Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Your Story’s Emotional Landscape - Keeping the reader’s experience authentic

Great stories take us through the peaks and valleys of emotion, capturing our hearts along the way. Unfortunately, I come across promising stories all the time that cram too many emotions in one scene. As a reader I feel whipsawed, and it’s impossible for me to care about a character during such scenes. In fact, I may put down the work and find something else to read.

I suspect this comes from the moment-to-moment experiences of writers identifying with their characters. My first clue on this, oddly enough, was when I read a friend’s work. In one scene, just 1,500 words, he had a character smoke eight cigarettes. He had identified so closely with his hero that he had him light up every time he did. Since he wrote the scene over several days and he was a chain smoker, the results were unintentionally hilarious.

Since writers can explode with ideas for a scene, a lot can happen. There may be a dozen inputs for a character to respond to emotionally. Having a lot of ideas is good. Knowing how your character will respond or feeling it yourself is also good. Tossing everything at the character in a short number of words will confuse and dismay readers. It is as impossible to flip though diverse emotions in a few paragraphs as it is to comfortably suck down a bunch of cigarettes in a few minutes. Choking is not a welcome experience.

Unity is an important value in storytelling, and it is essential to the creation of an emotional landscape. As a rule of thumb, look toward no more than two big emotions in a scene. There can be movement between these (corresponding to three to five beats in a typical scene), but it needs to be measured. Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions provides a good guide to smooth transitions. (I actually have found Kaitlin Robbs’s wheel and this one from Christine Winston of more practical value.)

The smooth movement through emotions that link allows you to cross an emotional landscape without jumps that loose readers. You can twist and turn and climb up and down hills without jumping (or teleporting). This does not mean you can’t fall off a cliff with a sudden disappointment or pleasant surprise. It does not mean readers can’t be distracted with comic relief — reducing defenses against fully feeling something crushing or elevating. One of the great tricks of architecture is designing landscape so the journey’s path produces unexpected reveals.

As an exercise, it might be valuable to chart the intensities of negative and positive feelings in a scene that moves you. Go sentence by sentence and plot up to +10 (good feelings) and down to -10 (bad feelings) as the story progresses. You’ll produce a two-dimensional landscape that will provide a sense of how the writer paces changes in feelings. As you get more sophisticated, you may be able to see a more complex emotional landscape in work by writers you love and for your own work. This can help you develop a facility for pacing and transitions in emotions.

As a simpler guide, you might just focus on the three Ts of the emotional landscape — tangible, turns, and transitions.

Tangibles are objective elements that contribute to emotion. Setting (a dark and stormy night), images (a bloody knife), actions (a punch), and sensory experiences (the smell of gunpowder). Or, setting (a field of flowers), images (a Christmas tree), actions (a hug), and sensory experiences (the smell of cookies in the oven). Tangibles can be ironic. The field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz is a trap set by the Wicked Witch of the West.

Turns are usually power shifts. With every beat in a scene, a character gains or loses power (and often another character has the reverse fate). If your reader identifies with the character, success or failure will create feelings. Again, this can be ironic if the reader has knowledge that undercuts the character’s view.

Transitions usually show the character’s emotional responses shifting or getting more or less intense. There is a carefully wrought scene in Lord of the Rings where the hobbits are distressed and talking out their concerns with Gandalf calms them bit by bit until they mention something that jolts Gandalf. They (and readers) don’t even understand why he’s unsettled, but it creates an amazing sense of dread. If it shakes Gandalf, with all his power, what does it mean for a hobbit?

Of course, careful presentation of emotions is not enough. Readers must empathize with (if not like) the protagonist. For many writers, creating such characters comes naturally. Others need to do deep dives into descriptions (for themselves, with sampling for readers) and design scenes that signal readers (such as save-the-cat episodes).

And it is important throughout that attention is paid to clarity. As much as the literati love ambiguity, most readers need to quickly apprehend what’s going on, intentions, choices made, action taken, and consequences.

If the situation is unclear, it’s impossible to explore options for the character. If the intentions aren’t clear, readers can’t align themselves with character hopes and concerns (and occasionally think “oh, no!” as a character leans toward a decision that cannot turn out well).

Specific, well-understood character choices allow readers to anticipate what might happen, often looking forward to results or worrying about what might happen (two of the great experiences for readers). And readers should always be able to follow action without reading it twice so they can shadow the character moment by moment. The consequences, of course, provide both the story payoff and a powerful emotional moment.

One more thing. Pacing emotions is not the same for every audience. In general, love scenes are gradual and smooth. Moments are lingered on. On the other hand, a fight scene in a thriller tends to be fast-paces pivoting repeatedly between victory and failure. The emotional landscape for a drama like Ordinary People or Agnes of God will slip into deeper and deeper valleys. The effects linger. Guardians of the Galaxy never pierces the heart with low points, but it provides a fast-paced rollercoaster ride without losing emotional engagement. We need lots of different stories that give us  powerful experiences. When you write yours, deliberately craft emotional landscapes that fit your intentions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Killing Your Characters - What's YOUR motivation?

Mortality is something we all share, so it’s not surprising deaths show up in our stories. Whether it’s a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades (Act of Valor) or the killer dying in flames (White Heat), you have the attention of readers and audience members when a character dies.

But remember, “with great power comes great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker (Spider-Man), not long before he dies. Before you kill off a character, ask this question: Does the death serve a purpose in the story?

Spectacle. In war stories, the mass deaths in battle may be part of the show. Often you don’t even know who just got run through with a sword. The same thing is true for a lot of monster movies. For horror stories, death often follow a plan that combines escalating gruesome wit (how the characters suffer and die makes a difference). In addition, the order of death is predetermined by impact on the audience and shrinking odds of survivors.

Commentary. In Catch-22, the soldier in white dies without meaning or mourning. It sets up the bleak world of this comedy.

Survival. Especially when Nature is involved deaths of some characters may change the chances for other characters. Cannibalism could become a factor. Or the ability to man a rowboat’s oars. Titanic became a zero-sum game as lifeboats filled up or sank.

Story set up. This is almost every murder mystery. Sadly, we won’t get to know Sir Reginald very well, but his homicide will lead to a splendid evening of suspicion, culprits, and clues.

Characterization. When and how and why a character kills another (including accidentally) leads to revealing moments that help us to know Darth Vader isn’t someone you want on your bowling team.

Character motivation. You killed my father and I want revenge. (My name is Inigo Montoya.) Or I need to get out of here before you kill me.

Loss of protection. Sometimes a character needs to die so another character won’t lean on him or her. If Gandalf hadn’t been lost, the rest of the Fellowship would have depended on him too much.

Demonstration of stakes. In Die Hard, when Mr. Takagi does not supply the combination for the vault, we know Hans Gruber is willing to kill to succeed.

Justice. This is classic, with bad guys getting theirs at the end. It could be Montoya stabbing the six-fingered man or the Death Star blowing up or Warden Norton killing himself in The Shawshank Redemption.

Values. When characters sacrifice themselves, you know what they stand for. Spartacus died for freedom, as did William Wallace (Braveheart).

