Sense of Urgency Is Like a Splinter

sense of urgency is like a splinter

No, not the rat.

It wasn’t until discussing the either or mentality a few months ago that I realized that I had somehow overlooked talking about sense of urgency (In a writing blog – how is that even possible?). Immediately, I put it on my list for later. Today, later is here, and it comes with a simile: sense of urgency is like a splinter.

Sense of Urgency:
Importance, Attention, & Deadlines

Talking about a sense of urgency has grown more and more popular not only in writing but also in business. Books must have a strong sense of urgency to be more gripping and fast-paced, and people must have a strong sense of urgency to make their businesses take off.

Ok. But what does that mean?

What Is a Sense of Urgency?

Well, in business, it’s your motivation and your level or intensity of caring. The elusive emotion drives you to get tasks done and tackle more. In years past, it would’ve been called “ambition.”

In writing, it’s fairly similar; however, you (the reader) are not the one feeling a sense of urgency – the main character is. Yes, we as readers respond to the main character’s need to succeed at a goal, but it isn’t our need (although, for extreme fans or those with major empathy, it can be hard to tell the difference…).

Uh-huh. And it’s like a splinter how?

Gotcha covered. It’s time to take this simile to the next level: the analogy. Don’t worry – all silliness aside, the comparison does actually make sense.

What Do Splinters and Sense of Urgency Have in Common?

I’m glad you asked. Here are a few of the items I’ve put together. Before I get into them, however, I’d like you to stop a moment to think about the splinters you’ve had over the years. From least to most memorable. Think about the irritation, the random pain when you first discovered it was there (How do they get there without being noticed?!), the intense concentration of operating on yourself to get it out – you know, the whole shebang. Got it in your head? Ok. Here we go.

Sense of urgency is like a splinter because both…

  1. Vary in size and importance (A small wood splinter versus bamboo under the fingernails. Big difference. Oh, and ever get a metal splinter? You know, the type Bruce Willis pulled out of his arm to use as a lockpick in Die Hard with a Vengeance? I have. Believe me, a normal splinter’s got nothing on that!)
  2. Hold your attention (even when you’re trying to focus on other things)
  3. Have a deadline (However vague – such as “before I type anymore because ow” or “before gangrene sets in, and I lose this finger”)
  4. Grow in importance the longer the issue remains (AKA, the closer you get to the deadline or the more side problems crop up because of it. And you thought it had your attention before it was red and swollen! Ha!)

Yes, a sense of urgency does all of those things.

Take #1, for instance. When a teacher tells you that your book needs a sense of urgency, you think of the main goal – the problem to be resolved in the climax. But there are plenty of little problems and conflicts that need a sense of urgency, too. A scene where a character has no driving need to do anything is a scene that’s dead in the water. Even if it’s as simple or small as a need to entertain themselves while waiting for someone, the character always has some motivation.

And, don’t forget, the character’s the one driving the plot, right?

As far as number 2, a sense of urgency is a splinter in your brain. Instead of pain distracting you, it’s ideas or a feeling that you need to get it done. It’s like having trouble concentrating at work because you have a million things to do at home. Or how artists tends to find ideas for their art in everything – because their art is never far from their minds!

Oh, and as far as #3, if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll understand the next sentence perfectly: you can’t have a sense of urgency without a deadline. If you can wait to do it tomorrow, why would you do it now? What’s in it for you?

The ticking clock is a cliche because it works. Having a deadline automatically creates at least some sense of urgency. In fact, the only way the ticking clock doesn’t work as a tool is if the character doesn’t care about the consequences.

Speaking of consequences, that’s also a way of heightening a sense of urgency, and it’s part of why the deadline is important as well as the variation idea (and #4). What’s the difference between homework due tomorrow and stopping a villain from destroying the Earth? Well, other than genre or trope, namely the scale of the consequences.

That’s how you differentiate between your conflicts and increase the sense of urgency for the climax. As a general rule, the main conflict should not only have more deadly or frightening consequences, but those consequences should also increase or get worse the closer the character gets to the climax. That can be simply because the result will be much worse if not taken care of before the deadline, or it could be because the situation grows increasingly complicated, resulting in worse dangers.

It’s particularly powerful if the actions that the main character takes to stop the dangers actually increases them (or, at least, the ancient Greek writers thought so…).

Hubris aside, though, that’s how motivation is like a splinter.

Speaking of which, *may your personal sense of urgency to write be like a long, nasty metal splinter that aggravates you so thoroughly you have no choice but to face it down (AKA: I hope you write.)

*A little Ray Bradbury-esque, but I meant it as a blessing.

