Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 2: Some Like It Hot milks a joke

I suspect the reason why most people don’t get the most out of high-potential scenes is because the same parts of the brain the concepts boil up from contain a lot of disturbing and embarrassing material. Of course, it could also be a lack of persistence. (The thrill of a good idea can be enough of a payoff.) Or even laziness. (Exploration takes work.)

Last week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story.

This time, let’s look at a scene from a comedy, Some Like It Hot. The purpose of this scene appears to be to show Jerry (Daphne) the price of his pretending to be a woman. More immediately, his intent to get alone time with Sugar is frustrated. The natural stopping point would be his attempt being aborted by Joe (Josephine). After all, Jerry has been warned, and their lives are in danger. But here’s what happens. (Again, you can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)

Beat 1 Banter with a caution. We can’t be discovered.
Beat 2 This may be a surprise party. (Secret)
Beat 3 Double entendre stated related to the secret.
Beat 4 Telling intruder it’s private.
Beat 5 Cocktails. And it’s a party now.
Beat 6 Many people. Food. Crowding. “Daphne” fights against the tide.
Beat 7 “Josephine” is asked for cherries.

All this happens in about two and a half minutes. We are SHOWN Jerry is reckless, persistent, and horny.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a deception.
  • Hints at a secret (which is also a promise).
  • Private becomes public, with the intrusion.
  • Jerry and Sugar work at cross purposes.
  • The humor leans heavily on irony, 
    • since the audience (but not Sugar) gets “Daphne’s” joke
    • and understands the sexual frustration.
    • And the audience also sees the growing danger, something Jerry’s distracted from and Joe is sleeping through.
  • There is escalation. The growing number of partygoers continues to be obliviousness and their increased participation in the party (more complicated drinks, food, enthusiasm) makes it tough to back out. The widely shared event raises the risk and stakes.
  • Imagery is pajama party sexual, something Jerry can’t indulge in.
  • The power shifts from Jerry’s sexual designs and a powerful secret to Sugar’s desire for alcohol and fun.
  • Still, as Jerry’s frustration grows, he acts obsessively. He doesn’t give up. Even as things get crazier and crazier.
  • Ultimately, authority is brought in with Joe’s awareness of the situation.
Much of the scene is adding to the complication by making a romantic tête-à-tête into a party. But the humor is milked by raising the complications, number of participants, obsession, and dangers. Underneath it all is growing panic that turns a chuckle into a belly laugh.

This adds a promise, escalation, and irony to the list of elements of a great scene, but there’s more to come. Next week, a look at a horror scene.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 1: Lessons from Casablanca

There are places in a story where you get to really know a character. Or places where the writer makes a promise. Sometimes, tension will build to an unbearable level or laughs will cascade, one upon the other.

Each great scene has a promise, but that's not enough. It must include a beginning, middle, and end. There must be careful balancing of the elements, whether that's imagery, dialogue, narrative, or description. Curiously, there must also be timing. Scenes that are too abrupt or too padded never work. How long do you extend the tension? How much should you milk the joke? How detailed do the descriptions need to be to suggest just enough of the experience?

For most writers, getting the timing right means cutting away clutter that's disguised as brilliant prose. I think 90% of the professional writers I know write "long." My own first drafts are almost telegraphic. There's nothing to cut. Much to add. And the inspiration for looking more closely at how great scenes are given the space they deserve came from some recent critiques I've gotten where readers asked for me to extend scenes.

So, first I made notes on my assumptions regarding great scenes, based on a lot of wonderful reading experiences and my own struggles to put what's in my head onto a page. Then I explored great scenes in film (because sharing these in a blog post works better than quoting from novels and short stories). Here's a source I'll work from 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.

Some scenes on this list are less useful than others. The one from Atonement leans heavily on the work of the director and cinematographer. The scene from Singin’ in the Rain depends on music and dancing. And many of these are climaxes, endings, or reveals. Those scenes follow slightly different rules. They may work because they pull together bits of information from across the whole story or they may intentionally leave pieces out so the film continues to resonate with audiences long after they left the theater. In most cases, scenes that carry the story forward provide the most insights.

