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.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Pivotal Scenes 2 - Tuning for power

Last time, I suggested an exercise, choosing three questions to pose about a pivotal scene in your own work. This time, as promised, I’ll explore how the power of the scene might be magnified. Four ways to achieve this are emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity.

Let’s start with authenticity. If you looked at the questions in terms of pivotal moments in your own life, you’ve already set the bar for your fiction. The closer you can get to the importance of those moments as you experienced them and the more they feel as true to you as what shaped your life, the more authentic they are likely to be for your readers/audience.

This does not mean you need to use or create analogies of your real-life experiences (though many writers do). You can imagine a completely different event in terms of your characters, and it can measure up to your personal answers. In fact, I find that direct transfers, like dreams, tend to lose context when you relate them to others. And without providing the context for a scene, you may not create the connection with others that’s necessary. You may be able test the authenticity of scenes you’ve produced that are not real-life events by checking to see if they are revealing. Do they expose your insights, including those that make you feel vulnerable? Would the judgment of others concern you? If so, you may be on the right track.

By the way, if you did not answer any of the questions based on your own experience, it is valid to look at the answers in terms of novels or films that moved you. If the ones I mentioned mean a lot to you, use those. If not, answer the questions for works that are important to you personally. And use these answers as your measure for authenticity.

Irony is not for everyone, but it can add zest to your pivotal scenes. The ending of The Graduate, where the hero has rescued the woman he loves (bridal gown and all) and escorted her onto their escape bus, the camera refuses to turn away from the happy ending. It is the brilliance of Mike Nichols, not the script, at work as the actors stay in character and the audience is given time to realize a happily ever after isn’t guaranteed.

This ironic dimension trusts the audience and rewards them for being smart. It also engages the audience, encouraging them to participate. To speculate about about what the situation is and what might happen next. So, irony provides both the literal, expected result in a scene AND a compliment and invitation to the audience. To achieve this, the writer must challenge a pat ending to a scene and offer a different viewpoint, which is almost certainly not apparent to the characters.

The price gap is vital to the power of pivotal scenes. As I stated last time:

The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story.
I looked at scenes in a number of my stories to prepare for this article (and to make those scenes better). Over and over again, characters expected easy approaches to work. Ask and you shall receive. Learn the answers and people will welcome them. Develop your craft and you’ll get gigs.

What gets ignored by characters in stories (and people in real life) is usually the social aspects of prices. If you have a good product, I’ll buy it from you if I like you. You can do the job, but others can, too. What’s in it for me if I hire you? Sure, I’ll give you access. But you’ll owe me.

Most of these have a level of fairness. But what about when characters get a “yes” from someone who has a hidden agenda? Or when the “yes” is a trap (now, you’re mine)? Or the “yes” is really a “no”? Or some sort of a betrayal is involved?

Often, the gap becomes evident when the first attempts are met with “no.”

Usually, the gap gets wider and more interesting when the answer is “yes, but.” With these, what is unknown, secret, and underhanded twists the story in a new way. The shape of the world changes and the map to success fills with obstacles, tormenting characters and delighting readers and audiences.

In bold above, I did not quote my full statement. The rest of what I said last time was this:

The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
Which brings this analysis to the last element of power, emotion. There may be an intellectual element to the conclusion of a pivotal scene, an insight or a lesson learned. But it will remain abstract unless it engages readers or the audience emotionally. Bertolt Brecht argued for at theater of ideas, focused by an intentional rejection of emotion. To the point where a narrator might undercut feelings developed by the plot. Arthur Miller championed this idea. Maybe.

Popular films today are often overwhelmed by spectacle. Strong emotions are created in the moment, but these tend to be on the surface. With little in the way of ideas (or fully developed characters).

As a writer, you get to decide which extreme works best for you. My opinion is that the work most likely to touch audiences and readers and to be remembered and to bring new meaning with each encounter is that work that has ideas and characters in stories that are emotionally involving.

So say something that matters to you. Make it true to your characters. Provide a big gap between the characters’ expectations and the price they must pay —and make the currency of the transaction deep emotions. Love. Hate. Loss. Wonder. Find the tragedy or the comedy and go there.