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Forensic Linguistics as Dialogue Research

it wasn't me i am innocent

Anyone watching the special on CBS about the JonBenet Ramsey case? I saw part of it, and to be honest, what caught my attention most as a writer was the forensic linguistic part. In the section I saw, they identified a line of testimony as a lie because the wording was too extreme – too much of a sales pitch. That made me think that forensic linguistics could be useful dialogue research.

Areas of Forensic Linguistics That Relate to Dialogue

Now, maybe, you’re an expert, but I’ve never heard of forensic linguistics before. So I Googled it. According to wikipedia. it’s applying linguistics to trials, crimes, etc. (blah blah blah). I could’ve guessed that much from context clues.

Don’t worry – “The Forensic Text Types” section was more useful, especially relating to writing and dialogue.

Emergency Calls

Since 9-1-1 calls are usually intense, time-sensitive situations, the types of things forensic linguists look for would be most useful under similar circumstances. And they’re mostly about analyzing (or revealing) the honesty or dishonesty of the caller (is the call real?).

Some signs that it may not be real include

  • delay/pauses between answers
  • sidestepping or hedging answers
  • really short answers
  • incomplete answers

Translating some of that into writing could be hard, but it could definitely useful if you need to make it seem like a character is lying. Focus on timing and willingness to give information.

Notes for Ransoms or Threats

This section makes me think of motivation. Only this has the challenge of figuring out the motivation of characters you’ve never met.

It seems that combined with the actual message, when a ransom note was written gives a pretty big clue about the motivation of the person writing it as well as the potential honesty. Which makes a lot of sense but isn’t something I would have thought of.

For example, if they wrote “the child is safe” before they ever took the child, that’s not trustworthy. Sure, they might’ve planned for the child to be safe, but who knows if the kidnapping went as planned? It’s an interesting thought-process to apply.

Another aspect that came up in the JonBenet case was the idea that the ransom note could have a mix of motivations because multiple people were writing it. In that case (according to the theory promoted on the show), a lie got more complicated because two many people were involved in planning it.

But even if the note was intended as a true ransom, having co-criminals with different priorities could result in a mixed impression for the police.

Suicide notes, death row statements, and social media are also listed as specific texts studied; however, at a glance, they appear less applicable without having very specific moments in the plot or doing further research.

That’s kind of what I’m afraid of, actually. As much as this topic seems intriguing, it also seems like the sort of topic that could take a lot of sifting through before you find the kernel of information that you can use. The only problem is I don’t know that for sure – it could be a goldmine of strategies and techniques for figuring out if someone is lying. Or other tidbits that could be really handy for writing dialogue that conveys a certain impression.

That leaves me feeling really conflicted. Do I take the risk, or do I make use of this much and move on. Is it Pandora’s box or a pirate’s treasure chest? If anyone decides to research this further, I’d love to know the answer.

A Litmus Test for Characterization: Tom Hiddleston’s Fan Letter to Joss Whedon

Has anyone seen the fan letter to Joss Whedon from Tom Hiddleston about the script of The Avengers?

To summarize, Hiddleston gushes a bit and thanks Whedon for writing him a character who has so many layers (“Tom Hiddleston’s fan letter to Joss Whedon is the most adorable thing ever”). Anyone who has spent time with actors will find this story very believable because getting a “juicy” role (also called “meaty” – a character with layers and depth) is something that actors practically drool over. Many actors even value meaty roles above the lead.

Wait. Why does depth matter to actors?

Well, acting is an art, and like any art, most people go into it because they need to create. Their art is delving into the depths of their characters for motivation that no one else has explored before so that they can reveal their interpretations to the world.

Yes, an actor or actress can develop a less-than-juicy character and give you something that the audience can enjoy or even love. But that does not satisfy the need to create nearly as much as the challenge of exploring a character who is more realistic (with layers of flaws, strengths, idiosyncrasies, and complex emotions). The more there is to the character, the more depth he or she has, the more an actor or actress has to work with.

Giving a professional actor a 2D character is a bit like asking a world explorer to find a continent on a child’s globe.

That’s why thinking about characters the way an actor would can help a writer. It’s like a litmus test for fully-developed characters: if you think an actor would be thrilled to get the part of that character (perhaps even going so far as to gush or write a fan letter to you), then you’ve written a character that has power. You might even call it juicy.

And that’s the goal, right?

What Makes a Writer?

I came across an article this morning that reminds me of a scene from Sister Act 2 where Whoopi Goldberg’s character gives a book called Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke to a troubled teen. In this scene, Whoopi describes Rilke’s response when someone wrote to him, asking how to become a writer:

“Don’t ask me about being a writer. If when you wake up in the morning you can think of nothing but writing… then you’re a writer.”

The article, “Why I Write,” has a similar flavor with some fun imagery. No matter who says it or how, this feeling seems to be something that writers share. I know it’s true for me.

Why do you write?