Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Understanding Power 4 - The character falls

Nothing demonstrates a change in power more than a scene or a sequence of scenes where a character loses power in a big way. The boxer gets knocked out. The spy's identity is revealed. Boy loses girl.

Scenes and sequences that involve loss of power can be among the most memorable in a story. And, though they are often near the end, they may be earlier on.

In The Natural, near the beginning, Hobbs is at the top of his game when he gets shot.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey finally has the girl and a fistful of money for travel, and there's a run on the savings and loan.

One of my favorite examples is from Jerry Maguire. Jerry (played by Tom Cruise) believes his new concept in sports agenting will bring the profession to a new, more humane level. He is so convinced by his insight ("The answer was fewer clients. Caring for them, caring for ourselves, and the games too."), he writes up a new Mission Statement ("THE THINGS WE THINK AND DO NOT SAY"), prints it up in the middle of the night, and distributes it to everyone in his firm. Then he questions the wisdom of his actions, but it's too late to call the manuscript back. Still, it looks like success, like a high point. His peers applaud him. Then a hint: just for the audience:

AGENT # 1 How long you give him?
                   
AGENT # 2 Mmmm.  A week.

More hints follow. Until he's fired. And he fights back. And loses with almost every client he has. And turns off the lights to his office. And keeps falling.

As I looked across these and other examples, I found some commonalities:

The protagonist is generally at a high point at the beginning. Full of power and confidence. (It's an illusion or an incomplete perspective.)

Then, there usually are hints of trouble that are not seen or are ignored. Those hints comes from the larger world in some way (experience, bigger network, larger concerns at play).

There often are opportunities to limit the damage, and the protagonist charges forward ignoring them. Often these headlong rush into disaster is driven by flaws or a distorted virtue (like overwrought duty).

Finally, though it might be anticipated by the audience, the disaster blindsides the protagonist, and drags him or her down. The loss of power is great. The loss is unbearable.

Looking across, I often find what I call the Big Fish in Small Pond Syndrome. The protagonist sees his power relative to a very narrow worldview. The fall is connected to a larger world (or Pond) asserting itself.

Not every big loss of power scene follows this exactly, but it may be a useful template to use as you analyze a scene like this for your own work.

Here are a few questions that might be helpful, too:
  • What is the protagonist's obvious power?
  • Why does he lose it? (Bad reading of the land? Betrayal? Blinded by arrogance?)
  • How is that power lost? (Consider step by agonizing step in your scene or sequence. There should be at least three steps.)
  • Is the loss emotional for readers?
  • Is it convincing?
  • What is the power that matters to the story as a whole?
  • How quickly should this fall happen? (Is it more effective stretched out? Sped up?)
As I alluded to, there is usually a big power loss toward the end -- the black moment for the protagonist. Often, there is a gain as the happy ending is realized. In both cases, some of the ideas here might help you to improve the scene or sequence. And, since almost all scenes include some sort of power shift, you can use these ideas and questions as tools to figure out how to make scenes that aren't working (or are just weak) better.


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Understanding Power 3 - Power corrupts (characters)

I’m fascinated by corruption. The Godfather shows a sympathetic, promising young man who becomes the ruthless leader of a criminal enterprise. Citizen Kane shows how a clever, idealistic boy transcends his loneliness to change journalism and then yields to temptations that overwhelm him. An eagle scout studies chemistry when racism forces him to abandon his quest for a PhD. Instead, he dedicates himself to leading the fight for Civil Rights, becomes a successful mayor of Washington, D.C. and then gets caught up in drug abuse (Marion Barry).

The essence of corruption is power revealing a character flaw. Power acts as an amplifier, opening up him or her to new or bigger temptations and/or giving the character the opportunity to get away with harmful behaviors. The amplifiers could be physical power or skill (think of star athletes), wealth, charm, authority (as in politics), information (secrets, knowledge), allies, or anything else that could give a character an advantage. Note that any of these might be used for good, for evil, or for both by the character. Also, the power need not be absolute. It can be relative. A ten-year-old bully is not apt to dominate a town, but he can easily dominate those in fourth grade or younger.

As with the opening examples, a whole story may be built around power leading to corruption. Some great tragedies and wonderful villains can emerge when the whole arc is explored by a writer. Once you, as a storyteller, recognize how corruption might transform a major character in the tale you have to tell, you can find those moments, often small decisions, that make the victory of evil inevitable. It is these scenes that can make or break your story. While the larger arc may make a great logline, it is the small compromises that engage readers emotionally.