Let's start with Casablanca's dueling anthems scene (one of the 36, if you want to look at the video). The purpose appears to be to provide Victor Laszlo’s bona fides as a heroic leader. We’ve already heard about him. Now we get a chance to see him at work.

Beat 1: The annoying Nazi’s treat the bar to a patriotic German song.
Beat 2: Which causes irritation and fear.
Beat 3: Victor moves to take control.
Beat 4: Ilsa notices (and becomes the viewpoint character).
Beat 5: Victor instructs the band to play The Marseilles over the Germans.
Beat 6: Rick gives approval.
Beat 7: Led by Victor, the singing of The Marseilles, bit by bit, drowns out the Nazis.
Beat 8: The Nazis give up their singing.
Beat 9: Victor is at the center of it all, the focus of the shift in power from the Nazis to the French.
Beat 10: People react, including those we doubted, joining in with tears and urgency.
Beat 11: Ilsa sees the man she worships.
Beat 12: It all culminates with Viva La France!
Beat 13: The defeated Nazis scowl.
Beat 14: People applaud and cheer.

All this happens in less than two minutes. We are SHOWN Victor is a hero.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a conflict.
  • Is engaged by a character’s (Victor’s) deliberate (and courageous) intention.
  • Builds in terms of those engaged and the intensity of the gesture.
  • Is sensual (music, great faces).
  • Involves multiple (in this case, the three main) characters.
  • Includes growing role by and risk to a character (Victor).
  • Shows an unmistakable shift in power.
  • Advances the story.
  • Supports the theme with imagery and meaning.
  • Includes both action and reaction.
  • Provides a stand-in (Ilsa) for the audience and demands attention.
The essentials are Nazis singing, Victor cuing The Marseilles, and the Nazis being drowned out. But these alone would not have been enough for a great scene. Without the time investment made in showing reactions, including other characters, and presenting an intensifying struggle, it would not have been noteworthy.

Next week, I’ll look at another scene with some different lessons.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Humor Between Characters - Disconnection, reactions, and affection

I've been studying Neil Simon's work as part of an acting class. Inhabiting the role of Oscar Madison (in The Odd Couple) got me thinking about humor from the inside. Neil's brother Danny was the model for Felix Unger and was one of the great teachers of comedy. In fact, he is the one who told a generation of writers they needed to focus on relationships over what he called "joke jokes."

One practice that helps create humorous relationships is contrasts between the characters. (The Odd Couple, with slob Oscar and fussy Felix is an obvious example.) Big differences create conflict, which can drive your story. And though it's not always the case, most comedies have strong stories. But sharp contrasts create commitment, which makes compromise and connection difficult.

A major characteristic of a good comic character is determination. In general, great humor comes from obsession and the unwillingness to explore alternatives. When two characters both are convinced that they are right and they know what must be done, sparks fly. From their points of view, there is nothing funny or strange about their decisions, actions, and positions. Those of us who observe these characters find humor in this sort of blindness. I suspect, on some level, many of us are aware that we have acted in similar ways without going as far as comic characters do. Being in a superior position (or presuming we are) allows us to laugh while still embracing the characters.

Both characters can't be right all the time. But both characters tend to feel they are only being sensible. They miss the absurdity, but we don't.

The disconnection between committed characters is funny, but also creates tension. It keeps us involved in worried about the characters. (Really bad things might happen, but unless it's very dark humor, we can assume there is a tacit agreement between us as readers/viewers and the writer that no one will truly be hurt.)

While occasionally characters may (with feelings of justification) intentionally hurt others, usually the negative impacts they have are surprises to them. They are not looking to alienate or harm the other characters. Felix is a great example of this. How could he be anything but the perfect roommate when he keeps things clean and organized and he serves up gourmet meals? He doesn't see his lack of flexibility or the way he constrains Oscar.

