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.