It’s introduced mid-paragraph, almost an aside, but I think it’s something that can really help a lot of writers quickly and solidly create a character background. In its simplest form, the point is to ask what and not why when you’re exploring your character.
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The Principles of Shared Success, Conflict and the EU Referendum

eu referendum togetherAs a writer, I put a lot of effort into trying to understand people and relationships. Relationships are the root of all meaningful conflict, so the source of all good stories. And as such, it’s the interaction between people that interests me most about the upcoming UK referendum. Principally that I find it incredible that it’s essentially an argument about whether or not people want to work together.

The Leave Campaign plays on the idea of “the European” as a selfish “other” who wants to improve their world at the expense of ours. This creates an attitude that we have an enemy and we’d be better off alone. Personally, I believe the people of Europe, like everyone else, have a less vindictive goal – to improve their world with one another’s support. Conflict comes from the person that would try to convince you we can’t work together – success comes from the belief that we can. Continue reading

Why Teaching Grammar Rules Can Be Dangerous

dangers grammar rulesI read a post on Facebook earlier, protesting the fact that children in the UK are being made to learn rules for fronted adverbials as part of the curriculum. Not a concept, I’d wager, most English speaking adults are that familiar with. I expect most English speakers don’t really know what an adverbial is, in fact, because why would you? As native speakers we adopt most of the supposed rules of language by learning from example, not by dissecting them or learning rules as rote. In fact, learning rules by rote, especially when those rules may actually cover rather flexible or complicated points, can be harmful to language learning in the long run.

It’s a poignant topic for me as I’ve recently released a book about sentence structure, explaining the topic for foreign learners. For adult learners, this sort of full understanding of structure and patterns is an accessible way to learn, but even from this perspective the concept of adverbial position is a hazy area involving issues of style – not something that’s easy to simplify as a rule. If the aim is to get someone to speak on a functional level, a simplified rule is fine – but a simple rule is a dangerous thing if your aim is to become fluent (which, at a higher level, increasingly requires bending the rules). It’s a problem for the Advanced adult learners I teach who have, without fail, been taught certain dogmatic grammatical “rules” when starting out and have a lot of difficulty trying to adapt to occasions when these rules are inaccurate.

When is a grammar rule not a rule?

I’m not one to dismiss learning grammar – the rules are very important and an understanding of grammar can be incredibly useful. If you break fundamental rules, your language becomes unclear or incorrect. There are rules that are always true, for example using the correct verb form to show a tense. Get this wrong and you will present a different meaning, leading to misunderstandings:

  • I went to the park yesterday.
  • I go to the park yesterday.

Then there are “rules” that aren’t actually rules at all, but patterns. Issues of style, where some people will say it one way and some say it another. An example, and a fairly complex area of teaching English to foreign learners, is the subject of adverb position. With the following two sentences, depending on where you’re from in the world you’re likely to have a strong preference for one structure or the other:

  • I mostly have learned from mistakes.
  • I have mostly learned from my mistakes.

Though one might be clearly correct, or incorrect, to an Englishman, it won’t necessarily be true for an American. What you consider to be a grammatical rule is actually subject to variation – not just based on where you’re from but in many cases depending on how you want to frame what you’re trying to say. This is a matter of style or opinion, not a fundamental grammar rule that is right or wrong. No one can tell you that it should be one way or another. And while these can be very interesting and important to learn, no one should teach you that it must always be used in a certain way.

Seeing those sentences above, two people without being instilled with grammar “rules”, may argue “That just doesn’t sound right to me.” and might agree to disagree. Give someone a little (incomplete) knowledge like “adverbs come after auxiliary verbs”, though, and the argument becomes “You’re wrong and this is why so you must bow to my superior knowledge!” Perhaps leading to fisticuffs. Not saying people should stay ignorant to avoid conflict, but with teaching rules comes a lot of responsibility that might not be considered if you simply segue them into a curriculum…

The Difficulty with Adverbs

Adverbs and adverbials (covering adverb functions represented by other words and phrases) can modify a lot of different parts of a sentence. Simplified, adjectives describe nouns (that is, things, e.g. a fat cat), adverbs describe almost everything else (such as actions, describing words, other adverbs and so on). That means they have a massive range of uses and fit into sentences in a very varied way.

Roughly speaking, there are four types of adverbs that have slightly different rules for how they fit into a sentence, when they describe manner, frequency, place and time. They can fit into a clause in front, middle and end position (with the middle position creating further opportunity for flexibility). In my book Word Order in English Sentences, I’ve taken 6 pages to introduce how to apply these ideas in their most basic way. And even these “rules” must be qualified with the fact that in many situations there is no clear reason to use one position over another, “rules” dotted with words like can, normally, often and usually. When to use certain patterns can be roughly explained, for example that a time placed at the front of the sentence adds emphasis, but it won’t always be true. Without context, there is really no difference here:

  • Every day, she goes to the gym
  • She goes to the gym every day.

It’s a broad subject that can take a lot of theory to cover, and even then the theory doesn’t fully translate to practice because there are exceptions and specific rules for different adverbs and situations, and people adopt their own usages depending on regional styles and emphases.

Yet the real kicker to all this is that few native English speakers know the basics of these rules or patterns, for the very simple reason that this level of understanding is only useful if you need to explain it to someone. If you grow up speaking English, you don’t need to understand what an adverb is, or where it should go, to be able to say:

  • Fortunately, I can speak English.