Next time, with pivotal scenes tuned for power and the price gap made explicit, I’ll look at how this preparation can be used to work backward to unify sequences, scenes, acts, chapters, and stories.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Your Story’s Pivotal Scenes 1 - Finding the best candidates for reader delight

One scene can tell a story. Or make it memorable. You want to have a scene like that. If you can find those scenes and tune them so they sing, they’ll delight readers and audiences. But, more than that, they’ll guide you through a rewrite that will make your novel, screenplay, or short story as powerful as it can be. And you can use a version of this approach to sharpen an act or a chapter or a sequence of scenes.

So… this is the first of three posts exploring what I’ll call pivotal scenes: Finding the best candidates, Tuning for power, and Working backward for unity.

Spoiler alert - I’ll be mentioning key scenes from several movies. I’ll head of each of these as Example (Spartacus) “I’m Spartacus” in bold so you can skip those you’d prefer to keep as surprises.

My starting point in understanding pivotal scenes was reviewing 24 of my favorite films. I simply wrote down those moments when these stories got a strong reaction from me. Then I analyzed each to determine what the essence was in each case. From this analysis, I created a list of ten questions (which led to twenty — as I tried to find another spin on each). Here are the pairs I came up with:

1) Was there a secret revealed that matters to your protagonist (or another key character)? Was there an important discovery, even the answer to the story question? Example (The Empire Strikes Back) Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father.

2) Was a key character humiliated? Or recognized (honored)? Example (Singin’ in the Rain) The curtain is pulled open on Lina Lamont as she lip-syncs to Kathy Selden’s singing.

3) Did a serious threat emerge, terrifying and dangerous? Was safety and rest attained? Example (Alien) An alien bursts from Kane’s chest and escapes into the ship.

4) Did the character fall into a trap? Or escape? Example (2001: A Space Odyssey) Bowman is caught outside the spacecraft without his helmet.

5) Was life narrowed in some way by a serious, irreversible loss? Did life’s potential broaden through wonder? Example (Ghost) Sam, mugged and killed, discovers he is now a ghost, separated from the woman he loves.

6) Was a character betrayed by someone trusted or loved? Did the character behave with cowardice or seriously fail someone? Example (Chinatown) Gittes fails to save Evelyn and to protect Katherine from Cross.

7) Was a vital relationship permanently severed (at least apparently)? Did two or more characters bond? Example (The Shawshank Redemption) Andy offers to show a guard how to shelter his inheritance from taxes and becomes the financial manager for prison employees.

8) Did a character get blamed or held to account? Was a character forgiven or did characters reconcile? Example (Big Fish) Will tells his father the story of the daring escape from the hospital to the lake.

9) Did a character become separated from society or come to learn he or she was weird? Did a character connect with others or find out how he or she fit in? Example (Amadeus) Salieri (ironically) presents himself as the patron saint of all mediocrities. (“Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you.”)

10) Was the true power of the character revealed? Was the character’s vulnerability, flaw, or powerlessness revealed? Example (The Wizard of Oz) The Wizard is revealed as a humbug by Toto.

There is nothing canonical about this list. You can come up with your own. In fact, I found that these might be sorted into connections with basic needs, following the Maslow hierarchy. All that is pretty left brain and dry, but I had a critical filter - my gut. And I found that a good way to interrogate my answers was to take a closer look at what each scene cost the viewpoint character. In fact, this led me to an interesting observation:

The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story. The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
It’s not a rule. It’s not perfect. But I found it to be a highly useful tool as I looked at the movie scenes.

I did something else before I turned to my story. I went through pivotal moments in my own life, actually listing out 16 that easily came to mind as both emotional and transformational. Then I tried to match them up with the questions, looking for where they landed and filling in more pivotal moments prompted by the questions. These added a level of authenticity to my analysis and raised the bar for scoring potential pivotal scenes in my stories. (This is not an easy exercise, but you may find it valuable.)

