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Writing Tip #327

We all have different methods at getting us through those dark, dreary days of a first draft. They're not so dark, I find I actually have a lot of fun writing, otherwise I wouldn't do it, but sometimes you get stuck. When you get stuck, the worst thing you can do is just to give up. I'd never have completed a single manuscript if I gave up every time it got hard.

Over the years, I've come up with little shortcuts to help me get through those times that are harder than others like we all do (or should do.)

My brain sees stories as movies playing in my head. I came from a world of screenwriting and I'm a very visual, cinematic writer. That method of writing poses its own challenges since you can't just follow a logical chain of events in a novel the same way you would in a movie. At my most recent writing critique group (With Janine Spendlove and Aaron Allston), I was torn a new asshole because of all of the random POV shifts in the rough draft of my manuscript that would make perfect sense in a movie.

Although some techniques don't carry over as well, there's one I've picked up over the years that's helped me a lot when I get stuck working on characterization.

I cast my book.

I'd do it with my screenplays, too. But I would use a cast of characters from movies I loved, but it would have to consist entirely of dead actors. There's something more literary about the sensibilities of old movies, but imagining that my bad guy was being played by Sydney Greenstreet and my hero was in Ray Milland's shoes would help me work through scenes. Greenstreet's sort of villain was entirely unflappable. My version of Ray Milland always seemed a little pissed off he wasn't as sophisticated as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and turned to cutting corners in life.

The list of dead actors I've cast in my screenplays, novels, and short stories would be a mile long.

I don't always do it, and I'm not a slave to it in any way shape or form, but it helps me imagine my way out of some situations I would ordinarily get stuck on. And it allows the characters to surprise me.

Some might say, "But they'll see right through you! It's cheating!" But I'm not actually writing these characters. I'm letting them, in the rough draft, fill in holes that happen to create fascinating dichotomies with the characters I've already worked to create.

And in order to prevent them from completely taking over and to smooth out the dialogue and mannerisms, I'll recast the part during my revisions, usually from a living actor with a completely different sensibility. How much would Richard Dreyfuss bristle at being in a Ray Milland part? How would Harrison Ford handle getting cast in a part written for Sydney Greenstreet or James Cagney?

For me, it adds an energy and depth to my characters with very little additional effort. It helps me surprise myself with what comes out on the page and it layers characterizations that would otherwise seem flat.

Maybe this technique isn't for everyone. I have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of a lot of movies and this comes naturally to me, it's just how I think. But next time you get stuck with a character, why not cast Cary Grant in the role and see how he'd play getting out of the situation?

This technique helps me muscle through scenes to write that would force other writers to stagnate. It's just one of the things I've developed that works for me and brings an extra energy to the page that helps you get through that hard times.

And you really never know where it'll take you.

Try it. Let me know how it works for you. And I'd love to hear about what gets you through tough pages and passages. I'm always looking for new tools to put in my toolbox.
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