Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words — But Which Words?

2 Moscow fotosWhat can a mystery writer learn from these photos?

Both were shot side-by-side and simultaneously. The color photo is by David Maung, Bloomberg News (front page of Wall Street Journal, Feb. 28). The B&W is by Pavel Golovkin, Associated Press (New York Times, page A9, Feb. 28).

Both show a crime scene: the murder of Russian activist Boris Nemtsov. Both are great photos.

The difference is in the cropping.

At the WSJ, the page designer went wide, taking in more of the street scene: the police, the media, the onlookers to the right; the grandeur of the onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral resplendent to the left. And the body of Boris Nemtsov front and center, well-lit but not spotlighted, the investigators and criminalists looking calm and maybe a little bored as they go about their routine.

The NYT page designer tightened up the shot. Nemtsov’s body is much more prominent; almost the first thing we see. The photo is about him, not about the scene. St. Basil’s looms behind him, along with a perfectly bland car park. The juxtaposition of pomp and prosaic are superimposed over the horror of death; a nice metaphor for modern Russia.

It’s the same set of decisions mystery writers use in setting a scene. What elements are essential? How much detail is too much? Is this a crime or a crime scene?

As a page designer, I would have opted for the NYT crop: tight and horizontal (same decision I would use as a reporter). As a novelist, I like the WSJ’s crop; the essential Moscow-ness of it. It looks like a scene shot by William Friedkin or Michael Mann.

(Please note, I do not take lightly the death of a political activist in Moscow, and I apologize for anyone who interprets this as cold-hearted. I react as a human being differently than I do as a scene-setter; distancing myself from the horror.)

When crafting a scene: What do you put in, and what do you take out? Some days, that’s about 90 percent of what we do.

Great Writing Tips from Pixar


Have you seen these 22 writing rules, apparently culled from the terrific Pixar animation studio?

As I understand it, these rules originally were tweeted by Emma Coats, a freelance director and Pixar’s story artist. I have not met Ms. Coats and hereby congratulate her on an elegant list. Proof positive that those who can, teach.

Not only do I believe in most of these to be valid, I’ve taught variations of them in my writing classes. So don’t think of these as “animation-centric.” They’re not. In fact, last month I ran a list of 10 writing rules by famed Hollywood director Billy Wilder. If you go back and cross-check them, you’ll see a lot of similarities.

imagesCheck these out and let me know which ones you think are gems. I’ve added notes in parentheses.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different. (I’m not good at this, but I see the wisdom in it. Dana)
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite. (I understand her point. But I knew the theme of the NTSB thrillers and Daria Gibron thrillers from jump. Just sayin.’ D)
  4. Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Finally, _____. (love this! D)
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. (I’m not good at this. D)
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it. (This is in my writing workshop. D)
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone. (As is this. D)
  12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth … get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive and malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but they are poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that feeds your story? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the characters. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against them.
  17. No work is every wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on. It’ll come back around to be useful later. (yes! D)
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of trouble are cheating. (I teach this but never in such an elegant, simple structure. Lovely. D)
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How do you rearrange them into what you DO like? (Remove “movie” and insert “novel” – it still works. D)
  21. You gotta identify with your situation and characters; you can’t just write “cool.” What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
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