So announced that the humor when good intentions lead to horrible consequences or surprising reactions from others. Often, we can see it coming while the character can't. This terrific plan or perfect solution will be disastrous. And it ends up being even worse than we suspected to our surprise and, mostly, to the comic character's surprise.

And here's an important point. While it's all funny to us, it's deadly serious to the characters. One thing I saw over and over in my acting class was if the actor seem to be in on the joke or trying to make it funnier, it lost its spark. Playing it straight was always funnier. So it's the human obsessions, not ironic behavior, that provides the foundation for much of great humor writing.

There is a third thing beyond disconnections and surprising reactions that is invaluable to relational humor. That's affection. First, we usually have affection for the characters. There's a level of empathy even if they are ridiculous. Even as we can see them stumbling, our hearts go out to them.

And this is made more powerful and compelling when the characters have or discover affection for each other. As different as they are, they don't want the inevitable conflicts to pull them apart. They really want to find legitimate connection with each other. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger really care about each other. Even when they want to kill each other, they have affection for each other. That's a subtle kind of writing that works well in tragedy as well as comedy. Exploring the common humanity between very different characters elevates all kinds of stories and makes them unforgettable.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Writing Efficiently Despite Having All the Answers 2 — Five ways to work in a connected world

Last time, I offered guidelines for a writer using the Web to get the work done with fewer distractions. This time, I have  recommendations on good habits that might save you from the Internet's siren song.

1. Track your activity. This does not have to be the lawyers habit of logging every 15 minutes (although that works well). Simply writing down your estimates of how much time you spend online in the morning, afternoon, and evening can be eye-opening. Get a good sense of where your time is going to see if it is in proportion to your goals. One week of tracking every few months can help you see how close you are to activity that will help you reach your hopes and dreams.

2. Start your day without connection. While the Web is not all junk food, it offers a lot of sugary treats. (I almost wrote tweets.) Just as starting your day with candy pretending to be cereal is a bad idea, hitting all your favorites (email, social media, videos) before you’ve gotten any work done will not help your productivity. Two suggestions: Three suggestions:

First, get something started at the end of the day and put it where you can’t miss it. I usually place an ideas paper on the kitchen table (since I often wake up with story solutions or concepts), as well as a page with three to five open questions (in case I don’t wake up with things I need to get on paper right away).

Second, turn your wifi off before you go to bed. This puts temptation a step away.

Third, avoid anything digital for the first hour of the day. The morning is the best time to cultivate connection with the tangible world. It helps if you actually turn a mechanical timer to one hour and give yourself those minutes as a gift.

3. Time box distractions. Being open most of the day to every bell, buzzer, and alarm that pulls you into email, Facebook, and other Internet lure hands control of your time over to other people. It’s also hugely inefficient since most of these are not valuable. Interrupt mode work is less productive that batching your responses. So set times during the day where you permit yourself to respond and keep to those times. It helps, again, to set a timer for these activities.

Time boxing is difficult if you normally have no barriers to these activities (or worse, find yourself checking email or social media repeatedly during the day). Rather than enforce optimal rules right away, it might be good to turn your computer’s sound off or reset alerts or just  set an hour or two of quiet time you know you can commit to. Building good habits gradually (perhaps with each step on your calendar) is often less discouraging and painful.

4. Have “insteads” ready. One vulnerability for writers is unexpected free moments, especially 10-20 minutes that becomes available unexpectedly. I often hear that writers “reward” themselves for getting something done early by checking on social media. The ten free minutes easily become 30, 40, or 50 minutes of low-value engagement. Having something valuable to do, designed for short openings, can help support good habits.

I call these interstitial tasks “insteads.” Instead of making yourself vulnerable to a time sucking activity, read a poem or memorize something or make a list of possible titles for a story or answer a plot question or interview one of your characters or read an article. All of these (for me) have natural stopping points that allow me to use open time well, and then get on with priority work.