One of the best choices is getting the readers to sympathize when they probably shouldn’t. For instance, a bullied kid might get justice at last and have readers cheering. Taking that a half step further, tipping it into revenge or an out-of-proportion punishment of the bully is likely to keep the readers on the hero’s side, pulling them along as co-conspirators until things begin to go out of control.

Balancing good choices with small bad choices that add up (or slowly escalate toward evil) provide a seductive pace that can lure readers into deeply problematic situations. But attention must be paid to justifying bad choices, either to balance a grievance or because allowances seem fair (the character is so good, the rules really don’t apply or the vice makes up for noble sacrifices).

Here’s something I’ve found to be most effective. Look for change in power in a scene, where your character (usually the protagonist) is on the winning end. And have the character respond to that win by using the new power in a way that crosses a line — slightly, early in the story and grossly, later in the story. In other words, build slowly so it feels authentic and a little unsettling. Do it right, and you may create as powerful (and corrupt) a character as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Create the Villain Readers Love to Hate

I'm just back from Austin Film Festival. Rather than rush a post, check out this one I did last week to promote my upcoming course, Crazy Bad Villains.

https://savvyauthors.com/create-villain-readers-love-hate-peter-andrews/

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Understanding Power 2 - Characters take control in scenes

Power changes can show up across the whole story. Rocky loses the fight in the first movie, but he regains power over his life and himself. In the original Star Wars, the Empire loses power when the Death Star explodes and the Rebellion gains power by creating some opportunities for later success. Over the course of Amadeus, Salieri goes from being a court favorite to a relatively powerless inmate at an asylum. Mozart becomes legendary.

But power shifts continually in a story, too. A typical scene has three to five beats, and these usually can be interpreted as gains and losses in power. How does a character gain more power in a scene?

Physically. A character may injure or kill an enemy (or enemies). He/she may get an advantage (taking a hill in a battle, pulling out a gun). But a hug or a kiss can also diminish a foe.

Psychologically. Threats, terror, distractions, lures, and arguments can give advantage. Tie the hero’s sweetie to the railroad tracks, and you can own him. (Mustache twirling is optional.)

Through alliances. Sometimes, two weak characters can combine their strengths to defeat an adversary. Votes can shift an election. Loyalty and betrayal can support some characters and undermine others.

By a knock off balance. This is one of my favorites. Generally, this is about changing the topic to something more vital to a character than the current point of conflict. It can be deliberate in a scene, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes a character makes an innocent comment that overwhelms his/her opponent. This may be something that suggests grave consequences. But it can be a simple, in the case of a person who is conceited, as a compliment.

By controlling resources. This can be wealth, of course. It can also be the last sandwich on a lifeboat. In a different way, a bribe or the offer of a reward can give one character control over another.

Through information. Think of how secrets revealed, discoveries made, and puzzles coming together can change fortunes. (I love, for instance, how the team on Earth solves Apollo 13’s problem with carbon dioxide. It a triumph of creativity, logic, and understanding.)

Note that, for some of these, the advantage may be apparent, not real. A lie or a mistake or a misunderstanding can swing the odds toward a character and make an opponent vulnerable subjectively, but that can still have real consequences. It can force errors.

And beats can be ironic. If a reader sees a character walk into a trap, the character may feel powerful even as he/she is doomed. Also, each of these dimension of power can be flipped, making a character less powerful, not more. A hero may knock the villain to his/her knees or be knocked to his/her knees by the villain.

One more point to consider is timing. One of the great payoffs in a good story is when the story shifts based on when things happen. In Singin’ in the Rain, the characters raise the curtain on Lina Lamont at exactly the right moment. Both heroes and writers can benefit when they bide their time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Understanding Power 1 - Shaping the story

Conflict can draw us in, but not always. Consider a boxing match. The fun of the competition is usually the differences between the athletes. One is graceful while the other can take an opponent down with one punch. One fighter is aggressive while the other is patient. The favorite fights conventionally, but the underdog has tricks and surprises. Or they may have different personalities or traditions or attitudes toward the rules.

But, if the fight were between two identical twins, indistinguishable apart from the color of their trunks, it probably wouldn’t be much fun. The most intriguing conflicts have stark contrasts. That’s true in real life and in stories.

