Professional Speechwriting for Yourself and Others

Part 1 in the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Right before I went on stage to deliver the keynote address at the 2013 Writing for the Soul conference in Colorado Springs, Jerry B. Jenkins stepped to the lectern to introduce me. Jerry smiled, then said, “I’m pleased to welcome my long-time friend, Doc Hensley, to the platform. If you’ve never heard this man speak before, let me give you a word of caution: fasten your seatbelts!” He then stepped back and waved me forward.

That humorous introduction pleased me, for it implied that whenever I give a speech, my listeners can be assured I’ll be fast-paced, content-heavy, and entertaining. Too often, many orators today are one of these three, but not all of the three.

Denzel Washington, quoted in Success magazine (“Ties That Bind” by Mike Zimmerman, Oct. 8, 2012), said, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” What he meant was, he couldn’t be a great performer unless he first had a good script to work from. That’s true. Stand-up comics can be entertaining for an hour, but no one leaves their shows pondering heavy philosophical thoughts or meditating on ways to improve themselves or the world. A good speech must have a message that will impact listeners.

Crafting an impacting speech is a process.

Next week, “3 Steps to Creating a Dynamic Speech”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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When Is Violence Justifiable in a Story?

Conclusion of the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

There are times when avoiding violence in a scene just doesn’t ring true. Even Jesus upset the tables of the moneychangers and gave a vitriolic tongue-lashing to those found in the “den of thieves.” The challenge is to make such scenes align with the nature of the person taking the action and believable within the context of the scene being presented.

A brilliant example of this is found in the 1956 movie Friendly Persuasion. A Quaker farmer in southern Indiana (Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell) is trying to stay neutral during the Civil War and thus keep himself and his sons from having to engage in violence of any kind. However, while Jess Birdwell is out on his land one day, a Confederate soldier shoots at him, and the bullet grazes the farmer’s forehead, knocking him down. He pretends to be dead, hoping the soldier will go away. Instead, the Reb advances on Birdwell to finish him off.

In an act of self-preservation, Birdwell jumps up. Catching the soldier off guard, he grabs the man’s rifle and pins him against a tree with it. The two men lock in mortal combat until Birdwell succeeds in wresting the rifle away from the soldier. He points the barrel directly at the Confederate trooper. The soldier is horrified, thinking surely he will be shot at pointblank range by this civilian he has tried to kill.

For a moment we see the rage in Birdwell’s eyes. The soldier has already shot him in the head and fought him hand to hand. Birdwell has every right, in self-defense, to kill the man. However, Birdwell’s Quaker beliefs slowly begin to resurface, and we see a narrowing of his eyes and the forming of a grim expression. He jerks the barrel of the weapon in sideways motions, signaling for the soldier to go away, to get off his land. The man is dumbfounded, but he staggers away. Then, in a moment of outrage, Birdwell grabs the rifle by the barrel and swings it viciously against the trunk of the tree, over and over, until the weapon cracks, breaks, and shatters.

This scene works. The fistfight is believable, even though it involves a Quaker. The threat with the gun is believable, even though done by a Quaker. And the release of pent-up anger and rage as evidenced by the savage smashing of the rifle against the tree is totally believable because—Quaker or not—Birdwell is a normal human being with fight-or-flight preservation instincts. Personally, if a scene can be labeled “tasteful, appropriate violence,” this scene, in my opinion, certainly qualifies.

What we are left with then is an understanding that although violence is offensive to most readers, they nevertheless understand that all people have the potential to unleash it if sufficiently provoked. And therein lies the secret of making it work in fiction. If a scene of violence makes the reader say, “I can see myself doing that under those circumstances,” then it is not only realistic, but it is also acceptable, honest, and justifiable.

Just don’t go overboard with violence, because if you do, your editor will have to put the ear back on the victim—as Jesus did after Peter went on a sword-slashing spree—and ask for a rewrite. Keep it in bounds.

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Fill in the Blanks

Part 2 in the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

Yes, off-stage violence often can be a better approach in fiction. I don’t actually want to watch Oedipus gouge out his eyes. I don’t need to observe the surgeons amputate Lt. Dan’s legs after Forrest Gump rescues him. And I’d rather not watch as Hannibal Lecter removes the facial skin of a police guard. For a fact, these off-stage scenes act as pivots to what then become major new directions for the plots. Oedipus appears in two more plays as a blind man, Lt. Dan becomes ten times more compelling as a disabled civilian than he was as an army officer, and Lecter on the loose becomes far more terrifying than Lecter in prison.

Sidney Sheldon used to say that the sexiest scenes in his novels were the ones in which he gave the readers the set-up and then let them fill in the blanks. In fact, he sometimes received criticism for being too lewd and graphic, when, in reality, he had only made allusions and inferences and had let the readers take things as far as they chose. Likewise, I think the same can be said for violence. The shower scene in Psycho never shows a blade touch skin, yet it is more chilling than most of the blood-and-gore scenes in modern slasher movies.

