Thursday, December 19, 2019

Casting Your Stories 7: A web of lies and secrets

Want to hear a secret? Of course you do. And the more vulnerable the information makes someone, the more exclusively it is provided to you, the more power it holds. From near the top of Maslow's pyramid (reputation) to the bottom (survival), what people disclose or hide has consequences. That's why lies and secrets are about more than power. They are about trust. Often, they are also about what is deepest – who people (or characters) believe they are.

This makes lies and secrets essential to storytelling (something I explored elsewhere). It also makes them critical to characterizations as well as the plot. And critical to the connections with characters. What characters lie about her hold secret tells us what matters to them and who they share the truth with (or don't) tells us about their relationships.

It's easy to find examples in mysteries and thrillers and spy stories. The whole point in those tales is to hold back, revealing small things that could add up to a larger truth. As readers, we follow along with police and private detectives and reporters and masters of espionage as they penetrate webs of lies and secrets to find the answers they need. Romantic comedies are also sure bets as far as looking at patterns of lies. Almost all depend upon a central secret or deception by one of the lovers that must be faced before the happily ever after. In Sleepless in Seattle, Annie must tell her fiancé she's fallen in love with someone else. In Tootsie, Michael must disclose that the female persona he has inhabited hides a key part of his identity (being male).

As I sought out examples, mysteries and romances seemed too obvious. Also thought about using The Graduate, but that's so packed with lies, I got overwhelmed. So I went to my list of scripts on hand and cross-referenced against movies I had seen in a while that I could stream, and I came up with Almost Famous. (Hey, it begins with in A.) I had remembered how packed it was with deception. In fact, honesty is a major theme of that movie.

From the beginning, the setting is presented with the San Diego Santa Claus – a dude in a winter–free landscape wearing shorts. fantasy is piled upon fantasy, without the slightest nod and anything authentic. But in no time, the hero, William, is faced with a deeply personal lie. His mother (his mother!) has been deceiving him about his age his whole life. He is actually two years younger than he has always presumed. Scene after scene teeters between truth and deception. William’s sister, Anita, sneaks home with a forbidden rock 'n roll album (and gets busted). She lies about having kissed her boyfriend, but her mother uncovers the truth. And when she leaves, she whispers to William that his future is hidden under his bed. His future is a collection of rock music albums, and the secret is shared between his sister and himself, excluding their mother.

My favorite scene about deception and truth is between William and Penny Lane. Like a reverse auction, they both claim to be 18 years old, and they reveal lower numbers until they get to the truth — William is 15, Penny is 16. That scene also shows there is a limit to the truth that shared. Penny Lane does not reveal her real name. Later, who she reveals it to and who she doesn't says everything about key relationships.

William's mother, Elaine, despite her lie to her son is almost sacrificially a truth–telling character. It gives her amazing power over other people, often nudging them toward more authentic and responsible behavior. There is also an amazing scene where William and the band are on a plane that seems certain to crash and one character after another reveals his or her secrets.

In addition, the powerful dénouement is completely dependent upon revealing and confirming the truth — the deeply human truth — about the band. This is something that has consequences for all the main characters.

Interestingly enough, a benevolent and consequential lie that Penny Lane tells – a lie that she knows will be quickly uncovered – restores one of the most important personal connections in the story.

Almost Famous is a course in using lies and secrets to present truth about the human experience, defined characters, and illustrate the value of authenticity in relationships. It includes betrayals, exaggerations, misdirections, pseudonyms, gaslighting, excuses, selective truth, and hypocrisy. Cameron Crowe doesn't hide this. His characters mention telling secrets. They discuss finding what's real and "the real world." One character only means half of what he says, and William asks, "which half?"

Looking at Almost Famous through the lens of how lies and secrets are used had surprises for me even though this is not the first time I've done such an analysis on a film. One of the notes I made was, the more lies, the more truth matters.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Casting Your Stories 6: Characters tell you who they are

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy speaks less than Red, but he says a lot about himself. “I’m a rockhound.” (A truth that hides his motives.) “I have no enemies here.” (A belief that shows his vulnerability.)

My favorite Andy quote is, “I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That's only my opinion.” This is after he has taken a chance that nearly ended his life. It also is tied to a request that is not for himself, but for the men around him. It marks a turning point in his adjustment to imprisonment. It provides a demonstration of generosity and common humanity. It expresses freedom is a way that is both homely and magnificent. In a movie filled with violence and shame and greed and injustice that can make you ache, it is a starburst of hope.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. - Maya Angelou

Believe, pay attention and, as a storyteller, take note. The magic words of character dialogue are I, me, my, we, us, and our. With these words characters tell us who they are, and we should pay attention to them. They tell you what they think, what they’ve accomplished, how they’ve been cheated, why they did something, whom they trust, what they believe, and even, directly, who they are.

When they tell the truth, we have basic information about who they are or who they believe they are. And it is selected information. They'll only share it because they believe it's important that others (people who need to know) have that information.

Of course, at times, the characters are lying. Once that becomes clear, we know even more about them.

Choices, values, and motivation are all intertwined with identity. The “I” of the character sacrifices, battles, and makes alliances in service of identity — mostly maintaining identity. The action of great stories moves inexorably toward a change that touches identity and therefore is resisted. A character learns and grows in essential ways that confront, contradict, and/or confirm the “I” statements.

In Shawshank, Red’s friendship and care for Andy over the years creates this change.

Screenplay page 8, parole hearing:
“I’ve learned my lesson. I can honestly say I'm a changed man. I'm no longer a danger to society.”

Screenplay page 119, parole hearing:
“Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was...stupid kid who did that terrible crime...wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that.”

Amadeus also has a before and after, in this case, for Salieri:

page 1 “Show mercy to a guilty man!”
page 2 “I confess what I  did! I'm guilty! I killed you!”
page 7 “I was the most famous composer in Europe… I wrote forty operas alone.”

page 156 “I’ll speak for you. I speak for all mediocrities in the  world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

To me, this change represents Salieri coming to terms with his true self and sharing that as a blessing for others. It’s ironic and fascinating and filled with insight. But still tragic for me because I remember another “I” statement:

"Everybody liked me. I liked myself."