Here’s how I recommend you use the questions: 1) Choose a story of yours to analyze. This is easiest if you have a finished draft, but you may find you can do it for one that isn’t completed. 2) Pick out three questions that your intuition tells you might be related to your ending or pivotal scene (known or unknown). 3) See if asking the questions gives you more insight about your ending or pivotal scene. 4) If the essence of your ending or pivotal scene does not fit any of these questions, try more questions (or develop your own).

By the time you’re done, you should have discovered a scene that has the potential for power and you probably will have some fresh insights about how it fits in with the rest of the story. Your next step will be to make it all that it can be. I’ve already hinted at what that might entail (emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity), but that will be the subject of next week’s post. 

Related: Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Killing Beguiling Beginnings - How to give your story a fresh start

Beginnings are treacherous. The requirements are high (introduce characters, present the setting, put forth a story question, hook the reader, engage with a distinct voice). After the first 20 pages, for many unpublished works that I’ve read, the author settles into a groove where the story is working. And often just cutting those early pages allows readers to connect with the story in the best place.

The problem — what makes things treacherous — is finding the exact right place to cut, making the revisions that keep the amputation from being obvious, and (most importantly) the author reconciling him/herself to saying goodbye to those first pages.

It is often the first pages that charmed the writer into working on the story to begin with. They often are the most familiar, most worked-over pages in the whole manuscript. And, somehow, they feel necessary.

I have been reading Val McDermid’s Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, there’s a crime scene investigator featured who gathers the information, sits with it, and then generates a narrative on what might have happened. What follows for her is analysis and a set of test questions. When she has gone through these steps, what she has may fit the intuitive leap. But, when the pieces don’t come together, she abandons that narrative. There’s no revision, no force-fitting, no fixes. I was captivated by that. What if you could have evidence that your beginning wasn’t working and then have no hesitation in making cuts and coming up with something new?

This is pertinent to me since I have a beginning that has gotten the same criticisms from two readers, and it is difficult for me to abandon it. But something tells me, it’s time to see where trying something new might lead me, so I’ll take a fresh approach.

It’s painful, but less hard for me than many writers because I can put together a new beginning in a day or two. And I know I can always go back to the beginning I have now. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

So, if you have a completed story and have doubts about a beginning that has charmed you, try this:
  1. Find the climax or the story’s point of highest emotion or the thematic scene of your story. You should be able to fall in love with it so that the beginning can be bent to make it better. This is your reason for trying something new.
  2. Assume the evidence doesn’t fit the beginning, and drop it (at least for the moment) the way the crime scene investigator drops her intuitive narratives, without regrets.
  3. Brainstorm alternative beginnings until you find one that you connect with viscerally. If one doesn’t pop out, think toward reflecting as aspect of your big scene in step one or toward an image that might communicate your story.
  4. Write the scene without worrying about what readers need to know or hooks or introductions or any other required elements.
If you end up with something that mostly works and gets you started on a better beginning, congratulations. Now it’s a matter of gently fitting it into place with the rest of the story. Sometimes, the most important thing is to avoid too many changes (especially adding in material). Sometimes, that means a complete revision. Sometimes, it leads to combining the new beginning with the old one. Sometimes, it takes you in a new direction. But it’s worth it because you’ll be led toward the beginning the story needs and away from the weaker one that infatuates you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stories People Need - Creating the [interesting] narrative

Stories are used to encourage us. To warn us. To make sense of the world. To unsettle us. To comfort us. We are a species that shapes reality with narrative.

One explanation of cave paintings is that they provided support for hunting. Here’s what a successful hunt looks like. Here’s what it means. This story gives you power that elevates the hunt. It provides useful information and assures its success.

Are we different from cave dwellers? Don’t we tell ourselves stories to guide us through uncertainty? If you were going into a dangerous situation, like surgery, you would probably look to people who had experience and listen to their stories. Or you’d gather the facts and create your own narrative with a beginning, middle, and ending. This would help you with preparations and provide a sense of control.