Violence has a place in drama. To avoid it entirely is idealizing and ridiculous. When my son was young, I used to watch G.I. Joe cartoons with him. The Joes would fire a million laser rounds at the Cobra enemy army, yet never hit anyone. Similarly, the Cobra army would return a million shots against the Joes, yet they never shot a single man. These were supposed to be the two most elite fighting forces on the planet, yet they were the worst shots in history. It was ludicrous. And don’t even get me started on how The A-Team spent five seasons blowing up cars, trucks, airplanes, warehouses, and bad-guy hideouts, yet every villain always got up, dusted himself off, and walked away. (The movie version of the TV show was more realistic . . . at least in this one respect.)

But sometimes, keeping violence off-stage isn’t the best alternative.

Next week: “When Is Violence Justifiable in a Story?”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Off-Stage Violence in Classic Literature

Part 1 in the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

While doing the required reading to earn MA and PhD degrees in English, I was amazed at how often in classic literature scenes of violence occurred “off stage.” Hamlet contains the line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” Yeah, sure, we know Hamlet has set them up, but we are never allowed to witness their actual assassinations. We are just told that the boys are goners. It’s rather anticlimactic after so much foreshadowing.

An even more bizarre off-stage incident occurs in Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Poor, dear Clarissa frets for hundreds of pages that she will be cornered and raped by a male adversary. In letter after letter she bemoans the fact that she is utterly vulnerable. Then, in one letter, she writes to a friend, “The deed is done.” That’s the whole rape scene. Now, I’m not a sadist, but, come on, after two hundred fifty pages of build up, I had expected some face clawing, piercing screams, and flailing of arms and legs. Instead, we get, “The deed is done.” Huh?

There are times when off-stage violence can be more tasteful than eyewitness observation.

Next week, “Fill in the Blanks”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Finding Material for First-Person Articles

Conclusion of the series, “Seeing I to I: Writing the First Person Article”

Ideas for first-person articles can come from any number of personal experiences (going camping, visiting a nursing home, witnessing a robbery). Make a list of events and adventures in your life this past year, then ask if any topic is something you would want to help the reader avoid, help the reader cope with, help the reader learn about, or help the reader experience with you.

As you work on your first draft, do not use the inverted pyramid journalistic approach. That technique presents all the key facts very early in the story and then just tapers off with ancillary information. Instead, incorporate fiction-writing techniques.

For example, make sure you have a gripping lead. The opening for my Vietnam story was, “I have only seen my father cry twice. Once was at his mother’s funeral. The other was the day I left for Vietnam.” This obviously sets the tone as being serious, and it immediately lets the reader know that I will be telling my own personal story.

Remember this: What’s special about the first-person narrative is that it cannot be assigned by an editor. Your real-life experiences are unique. Additionally, the narrative will be told in the distinct voice of the writer, not merely some standardized 5-Ws verbiage. You’ll need to establish a flow to your narrative, create a chronology of events that will each engage the reader’s imagination, and build toward a boffo ending.

Although the first-person article is, in effect, your proclamation of “been there, done that,” it won’t impress readers until you can add “and now you can come, too, and you’ll be glad you did!”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Bring the Reader Along

Part 2 in the series, “Seeing I to I: Writing the First Person Article”

Begin writing your first-person narrative with the goal of revealing something of importance to the reader. It can be presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but it still has to make the reader say when finishing the piece, “Aha, so that’s what that is like.”

In essence, you will be taking the reader along with you, hearing what you hear, seeing what you see, feeling what you feel. The reader, however, will be at a safe distance and will be able to laugh at you, cry with you, or discover along with you without actually having to fight in Vietnam, plan a funeral, or engage in whatever other episode you may wish to write about.

A word of caution: first-person narratives are not letters to the editor or complaints to the Chamber of Commerce. If you have an ax to grind, you’ll lose readers immediately. Readers want anecdotes and stories, dialogue and scenes, a grabber opening and a fulfilling conclusion. If you mount a soapbox, you’ll be there alone.

It is vital to show, not merely tell. You have get the reader directly involved in what is going on. In my Vietnam piece, I used dialogue and description to let the readers sit in with me during my military enlistment, when having conversations with my army buddies during deployment, and later when talking with family members after coming back to America.

Readers witnessed events first hand. They weren’t presented a list of statistics, facts, and data; they were given a saga with strong narrative drive that dealt with genuine human emotions and serious moral issues. Like it or not, they found themselves wondering, “What would I have done in a situation like that?”

Beginning writers worry that using the word “I” so many times will alienate readers. There is some truth in that. After all, suicide notes are written in first person. But what I’ve discovered is that if I make myself the fall-guy in the narrative—I’m naïve and learning as I go along—readers will actually start pulling for me. They’ll empathize with me, identify with me, and hope that I will survive the ordeal ultimately and be the better man for it. That’s because by then, they are seeing themselves in the same circumstances.

Next week, “Finding Material for First-Person Articles”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Give Readers Insights and Personal Benefits

Part 1 in the series, “Seeing I to I: Writing the First Person Article”

Although I’ve written plays, novels, short stories, devotions, articles, and even textbooks, the greatest reader response I’ve received has always been from my first-person articles.