Usually, the differences in characters emerge organically, which is good. But sometimes for a scene, a sequence, a chapter, an act, or the whole story, it’s helpful to understand your choices as an author. I like to list the elements of power and the vulnerabilities of the characters.

Some powers: Physical strength and skill, planning and strategy, knowledge and secrets, analysis and insights. Social standing. Authority and privilege. Talent and capabilities. Flexibility. Resources and money.

Some vulnerabilities: Low tolerance of risk or pain. Incomplete knowledge or false beliefs. Debts and responsibilities. Naiveté and inexperience.

Some things, depending on the circumstances, can be strengths or vulnerabilities: Care for others. Empathy. Attachments to ideas, principles, and traditions.

Note, that it’s possible for things that are largely elements of power, like authority, to become vulnerabilities (i.e., when using authority can damage reputation.

Imagine how these (and more) might become stark contrasts within a story, illuminating the characters who are fighting for what they want, need, or believe in.

Now imagine how power might be used and abused. How protecting vulnerabilities might create obstacles. How power and vulnerabilities might change during a story depending on specific situations and how the characters grow and develop. Or become more desperate. Or begin to cross ethical lines, act rashly, or reprioritize values. What might cause your characters to use a power for the first time or expose a vulnerability? And what would the consequences be?

There’s a lot to explore. More next time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self 4 — Opportunities

Having done my best to guide the neophyte writer me through preparation, drafting, and revision, I’m ready to move on to how to handle opportunities. (I suspect that reckless version of myself is now looking for a polite way to exit, but I thought ahead and glued his shoes to the floor.)

Opportunities — It’s a charming word for distractions. If only opportunity really did knock once… and then go off to pester someone else. I get offers for contest, fellowships, publication, and gigs every day. The problem is not finding chances to get published, paid, or recognized, it’s selecting opportunities that actually matter. Even among those that aren’t bogus (as many competitions and publishers are), which ones fit me as a writer and will bring me further along the road in the career I desire?

The younger me probably didn’t think this way. At one point, just seeing my name in print anywhere was worth cheering about. And I have no regrets about that.

Additionally, I came up in the world of shrinking markets, self-addressed stamped envelops, and ruinously expensive long distance phone calls. Type out a work. Mail it off. And wait. I see today’s writers’ workshop attendees hanging together through social networks, with connections that would have taken all my grocery money to maintain at a similar level.

The challenges for my younger self were very different, but a few things I know now would have benefited him nonetheless. In particular, how to judge opportunities.
  • Don’t limit your opportunities based on your credentials, unless there is a explicit requirements. Writing is mostly learn by doing. Make them say no.
  • Do narrow opportunities to those that are in your wheelhouse. Building your portfolio in an area where you have a flair is a good thing. Credits aimed at showing your versatility are often a waste of your time. There is a vast difference between “I can do this” and “I should do this.” Two key exceptions: 1) Explorations are cool. Write in a new genre. Try a new form. Just don’t invest a lot of time in these experiments. No novels of feature-length scripts as experiments. 2) Bend the rules to work with people you want to get to know or learn from.
  • Look for opportunities that build your network. Building a writing career is a social activity. Watch for (or create) chance to collaborate with smart, experienced, knowledgeable and talented people. Then maintain the relationships.
  • Feel free to earn big paychecks. I once had a horrible opportunity presented to me. Instead of rejecting it, I multiplied my typical price many times (six, as I recall). That paid for a lot of self-addressed stamped envelops. All work is honorable. If it pays well, even better. Just don’t get sucked into spending more time on mercenary projects than dream projects.
  • Look for what might be a good addition to your portfolio. Creating a body of work that fits a specific market improves your chances of success. One of the great questions a writer gets is, “Do you have anything else like this?”
  • Read the fine print. Don’t get yourself caught in contracts that claim future work or rights that have nothing to do with the publisher/producer’s business. (Nowadays, you can look online for help in analyzing contracts and to find out who the real scoundrels are. You can even look at previous work they’ve handled. Feel free to reject a publisher based on his lousy Web site.)
  • Be careful of really great ideas. Sometimes, they are not so great. Sometimes, you are not the one to use them.
  • Don’t take on too many opportunities at once. Have just one Work In Progress. And maybe one work that allows you to draft something while revising the WIP or vice versa.
  • Don’t take on an opportunity unless you intend to follow through on it. Yes, some works don’t come together. Some cannot be finished. But make these experiences rare in your career. Get to "The End" most of the time, even if it becomes drudgery. It’s the only way to learn all you can from the project. And it probably will make you more selective in choosing projects.
  • Find projects that will move you forward on your career path, even if that path is still sketchy.
  • With every project presented to you, see if you can identify one way in which you will be forced to stretch and grow as a writer. Be sure to choose more than what is easy.
  • Choose projects that fit your time budget (or, for which, you’ll find the time). Especially in the beginning, it is better to get to “The End” often than it is to create the Great American Novel (unless it truly IS the Great American Novel.
  • Go with your passion. If there is a project you MUST do, do it. Even if it seems to have no market. The one caution is to be careful about writing something inspired by a recent emotional episode. Just take notes for later. For most people, putting time between a life event and an artistic rendering of it improves the work.
One more thing: Always know why you're writing what you're writing. Note down your reasons. Then go back, when you are finished, to see how valid those reasons were.