It’s best if these task require Web searches or the possibility of real-time interactions. Writerly things (like marketing, cultivating an audience, looking for opportunities, or discussions with peers) carry the risk of being snared into bigger (and less valuable) time commitments.

5. Make physical activity part of your routine. I stretch every 40 minutes. It helps keep me healthy, and it also makes it impossible for me to keep my hands on the keyboard longer that I should. It stops my brain from restless cycling. And even if I’m productively engaged in the Internet (say, by doing research), it forces me to reflect on the purpose and value of the activity. It makes it harder to make excuses for less than productive activity.

The focus above is on positive activities, good behaviors that can support productive work without invoking shame or (currently) impossible objectives. You don’t have to do them all at once. You don’t have to do any of them perfectly. And you can substitute your own positive activities, these are not rules that must be obeyed.

No matter how obsessive your relationship with the Internet may be now, you can take small steps to keep things proportional. To not be a slave to alerts or twitch behaviors. Those steps may help you to prioritize how you use your time so you can do your best writing. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Writing Efficiently Despite Having All the Answers 1 — The Web as a tool, not a distraction

What makes a great writer? Curiosity? Inspiration? Knowledge? Care?

Let's take them one by one, and explore them in relation to the essential tool of our time — the World Wide Web. And for each, I'll suggest some efficiency guidelines so that the web can become a help more than it's a hindrance.


If you're writing instruction manuals, curiosity has limited use. Basically, the steps need to be expressed clearly, without a lot of opinion and nuance. But art happens when unexpected connections are made and often the impact depends upon the spaces in between. This makes the thrill of collecting bits and pieces of life and exploring them in enough detail so that their relationships become visible a positive practice for writers.

Even before the Web existed, I remember getting lost in libraries, often learning more from adjacent books than the ones I came to refer to. The web provides this library effect on steroids. With a few clicks, arcane subjects can be run down, often providing bizarre discoveries that are totally unrelated to the original intent.

This is a good thing when not taken to extremes. Unfortunately, it's easy to spend more time collecting artifacts (which can range from data to quotations to intriguing biographies) than creating new works.

Guideline 1. Spend no more than half as much time feeding your curiosity online than you spend drafting stories.


Articles, news stories, images, and opinion pieces can provide delicious, often nearly formed prompts and ideas for fiction. And this can be true from the inception of stories to their development to the drafting of scenes and chapters to finding just the right piece to complete the revision of a draft which includes an important hole.

For me, complete stories have come from a chance remark or a little-known fact. The shapes the stories have, at times, been determined by the structures of successful works that parallel my intentions. And I've often stumbled across an article and had it come to mind as my subconscious was busily searching for the answer to a story problem.

It's good to read regularly and broadly. But it's not very useful for writer to read opinion piece after opinion piece that dissects the latest outrage in the news, especially if these all come from similar perspectives. (That's just one example of feeding anger or hardening positions or be obsessive urged to read about subject past the point of diminishing returns.)

Guideline 2. Set a timer before you begin reading articles on the web, and choose the time of day that is other than your most productive writing time. (Give preference to your writing.)

One reason people read books, including fiction, is to learn new things. James Michener made a career out of elegant, in-depth novels that promised readers they would know more about a subject, essentially developing college course level expertise painlessly. Research into a region or a business or a time in history or technology can differentiate a work of fiction and support storytelling. It can, however, become a great excuse not to begin (or finish) a story.

In addition, I suspect some writers get to the point where the facts get in the way of the storytelling. It's very easy to dismiss options, include real facts that are difficult to believe, and magnify elements that are unrelated to the story's theme. I usually rely on my intuition when deciding when to stop research before a draft is written. I also may collect information about something specific over years before I know what story needs to be told.

When I am doing research as part of revision, that work is targeted toward filling holes and answering questions.

Guideline 3. What a story is not set, collect topic information in one file (preferably with some useful subcategories) that is clear, organized, and accessible over years.