This is not an exhaustive list, but it may help you to see WHY you are killing off a character (and YOU are doing it, even if you subcontract the work to a villain). If you know why, there is a better chance the death will be clear and meaningful to the readers and audience members.

Understanding why the character must die can help you in a number of ways:

Clarity - How and why the character dies need to be established right away in many cases. For a mystery or a thriller, the questions must be raised and carefully answered at the best times for dramatic effect.

Tone - If this story has life and death stakes, it better feel like that throughout, with plenty of indication early on that characters could die.

Preparation - Guns can’t appear out of nowhere. If the character will die of disease, he/she better cough early on. And preparation should include pacing so the most is gotten out of the death. This may require comic relief (since we guard ourselves against strong emotions). In a mystery, there may need to be clues planted.

There are also key decisions to make in terms of who witnesses the death. This includes decisions to have deaths off stage (or off camera).

I’m a big believer in pushing to extremes in drafts. Making deaths as painful and disastrous as possible. You can always pull back, and I’ve had to do that with some of the deaths in my stories that were too real, too gross, or too sudden. Also, never ever kill a dog. You will not be forgiven.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

In a Perfect World - Removing obstacles to find your story

Want to ruin a story? Make it too easy for the protagonist to succeed. Want to make a better story? Play with the idea of making the story world ideal, just, or coddling. If Mother Nature had been a spoiling Grandmother Nature, we’d all be pampered nematodes. So don’t actually write your story without obstacles, just explore it.

What’s the “perfect world”? One where the protagonist isn’t forced to change. I looked through some of the movies in my post Your Story’s Pivotal Scenes 1, to see what well-known movies might teach me.

It may be that everything falls into place according to plan. In Singin’ in the Rain, I made The Jazz Singer a failure, as expected by Hollywood execs. That means Don Lockwood can get away with “show” and never has to become a "real" actor.

Or adversity doesn’t show up. In The Godfather, Don Corleone isn’t shot and Michael slides into a political career without getting his hands dirty. In Ghost, Sam never gets murdered.

Or justice is served. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy is found innocent of his wife’s murder.

If you take a look at your story and can’t imagine how things might have gone well, it may be that things don’t go badly enough to get the story going. Beware of vague longings that move the protagonist to sacrifice and change.

The world can be a lot less interesting even when things go badly, but not badly enough. In Star Wars, Luke can’t go to the Academy, but he still resists the call to become a Jedi. Until his aunt and uncle are murdered. It’s the final kick in the pants he needs to begin his journey. Consider, with your story, if this sort of one-two punch will be needed. (Note: Flaws may provide a clue. Luke is coming of age, so he has to grow up some for his flaw to lock into place. But one story incident works with Michael because he’s deeply cynical. Similarly, Don is hampered by his craving for dignity, which keeps self-criticism at bay, so a single talkie humiliation resets his life.)

Even “fixing” the story world so the protagonist carries on with a career or dodges adversity or gets justice is likely not to be enough when you explore favorite stories more deeply. Obstacles, ignorance, and villains show up and are clarified in this perfect world. If they don’t stop the hero as surely as the first body blow, they do create problems. So, once you create a perfect world, probe it for its imperfections.

After you do this for the great movies you’ve selected, try the same with your own story. If obstacles, ignorance, and villains don’t show up in sharp relief, you have some work to do. You may find the answers in the newly envisioned classics you’ve been exploring. Or they may be there already, just waiting for you to polish them up so they become visible (and disturbing) to your readers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Writing with a Purpose - Putting together next year’s plan

Where do you want to be next year as a writer? That’s the question I asked myself last November, and it led me to the most serious career planning I’ve done. Looking back at the people I’ve connected with, the works completed, and the contests and workshops I’ve participated in, I see strong accomplishments.

I’m back to planning, and I’m going to share my process here. There’s nothing absolute about my approach. Take from it what works for you and leave the rest. And, as you develop your plans, limit the time you’ll invest. It is all too easy to get distracted and take too much time away from actual writing. As a rule of thumb, commit to dedicating no more that 1% of the time set aside to this sort of career planning. Intend to spend 400 hours writing next year? Spend four hours planning.

Brainstorm - Who do you want to be as a writer? A novelist who publishes a book once a year? A showrunner for a TV series? A speechwriter? Someone who writes tentpole features? The family memoirist? You get to decide. And dream big. The impossible may become possible or you may come up with an alternative.  My answer was showrunner, which led to plans to create a fiction podcast series, which led to a search for actors, which led to an invitation to join a Web Series writing team. Reach high and be creative. (It might be useful to review my six-part Write Who You Are series.)

Review Your Projects - Some people never have more than one going. I try to keep to one new project and one dedicated revision. But your projects (completed) can tell you a lot about what you like, what you don’t, where you’re strong, where you’re not, and the themes, genres, and media you connect with. Your review (which can include your work in progress, your unfinished works, your completed works and your concepts of interest) will point directly to the content that you should feature in your work and suggests the form (feature film script, stage play, short story, etc.).

Review Your Opportunities - Assignments, spec work, volunteer work, conferences, workshops, contests, and courses all represent specific investments in your time, often with defined deadlines and budget items.

Evaluate Your Options Strategically - If you know where you want to end up, you can form a strategy that includes current opportunities, opportunities that might be created (through education, achievements, and contacts), possible pathways, and areas of exploration. The last is aimed at creatively learning more so the scope of opportunities can be expanded. For me, strategy is more Zen than setting goals. (Just as the Zen archer seeks to master the elements — stringing the bow, nocking the arrow, drawing the string, aiming, etc. — I look toward mastering project selection and concept development and building a synergistic portfolio.) I find scoring options and force ranking them to be helpful.

Evaluate Your Options Tactically - One thing leads to another. Sometimes a collaboration is less about the project than about the relationships. Providing a peer with feedback sharpens critiquing skills, but it also can build your reputation. My whole career got kicked off with a review written for a give-away newspaper. That credit led to others, making me less of a risk for future editors. Again, you may wish to score these options and force rank them, though here the latter will be more subtle. I think of tactical efforts as the mortar between the bricks of strategic efforts.

Make Your Project Choices - By now, a lot of options will be eliminated based on scores and your ambitions. There will still be some that don’t make obvious sense but are alluring. Put all (well, maybe all but one) of these aside. These can be kept in reserve in case you complete your main tasks or they popped up because your intuition was smarter than your brain. In all probability, none of these will claim spaces on your calendars in the near future. A few may find spots in the coming years.

But… now that your list is much shorter, you need to decide what will claim your time in the coming year. It is valuable to have definite criteria for your choices. (It may be useful to review my four-part series on Decision Making for Writers. I recently found the article How to Make a Big Decision, and I recommend it as well.) If you have no other criteria, here are my big three: Payment, Portfolio, and Passion. Well paying projects tend to edge other things off the list. Projects that enhance my writing Portfolio are also prioritized. And Passion? Well, if you can’t do projects that get your juices flowing, why are you writing?