This is what he lost. The price he paid.

Of course monologues, especially those that explode out of taciturn characters as they seek to be understood, justified, and, possibly, forgiven, are difficult to miss. And they are difficult to write well. It is too easy to write one like Red’s before statement to the parole board. It takes heart and painful honesty to write one like his after statement to the parole board.

But monologues are not required. Small, almost unnoticed “I” statements fill the pages of great writers. They are worth your attention as you reread your favorites. The craft of including such statements at the right times, directed at the right characters, with the right level of honesty or deceit, is worth mastering.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Casting Your Stories 5: Questions characters ask

In the past, I’ve advocated interviewing characters. And a lot can be revealed if the questions you ask are rude. But paying attention to what characters ask about and whom they ask can reveal a lot.

For some characters, asking questions is their business. Policemen need to find out what happened. Doctors, including psychiatrists, need to find out where it hurts. Reporters have to get the story. And detectives need to find out who done it. When each of these are doing their jobs, their goals are more or less obvious to readers and the value is collecting clues that can be assembled to form a more complete picture (story for readers).

But things get interesting when these inquisitors ask questions of their own friends, families, and peers. Presumably, in most of these cases, the information is less important than the relationships. However, it's revealing when the style of questioning is a bit too close to how they work professionally. Those are moments to pay attention to. Equally a value is when there is a sharp contrast between professional personas and personal personas – often revealed when questions are asked. Surprising gentleness, emotion, deference, impatience, or concern may say a great deal about how the other people (non-interviewees) fit into their lives and what deep needs they fulfill.

Now there are some characters who rarely ask questions. They may be besieged by life and constantly in reaction mode. Or, they might be narcissists who lack curiosity or think they already know everything. They might also be full of questions, but reluctant to ask them because the people asked might not react kindly or the answers might be things they prefer not to know. If such characters do ask questions, pay close attention. What are they hoping for? What do they need? Why did they take the risk? How much courage was required? Whom did they ask, and what does that say about their relationships?

Of course, these questions might be applied to any characters soliciting answers, but those who rarely show this side of themselves usually expose secrets when they do.

Many characters have questions tied to their goals. By definition, these are important to their stories. They usually expect answers from helpers and difficulty with those who oppose them or have costly answers (often, explicitly requesting a gift or a favor in return). Answers in these cases lead to (or destroy) trust and cooperation. The answers also set up expectations for characters and for readers. The higher the stakes are for the question, the more important the person giving answers must be. The more that’s put at risk, the more a response should be delayed, incomplete, ambiguous, or difficult (except, in most cases, when the answer resolves the story).

Of course, all questions are not vital. Many of the smaller questions may still help define characters and how they fit in with everyone else in the story.

For instance, what if the character is a knight who needs to find the path to the cursed castle?

Who to ask? A peer (say, another knight). An underling. A princess (his superior, and also a female). A wizard. The village idiot. A warrior.

How to ask? Politely. As the demand. Through an intermediary. From a kneeling position. Grasping a protective charm. After getting the other character drunk. With open hands or a raised sword. After making an appointment. With an army at his back.

Sometimes characters ask questions of enormous importance, both in personal and in story terms. Do you love me? Who shot the gun? Who is my real father? Which side are you on? How long have you been cheating on me?

That kind of question always gets attention, and it's worth exploring works you admire to see the contexts (who is asked, when, where, how) of such questions, especially how they might be set up, delayed, or blurted out. It makes a difference if someone is pointing a gun when they ask a question.

But even asking directions can be revealing of character and of relationships. These moments in stories are worth closer looks, too. Seeing how other authors manage questions to do more than get information — to reveal needs, styles, emotions, connections, and power — can provide hints on when, where, and how to use questions and your own work, especially as a means to exposing hierarchies, values, and dependencies in characters. Mastering the use of questions in stories opens up important ways to expose characters and build deeper connections with readers.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Casting Your Stories 4: Making characters vivid

Characters are peculiar. Algis Budrys, my one-time teacher, stated it less generously. “All important fictional characters are insane.”

I remember being shocked by this, and I asked him to explain. He said, if nothing else, stories put such an emphasis on character goals that these would, in real life, be considered pathological obsessions. Characters need to be motivated. In fiction, the major characters need to have story goals. They also enter each scene with specific goals that matter profoundly to them and drive their conversations, actions, choices, thoughts, and feelings. They are all obsessed.

Does this have to be true for every story? Isn’t there a value to subtlety and restraint? Isn’t exaggeration reserved for cheap melodramas and comedy? You could easily conclude that if you were to search (as I did) for articles on exaggeration.

The suggestions I found are valuable, but I think the subject deserves a broader treatment. Even the most sober, realistic, dramatic work can benefit from including characters that are bigger than life. Shakespeare’s tragedies are as likely to include oversized characters as his comedies are, and they are not overwrought. In fact, there are subtleties to most of his major characters (in both comedies and dramas). He makes them vivid and memorable without their becoming caricatures. But with their becoming bigger than life. If you think of the characters you remember from works you respect and return to again and again, you’re likely to find (unless you mostly lean toward anti-story literature) the characters are both real and, in some way, exaggerated.

Why is this? Why don’t more direct, faithful, and clinical treatments of characters work? I got the answer not many years after than my chat with Budrys while reading Jack M. Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. (My copy of this book is dogeared and has a permanent place on my bookshelf.) He says that the medium of writing itself clouds perceptions, creating a need to increase intensity, just to approach real-world experiences. In fiction, we see through a glass darkly. To prove it to his students, Bickham created a ridiculous, clownish version of a cowboy. It was (and is) vivid, and he actually used that character successfully in a series of novels.

That’s comedy, but take a moment to consider how extreme Hannibal Lector is. Or Walter White. More than obsessed, their actions and words push to extremes that invite parody. And it’s not just villains. The kind of fearlessness that Tom Joad and Atticus Finch had might create circumstances where, in real life, you wouldn’t want to stand too close to them. Frankly, if Hamlet came walking down the street, I’d cross to the other side.

