Harold Crik is a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words. Every weekday for twelve years he lives to the timing of his wristwatch. Until Wednesday. On Wednesday, a voice begins narrating his innermost thoughts, and proclaims that a “ seemingly innocuous event” will result in his “imminent death.” In desperation, Harold steps out of his mold, hoping to find the voice and prevent his fate. He doesn’t know the story will end at the exact moment when he has the most to live for.
This is one of my all-time movie favorites, ranking up there with the Back to the Future trilogy. It’s one of those movies that become a classic in your own mind. When I’m sick, I watch this movie. When I’m depressed, I watch this movie. And most of all, when I’ve got writer’s block, I head out and watch this movie.
Sometime last year when I was still muddling through Shatterbox, someone suggested that I take a favorite novel and read it with a critical eye, looking at what made it so good. I cheated and watched Stranger Than Fiction instead. But it was worth it.
Not only is it a great story, but it’s a masterpiece in dialogue, characterization, and humor. I ended up with two pages of notes. After digging them up recently, I thought they were worth discussing here. I pretty much noted techniques used in the story and then asked myself how I could make them part of my story.
Each main character has a counterpart, and most of the character’s stories are entangled. Thus one character getting what they want is detrimental to the other character.
The main plot in Stranger Than Fiction is about Harold, trying to save himself from the mysterious narrator, and a writer named Karen, trying to figure out how to kill her main character. These two are at odds. Right off you have the main conflict, and a domino effect occurs.
The question to ask: How could you create this domino effect in your story? Which characters are naturally at odds, and how could you make them rely more on each other? What events would really pit one character against another?
What terrifies characters should be the things that challenges them, what they must come to face, if they are to survive.
This is another way of saying that characters should face their fears. However, what struck me in watching Stranger Than Fiction was not that Harold had this big climatic moment where he came up against what scared him most, chooses to fight it, and wins. No. The challenge is that each time he comes up against a fear, it’s an opportunity for him to grow a little, push past it a little, and face it a step at a time.
The question to ask: How are your character’s fears challenging them? Could you do more? Try thinking of a few opportunities your character could deal with his fear.
Misdirection is an important part of dialogue. Have characters answer unspoken questions. Have them talk at cross-purposes. Have them hedge. Take a literal question figuratively, or vice versa.
This builds nuance and humor into dialogue. For example, Karen’s publishers send her an “assistant” named Penny to help her finish the book. This creates an immediate animosity, as Karen thinks Penny is a spy for the publishers. And Penny dislikes Karen’s habit of chain-smoking. In a clash of wills, Penny says,
“I suppose you smoked all those cigarettes.”
“No,” Karen says. She raises an eyebrow. “They came pre-smoked.”
The question to ask: Do your characters always respond to the obvious statement? Could you make their responses deeper, more intuitive? Try stretching the bounds of your dialogue to take other characters unaware.
Pick a few distinguishing details to flesh out each character. A few details are enough, but make them unique.
Each character in Stranger Than Fiction can be identified by their physical quirks. For example, Harold wears dull V-neck sweaters, and keeps all the furniture in his house off-white. Ana Pascal surrounds herself with color: floral glass plates, mosaic chandeliers, while surrounding herself with activist posters.
The question to ask: how have you fleshed your characters out? Could you give them some physical characteristics to set them apart? Be aware that these characteristics will define the person described. Make each one unique to that person and your story.
And just for kicks, I thought I’d add a clip of Stranger Than Fiction.