List Your Tasks - There is some real work here. Break down the projects into specific tasks. This means going beyond, say, “rewriting,” to reach details like articulate content in each scene, identify story beats, correct spelling, read text aloud, etc. Tasks, by the way, include writing up loglines and pitches, researching markets, analyzing comparable works, and more. As you go for a comprehensive list of task (and it’s likely many will not occur to you in your first try), estimate the time required to complete each of them. Estimate high. I like to add 50% to my optimistic times.

Build Your Calendar - Block out already committed time from your calendar. None of that is accessible. Then look toward any deadlines in your top priority project. Get these on the calendar and block out the time you need for each task that must be completed before those deadlines. Move onto the second priority project, and do the same. Third, same. Etc. You may find that some projects are undoable (or don’t fit into the year’s schedule). Be flexible. Adjust. But don’t make things impossible for yourself. Triage is your friend.

Identify Triggers - Sometimes you get a yes. Sometimes you get a “please revise.” Sometimes, a credential or a course or a meeting with an influential person is on the horizon. I keep a list of these and add to it throughout the year. Imagined new opportunities can become real and trigger a plan revision (or the execution of Plan B). The more you can anticipate these, the more you can make of them. I blocked out 2018 days for a conference I never made, but I also blocked out days for one I thought would never happen, but did.

Be Generous with Yourself - Life gets in the way. Sickness, unexpected expenses, family duties, power outages, and more can disrupt your plans. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything done. Life can be like that. In the midst of demands, commit to keeping some writing time to yourself. (I have recommended 15 minutes a day, five days a week to even the most harried and that seems to be both doable and valuable. It keeps you in the game.)

On the other hand, be ready for good things. Consider a stretch goal. Mine that list of alluring projects if time permits.

In my case, some of my plan went away because I said yes to good things I’d hoped for but saw as unlikely and, in some cases, I hadn’t even imagined. It’s not a bad problem to have.

Don’t expect to have everything, no matter how well-planned, go as expected. As Helmuth van Moltke (more or less) said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Next year’s plan will be better because of the lessons of this year.

The most fundamental advice? Finish something and submit, even if it’s only 1,000 words long.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Adventurous Mindset - Taking more risks in writing

I love off-the-wall thinking. Brainstorming fresh scenes, turns, and solutions to story problems is always a delight — when I’m assisting another writer. Similarly, I can quickly guide other people toward making good choices when they need to prioritize projects in the face of new projects.

Why is it easier for me to come up with options and give advice to others than it is to determine what I need for myself? A Harvard Business Review article, Why It’s Easier to Make Decisions for Someone Else provides some perspectives on this. In essence, it claims that the mindsets when we are guiding others and when we guide ourselves are very different. And, not surprisingly, those perspectives are tied to risk. I can suggest more adventurous choice for others because I won’t face any consequences. For myself, I’m likely to be more cautious. And I’m more likely to imagine trouble than opportunity.

In addition to seeking safer choices, we tend to drown in information when we’re making decisions for ourselves. As the article states, “Rather than exploring and collecting a plethora of options, the cautious mindset prefers to consider a few at a time on a deeper level, examining a cross-section of the larger whole.”

But success (in terms of satisfaction, achievement, and quality) depends on making bolder choices. I believe this is especially true in writing and other arts, where timid choices suffer by comparison in the competition for attention and engagement. 

Can you give yourself the best advice? Can you make more daring decisions? I think it’s possible and I have several suggestions.

For opportunities:

Choose a fail-early option. Have an idea for a novel? Write a flash fiction story. A nonfiction book? Write an article. In other media, think one-act plays and pilots and treatments. Put small experiments on your pathway to big decisions. And get started early, before you know enough to stop.

Eat dessert first. Philip Pullman writes that dialogue is intrinsically easier to write than description because the inspiration is already in the form of words. Characters talk, while a clear vision of a locale in a story must be translated into language. If this is true for you, do an easy part of a project before plunging in. Write some scenes just in dialogue. And don’t feel obliged to create a complete outline or to write in sequence before exploring a project. Write the scenes that easily come to mind and see if they engage you.

Get out of your comfort zone. Do some work on a project you have no business doing. Write from the point of view of someone who is different from you. I rarely watch horror, much less write it, But recently, I took are course on horror and wrote my own story. It was not pleasant, but it pushed me into new territory, and what I learned found its way into a new story that was more to my liking.

For your story rewrites:

Let the story sit. Stephen King recommends this. Being too close, attachment to cherished words and scenes, and having too much in your head, gets in the way of being daring. Distance can add a level of objectivity, so, even though you may not be able to give advice to yourself as boldly as you would to someone else, it’s not as frightening to imagine changes.

Go back to your logline. A good logline reveals the heart of your story. In the actual writing, it’s possible to drift away. It’s also possible to be so driven by one version (and its logic) that great opportunities are missed. So I try to come up with five scenes (describe in 2-5 sentences each) implied by the logline that never got written. I don’t insist these five fit the story in the draft. I do insist they tantalize me.

Tell your story in “big animal pictures.” Before you look back at your project, write a synopsis (no more than four pages) that tells the whole story in a compelling way. This probably will indicate strengths you can emphasize, while also freeing you from less vital parts of the story. In other words, you’ll know what to keep and what is expendable.

Explore models. You got your draft done. Now think about the comparable stories that are out there. Read at least one (three is better), and see how these take chances you haven’t taken. Come up with 5-10 scenes that might explore your story in ways the other authors would have.

Engage with your theme. This is probably the toughest. Articulating the theme is often difficult and may leave you with something that sounds less interesting than you’d like. (I’ve found the most success when I’ve identified and explored the story’s pivotal scene.) But it often suggests opportunities that have been missed — both in terms of pushing the story into scary spaces and in terms of cutting wonderful but unneeded scenes.

In addition, I’ve found it helps not to take things too seriously. I tap into my sense of humor and brainstorm ridiculous scenes and imagine spoofs of my story.

I haven’t mentioned draft-stage exercises (except by implication with the opportunities). Because there is less information during the early creative process, I believe it is easier to be more daring. And not much is at risk because the investment in ideas and drafted pages is low.

Overall, I suspect just knowing fear and too much focus on details can hold you back may be enough for some people to explore bolder moves. The article also makes suggestions (including imagining what advice someone else would give you), and these might be worth exploring in your own way.

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.


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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self 2 — Drafting

In my last post, I covered preparation for writing. Below is my advice for drafting a manuscript.

I often do blank-sheet evaluations of my writing (and my life) by literally covering the kitchen table with a piece of chart paper and scribbling ideas, lists, and figures on it.