As implied above, exaggeration can be situational. Cases of murder in fiction far outnumber those of petty theft (even though this is not reflected in real world statistics). And, as the imaginative power of homicide has waned, we have been subjected to serial killers in more stories. But let’s move to a more general view of vivid characters and get to the how.

How can you use exaggeration to enhance characters and make them memorable?

On the latter, traits and descriptions are effective tags to let readers recognize and recall different characters (major as well as secondary). Repeated phrases, references to limps, and reminders of the hero’s startling pale blue eyes can be slipped in at regular intervals. These usually are lightweight, “Hello, may name is…” prompts for readers, but, with care, they can be tuned to suggest more about the characters.

Under reactions and over reactions have a lot of power and are easy to slip into stories. There are many examples of heroes who seen oblivious to danger and even joke when they face death. I think of the jump off the cliff into water in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sundance refuses to jump, and finally confesses that he can’t swim. Butch: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill ya.

Attitudes can set some characters off in ways that mark them. Obviously, phobias (e.g. fear of heights in Vertigo, fear of snakes in the Indiana Jones movies) can set expectations and both tell us who the character is and contribute to the plot. But characters might also be compelled to respond to disorder (straightening framed pictures) or need to wipe off a chair before sitting on it. Or smell their food before eating it. Sensitivity and perception can be valuable, too. An artist who can’t abide clashing colors. A detective who notices calluses or ink on the fingers of a suspect.

Reflexive action and hesitations can also say a lot. A quick reaction could indicate lack of control or specialized training.  A delayed response might show prudence or dullness. And, once the normal timing of responses is established, changing it can underline growth (e.g., not striking back immediately to counter minor insults), decline (accepting abuse because of cowardice), or a strategic choice. When timing surprises a reader or the audience, the moment stands out.

One device I love is the over-sized reputation. Characters who are worth talking about are worth knowing. Hearing about a character before he or she is introduced sets up expectations. It creates questions. When characters talk about someone, it creates a need for confirmation, so readers are looking for that when the character comes on the scene. The whole concept of making an entrance in the theater relies upon this. My favorite example in film is Hitchcock’s Rebecca, where who the title character is (and what the protagonist assumes and comes to learn about her) supports much of the plot.

Relationships matter. An out-of-control character (such as a ranting boss) who is put up with by other characters can push the limits of real life and stand out without becoming a caricature, just because we fall in line with those around him or her. This can reach the point, as in The Sopranos or The Wire, where murders are shrugged off. While we don’t accept them in the stories as exaggerated, deep down they are so outlandish they stick with us. This (using reactions of others) is a powerful tool to get away with making characters using absurd behavior to make more vivid.

Of course, major story decisions, with regard to conversations, actions, choices, thoughts, and feelings, can and should be exaggerated, but I hope the above expands your toolbox. These also may feel less risky, less obviously consequential, so they provide good starting points for those who are reluctant to paint with too broad a brush.

Remember, you can always dial things back in revisions, so it’s invaluable to get comfortable with exaggeration and master it. Avoid being reasonable. Normal actions and reactions don’t make an impact. Polite comments are not quotable. Characters who dress appropriately and have not defining physical features fade into the background. Predictable is boring.

Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." So, while there’s a place for subtlety and naturalism, that has to be rationed in storytelling. Push to the limits. Master art’s shouts and whispers, and avoid life’s droning.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Casting Your Stories 3: Glimpsing a character's other side

I did a series here on pivotal scenes, based on my study of Paddy Chayefsky work and ideas. Those posts focus on story, but they could easily be read as how to reveal the essence of characters, usually their dominant aspects, through choices and actions. Logically, that should be this post, but I’ve decided point to that earlier work and not reinterpret it in this post. Instead, I’ll share some of what I’ve discovered about how small but significant moments reveal the less dominant aspects of characters, often leading to deeper connections with readers and audiences. 

I've never forgotten Damon Knight's advice on creating important characters – make them 70% (good or bad) and 30% (bad or good). This came back to me while I was binge watching The Wire. A young drug dealer (D'Angelo) is established early on as a ruthless character who has committed murder at a young age. He's also intelligent, sporadically out-of-control, and completely committed to the drug dealing business. But, after all this plays out through several episodes, he takes the time to advise a younger dealer on getting out of "the game" and returning to high school.

Suddenly, a bad and scary character is showing he cares for others. In fact, he even takes risks to protect the younger man.

Not bad as far as illustrating the 70/30 rule of thumb. To me, it was a good illustration of how important it is to give the audience a clear idea of the dominant character traits before introducing something different. It also did something else. It opened up new story possibilities. I had to wonder whether D'Angelo would keep to his dedication to the game himself. It also created a degree of empathy, not just because it revealed this positive dimension of the character, but because the advice D'Angelo sacrificed to provide was rejected and his protégé ended up dead.

David Simon provided the same sort of surprises elsewhere in The Wire. For instance, the most active and thoughtful and, in some ways, horrifying drug dealer, Stringer, is tailed at one tense point. Instead of ending up revealing more criminal activity, the detective discovers Stringer studying business at the community college. He's an able student who immediately applies what he's learning to one of the organizations front businesses, but also to make the drug dealing more effective.

Note that the 70/30 is accomplished by talk (advice) and action (study). It can also be achieved is less deliver on the part of the character. In comedy, Freudian slips, where a character uses the wrong word can often be surprising and revelatory. An accidental disclosure in the Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of my favorite 70/30 moments. Mary is admiring a picture Ted Baxter has hanging on his office wall. It shows Ted shaking hands with a celebrity (as I recall from seeing the show years ago). Mary touches the photo as she points only to reveal that the face of Ted has been pasted over someone else's image. It's funny and surprising, but it's also a humanizing moment for a character who has often been an insufferable blowhard. Mary's reaction, trying to smooth it over, is well within her character, but the vulnerability of Ted is memorable and a special moment for the audience to connect with and care about him.