When I’m driving and the person in front of me begins to weave, I drop back. I assess the situation — oncoming traffic. Escape routes. Pedestrians. I draw upon my experience and knowledge, I consider the possibilities. Is the driver drunk? Ill? On the phone? My mind projects forward with a number of negative narratives — sudden stops, collisions, police activity. And I generate options from changing my route to calling the police to honking my horn to zipping around the situation and getting gone. These stories are explorations that provide guidance.

In the narratives of my youth — at school, on TV, and in church — the points seemed to be comfort and moral instruction. History was about a series of successes that proved my forebears, society, and leaders had great ideas that kept me safe and free. Situation comedies proved that errors were trivial and balance would be restored in 30 minutes. I think most church readings got immediate interpretations supporting the status quo and emphasizing obedience and punishment for disobedience. (Since I was an avid reader, I often had read the stories by myself, within a larger context. Even in the ten-year-old me, this created a level of dissonance.) So narratives can have a stabilizing, social aspect, reducing conflict.

I often found the opposite of the endorsed stories of my youth in science fiction — a genre my parents abhorred. While there were plenty of status quo stories, the best raised questions and challenged authority. “What if?" It’s a powerful question that presumes the world could be different. And SF used known and projected facts to support new visions. An ending could be great for an SF protagonist (but leave me unsettled). Or formally happy without being happy. (“[Winston Smith]  had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” - 1984) Or thoroughly bleak. Or charged with wonder.

Wish fulfillment is big for a lot of readers. By the time I was seven, I’d put even the gee whiz wishes of Tom Swift aside, and I never identified much with macho heroes like James Kirk, James Bond, or Matt Dillon. But, for plenty of people, the exercise of power and getting rewards is a part of the value of narrative. It provides relief and perhaps hope.

So we need stories for:

Guidance - which means the writing must be clear, take great care with ambiguity, and persuade.

Sense - Think of the wonderful tales of why mosquitoes buzz or how the elephant got its trunk. Whimsical stories can help us make sense of the world as much as books on science or math. The greatest tools: taking on the best questions, knowing your audience and using story logic.

Comfort - Which means introducing something that may worry readers in a way that does not overwhelm them (often with humor) and showing that everything turns out all right.

Challenges - Understand people want and don’t want this. I’ve found stories that deviate from the status quo or unsettle people or provide warnings need to be compelling. Creating worlds worth exploring, exploiting curiosity, distracting with wish fulfillment (see below) or poetry or empathetic character can make people welcome opening doors marked “Do Not Enter.” Humor helps, too.

Wish fulfillment - which means the talents of the heroes must be on full display. They need to make all the decisions, never take orders, and enjoy enviable payoffs. Description is a big deal. Challenges must escalate. Increasing tension by withholding fulfillment of wishes (but not too much) is vital. Power scenes are tinged with sex, and sex scenes are tinged with power. The best relationship is usually with the villain.

This list could be extended, but I hope it provides a useful starting point to adding power to your stories through a better understanding of the will toward narration and how to work with it.

Narrative doesn’t always matter. It may be jettisoned in the case where the art is abstract. Like music, poetic works may be more about sounds and silences. Perhaps with the addition of wordplay. It’s possible to touch the spirit and the soul without a narrative, and this can shape lives as surely as a tale. Or the senses can be appealed to without narrative. Porn famously cuts most of the story elements to showcase sex. A big film may be more about spectacle than story.

Narrative isn’t present with every book or film or video, and that may be intentional. But if you choose to tell a story in the medium of your choice, it’s helpful to, at some point, determine which need you are working to fulfill and to choose your tools carefully.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 4 - Inspirational characters

Sometimes the character who makes a mark on your soul isn’t the hero. It’s someone talked about or on the periphery. The character may act heroically and even be the protagonist, but something needs to be withheld or it becomes too easy to put the character into a box.

I could argue that humanized characters (in both fiction and nonfiction) are easier to emulate, but truly inspirational characters, those who fire us to go beyond imitation, have a mystery about them. If you seek to put wonder in your stories, knowing how to create these characters can be valuable. I’ve been putting together some ideas on what might work, and I thought I’d share them:

Mystery - The easiest way the character can break out of frame is if he or she has elements (usually in the backstory) that aren’t revealed. These are often hinted at. Think of the gossip about Gatsby’s war record and how he acquired his wealth.