This time, I just tried to remember who I was when I first got serious about writing, and then imagine what I’d tell that person if I had the chance. (The naive perspective often breaks away the preconceptions and reveals something fresh and new. Perhaps that the emperor has no clothes.) I formulated my advice without reference to previous posts, but I’ve dug through and found links where they were available. I hope those provide enough to pursue tips of interest for anyone who might need them.
  • Imagine the audience for the work. If possible, think of one individual (not yourself). This will add specificity and make decisions easier.
  • Be extreme. Going too far can be fixed in the rewrite. It’s easier to pull back than to get crazier.
  • Write more than you need. It’s easier to cut than to embellish.
  • For any big project (novel, screenplay), create a list early on (by the third chapter for a novel) of why you MUST finish this project.
  • If it stops feeling fun, find a part of the project that you can enjoy and stick with it for a while.
  • Purposely experiment with at least three scenes you won’t use for each major work. This will force you to look at new options. 
  • Stick to your Work In Progress until you get to “The End.” This means, for five days a week and fifteen minutes each day, text is added to the manuscript, moving it to completion. Don’t quit until it’s finished and you have a story. Even if it’s so bad it makes you squirm. No dithering.
  • Set a timer. It makes a great starting gun for a writing sprint.
  • Don’t rewrite along the way (looping). Get the story out.
  • Find your pivotal scene(s). The climax would be one, but any big scenes (at the ends of acts, ends of sequences) may have concepts that suggest exploration.
  • Know what you need to write the next day.
I have a toolbox of techniques to keep myself writing (switching from typing to speech recognition or pencil, writing scenes in the voice of favorite authors, writing dialogue only scenes, etc.), but I probably would not bring those up to a new writer unless he or she were stuck. Making things too complicated and trying to work with too many ideas at once is the bane of rookie authors.

Drafting is about telling as story you love to someone you imagine would love it just as much. With a lot of forgiveness thrown in.

Next time, I'll look at revision advice for the callow youth I once was.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self — Preparation

What do I need as a writer? I decided it would be good to know, so I took the perspective of talking to my younger self. I did this in terms of Preparation (this post), Drafting (next week), and Revision (in two weeks), and I decided it might be worth sharing here.

As you look through, you may experience what I did. Some advice, I discovered, is already cooked into my writing habits. In a few cases, the gap between advice and practice needs some closing. Some is more honored in the breach than the observance. 

You might think of this as a menu of possibilities, with lots of opportunity to customize. (I actually printed the list out and annotated it as a step toward incorporating some of these into my practice.) For many, I've added links to provide more details than would fit here.
  • Understand what (4-7 things) you want most as a writer. (For now. These can change later.) Align your efforts to enable or achieve these desires.
  •  Create a short list (3-5) of doable objectives (enter a contest, not win a contest) for the following year in October. Fight through each to the end. Do not worry about missing other opportunities.
  • Build a network. Writing is solo, being a writer is a team activity.
  • Spend more time writing than talking about writing.
  • Budget at least twice the time you think you’ll need.
  • Aim education toward mastery. Own the aspects of craft, one piece at a time.
  • Challenge yourself. Do at least one project each year that scares the hell out of you. Know why is frightens you.
  • Write down ideas in full sentences. Unless applied the same week, sort these into categories. 
  • Choose a project and stick to it to the end.
  • Be exquisitely selective about projects to which time is devoted. Have explicit criteria for choosing these. Know that some of them will not work out, but try to complete them in some form anyway.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Character Relationships 9 - High contrasts

Compare: The curtain goes up. Two middle-aged men in dark suits stand next to each other. Or… The curtain goes up. An ancient woman in a robe and a six-year-old boy stand next to each other.

Which engages your curiosity more? Probably the second. In general, differences and contrasts intrigue us. They promise more in terms of variety and conflict.

Consider: The curtain goes up. One character wears grubbies and a baseball cap. He chews a cigar as he builds a sandwich that spills over a plate. The other is dressed impeccably with a perfect haircut. He dons an apron and tends a Cornish hen in the oven.

You know the audience would already be interested. And you probably recognize this Odd Couple (sort of). Both middle-aged men, Oscar and Felix approach life from opposite perspectives. Which is why it was so much fun when Neil Simon bound them together.

When you create character relationships, especially those where the characters can’t simply move on and find someone less “weird,” you set up situations where conflict arises. It may be that accommodations will be made. Or one character might kill the other one to resolve the situation.

Note: It’s important to bind the character together in a way that the audience accepts. Danny Simon said The Phil Silvers Show worked because the characters could not escape the army, and it lasted for almost 200 shows. The New Phil Silvers Show put the characters to work together in a business, which any of them could escape. It lasted ten episodes.

The first examples demonstrates physical differences. The second, differences in interests and perspectives on life. Contrasts can also come from differences in power, wealth, values, morals, and skills. Flaws and virtues can also create engaging juxtapositions. In fact, powerful stories can be created by comparing these as world views (greedy Potter and generous George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life).

Dramatic opportunities are endless. The writer can have a character moderate a flaw (or a virtue) by taking on approaches of the contrasting character. Both characters might move toward each other. In An Officer and a Gentleman, secondary characters, one too generous and the other too selfish, flame out and that helps the main characters find middle paths. Or, one character can kill (or defeat) the other. 

If there is no contrast, dramatic possibilities are limited. If there is a big contrast, more possibilities arise. Good romances have always demonstrated this, with the guy and the gal separated by an important difference and held together by some plot device. For larger groups, types are often used. I haven’t researched it, but I think Hollywood figured out how to do this with war movies where each soldier in the troop had easily recognized traits. Cowboy movies (The Magnificent Seven, Silverado) created similar teams.

Probably the most recognizable and obviously diverse group in a shared relationship is Star Trek’s crew members. A still photo is enough to see their differences. But the variety of perspectives and concerns, once they move into a story, is impossible to miss. Note that they are all trapped together on a five-year mission, often confined to the bridge of the Enterprise. 

This is not to say that such stark differences are necessary to creating a good story. Think of The Dead Poets Society. Seven of the characters (the ones who comprise the Society) are male, intelligent, students at the same school, white, about the same age, and (eventually) absorbed by poetry. The even dress the same.

It had to have been a challenge to differentiate these characters early on and to find ways to highlight how they helped each other come of age. (Something similar is done with female students in the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But the writer (who won the Oscar for is work) did it. The contrasts are there, and put to use for drama, but the subtle exposure of the differences is done with power and grace. It’s worth exploring. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Character Relationships 8 - Grand gestures and sacrifices

I’ve written about betrayals in this series, but I haven’t looked at the opposite behaviors — grand gestures and sacrifices. As any fan of romances knows, a grand gesture is the sure proof of true love. The cliche is of the hero (or heroine) running through city streets (or an airport or a wedding party) to make a public declaration of love and commitment. Often, there is an element of humiliation or sacrifice.

A great example of this is Bridget Jones (in the film), who finds her diary open and her true love Mark missing. She runs through the streets in the snow to apologize for her diary entries. Note:  As much as I like that example, please no more running lovers. Provide another task at the ending. Do something fresh. At least have the hero or heroine parachute in as a Flying Elvis (Honeymoon in Vegas).

Sacrifices may appear even when romance isn’t the main point. War movies often include sacrifice sometimes with a soldier giving his life, but often including the loss of almost everyone (Saving Private Ryan) or  the whole team (Glory). Saints give up their lives for a greater good in films like A Man for All Seasons. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gives up his dreams to tend to the needs of the community and face down a greedy villain on their behalf. And, of course, in a sort of reverse grand gesture, Rick sacrifices his love in Casablanca, watching Ilsa leave with her husband.