In the cases of D'Angelo and Stringer and Ted Baxter, the characters have a lot of time to show their 70% sides before revealing something new and unexpected. Usually, and a series (as opposed to a feature film), many episodes pass before the character is established to the point where revealing the 30% doesn't undercut the 70%. An exception to this was a brilliant pilot for Hill Street Blues. The police captain Frank is a powerful advocate for his people and their work, which puts him in conflict with Joyce, who is an equally talented and determine public defender. Within that first show they clash, only to have the two of them revealed as a couple in the last moments of the show. It's an effective, even tour de force, instance of going from the 70 to the 30 rapidly. If you have a Steven Bochco level of talent, give it a try.

To summarize, dialogue, action, and accidental surprises can be used to bring something new to a character. This can make characters more authentic, put doubts in the heads of readers and audiences so that the story is less predictable, open up new story possibilities, foreshadowed later story developments, make character choices more difficult (and thus more interesting), and create empathy. I've also noticed that in some cases these acts set up new relationships and make subsequent teamwork between very different characters more realistic.

I'm still exploring this, but I strongly suspect that in drama most of what the character is trying to achieve fails when they are acting in 30 mode. Often this explains why their usual approaches (70) are diametrically different. Their skills can't take them where their hearts want to go. Or disappointments have led them to hide or overcompensate for gentler tendencies.

On the other hand, in comedy, the softer moments often lead to something positive for the character. They may have success in those smaller goals or enhance connections with other characters.

Is this surprising? Usually, we expect the heroes of dramas, acting in their dominant modes, to achieve their goals. But is completely acceptable, and often expected, that the protagonist in a comedy will fail to achieve the primary goal.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Casting Your Stories 2: The ensemble of characters

Characters who live in isolation are difficult's to connect with. A key recommendation for people writing monologues is to imagine who the character is speaking to. Tom Hanks’s Cast Away character (Chuck) needed Wilson in his movie. Without that soccerball, important dimensions of the character could not be explored. In fact, storytelling has long been dependent upon community.

Many legends and myths depend upon familiar human traits that are embodied by characters and illuminated through contrasts. Think in terms of polytheistic religions. The pantheons allow(ed) for people to see the individual gods through their interactions with communities of gods. In "real" life, we continue this very human tradition in other ways. For example, Hollywood always has a strong man (The Rock, e.g., Hercules) and a sex goddess (Charlize Theron, e.g., Venus). In addition, I’d argue that it's possible to connect current actors with actors claim similar roles in the past. How different is Harrison Ford from Humphrey Bogart? Or Tom Hanks from Jimmy Stewart? (These contemporary actors have literally played the same roles in movies that amount to be remakes, Sabrina and The Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail.)

So, while my last post in this series emphasized finding specific and original characters, it's valuable to explore archetypes, as well. My recommendation would be to do this after a fast draft, during revision, but many accomplished writers I know design their characters with reference to making sure a collection of "types" are included. It makes me uneasy to think about doing this with the main characters, but it's probably safe to build secondary characters from the beginning with the right kind of pantheon in mind.

For instance, comedy, especially in the case of sitcoms, draws again and again from a familiar set of character types. As a great article on Sitcom Character Archetypes elucidates these, drawing from the Commedia dell'Arte, a form of theater that dates back to the Renaissance. The article translates these to characters like The Wisecracker, The Square, and The Bully and provides examples (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murray, Lou Grant, and Mary, respectively).

While it's all too easy to have this become formulaic (something that spoofed in one of my favorite movies, Network), there is a wonderful benefit to ensuring characters have distinct and recognizable differences built in early on, especially for a series. Different perspectives and the conflicts that arise from these allow for varied and deep explorations of premises. For story, there is nothing more deadly than characters who see the world the same way and agree.

There are great benefits for those writing series to look at the characters in their favorites and see how they might be similar across shows. This can reveal both the kinds of characters that are personally the most engaging and intriguing, as well as how the characters connect to create conflicts in scenes, sequences, and stories. Chances are, what resonates with you in the series you appreciate most will point to what your are best prepared to explore in your own works.

This does not mean direct copying or finding an escape from the serious work of infusing characters with their authenticity, but it may help to provide a check on leaving out elements that truly belong in your stories that aren't appearing spontaneously.

The same kind of research can be done for work that is not serial, but it tends to work more on the level of genre. Looking at character types and the communities of characters for, say, a romantic comedy may be less of a task that creates a story engine and more a way to recognize reader or audience expectations.

The ensemble of characters in your story will become invaluable once you have identified a pivot scene that can be used to bring somatic unity and story logic to your work. Each character who needs to be in your story will have a relationship with that scene, even if he or she is not present for that scene. In my work, I found that such reflection on characters — including how they need to contribute to turning points and how those scenes create consequences for them — suggests new dimensions to stories that are difficult to recognize otherwise.

I've also found that a deeper understanding of the work (whether it's a standalone feature or novel or it's for a series) can connect me with small and significant moments that can create empathy for the characters. That will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Casting Your Stories 1: Three questions to qualify your heroes (and other characters)

Did you ever notice how often the characters you remember are the villains? I don't think this implies anything sinister about humanity. The popularity of Hannibal Lecter is not evidence that many of us long to be cannibals.

Instead, I think it plays on our curiosity, fascination with limits (freak shows and disasters), and a rejection of the safe and the mundane in fiction. The last of these is intimately related to how many writers approach their stories. They create main characters who are comfortably close to who they are. These characters often hide or minimize their flaws, do unsurprising things, and provide justifications for anything that edges toward being antisocial.

Authors protect themselves when they protect their protagonists. They let their guard down when they're dealing with villains and often can be more authentic with these characters. One trick a writer shared with me was grabbing some of the best lines from villains and seeing if they might be easily adapted to (or stolen for) the heroes. It's surprising how often and exercise like that can open up a story in later drafts. I've seen this both with my students and with my own work.

We often look to ourselves when we create viewpoint characters, but it can be more powerful to take on a bigger challenge. For important characters, especially the protagonists, I look to answer three things:

Does the character make me feel uncomfortable? One thing my sister used to do to me what I was very small was provide tours of the terrifying. It might be an abandoned house where ghosts were supposed to be or a place in the words where a murder (according to her) had taken place, or a ditch where a ravenous animal was known to slice off the limbs of little boys. While ghosts, murderers, and predators all create visceral responses, they never has the power over my imagination my sister did. Or created indelible memories. It was difficult for me then (and now) to understand who this creepy tour guide was. Those experiences created a puzzle about my sister’s identity that could not be solved. So characters that create questions that are difficult to answer but important tend to be memorable. And these characters can be the heroes of our stories if we dare to make that choice.