Guideline 4. For revision research, clearly articulate what is needed, the specifications for satisfactory information, and how what is learned will be used for the work in progress.

When drafting, I go to extremes to keep forward momentum. When I lack a fact or have a less than perfect word in the text, I'll mark it off with brackets.  If I don't have a near substitute, I'll simply put in the word, "bagel," and fill in those blanks with references once the draft is complete.

Getting it right, my care for the work, is secondary while I’m engaged in the creative process. But I need to move beyond that in revision. Before others see the work, I need to make make sure my facts are correct and my language choices are as good as I can make them.

A writer depends upon keeping the confidence of readers. Mistakes in language and facts can cause a reader to doubt or even abandon the work. Getting it all right matters. And this can't be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and dependence on editors (as essential as they are). It's part of the responsibility to not be sloppy and to demonstrate respect for the work and the readers.

Guideline 5. Judiciously use Internet references (including fact checking sites) to make your manuscript as close to error-free as possible.
I hope this is a good starting point to explore your use of the Internet as a writer. Other uses (email, social media, entertainment, and marketing) may have more of an impact on productivity than these, next time, I'll provide some guidelines on avoiding distraction and generally fitting the Internet into the life of the disciplined writer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Windows to Reveal (Just Enough about) Mysterious Characters

In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab doesn't show up until after the ship has been at sea for days. And it's chapter 28.

Talk about intriguing. Talk about building the tension. Herman Melville was not afraid to withhold information, and that practice can especially valuable when you have a character who must be bigger than life. By leaving things out, readers' imaginations are engaged and can create dimensions that are deep, meaningful, and personal.

When I was a kid, most of the horror movies did not share the monsters. They hinted at them, making them all the more terrifying.

One important tool for providing some but not all information about a character is using other characters as windows. These provide readers with indirect (and incomplete) experiences of mysterious characters. Their filters give readers the option to pick and choose between descriptions, characterizations, and opinions. This permits them to assemble their own images (and can, with the best of fiction, reward revisiting these stories over the years).

If you make the right choice, the window can be a single person, as with Nick Carraway who narrates The Great Gatsby. Though Nick has direct experience of Gatsby, much of what he gathers about that character comes from rumors and the statements of others. His interest, skepticism, and opinions all shape, without defining too much, our own experiences of Gatsby.

Citizen Kane doesn't begin until after Kane is already dead. The story is basically told as a series of interviews, dramatized by flashbacks, with people who had contact with Kane. The interviewer, Jerry Thompson (who is mysterious in his own way, never seen on camera), has had no direct experience of Kane. The testimony of others provides windows into who Kane was. These are shaped by the questions the interviewer asks, but not by his providing his own point of view. (Of course, there is an ironic perspective as well. The viewers of the film know the Rosebud answer, something which is never learned by the interviewer.) The windows approach is recreated by the film’s promo, in which Welles is heard, but never seen.

How do you choose your windows to best present an intriguing character? Having a naïve character, probably the narrator, is a very effective starting point. This character, like your reader, is seeking knowledge. I think it's good to have characters who have biases as well. It's tricky to handle unreliable characters, but, if you balance them, with advocates and enemies, victims and beneficiaries, skeptics and believers, these can give you powerful ways to provide the right mix of hints to deliver a memorable character.

Of course, this technique works for characters who aren't so mysterious. More might be learned about a shy character from his or her friends than from direct experiences. Think of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Or an inarticulate character, like Edgar in Men in Black. Or a neuro-diverse character. Or someone suffering from memory problems.

I love how, in Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, the protagonist, Corwin, discovers who he is, often through other people. We discover who he is at the same time, and the brilliant twist in the story is how Corwin comes to dislike who he was and reform himself.