To bring power to a sacrifice or grand gesture, consider these:

Make it big - Though the smaller sacrifices, such as those in It’s a Wonderful Life and I Remember Mama can add up for emotional impact, coming up with something that really matters and shows how a character has grown (like Rick in Casablanca) can be more dramatic.

Articulate the human needs - All sacrifices involve a level of privation. Life itself is lost in many stories, but Bridget suffers cold and humiliation. George Bailey gives up his honeymoon and the experience both a special time with the woman he loves and a taste of life beyond Bedford Falls. The exact loss may be stated directly in the story (and often is since this shows it’s meaningful to the character). But, even if it isn’t made explicit to readers or audiences, the writer should be able to articulate it. Maslow’s pyramid can be useful in clarifying the unfulfilled need.

Choose between public and private - Witnesses may be valuable, especially when a declaration is involved. But some sacrifices are more noble if no one (except the reader) knows about them. Test to see which might have the greater impact.

Motivate - If it isn’t clear to a reader why a hero is making a sacrifice, it can be confusing or even appear to be done out of weakness or masochism. Don’t be shy about showing the motivation on no uncertain terms.

Set it up - Big moments in stories need good foundations. The factual information must be provided so they can be understood. They need the time, steps, and reasons. They also need to be presented in emotional depth, which may demand pacing, setting, and even devices like comic relief.

Explore a revelation - If Bridget Jones wrote her diary entries as a blog posts, the ending wouldn’t work. Instead, it’s secret. And it comes to bite her at the last second, forcing her to reveal her heart without reservation. That doesn’t always work in a story, but it’s worth exploring as a possibility.

Make it consequential - Yes, a sacrifice can fail to achieve anything (which might be used for ironic effect). Or it can be unrecognized. Or partially successful. But it has to matter to the character. It has to reflect something real and important in terms of self-understanding and connect with readers emotionally. It’s easier if there are big consequences (like winning a war) beyond the character, but a sacrifice means nothing if it doesn’t impact the character’s identity.

Tie it to the main plot - Most of the examples above do more than cause a shift in the character. They move the plot forward, provide turns, or even create the story’s climax. If you can do this AND tie in the emotional arc in the same scene, you’ll create something unforgettable.

Make it surprising but inevitable - Make a list of why the character could not possibly make the sacrifice in question. Make another list of why the sacrifice is unavoidable. Play with your lists to make the sacrifice come as a shock but be completely believable.

Lots of stories (usually in novels) attempt to transform or deepen relationships between characters through decisions or insights or realizations. That approach tends to fall flat. Sacrifice in a story is usually compelling and convincing. It makes it clear that the new relationship is earned.

I mentioned that sacrifices and grand gestures are the flip side of betrayals. The list above? You may find it useful to consider if you’re including a betrayal in your story.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Character Relationships 7 - Emotional arcs

Emotional arcs deepen our involvement with characters and their stories. When carefully constructed, we go through the emotions in an authentic, memorable way. But the construction is key. It must feel true, without jumps and reversals that we instinctively know are wrong. When a character arrives in a new emotional space in a way that doesn’t feel right, it’s as troublesome as a plot that defies logic or relies at a deus ex machina.

I recently participated in a workshop with author Mat Johnson. He spoke of providing a foundation of authenticity by exploring our own emotional arcs. Most of us can think of emotional events in our life, many of which point toward genuine emotional arcs, hearts at work.

A personal example, not a template, was provided in the workshop, but I played with abstracting it. I’m not sure I’ve got it right now. (I need to delve into some examples to improve it.) Nonetheless, this may be enough to spur some thought. And, just as your personal examples of emotional arcs will be the most powerful in your work, this unfinished series may help you create your own template that will support better emotional arcs for your stories.

Discomfort - Contentment or indifference is shifted into something that feels odd by the comments, actions, or even just the presence of another person. This could be a compliment, a slap in the face, or an attractive person sitting down at a nearby table. We have this experience all the time and let it pass, but the story begins to happen with the character does not let it pass.

Awareness - The incident with the other person registers in some way. It draws an acknowledgment through body language, comment, a gut feeling, or an action. If your character nods his or her head at an attractive stranger, that might signal awareness. What happens next in real life can be simple or complex. The arc may end with a middle finger response that sends a person away as a stranger, a meet cute fumble (like spilling a glass), a suave pickup line (accepted, rejected, or parried), and more. In a story, for an memorable arc, the relationship begins and/or begins to change.

Observation - We are always looking for cues. Think of the endless discussions of teens about slight (even imagined) clues about sexual interest. This is gathering data to assess and reassess the relationship. In this case, it is likely to lead to emotional shifts that may be small, but move back and forth, or may crash toward bigger possibilities (and more risks).

Testing - One of the revelations of the workshop was how — even when we have it all wrong or are barely aware of emotions on the other side — testing occurs in the arc. Chances are, one character will deploy an arsenal of tests to resolve the initial discomfort with an emotional understanding of the relationship (or a bid to change it). The other character may respond consciously or unconsciously.

Articulation - This may happen repeatedly from Awareness on. Often, it will be objectively incorrect or incomplete (complicating this arc). It can also be part of the culmination, with, for instance, a declaration of love or “Prepare to die!”

Choices - For a realistic arc, it’s always valuable to include choices along the way. These can be explicit or the options may only be obvious to the reader/audience (irony). Clearly, these can be choices about action/confrontation, but they also can be choices in terms of what might be explored, questions, alliances, and prioritization.

Culmination/Resolution - At some point, the emotional arc is completed. We should travel to the end with the protagonist, in my opinion. I understand there are artistic reasons to leave things open or complete the arc “off screen,” but usually that’s a mistake. I’d recommend at least writing it down before deciding to leave it out. 

The above is a relationship template — fitting the man vs. man conflict model. I have not explored man vs. nature (which could be a mountainside, an incomprehensible alien, or a disease). I have not explored man vs. himself, either. These might suggest more useful templates.

If you have trouble coming up with examples of emotional arcs from your own life, look toward moments in stories that touch you deeply. The likelihood is that these high emotion scenes that easily come to mind are parts of emotional arcs in the stories. Go back and re-experience them. (For a movie, you might want to look at the scripts.) Then look for changes in the emotions and see if you can name all the steps that helped make the emotions real to you. Don’t be afraid to look in both directions (earlier or later) in the story, even if it seems like the scene that captured you is the beginning or the end of an arc.

Once you’ve done this, you may find it easier to look more closely at your own emotional history, and that’s likely to show you why you responded so deeply to this story you care about. It also will provide you with something more fundamental to work with as you develop your stories.

One warning: The better you do your job, the more a character in your story will resist the presentation of the full emotional arc. Scenes are likely to remain incomplete, and the temptation will be to not use all the steps in your template. Look closely, and you may find the character is protecting himself or herself. Get out a microscope, and you’ll probably find you are protecting yourself. Press on. Get it all on paper. Even that which you don’t need or don’t want. You’ll end up with a deeper story.