Does the character surprise me? In an earlier post, 50 Rude Questions, I provided examples on how to challenge and interrogate characters. Even though the questions are probing, the answers are not always revealing. Often this means that the character will never do something unexpected. Unless I have some means to take more deeply, the right tool for character vivisection, these characters do not belong my stories. At least not in major roles. But some characters give answers that suggest new questions, intrigued me, or even shock me. The more my interviews of characters make me curious or takes me in fresh directions, the more likely it is that these characters will find their ways into my stories. And, more more, it's the protagonists who speak and act in unexpected ways.

Does the character know things or experience life in ways I don't? I get excited when I learn new things. As much as "write what you know" is good and tested advice, it's valuable to create characters that require research. By definition, a story can't be predictable if there are a lot of open questions. So I tried to include characters whose histories and professions are different from my own. This is scary when those characters are protagonists or antagonists or viewpoint characters. Sometimes I have a premise that falls apart because new information proves my initial assumptions were wrong. (And the real danger is not having to put a story aside, but twisting the facts to allow the story to proceed.)

A safer route is to make these characters who are strange to me secondary within the story. That way they can liven things up without tearing things down.

Of course, these three questions assume you've found characters that could fit your premise and that are defined enough to take a closer look at. It takes a lot of preparation to build characters that lead to clear answers to these three questions. Unless… You lean on your own experiences in terms of people who interest and intrigue you… Or you are a history buff who digs into quirky people who existed in the past… Or you've heard gossip about someone you never met, where the stories hook you, but there are blanks that need to be filled in. Each of these may provide just enough to supply starting points for characters without "from scratch" work required.

Ultimately, I want to be thrilled by all my characters, including those who are the heroes. If I start out contented with a character as opposed to uneasy and excited, I'm suspicious. I want to be challenged, confused, and uncertain at times. If I'm happy with all the choices my characters make, I can’t learn anything new or experience the joy of discovery as I write. And neither can my readers.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Share, Show Off, Outdo, Strike Back, and Connect — Finding the right audience leads to the best writing

Who are you writing for?

One early piece of advice I got came from Vonnegut's disclosure that all his writing was aimed at his sister – even after she had passed away. Through my career, I found choosing an individual to write to has provided focus that directed my tone, choices, vocabulary, structure, and humor for the work. Specificity is one of the strengths of good writing, and writing to one person enforces specificity.

By luck, three things have pushed me toward a new insight about choosing a reader. Instead of selecting someone to write to based on my notions of what's best for the material, there are cases where I can create material for specific people. The chief benefits of doing that are new approaches to ideas and increased enthusiasm for rewriting (my least favorite and most problematic part of the writing).

I'll begin by saying a little bit about how I got here and then I'll provide a process you might use to take advantage of what I discovered.

Three things converged in my writing life:

First, I found myself writing for specific actors because I'm now part of a local theater group. Most recently, I deliberately thought about two older women who take on material and twist it in marvelous, quirky ways. They don't get enough opportunities to show what they can do because there is a bias toward writing characters who are "in their prime." So before I began a recent work, I let myself remember some of the moments I'd seen them shine. In no time at all, a scene between the two of them popped into my head, and I was on my way.

Second, I was asked to develop a sitcom idea by a friend. He is a delight to work with, and I don't sit down to bring the stories to life without imagining how I can surprise, entertain, delight, and get a chuckle from him. The ideas I select for the episodes emerge from what I imagine might amuse him, and I deliberately twist each scene to get him to lean forward, looking for what's next.

Third, I decided to dedicate 2020 to shorter works. I've always gravitated toward short stories and one-act plays and articles and speeches. Yet, most of my time in recent years has been committed to novels and feature film scripts. It's time for a break and a refocus, so I'm going to attempt to write 50 short pieces in a year. That will take a lot of ideas, and I'll need to have the enthusiasm to complete these stories. My usual process is unlikely to allow me to hit this goal.

An idea on how to get those 50 stories done came from the first and second parts above, my experiences with the actors and my friend. Here's what I've decided to do. (I've already begun, and it seems to be working.)

1. Create a long list of people. Obviously, relatives, friends, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, and colleagues come to mind easily. But I also found myself reaching into the past to include people I knew well in school, neighbors, mentors, and people who have connected with me through others I know. Some valuable folks showed up on my list late — rivals, cheats, and bullies. Finally, I listed a few famous people I've never met and people who are no longer among the living, both those I knew who impacted me and some historical figures (especially favorite writers).

2. Edit the list. Since I intend to write 50 short pieces, I decided to cut my list down to 50 people. I did this first by eliminating those who did not elicit a strong emotional reaction from me. That still left a long list, so I imagined each person speaking, doing something, or, in the case of people like the writers, their creations (characters, film clips, quotes, images, etc.).

This process was amazing. It wasn't difficult for me to think of moments of kindness, instances of inspiration, and times I suffered trauma – all of which helped shape me as a person and a writer.

Ultimately, I ended up shifting the balance of the list by budgeting myself to a small number of famous contemporary famous people (3), dead people (13), and people with whom I basically have positive connections and memories (24). I forced myself to retain 10 people who evoke negative emotions. I don't think I could write a long work keeping one of these folks in front of me, but I feel like I can immerse myself in bad feelings for something short. I've done it for scenes and sequences in larger works, and it always makes stories stronger.

3. Relive moments. So now that I had this list of individuals, I have discovered the best way to go from audience to story is to do what I did with the actors. I re-experience something meaningful connected to them. With little trouble, ideas begin to emerge from such moments. I let those flow, getting down fragments at first, but forcing myself to create full sentences about the ideas before I let them go.

4. Note specific scenes that emerge from reader-inspired ideas and create specific scenes. In my process, I don’t write these scenes out right away. I  allow myself to sleep on them before composition begins. But do what works for you.