Accomplishments - It can’t all be rumor. There needs to be evidence of capability and achievement. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s legal skills are on display. But a moment of action that creates wonder is when he shoots the rabid dog. Here’s a talent that was hidden to Scout but implies worlds of possibilities.

Courage - I love characters, like Dorothy, who can face down a wicked witch. But the ones you never see sweat provoke a different response. When I was a kid, this was the typical silent cowboy hero. (Clint Eastwood played this character a lot.) And, for an eleven-year-old, James Bond could do the job. Many historical heroes (Lincoln, Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt) fit this model before revisionist histories became a thing. I’m still in awe of Hannibal because he brought elephants across the Alps to take on the Roman Empire. And I know nothing about this foibles.

Contradictions - As long as the story still feels authentic and classically heroic, it’s fine to have moments that are difficult to explain. The point is to open doors, not close them. Like a koan, two pieces that don’t quite fit can imply something bigger.  As Whitman said…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Most importantly, an inspirational character needs to be larger than life. Something about him or her must reach beyond normal talent, behavior, or capability. And this must be demonstrated.

There is a sideways approach, where the character is humanized, then made inspirational. These are creation stories that end with the character with new, untested powers. Lots of comic hero origin stories have this coming of age aspect that adds to their power. As long as they end before too much is revealed, there can be wonder. I’ll note that many of these creation myths begin with something humble or miraculous  — born in a log cabin or of a virgin. Somehow, setting the character apart or spared (the one who lived) suggests greatness. Elvis Presley, a man from humble beginnings and also the twin who lived, got off to a fine start.

Mythmaking is ripped apart in our culture… and also indulged in. Don’t be afraid to have an anecdote about your inspirational character chopping down a cherry tree or splitting rails. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to include fate or a prediction.

Some things to avoid…

Don’t make the inspirational character the viewpoint character. Both Gatsby and Finch have their stories told by someone else.

Be careful about showing doubt or internal struggle. Inspirational characters may evoke complex emotions, but they tend to be simple. Feet of clay will only limit the possibilities.

Resist the urge to use humor in a way that could undercut the greatness of the character. Humor is a great leveler, so it is dangerous to these characters. Go ahead and put humor in the draft, but be ready to cut it.

The ending for an inspirational character eliminates possibilities. There is a temptation to make these character into martyrs. Generally a bad idea. Unless they come back to life.

Overall, lean more toward Greek Mythology than toward Christianity. Men becoming gods (or demi-gods) beats a God becoming a man for THIS purpose. Again, not in terms of moral guidance or identification. (I’m not trying to make a statement on how to live. I’m just presenting a writing choice.) Wonder transcends the ordinary, and an inspirational character may be just what you need to tell your story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What’s holding back your writing career? - An unscientific test

Some writers imagine themselves with multi-book, mega-buck contracts. Other see themselves holding an Oscar for best original screenplay. And many would be happy to sell a short story or get a memoir finished for the family. Coming up short isn’t in itself a problem. As Browning said, “"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" But I think being deeply frustrated because of fixable problems is tragic.

With that in mind, I present another one of my completely unscientific diagnostic tests. I won’t be checking your answers, so you get to decide if it illuminates barriers, delusions, or distractions that are holding you back from achieving your goals. The imagined goal for the test-taker is a person who wants to be a novelist who makes a little money on writing. Transpose your conclusions to fit your actual ambitions.

For each pair, choose a score from one to ten, giving yourself nearer one if the first statement feels more like the truth and and nearer to ten if the second statement feels more like the truth.

1 Other priorities - Most writers claim they don’t have enough time to write. The truth is that few writers have the time to write and revise all the stories they wish to tell. What they do have is a dedication to the work that carves out time for it. In my experience, working with hundreds of writers, the minimum required is 15 minutes a day, five days a week, committed to moving one Work in Progress (WIP) to completion.