If you make mistakes, you notice and correct them by adapting to common usage, not by looking them up in a rulebook. Likewise for more complex adverb phrases and clauses. On the other hand, knowing what an adverb is and where it should be placed can have a negative effect and make your use of English less effective, as you’re led to believe that something is incorrect if it doesn’t fit the rules as you understand them. To use a rather simplistic example, someone who’s been drilled into using an adverb in a specific position might see the sentence:

  • I can speak English, fortunately.

…and protest That’s incorrect! That adverb should be in the front position! Why? Because you’ve been told there’s a rule, when there isn’t. There’s a pattern, a style, a choice.

On a more basic level, it can lead to learned mistakes. When I teach foreign learners grammar, I’m careful to make note of the “rules” that can be bent. I’ve had TEFL teachers tell me this can be harmful, because it makes the language more difficult to learn in the early stages and people want rules they can stick to. The problem is, when you’re faced with someone at an Advanced stage of learning, trying to become a fluent speaker, and they keep repeating the same mistake because they’re using a rule that native speakers don’t use themselves, it becomes incredibly difficult to correct that.

Ours is not a language that sticks to the rules, so focusing on rules in a dogmatic way at an early level creates barriers later in life. It leads to people making mistakes as they try to fit a certain pattern. It creates adults who argue about grammar in a way that depends on what they were once taught, not based on what is practical, popular or accepted. It can create people who think they are right about something that does not have a right or wrong answer, and that’s a very dangerous thing.

Word Order in English Sentences: Out Now

word order booksIf you’ve ever wanted to brush up on the basics of fitting a sentence together, my latest grammar guide, Word Order in English Sentences, will help. Updated from one of my earlier works, published on my English learning site, I’ve now made this expanded grammar guide available in electronic and print formats. Though designed as a guide for foreign students of English, it has a practical application for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how sentences fit together.  Continue reading

Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico

love of seven dollsI chanced upon this book going through my mother’s old collection, and always being intrigued by something short and purportedly fantastical (with a context of carnivals, no less) I gave it a whirl. Not already being familiar with Paul Gallico, I was immediately impressed by the standard of writing and drawn into the enchanting (if now antiquated) world of Love of Seven Dolls – a tale of a suicidal girl finding a reason to go on through a puppet show with a life of its own, travelling across 1950s France. What follows, though, is a remarkable book that turns incredibly dark and does not fully (or in some cases even partly) resolve its negatives, yet somehow remains enchanting. Making it a pretty fascinating read. Continue reading

The Faergrowe Principle Wins Silver at 2015 AURA Screenwriter Awards

silver screenwriting awardThe 2015 AURA Screenwriter Award winners were announced on 1st January, which made for a pleasant New Year discovery to see my script, The Faergrowe Principle, received the Silver Award for Feature Screenplay. It was up against a large range of projects so it’s a great result.

The Faergrowe Principle is a screenplay I wrote mid-2015, a dystopian/sci-fi thriller with a grim tale of faded friendship. In a world that barely survived a global war, scientist Allison Heartridge searches for lost friend who helped develop the sustainable food supply society now survives on. With the help of a battle-weary mercenary, she follows the trail of the Church of the Ascension, a cult that had taken her friend in and had since been violently suppressed. The journey takes her beyond the comforts of New Oak City to the chaotic wastelands of Matterfoss, where she discovers a devastating connection between her missing friend, the Substance Engine they created together, and their mutual old flame, Laine Faergrowe – the leader of the free world.

The screenplay takes its rich backstory from an unpublished novel I wrote a few years ago, set years before the events of this feature. It’s a gritty future created by two super-powers that, in trying to kill each other, effectively damned themselves. A future that asks questions of what becomes of the leftovers in such a conflict; the footsoldiers who knew nothing but fighting, and the engineers who created both the instruments of destruction and survival. Beneath its grand setting are simple human stories – the relationships that keep people going, and the morality of survival.

Receiving an award for this screenplay now is a boon as it’s a project I’m still working to improve. The next step is to complete it’s next stage of edits and submit it to more festivals!

Introducing characters in screenplays – learn from “The Thing”

the thing screenplay character buildingBill Lancaster’s screenplay for “The Thing” is a great read for a  number of reasons – one that struck me immediately, though, is the quiet brilliance of the first page. As a method for introducing a cast of characters, it’s at the same time somewhat unconventional and widely applicable. Unconventional because it presents the characters all at once as a list, rather than in-line as they appear (as the usual convention would have it) – but widely applicable because the characters are built so fully in so few words. If you haven’t read it, click the image to enlarge it. Continue reading

The parable of the man with an elephant’s head

elephant head storyI had what felt like a terribly profound dream the other night, concerning a couple who were walking in a valley as dusk was approaching. They had been out for a long time, and were growing tired, eager to get home before dark. The valley had steep, high sides, hedging them in, and their trail was chased by shadows. The woman started to grow anxious, convinced that someone was following them and that they should hurry. Looking back, they could both see that, for sure, a figure was walking behind them, a short distance away. The man brushed off her fears, though, saying that there were bound to be others enjoying such a beautiful walk; they had no right to believe this walk was meant just for them. Continue reading

How to use bridging words effectively

conjunctions bridging therefore thusThe following is adapted from a guide on my English Lessons site, as it’s something I think is relevant to writers everywhere. Something I invariably find when editing writing, particularly non-fiction such as reports, essays and general academic texts, is the over-use of bridging words, adverbs typically used as conjunctions or to connect ideas across sentences and paragraphs. It’s a widespread problem – when I edit my own writing I find a large number of these words. Expressions like thus, hence, however, therefore, as such, moreover, indeed and many more are useful to connect different ideas in writing – but must be used sparingly, otherwise they sound run the risk of becoming repetitive and redundant. Continue reading