5. Determine why you wrote the story to that person. Once a story is drafted, I usually define the theme before revision begins. Here's where this approach provides a major advantage, a real impetus to get the rewriting done. I found that because of the way these stories are coming to be, it's easy for me to connect the draft to the reader in terms of why I wrote the story. Often, it's a matter of simply wanting to share something with someone I care about. Sometimes, especially with those who have mentor me, my purpose seems to be showing them the gifts they gave me are valued... and here's the proof. For rivals, it's about demonstrating that I can outdo them. In cases where the reader is someone who caused the harm, it's about striking back.

I'm still exploring this process. I'm a long way from my 50 stories. But I'm encouraged that something new and valuable is happening with my writing. I also hope that what I'm learning along the way will add an extra level of power to my other works — mostly longer works — that still need to be revised. I'd be delighted to find that rewriting can become less of a task for me. (Fingers crossed.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Seven Ways to Stretch as a Writer

What will your 2020 look like? Since I prefer to create my own future (as much as possible), as opposed to stumbling forward, I take October to plan. What do I want to accomplish next year?

I have works in progress to finish (including rewriting), submission goals, work I owe others, and obligations to people I teach and mentor. These are all obvious and easy to put onto my calendar and set time aside for. I also do some analysis for myself on creative aspirations and the choices those imply. That's a big topic. Worth more than one post.

But the last area I consider is how I'll stretch as a writer. In the past, this part has been optional in my plans. Something that makes it onto the calendar, but may need to be dropped when life gets in the way. However, this year I'll carve out obligatory time. When I get stretch work done, it always pays big dividends. So come to respect the time it is allocated.

For instance, I took an improv course to get out of my comfort zone, and it opened doors, eventually, to my being head writer on a web series. A foray into horror writing (a genre that creeps me out) provided me with new approaches to building tension in a scene. And a course I just took on creating look books gave me a lot of insights, especially in how to present the images in my head, clearly communicating with a limited number of words, and establishing and committing to tone in storytelling.

Stretching may be the best way to raise the bar by exploring writing in new ways. Looking back, I found that my stretching exercises fit into seven different categories. I'll share those here:

1 Courses. When you have a good teacher, a curriculum that promises fresh material, and fellow students who share their talents and skills, getting methodical and academic can help uncover possibilities, deficits that need to be addressed, and new approaches to finding answers to the problems stories present. In addition, discipline, repetition, and practice can provide techniques and confidence that flow easily into your creative activities.

2 Favorites. I found that an important key to understanding what I meant to write, what I am passionate about, and my philosophy or perspective on creative work is most accessible by simply reviewing works I love and return to over and over again. Just listing out my favorite movies or TV shows or songs or authors — especially when I make the lists long and then do some forced ranking – reveals my values, priorities, and aesthetics in ways that might otherwise be hidden. And once this work is done, choosing a few works to "sit with" pays dividends in my appreciation of the impact of these works and how that impact was achieved. When possible, I try to follow up my new understanding with action, even if that means writing a scene or short story that has nothing to do with my current efforts.

3 Getting out of my comfort zone. This is a big one, and one of the most difficult for me to achieve. Usually, I have to make a commitment that means spending money. Not wasting cash is a great way to motivate myself to do something that is unpleasant. Your choice on what is out of your comfort zone is not likely to be mine. For instance, I mentioned an improv class above. When I tell people I took this class, the general reaction is, “What fun!" My reaction is (and was) “How awful!" The course was actually taught well and included charming and talented students. But improv is not designed for shy and awkward people like me. Enough said. I'm still glad I took the course.

4 Mastery. There are a lot of dimensions to storytelling. Great storytelling does not require excellence in all these dimensions. For instance, I love the quirky perspectives of Philip K. Dick's work. His prose, not so much. But, while it's not necessary to be perfect in every way, it is valuable to assess strengths and weaknesses (I give myself letter grades) and actively seek out one or two areas where it might be the right time to dig in and work at a higher level. I just finished a series on brilliant scenes. It involved a lot of review, study, and analysis on my part. I hope it was useful for readers, but my primary motivation was to extend my understanding of how my own scenes might be substantially improved.

5 Problem-solving. One of my early mentors, back when I was focused primarily on nonfiction (speeches and articles) said that every answer I needed could be discovered by reading the New Yorker magazine. He was mostly right. By seeing how stories were built, readers were engaged, explanations were made, and, mostly, arguments were made persuasive, I was able to see how I could improve my choices and have better answers to the writing problems presented by my day-to-day assignments. As a result, even if I find an acceptable answer to a story conundrum, I make notes about my struggle, my concerns, and what I ended up doing. These brief reviews help to articulate concerns I'm sure it hit again and help to focus my attention on the work of others.

For instance, while big motivations for action by a protagonist tends to be apparent, actions, opportunities, and comments that nudge characters toward more important choices (often precluding the best actions) are harder for me to come up with. I'm too eager to jump to something larger. But, as I've been re-watching the series, Homicide: Life on the Streets, I've seen a myriad of ways the characters are redirected or lured toward actions that make doing what's right harder. Those examples I discover are golden.

6 Sample something new. If it's not enough, it might take me out of my comfort zone. But, often sampling something novel, especially when recommended by a friend, can open up new vistas for me. This need not be creative works like novels or paintings or sculptures or films. For me, nature, travel, or something like a TED talk can provide fresh facts, perspectives, and areas of interest. I should add that making time for pure curiosity fits neatly into this category.

7 Connection in collaboration. This is one of the great ones, especially when the people are right in terms of teaching you something new about the world, experience, and yourself. For me, one of the greatest parts of this category is working on something that really matters (often with high-stakes) with someone who is committed, talented, capable, and different from myself. The opportunities for learning and growth, both as a writer and as a person, are great. Lots of things might be shoved up my calendar if I get the chance to stretch with the right person.

It's not necessary to have a stretch project in each of these categories every year. The impact of seriously engaging with one or two over the course of a year (or longer) can be enough to provide tremendous value. Choosing quality over quantity is best. In addition, these things can go wrong. Or life can get in the way. Or an experience can be horrible without delivering what you might be looking for.