Several times a year, I spend a week without writing. / I rarely go through a week where I don’t write five days on my WIP.

2 Poor choices - What you write matters. Some people pursue what they believe is the easiest course, but if that means working in a genre that doesn’t interest you or telling a story you’re not invested in just because it has a great concept, that’s unlikely to lead to success. Routinely beginning new projects before finishing a WIP (and not having any criteria for selecting a WIP) means delays in finishing works or not finishing them at all. Having difficulty deciding which project to work on demonstrates a lack of focus. Chasing every new opportunity (contests, markets, gigs) without at least a general career plan and selection process only leads to confusion.

I have several active projects and could not articulate how each of them move me toward success. / I am committed to a WIP that fits criteria that move me closer to achieving my writing ambitions.
3 Fear - Whether you call it the doubt monster or the critic in your head, it is a part of you that challenges or dismisses what you do. All writers have this. In fact, it’s necessary. If you are delighted with your first drafts, it’s unlikely you’ll do the work required to suitably revise your stories for real audiences. A successful writer can manage these negative voices during the drafting stages (and, as needed, during rewrites).

Useless fears are along the lines of “what would my mom say about this?” No one sees the work unless you put it out there. “I have nothing to say” is another fear that is baseless. We all have stories others are interested in. If you don’t believe that, sit down now and write your most embarrassing moment. Fear of failure? It’s really fear of trying, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to worry about failure or success in the absence of a completed work. There also may be an over-focussing on weaknesses, from lack of experience (guess how you get experience) to shortcomings in craft (character development, plotting, grammar, etc.).

Every writer has weaknesses. And, yes, these need to be overcome enough to reach professional minimums (though, perhaps with help from an editor). The best come to understand their strengths and appreciate and develop these.

Anxiety keeps me away from writing or sabotages my work on a weekly basis. / I am able to put aside fear and negativity enough to get my work done almost all the time.
4 Lack of commitment - Even though dwelling on weakness can become a barrier, ignoring them is not a good idea. Writers should be dedicated to growing and developing through exercises, courses, and mostly attentively reading other writers. Some writers go stale by writing the same thing over and over again. Others get lazy and reduce their attention to selecting and developing concepts or going through sufficient rewrites. Good writers who get better take pride in their work (while avoiding perfectionism. They don’t abandon work when it gets difficult. They step out of their comfort zones and learn from failures.

My approach to craft and my career is ad hoc, going where the spirit leads me. / I have articulated what I have to achieve, I have specific tasks (including development work) aimed at getting me there, and my calendar includes deadlines for achieving tasks.

5 Unhelpful guidance - When you tell people you write, you will meet those who see that as an invitation to make nasty remarks. There is no way you can write stories of a high enough quality or can be prolific enough or edgy enough or responsible enough to satisfy self-appointed critics. Family and friends can get into your head — out of concern for your well-being, the need to right your wrongs, snark, jealousy, or the need to put you in your place. If your work goes out into the world, complete strangers will troll you. Sometimes, they’ll carry the title of critics. Peers and would-be mentors and teachers may also undercut your confidence, challenging your skills, talents, and choices. It can drag your writing down and even block you. The solution is compartmentalize this unhelpful guidance, which may mean removing topics of conversation or ending contact with some people.

A self-inflicted wound is comparing yourself to other writers. Often this means comparing your work to completed, edited work, which is crazy. As is jealousy of others’ success. You are not competing with anyone. Only you can tell your stories, and no one has complete control over how their stories are received.

Allied to this topic is concern about a lack of credentials, whether that means education or perspectives (as in writing from the point of view of another race or sex). This only (possibly) matters for nonfiction. For the rest, you may make mistakes, but, as long as you write with integrity, your expertise and identity will not trump the authenticity of your endeavor.

I feel every criticism and clutch the negative ones with both hands. / When I pay attention to others’ views of my work or my career, I explore the comments dispassionately and make changes in response to the very few that are important and resonate with me.
How did you do? Looking at the low scores, do any of them hint at what might need attention? Do the statements on the right suggest solutions to you? And not to make this all negative, are some of your high scores indicative of strengths that will help you reach your ambitions?