A (nearly) month-long e-course I teach begins on Monday. It's Flash Fiction, and includes lots of hands-on exercises.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Character Relationships 6 - The boldface setting

In Downton Abbey, the setting highlights the relationship between the aristocratic family and their servants. It’s used within the storytelling, notably by giving the servants more power downstairs than upstairs (and vice versa for the Crawleys). It leads for awkwardness and threat and humiliation at times. Of course, the effect of the house would not be as stark today, so the time periods of the series are also an important part of the setting.

Mister Roberts depends on its setting, a ship far away the action of World War II, crowded with anxious sailors. The dilemma for Charles (the Hugh Grant character) during his wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral would not be as fraught if it were set at a county court house in front of a few witnesses. Putting it at a cathedral with everyone important to him and to his fiancee present raises the stakes to an intolerable level.

When you have the chance, go for a boldface setting that emphasizes power, increases jeopardy, and makes escape impossible. And set it up to irreversibly transform a relationship.

Here are a few things to consider:

What is the intrinsic cultural value of the setting? Is it owned by an important person? Is its history relevant (to everyone, like Downton Abbey? to one person, like Scrooge at his own grave?)

Who chose the setting? Did the character magnify his/her power, or choose a place that would benefit someone else? Whose comfort zone is it?

Who’s there? Allies? Foes? Witnesses?

Does time of day or weather matter? A summer evening might be peaceful and lull characters into a sense of security. People might be agitated if they are missing a meal. Blasts of thunder and torrents of rain might put characters on edge and make them more likely to expose their true feelings or just to be rude.

Does the context matter? The same words said in a restaurant or an office or in bed could have different meanings and with consequences severe or slight.

What holds the people there? People look for exits when scenes get too emotional. A writer needs to hold them together. The constraint could be as physical and obvious as a jail cell or as complicated and layered as loyalty.

Is everyone dressed appropriately? For many cultures, this can encourage acceptance (which may be unwarranted, as when a spy wears the uniform of the other side). Or it can lead to rejection. (I once had to go from casual research to the CEO’s office, where anything other than a red tie, a white button-down shirt, and a pinstripe suit was considered gauche. Memorable. I was wearing my relationship to everyone else present and putting myself and my boss at risk.)

Are social relationships intrinsic to the location and unavoidable? A female student at my all boys high school could not be missed. She’d be out of place.

Of course, there’s no requirement that the setting is planned. If you walk into a bar and see an old sweetheart, it may be a complete accident. And it can force interesting conflicts, like having to introduce your current lover to this person — who may have changed in disturbing ways, who may have broken up with you, who may still hold your heart.

It’s a valuable exercise to look through the scenes (especially the key ones) in your work and just focus on the settings. The most important question to ask is, could a different setting shift the relationship, even create a crisis? If this never happens. If, as I see often in manuscripts, scenes seem to take place in cliche places or, worse, what might as well be white rooms, this offers a great chance to revise the work to bring out more of the relationship between the characters. So go for the boldface settings.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Character relationships 5 - Presenting relationships to readers

In my first character relationships post, I noted that, “Dialogue (including subtext), character reflection, action, and revealing shared history can also bring out why and how characters matter to each other and how is changes through experience.” I’ll deal with each in turn here.

Maya Angelou said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." In a story, such a statement is in dialogue, and the relationship part is how it is taken by the other person. Most characters will not accept the statement if it calls for serious work — changing the way he or she acts toward that “someone,” recontextualizing an assumed truth (or part of their own narrative), or changes the stakes or the relationship (e.g., love to friendship). A simple statement is, in itself, not usually enough to create real change. Even one that demonstrates a big gap between the idea of the relationship and the reality of it is likely to be dismissed as a bad joke or a misunderstanding.

Subtext is even more of a challenge, since the person hearing the statement needs to be actively searching for meaning. If, for instance, there is a situation that implies threat or the hearer is looking for clarification of status (e.g., love or affection),  then the ambiguity — indeed, everything about the communication (tone of voice, accompanying gestures, where the statement is made) — will be explored and analyzed. Attentive readers are likely to be focussed on subtext, too, which can add power through irony — especially if a character does not pick up on the subtext.

In general, to be sure a person declaring something other than what is taken for granted, there must be more. To be heard, it helps if a connection is invoked. Recalling a similar experience or situation for the hearer can help. For instance: “I’ve become lonely around you. Do you remember when you lost your brother and he wasn’t there to hear about your day or to share a ballgame with anymore? That’s us now. I can tell you what happened on my walk, and your answer is ‘Uh huh.’ I’m not heard. Or I can bring a bottle of wine over and you’ll put it on the shelf. Save it for another time.”

Character reflection puts readers into someone’s mind, so it provides a way to present the evaluation and analysis of a relationship without a filter. However, it’s usually a mistake to just show the destination. Those sorts of thoughts usually begin, “I realized then…” Realization jumps in like a deus ex machina, excluding the reader. A struggle toward understanding, presented with evidence that comes to mind and is initially rejected, can be powerful. Pieces coming together invites reader participation. False steps along the way can add to the emotional investment and make truth, finally revealed, more compelling. Or you can anchor the reflection by making it about an action.

Action, if it is dramatic enough (a slap in the face, abandoning someone to danger), can cut past the sort of resistance even the clearest words can encounter. The more physical or consequential the action, the less likely it is to be doubted. On the other hand, a misunderstood action, because of the immediacy, can have amazing impact in a story. If, for instance, it seems like your best friend is leaving you to deal with the antagonist alone (say, to pay off a debt to Jabba the Hut) and then he comes back to save your life, that will have a lot of punch.

Shared history is not subject to change, but it can be subject to reinterpretation. The foundation here is all of us have shared history — on jobs, in schools, and in families. We instinctively know and appreciate social ties, and, when these are invoked, they place us right in the middle of the character relationships. Because this is so universal, dramatic engagement can suffer if the particulars of the social ties are not presented or if the relationship is static. Make the cultural rules just a little different, and there’s more interest (and concern about how things will turn out). Reveal a family secret, and the family in question is forced to realign. The shared history must be reevaluated. And, of course, nothing beats a good old-fashioned betrayal.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Character Relationships 4 - Putting the pressure on

Think of the main relationship in the story as another character. Like a protagonist, the relationship can be tried and tested. Maintaining a positive bond can twist characters as much as obstacles and tortures faced in pursuit of a goal. And the most interesting results are likely to come when pressure is applied to a flaw.

Individuals’ flaws are well illustrated by the Seven Deadly Sins. If you protagonist is vulnerable to Lust, Pride, Sloth, Gluttony, Envy, Wrath, or Greed, he or she has a serious flaw that can expose character and create a powerful arc in the story. But what’s a relationship flaw?

Though the flaws themselves may be rooted in the characters, it’s valuable to tease out whatever might seriously threaten the relationship if tested. This is not the full set, but it’s a good starting point for storytellers:

Secrets - These hide parts of a character that are essential but problematic. Look at almost any romantic comedy, and you’ll see the main plot revolves around a secret the audience (or reader) is well aware of but the protagonist struggles to hide.