It's good to remember that these are about stretching. That means they need to be put into perspective and not consider essential obligations. (Presumably, your essential obligations are already on your to-do list for the next year before you even explore stretching.) So… Forgive yourself. Forgive others. And sometimes, quit while you're ahead.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 6: A guide for writers

Exploring the scenes created by masters of cinema provides examples to emulate. How did they do that? Why does it matter? Is this something I can use? Each of those comes to mind when I reexperience and analyze what Wilder and Hitchcock and Demme and others have accomplished in their stories.

Throughout this series, I've tried to point to techniques and effective choices. The list has gotten long, and perhaps ungainly. With that in mind, I'd like to try to make insights that have helped to guide my own work, based on these brilliant scenes, something more useful and practical. So here's a guide that may indicate opportunities for you to improve your own scenes.

My suspicion is that not everything that comes out of this process will be best for your story. I often find my choices, once they are expressed in my writing, did not come out as well as I expected or hoped. But one thing that always happens for me when I make these attempts is the attainment of a deeper understanding. I come closer to mastery of a technique by using it. I also calm closer to finding what a scene needs by seeing what doesn't work. I don't consider any of the unsuccessful experiments as wastes of time. In fact, they're invaluable to me as a writer.

On the other hand, it's a delight when the choice made based on looking at excellent work these directly to my creating moments, scenes, sequences, and stories that accomplish what I'm hoping for. Often, in fact, they go beyond what I imagined.

So here is a guide, based on brilliant scenes, that I hope will help you improve your craft and take full advantage of the potential inherent in your concepts.

I'll review what's needed to get the most out of a scene from vital to valuable. It may be that the way you work is less methodical and hierarchical. If that's the case, feel free to use this as a suggestion list. I hope some of these, brought together here, will inspire new possibilities for your story's scenes.

1 — The scene should have a purpose. Scenes are important building blocks for telling tales. When they are thrown in and don't fit the story logic, they diminish the power of the story. Scenes may expose character or show the protagonist achieving (or failing to achieve) a step toward the story goal. They may be there to reveal essential information or just to hint at it. The scene may create questions for readers or lead to new obstacles, complications, or consequences.

Now often, a writer may include a scene because of the language or the humor (don't cut funny) or because an incident — perhaps what inspired the story in the first place – is difficult to delete. Such scenes will always bring storytelling to a halt and risk losing readers' attention. It may be justified, but it always should be questioned.

2 – Conflict drives a scene. Do you remember how your English teacher taught you the stories were about man versus man (character versus character), man versus nature (character versus nature), and man versus himself (character versus self)? Scenes are like that, too. At least one character, battling for something essential, is required for most scenes. When everything goes well and everyone gets along, there isn't a story.

3 – Beginning, middle, and end. Something needs to be set up, explored, and resolved in most scenes. (This is true for most stories, too.) Now, the resolution usually will lead to something else, will open the door for more storytelling, but the scene needs to go somewhere. It must continue the forward momentum of the story.

It's always great when the resolution makes readers turn to the page to see what happens next. It's also wonderful when the resolution of the scene is not predictable. (I doubt many moviegoers expected the cornfield seen in North by Northwest to conclude with an explosion.)

4 – Perspective. If you look at great scenes, over and over again it will be clear that there is one character who provides the viewpoint. Often this is a character the readers or audience already identify with. Empathy is a powerful ingredient in scenes. It makes the emotion personal. Likewise, the point of view character's emotions and agency can intensify a scene. When the point of view character acts with ingenuity or courage or has to face something that's terrifying or painful, you've created a memorable scene. One more thing—making sure characters have agency helps identification because readers like to exercise free will. They don’t want the characters they connect with to be at the mercy of the author.

5 — Escalation. There are many ways to add emphasis or intensify a scene. One of these is increasing risk or stakes. Another is becoming more extreme (as with the attacks on the hero in North by Northwest). Including more people (as with the Some Like It Hot scene), introducing scale, and contrasts can also intensify a scene. There are two other tools here that may be valuable. One is implication, as when the T. Rex is mentioned in Jurassic Park. The other is irony, which gives the audience superior knowledge, enough to worry more than the point of view character.

6 — Turns. During the scene, the focus may change several times. A good rule of thumb is to have 3 to 5 turns per scene. Often these indicate a power shift, and probably the easiest example is an argument, where characters seesaw back and forth based on how they successfully bring up points. Often turns our surprises (which often thrill readers) or the elements of purpose, like revelations or raising questions (see above). So it's good to keep in mind that purpose can occur within a scene, not just of the end.

Frustration and delay (both for characters and readers) are good tools to use to add power to turns. Also consider action/reaction, set up/payoff, and confusion/realization as elements that can be included. Reveals need not be all it wants. They can come gradually as when the dinosaur's true scale becomes apparent slowly in Jurassic Park. Interruptions and false victories may also be of value here.

7 — Delights. Reading or watching a movie can be a sensual experience. I remember telling one writer that I love the feel of his words in my mouth when I read his work allowed. Great languages and limited to poetry. Descriptions can paint pictures that are unmatched. The unseen monster presented by the changes created or the responses of characters or nature can be the most terrifying because it allows readers or moviegoers to participate, filling in the blanks. Some writers make it a point to include all the senses in novels and short stories. This often can enrich a scene (though all the senses would not be appropriate in a film script). One caution (which is a more general concern) is to keep things in balance. Make sure whatever is in a scene serves a larger purpose. When what’s included is charming, it might enhance, but it also might redirect attention and mess up the pacing of a scene. Delights are the spices of scenes. Use them carefully.

Just as story logic reaches beyond the individual scene, two other ingredients connect with larger purposes. Symbolic imagery provides a subtle way to create connections and mythic textures to the whole work. And the theme can dictate choices that strip away what’s unnecessary to the impact and purpose of the story.