Sadly, there are clinical issues that can hold people back. Writers frequently suffer from depression, attention deficit, and obsession with perfection. Outside forces, like illness, injury, poverty, being a care provider, and legal problems can stymie a career. These do not have easy answers, and they usually require the help of an expert.

There also seem to be many people who are enthusiastic about the idea of being writers or having things written, but who don’t actually have writing as part of their lives. Some have no idea what the actual job is comprised of (even if they have taken dozens of courses). They either don’t write or write only when they are inspired. If you’re one of these people, perhaps this test was entertaining, but I doubt it will motivate you to move from aspirations to actions.

But my hope is that for many writers, this test will indicate where brainstorming new approaches to writing will lead to action that leads to greater success.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 3 - An approach to creating awe for readers

Go to the right place. Wait. Listen. Welcome. Develop. Tune. Set. This is one process for including wonder in your stories. It isn’t the only process. And it isn’t guaranteed. But, with enough attempts, it will succeed (on occasion) and create the potential for rich experiences in your stories. When it doesn’t succeed, even when every word of your wonder-full scene gets cut, the process will still make you a better writer.

So let’s go through these steps, one by one.

Go to the right place. In real life, this can mean experiencing great art. (Put me in front of a Vermeer.) Or Nature (Grand Canyon or backyard garden.) Or being present during a positive life event (birth, first steps, first love). Caution: If you are operating a video camera during any of these, wonder won’t show up for you.
All of the life experiences make wonder in stories possible and more probable. But, for me, wonder often happens as I’m writing. I smile for no reason. A chill goes down my back. And then?
Wait. Often, wonder is preceded by quiet, even boredom. I feel like I need to let myself synchronize with something bigger. Is there a door opening?
Listen. The Old Testament refers to “a still small voice.” (And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. ) That makes sense to me. Wonder does not seem to declare itself with cannons, though it can seem to fill the senses as it progresses. It is easy to miss. Which is why distractions are such a pain.
Welcome. Look up “amazement” in the thesaurus, and you’ll see shock, horror, and fear. Wonder is uncontained and uncontrolled. It is humbling. It is uncomfortable in a profound sense. The way to experience it is to let go.
Develop. Wonder is expressed poetically. In fiction, it chooses its own first draft. But once it is recorded, it needs to be imagined in a way that can reach an audience. The dream needs to be reshaped for others, without losing its dreamlike quality. This is delicate stuff. I see the first draft as being a poem written in a different language that I’m obliged to translate faithfully.
Tune. The expression of wonder now needs to be looked over objectively. I remove (or repair) in this order distractions, confusion, and ego. Then I test each word. Is it the right word? Does it need to be there?
Set. This consists of three things: 1) Make sure this wonder belongs in the longer story. If it is not thematic, find it another home. 2) Create a gentle segue. What comes before wonder needs to be grounded in the familiar world and quiet. In the film of The Wizard of Oz, the black and white farm house lands with a jolt. The background music stops. Dorothy says, “Oh.” Then, except the sounds a basket being picked up and a door opening, there’s quiet. Until she opens the door to Oz. What follows is music, color, and wonder. 3) End the scene (or better yet, the chapter). Let it resonate.

The goal of wonder is to open the door to uncountable, unexpected possibilities for your readers. Ideally, the theme explored in the rest of the story supports this experience without putting barriers around it.

Why not go directly to great themes of life and literature and build scenes around them? In my experience, that’s unlikely to work. Maybe wonder is contrary. Maybe it is too evanescent. My suspicion is that, like happiness, it’s best not to pursue it directly because it is the product of many good choices. But, if you must, give it a try.

Also, it’s worth learning to recognize wonder even when it comes to you without any process. Surprise is one of its features (both in writing and in life). When you experience wonder, appreciate the moment and respond. Capture and learn. Then it might be valuable to go back and explore it’s origins. You may come up with a better approach than the one I’ve laid out here.