Fifteen years after I came home from the Vietnam War, I wrote a 2,000-word feature titled, “Why I Fought in Vietnam, and Why I’d Do It Again.” That article has been published in The Baptist Bulletin, The War Cry, The Waynedale News, Military Life, and ten other magazines and newspapers. It also has been translated into German, Portuguese, and Russian for publication in international periodicals. It first ran in 1984 and most recently in 2010. I have stacks of letters from veterans who wrote to say, “You explained how I felt, but I just didn’t know how to put it in words. I’ve shared your article with all my relatives and friends.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I wrote a 1,900-word feature titled, “Funeral Planning Fun? Dead Right!” It was a satirical report about the bizarre ordeal my wife and I went through in buying caskets, ordering a tombstone, and planning our funerals. It was published in nineteen newspapers in early 2013, and I received emails and letters from readers who said, “I laughed so hard, I fell out of my chair. Who would have thought that the subject of death could have been so hilarious!”

These two examples—one extremely serious, the other totally comedic—show how much readers appreciate and become impacted by I-was-right-there narratives. But writing first person articles is tricky because the finished product shouldn’t read as though it’s something you’ve extracted from your diary or copied from your personal journal. Readers don’t give a rip about your summer vacation or your difficulties using new computers or your embarrassment at being overweight at your class reunion unless they can receive some insight and personal benefit by reading the piece.

Next week: “Bring the Reader Along”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Shaping Your Story’s Subplots

Conclusion of the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

Sheriff Andy Taylor was the central character in Mayberry, but if Opie was being bullied at school or Aunt Bee was worried about competing in the county fair pie contest or Barney Fife was having dating problems with Thelma Lou, they all turned to Andy to make things tranquil once again. Andy was a peacemaker, both literally and figuratively. The lesser characters didn’t dominate in the plots as much as he did, but their interactions with him were natural, continuous, and entertaining.

If you create a cast of supporting characters and decide what their goals and needs and ambitions are—and why they are turning to your main character to help meet those needs—you will be able to develop logical and interesting subplots.

It has been said that people shape events, and events shape people. As you give thought to how your main and secondary characters came to be who and what they are, subplots will begin to take shape in your mind. Jot down notes. Pose questions. Speculate about scenarios. Play what-if games. Consider where your characters live, what era they live in, what their key concerns are. Events will then surface, and the way your characters decide to respond to them will form your subplots.

After all…it was the subplot events in your life that made you turn out the way you are now, right? So, apply the same logic when creating the subplots your characters will be involved in.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Keep Readers Hooked Through Subplots

Part 3 in the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

A good subplot can reduce the responsibility of the main plot to keep the reader vested in all the details. If readers stay with one or two key characters page after page, the story risks becoming either tedious or morose. Old Westerns would insert a break (“Meanwhile back at the ranch….”) so that the audience could change venues, focus on different characters, and be given a break from the intensity of an impending ambush. However, even a break from the main action can serve to intensify pressure on the main character. True, Roy Rogers may escape the Indian attack, but unbeknownst to him, rustlers are trying to steal his cattle while he’s away from the ranch. Thus, as the story advances, things get worse for the key character, not better, and many of his or her challenges will come from events developing in the subplots.

After you have developed profiles for your main protagonist and antagonist—and possibly a love interest—you can focus on the secondary characters: sidekicks, bosses, apprentices, students, coworkers, neighbors, clients. Why are they in the story, and how will their challenges relate to the more dominating challenges the main character will face?

Next week, “Shaping Your Story’s Subplots”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Subplots Can Enhance Main Characters

Part 2 in the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

In The Gift (Harvest House), a novel I wrote with Holly G. Miller, protagonist Ian Moore has the ability to transfuse time from one person to another. His quest during the length of the novel is to find a worthy successor to pass this gift along to before he dies. However, subplots show Ian being pursued by people who wish to use his powers for their own benefit. An aging multimillionaire wants to force Ian to make him young again. A physician wants to find Ian and learn the medical applications of what Ian can do. An aggressive investigative journalist wants be the one to reveal Ian’s powers to the world and make himself famous.

As we see Ian from the perspectives of these secondary characters, we learn about his backstory, his motivations, and his beliefs. It would be hard to gain all this information from the central character himself, but deriving it from people involved in subplots makes it accessible and believable. Additionally, the emotional ties between Ian and the secondary characters give greater depth to the plot.

I don’t believe in coming up with a main plot and then inventing random subplots to inject into the story. Instead, I try to think of how subplots can be woven into the main story as ways of providing comic relief or character empathy or threats of evil or moments of victory that are all part and parcel of the overarching story. If placed correctly, they can slow the narrative drive in a natural way, making the reader wait for the main story’s resolution while staying interested in the progress or outcome of one or more subplots. One good test of the appropriateness of a subplot’s inclusion in your synopsis and outline is to ask the question, “If I pulled this subplot out of the novel, would it leave a noticeable gap?” If your answer is, “Well, not really,” then toss out that entire subplot.

Next week, “Keep Readers Hooked Through Subplots”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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