Insecurity - When one character feels unworthy of the relationship, it can eat away at the bond. If someone is eternally looking for signs of rejection, they’ll be found (rightly or wrongly) and the response is likely to be disastrous.

Wounds - People come into relationships with baggage. Often, betrayal, rejection, and even physical harm from another relationship creates associations that can lead to over-the-top reactions that may put a current relationship into a death spiral. If an abusive partner called a woman “Angel,” the new partner better not use that endearment.

Control - Part of the fun of The Odd Couple is Felix’s need for order and how it is countered by Oscar’s need for autonomy. Outside forces (a dominating boss, the death of a parent, the appearance of an old boyfriend) can amplify needs for control and autonomy to the point where they tear apart connections between people.

Competition - Sometimes friends egg each other on, leading both to achieve more. That’s fine. At the other extreme, if competitiveness leads to one person in the relationship sabotaging the other, that’s a betrayal. Jealousy and ego are usually at the heart of a toxic attitude toward competition.

Differences in values - Friends and even lovers don’t need to have identical value systems, but, without enough commonality, the depth of the relationship is limited. It also matters which values are unaligned. When bit differences in values around money, work, and fidelity, the relationship is in trouble. If the difference in values — including how promises and honesty are viewed — destroys trust, it probably means the friendship is over.

Communication problems - Listening is probably a more common problem that speaking. When someone doesn’t hear or misunderstands. Miscommunication is at the heart of many of the funniest farces and most heartbreaking tragedies. But communications can extend beyond words. Empathy is essential for a healthy relationship, so whatever event reveals a character lacks empathy for a friend or lover creates insights and excruciating choices.

Of course, a character inclined toward any of the Seven Deadly Sins can jeopardize a relationship. A guy with a wandering eye may be unfaithful to his girl. That’s Lust. If seven pieces of silver induced Judas to betray Jesus, that’s an example of Greed messing up a relationship. Or an honor that increases one character’s status can make him or her wonder why he or she is hanging around a friend or lover who is of lower status. That’s Pride.

This last points to a powerful tool for putting pressure on a relationships. Change. It doesn’t matter if its good fortune or bad, change forces a reevaluation and renewal of a relationship. The birth of a child is one of the biggest stressors in a marriage. The death of a child is likely to end the relationship. Winning the lottery or going bankrupt — both force partners in a relationship (whether love or friendship) to deal with hidden flaws that can break the bond. A declaration of love can be as unsettling to a relationship as a “we’re just good friends” comment. Big changes force people to look at past assumptions and update rules and boundaries.

Putting pressure in relationships is wonderful for stories, but difficult to do. An empathic writer will suffer along with the characters, and it’s tempting to avoid or calm the troubled waters. After all, almost all these injuries to relationships are agonizing in real life. Dealing with them honestly in a story can trigger horrible memories. So, even though taking on this challenge is a great way to make a story more powerful, it may not be worth it for you.

But if you can take it and you have the courage to probe these wounds, it will deepen your story. And there are two points of good news. First, you might learn something that helps you as a person as well as a writer. Second, in fiction, you can transform the trial into a happy ending.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Character Relationships 3 - Bids and requests

Greetings, disclosures, and promises are all big deals in relationships in our stories (and in our lives). A romance is likely to include a “meet cute,” heartfelt revelations, and a commitment (such as an engagement or a wedding). Classic westerns have the stranger come into town, his purpose (often settling a score) becomes clear over time, and people line up as allies and opponents before the big climax.

Farewells, too, may pay important roles in novels and scripts — especially when key characters die or otherwise separate (apparently) forever.

So, greetings, disclosures, promises, and farewells are social interactions that test and try relationships. In most instances, these involve bids and requests. These are manifest as gestures, words, and gifts or material exchanges.

Gestures: A nod of the head, recognizing someone is present. The threat of a shaken fist.
Words: May I have this dance? I’ll make you a deal you can’t refuse.
Gifts: A summons. An engagement ring.
Material exchanges: Money for cigarettes. Sex for political favors.

What all those making bids and requests expect is a response. The problem (and opportunity) for the writer is that all of these — even words — can be missed, misunderstood, or ambiguous.  Each of these can garner responses that send a story in an unexpected direction because of how a bid or request is received and interpreted.

That can be delightful. Quirky responses surprise the other characters and provide fun. Misunderstandings can lead to farce or tragedy. And we care about these, when executed well, because our personal relationships are vital to us. And we have all been surprised, disappointed, charmed, and misunderstood in real life. 

They all represent moments of change. In stories, you, as a writer, need to make them meaningful and clear in terms of who these people are to each other, how the conditions of the relationships change, and how the stakes have been raised or lowered.

Judas points out Jesus.
Mozart laughs.
Obi-Wan gives Luke his father’s light saber.

Relationships change. Stories take new directions. Outsiders become insiders and comrades die.  If you think of a favorite scene in a treasured story, it’s probably about a radical alteration in a relationship, created with two dramatic elements: A bid or request from one character and a response from another.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Character Relationships 2 - Ties that bind

As a kid, I loved Goldfinger (even before I finally saw the movie when it was on TV, years after its release). Gadgets. Sophistication. Sean Connery!

The story itself includes tension that escalates. It's like an obstacle course designed by an evil genius. But the relationship between Bond and Goldfinger never develops. They could have had this exchange dozens of times during the movie:

James Bond - Do you expect me to talk?
Auric Goldfinger - No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

The scene does include a surprise and a power shift, but Goldfinger stays evil. Bond opposes him. Again and again.

Fun is fun, but I prefer stories where relationships shift and deepen, where there are unexpected betrayals, and where characters get to know each other's secrets. I like character arcs to be intertwined, for the benign to become malevolent (and vice versa), and for the protagonist change to be forced by the antagonist's constant probing of his or her flaw. (Ouch!)

Shift and deepen - This happens in many good buddy movies and love stories. In Pretty Woman, Vivian and Edward have a purely financial arrangement. Circumstances push the relationship from behind closed doors to public, social situations, and finally to love. Both characters rub against old wounds and become more compassionate and humane. Looking at the character arcs, they are expertly intertwined, with each of them becoming closer and further apart on the path toward their joint destiny. (And both have symbolic sacrifices -- a kiss on the lips for her and braving heights for him.)

The key to a relationship that shifts and deepens is making sure no one can walk away. Why? Because those painful matters need to really hurt -- enough so there will be a desire to abandon the other person. It is people who are linked together AND weather the worst who truly end up with personal connections that touch your heart (and the hearts of readers and audiences).

Betrayal - A few rules on really good betrayals. 1) The positive relationship has to be established. You can't betray someone with whom you don't have a solid bond. (The best way to do this is to borrow from Shift and Deepen and not create love or friendship at first sight. A tested relationship is convincing and authentic.) 2) There has to be a really good reason for the betrayal. It has to matter. It's nice if the person betraying the protagonist finds acting like a rat painful. 3) The reason should be foreshadowed in some way. 4) The betrayal has to have all the main characters in the scene. It is important that the twist of the knife is vivid and personal.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dr. Elsa Schneider is the natural heroine. She even sleeps with Indy (and his dad) before being revealed as a traitorous Nazi. (Ach!)