Using characters as windows into other characters are does not need to be limited to characters who have a lot of hidden aspects. Windows can be used for any important characters in your stories. But, at least as an exercise, it's worth considering creating a character who is mysterious and discovering how to balance hints and scope for imagination when giving readers a direct experience of characters is deliberately limited.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Satisfying Stories Turn on Characters Learning Lessons (or Not) - Authentic Change

I'm a sucker for stories where the hero or heroine goes from being greedy were self-absorbed to generous and open. But I only connect with such stories if the transformation makes sense. Fundamentally, characters only grow and change if they're forced to. And, the bigger the transformation, the more pressure the character must experience.

This isn’t easy to achieve. While there are a lot of stories where characters learn a lesson, many of these fail because they are less than convincing. As a kid, I got a steady diet of these in TV shows, especially in situation comedies that featured families. This one so far that it became a cliché for a parent (usually the dad) to puff on his pipe and explain to the child the error of his or her ways in the end. There was absolute certainty that the lesson was taken to heart.

Ultimately, my memories of those shows tend to focus on jokes, frustrations, embarrassments, and the nasty characters more than the bland heroes and heroines to barely edged away from the straight and narrow and were easily brought back into line.

The Twilight Zone — even though it often terrified me — was more memorable. In general, it was more likely to have a just desserts ending than a happily ever after. My preferences still are toward darker material and earned happily ever afters. (And, as I looked at some favorites – A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day, It's a Wonderful Life, the original Star Wars — I was surprised to discover it was easier for me to find happy endings in fantasy and science fiction.)

Shawshank Redemption and Casablanca are two mimetic stories with characters who change to allow happy endings. Both of these are also stories of healing,. I think this is because it's easier to show basically good people being restored and becoming better people than it is to show (as with Scrooge) and unpleasant character becoming positive without leaning on magic.

Nonetheless, there are some principles and play to keep in mind when you want to create authentic change in a character, a transformation that touches people's hearts.

Make it a big change. Within the bounds of the time you have to tell your story, a bigger change, from evil to good, will be more compelling. It's easier to engage with strong contrasts than subtle differences. This works best with longer stories, where there is room to support change.

Make it difficult. Characters only change when they are pushed hard, don't have alternatives, and have something that matters they might lose. No one changes dramatically if they can shrug off pain, dodge obstacles, and have little to lose. Go for torture, no escapes, and high stakes.

Give the hero agency. While it is perfectly permissible to have change catalyzed by misfortune or someone else's action, the hero or heroine needs to have the power to take action to resolve the situation – at a price. The hero or heroine cannot be saved by someone else.

Support the protagonist. In most cases, part of the inspiration and motivation for change is someone who cares for the main character. Lovers and friends encourage, inspire, and nudge the protagonist to make good choices and take action.

If possible, require courage. There are lots of reasons why the best choices are made by characters. Very often in stories, it comes down to the character trying things that worked in the past that aren't sufficient for the new circumstances. That happens in real life. In addition, laziness and ignorance can keep people from doing the right thing (although these two tend to weaken the drama of the story). But fear is probably the most accessible and visceral reason that can be presented to audiences. Because of this, happy endings tend to be most effective if they require courage on the part of the main character.

Show the choice and the action. The only way I can explain why (usually in amateur works) big moments where the protagonist finds the answer, makes the choice, and does what's necessary are skipped in stories is because the best ones demand so much from the writer. These scenes of transformation, in my own experience, require vulnerability and openness to feelings that are painful and frightening. Even writers who know enough to include them may protect themselves by making these scenes less specific or unclear. Since so much of the story depends on the scenes, the best work demands that nothing is hidden and no punches are pulled.

Show the results. A lot of "clever" stories leave it to the reader to figure out what happened when the protagonist takes action. This always feels incomplete to me. I don't think extended endings are necessary, but I do believe in making most consequences — in terms of the hero or heroine benefiting and getting rewarded – explicit.

As I said previously, I'm fine with darker stories (and the best tragedies have much of the above, with the main character NOT learning the lesson). My tendency in my own work is to have bittersweet endings. But happy endings are the most satisfying, provided all the pieces are in place for them to be justified.