Years ago, I would have found four or five places to publish a science fiction short story. Today, there are scores of paying markets, easily found with Duotrope’s search engine. In addition, I can create my own opportunities. Self-publishing is the obvious example, but it’s possible to reach further.

I have many friends who have made their own short films, and a few who have self-produced feature films. Costs have gone down, and a good crowd-funding campaign can bring even budget-killing projects within reach. And, with more ways to connect with other talented people (and maintain those contacts),  it’s much easier to get attached to a project. I got the chance to work on a writing team for a Web Series earlier this year, and I ended up writing the first episode.

I’ll turn that approach around and bring people into my own project — a fiction podcast series — in the next few months. I actually tried to do that a few decades ago. A test show was ten minutes long and took almost two hours to download. My poor younger self.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self 3 — Revision

Let’s assume my younger self has prepared according to the suggestions of current me and completed a rough draft of the epic work of his dreams. Well, it’s probably more like a nightmare. It’s so bad, he probably hates me and wants to give up writing forever. Or go back to pushing words around aimlessly.

Now is the time to sit my youthful doppelgänger down and tell him the truth. All first drafts suck. The real work is rewriting. Put the work away for a time (six weeks would be good) and get to work on something else. Maybe a short story or a novella. Don’t despair. Things are on track. Even if this work turns out to be unfixable.

You don’t become a writer if you aren’t committed to learning. What is gained by finishing a work — even if it ends up being tossed — is invaluable. Painful, yes, but part of becoming really good at this job and writing things worth reading.

I know. It feels unfair. In a make-believe world, the muse shows up, whispers achingly beautiful prose in your ear, and frames out a classic story. And maybe that happens sometime. You become the Mozart of Amadeus, filling pages with no corrections needed. Celebrate when that happens (or even if it just feels like it has happened). Don’t count on it. Because, sooner or later, the editor in your head you shut the door on during drafting has to be let in. And here’s his advice.
  • Your draft is not good. It might be okay. But it probably sucks. In any case, it can be a lot better. Good enough is not good enough. Think of it like a job application. Your work has to be near perfect, not abandoned.
  • Break up the revision work, especially rewriting, into tasks. It is amazingly inefficient to cut chapters, fill holes, connect to theme, sharpen dialogue, trim beginnings, fashion hooks, and correct typos in a single pass. Expect to return to the work repeatedly, each time with a different focus. Have the task list at hand as you begin. Be eager to make it a better list.
  • Imbue even light projects with emotional authenticity. The bar to reach or exceed is set by your own, real-life emotional experiences, so dare to write out a few each year for private use.
  • Your words aren’t precious. Lots of good stuff belongs on the cutting room floor.
  • Learn how to invite, accept, and judiciously use criticism.
If you can, learn to love revision. Change up your approach to keep it fresh. Listen to your characters. Write new scenes, even if you won’t use them. Find a new level for the story. Review your reasons why this work MUST be done. Or just take pride in creating the best story you can.

[Note: I know the younger me hates revision. The older me only hates it a little less. If you love revision, some of the advice here is not for you. Enjoy your superpower.]

This was to be the last of this series (which all came out of me in one weekend), but I came to realize how much my younger self needs to handle opportunities well. So I’ll add one more post in this series next week.