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.