Flaws - In Silence of the Lambs, does Hannibal see Clarice as anything but a diversion, possibly an opportunity? I think he does. He probes her continuously, forcing her to be a better agent, but also to deal with the traumas of her life, the very things undercutting her confidence and holding her back. Buffalo Bill may push the plot along, but it is the relationship, built around Clarice's flaws, that powers both the movie and the book.

Even one scene can add power to a story. In It's a Wonderful Life, Potter is mostly a stock villain. His finest moment is when, rather that opposing George Bailey, he tries to entice him into a partnership. Uncle Billy losing the money and Potter hanging onto it may create the crisis, but the most memorable scene for me is when George accepts Potter's cigar.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Character Relationships 1 - Story value and priming questions

Creating character bios, descriptions, and studies is classic work for storytellers. Lots of forms exist that can be used to delve into looks, heritage, backstory, flaws, goals, powers, and vulnerabilities. My method is to let a character who is fit for a story problem bloom on the page, and then interview the character and do other developmental work.

But I have put an emphasis in my work in having a strong grasp of the relationships between characters. I think this is because I’m always trying to identify the conflict within a scene. Of the standard series man vs. man, man vs. Nature, and man vs. himself (with the appropriate variations of gender and fantasy species), I tend to focus on “man vs. man.”

That naturally inclines me toward exploring the contrasts in skills, desires, needs, and powers of characters who are facing off in a scene. Which is a great foundation for understanding and establishing the relationships between characters, whether they are lovers, enemies, friends, victims, or bound together by obligations. Since I work toward three to five beats in a scene (which usually are shifts in power), I can learn a lot about the relationship between a pair of characters in just a few pages of a story.

Relationships are essential to engaging an audience. When we experience a story, we are interested in the relationships between characters because we have relationships in our own lives — and they are vital to us. We ALL exist in community. When a child to grow up in isolation or feral, something fundamental about his or her humanity is lost, often forever. If you think about it, most characters from literature, film, TV, and history are memorable because of the relationships they have. This is most obvious with team stories, from Ocean’s Eleven to The Magnificent Seven, to Stagecoach to Friends to Cheers. The differences in the characters and the way the interact with each other — in many cases — is more important than the intricate plots.

Analyzing your favorite stories to learn about the relationships — and why they appeal to you — is a great step in building better relationships among your characters. It’s also valuable to dig into real life. If you list ten people who are important to you — relatives, coworkers, friends, enemies, bosses, and maybe even the UPS man — you can become a scientist of relationships, gaining insights about what is obvious, what is hidden, what is valuable, and what might lead to sleepless nights.

To help you along (in fiction and real life), here’s a starter set of questions to ask:
  • What is the level of attachment (especially affection) between each character and the other? Or repulsion?
  • Do obsessions or addictions shape the relationship?
  • How would you assess fear/trust between the characters? Is it asymmetric? Are there specific issues?
  • Do the characters have obligations toward one another imposed by the outside (cultural, familial, legal)? How do they feel about these obligations?
  • Has one character fulfilled a need of another, creating a debt? (This is more powerful if sacrifice is figured in, if the character who helped paid a big price.)
  • Do the characters depend on each other in some way now? Or is there a history of shared experience/interdependence (such as military service)?
I could go on with more questions, but creating your own might be of more value. (I’d love it if some were shared in comments.)

Describing relationships is just one way to understand and present them. Dialogue (including subtext), character reflection, action, and revealing shared history can also bring out why and how characters matter to each other and how is changes through experience — both for you as the writer and for readers/audiences. I’ll take a closer look next week.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Pivotal Scenes 3 -- Working backward to complete the story

The rest of the story doesn’t just happen… usually. Yes, there are times when, after you have your pivotal scene set (or written à la John Irving), you may have all the other scenes pop into your head. Or, after some tuning, some of the main scenes you need to insert may come to you. But you’ll probably need to take more direct action to develop a good sense of what comes before the pivotal scene, no matter how perfect it is.

I had to do this for two stories in the last week, so let me suggest some ideas to explore. (These are not the only ideas that might be useful — go ahead and make your own list — but they were of value for me, so I’m sharing them.)

A key question: What does the pivotal scene tell me about the theme of the story (or scene or sequence or act)? In one story, it seemed to me the theme was appreciated the different talents/gifts of others, and that guided revision of the rest of the work. In the other case, the importance of following through on obligations to others actually led to new scenes and especially revised dialogue earlier in the story.

Paddy Chayefsky cites the value of exploring characters in pivotal scenes. In particular, when the flaws and motivations of the protagonist are revealed in the pivotal scene, these need to be set up with authenticity. What is learned suggests decision points, opposition, and misunderstandings that shape the pivotal scene.

Chayefsky also uses the pivotal scene to tell him who needs to be in the story. Along the way, protagonists get pushed around a lot by others characters, but you can’t populate a work with a character for each shove. Who is necessary? Can characters be combined?

I like to look at what could happen, as suggested by the pivotal scene, and what must happen. The former creates a lot of options, and I may make a long list. The latter helps me to choose what must be included from that list. Before you do this, it’s a good idea to think about whether your pivotal scene is in someway ironic. This can have a big impact on options and choices.

It can be invaluable, if you have an antagonist in the story, to look at the ending from his or her perspective, too. Imagining possible scenes or actions from the antagonist’s point of view, and selecting those that must be included can enrich the story and add needed twists and turns.

Clarity is important. What are the things a reader/audience must know? Sometimes this is clues that set up a revelation. Sometimes it’s facts that add up. Paddy Chayefsky warns not to get too cute about this. A character might just need to say, “I love you.” As a writer, you may hate that, but it has to be done now and then.

Of course, being clear means being clear to you, too. Too often, writers fail to think through what they don’t know. Sometimes, this opens the door to surprises during composition. But too often it represents a lack of sufficient attention to the story and what needs to be investigated and answered. Before you complete a manuscript, ask, “What don’t I know?”

For a long time, I’ve worked with the rule of thumb of including 3-5 beats (or turns) in a scene.These always move a scene in a different direction and often provide surprises. As I worked on my two stories, it came to me that, in each case, a beat was associated with a shift in power. This could be putting as subservient position into a dominant position, with characters switching places. Or it could be putting a powerful character into an even more dominant position, knocking the other character off balance. (I tend to just let a scene play out, then analyze for these dynamics, rather than plan all the beats ahead of time.)

Of course, story logic can reveal needed (and unneeded) scenes as well as I mentions backward writing guru Kitchen in an earlier post, but you might want to go right to the source.

Interestingly, Paddy Chayefsky, a big advocate of working from a powerful scene backward, said he never did it for smaller parts of a story. He said any scene he wanted to write was there in its entirety for him. Instead, he used working backward as a way to create an overall structure for the story, something he struggled with. I’ve struggled on individual scenes and even beats within scenes, so I think the answer is, as always, do what works for you.