There are more lessons from scenes. I’m sure that if I went back to those covered in the previous posts in this series, I’d discover useful approaches. But, here, in one place, should be items worth considering as you attempt to get the most out of you scenes and your stories.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 5 - The wonder of Jurassic Park

A triumph. A joke. A scare. A thrill. These were at the core of each of the previous posts in this series. (Those scenes and this week’s can be found in 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.) Most people can easily think of times when stories have led them to cheer, laugh, shiver, and sit on the edge of their seats. It’s harder to come up with examples of wonder. It’s difficult to get audiences to move outside of themselves. Even introducing dinosaurs, skillfully rendered with CGI is not enough. Cinematically, this scene from Jurassic Park leans heavily on camera work (zooming in on faces five times, plus getting to faces in clever ways like bringing others into the close-ups), lighting (especially sunlight), acting (physical reactions), blocking (movement and placement of characters), and elevated music (Williams’s take on Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto).

Beat 1 Grant looks. It takes a moment for what he sees to register.
Beat 2 Grant’s face shows awe. He stands.
Beat 3 Grant pulls Sattler into the experience, literally.
Beat 4 Sattler reacts with awe and standing.
Beat 5 What they see is revealed. Not all at once, but slowly. A dinosaur.
Beat 6 The scientist exit the car and go toward the dinosaur as if drawn to it.
Beat 7 Grants techno-babble grounds the experience with information that is dwarfed by the audience experience.
Beat 8 Grant (endearingly) stutters out the obvious, “It’s a dinosaur.”
Beat 9 Hammond heads over, chuckling. He provides a new perspective—pride.
Beat 10 Malcolm provides another point of view, seeing this as madness.
Beat 11 The scientists look up, as we do, at the gigantic dinosaur. An awe-inspiring perspective.
Beat 12 Grants techno-babble grounds the experience with information that is dwarfed by the audience experience.
Beat 13 The dinosaur bellows. It drops its forelegs, creating thunder and shaking the earth. This adds to the sensual experience, which had been mostly just visual.
Beat 14 Gennaro provides another perspective. This means money. He misses the wonder.
Beat 15 Malcolm seems to abandon his concerns, caught up by the wonder.
Beat 16 Hammond slips in new information as data. Yes, top speeds. But… another escalation with the casual reveal of the existence of a T. Rex.
Beat 17 Sattler is stunned. Grant is overwhelmed.
Beat 18 More dinosaurs. (12 dinosaurs are shown). This is not just a zoo. It is a new world.
Beat 19 It’s subtle, but Grant shares the implication of social behaviors (moving in herds).
Beat 20 Hammond moves from pride to awe.
Beat 21 Grant asks how did you do this? 
Beat 22 Hammond says, “I’ll show you.” A promise.

Note: This could have been played for horror. That’s hinted at by Malcolm’s initial reaction. But Spielberg holds very much to wonder, with only Malcolm and the clueless Gennaro as the dissonant notes.

The plot would have been served by seeing one dinosaur and having Grant ask, “How did you do it?” Given the quality of the CGI, the audience would have felt some of the awe, especially with our look at how Grant takes it in. But the film provides almost three and a half minutes of rising emotions to reach an apex of wonder.

This great scene:
    •    Gently and organically reveals.
    •    Gives us a character who experiences the wonder, so we can share it.
    •    Grounds the fantastic with mundane techno-babble. This makes the experience more believable.
    •    Provides scale (human-dinosaur).
    •    Endears us to Grant by making this brainy guy into a kid again, stating the obvious.
    •    Provides contrasting points of view (pride, concern, greed).
    •    Literally provides perspective, with a shot looking up at the dinosaur.
    •    Creates a varied and appealing sensual experience.
    •    Escalates with another popular dinosaur and more dinosaurs and the society of dinosaurs.
    •    Turns emotionally. Even the guy who knows (Hammond) is moved to awe. This further pulls the audience toward wonder.
    •    Through Grant, raises a question for the audience.
    •    Ends with a promise, “I’ll show you.”

The art, perhaps unteachable, is the pacing and balance of this scene. And it’s an extraordinary accomplishment because wonder here depends on correctly using a variety of brilliant scene tricks. We’ve seen many of these before: escalation and going to extremes, a viewpoint character, contrasts, a powerful sensual experience, bringing in more characters to make the experience less private and more public, and revelations. Conflict is present (suggesting future developments), but it is soft-pedaled so it doesn’t distract from the wonder. I’d argue that there is also a power shift here. Humans, imagining they are in control, describing and predicting. But even Hammond, who thinks he created this world, ends up in awe of it. Jurassic Park is bigger than his imagination, and this almost foreshadows how it is not in his control.

There are a few more elements I haven’t explored earlier. Anticipation, based on hints, plays a major role in the emotions this scene creates. In particular, things are withheld and emerge relatively slowly. There is a deliberate use of scale and perspective. (Think of how BIG the destroyer is at the very beginning of Star Wars. Think of how alone and tiny Bowman is when he is locked out of the Odyssey by HAL in 2001.) Grounding makes it much harder to dismiss what is shown, and that’s essential in a scene that pushes the limits of willful suspension of disbelief. And I particularly like how thoroughly this scene explores different human responses and how it draws us in, bit by bit (more and more of a dinosaur, more and more kinds of dinosaurs, more and more dinosaurs, more and more dinosaur behavior), to a new world.

It takes a lot to keep an audience engaged so they experience wonder instead of mere spectacle. A lot of tools need to be mastered. Talent, experience, and great collaborators help. My posts can’t guarantee success like this. Nonetheless, I’ll try to pull together elements of brilliant scenes into a guide to creation. Next week.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 4 - The tightening spring of North by Northwest

Great shots. Great moments. Great writing. I’ve already explored some ingredients that go into scenes from Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, and The Silence of the Lambs. Let’s see if some other useful elements might be teased out of the crop-duster scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. (Once again, the scene can be found in 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made  .)

This one is all about tightening the spring, increasing the tension. A desperate everyman, Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant), has stumbled into a complicated intrigue. After being promised some answers, he takes a bus to an isolated location.

Beat 1Surprisingly, the bus leaves Roger in a flat expanse in the middle of nowhere.
Beat 2 Roger checks his watch. Where’s the man he’s supposed to meet?
Beat 3 A crop-duster drops a load of insecticide on a cornfield in the distance.
Beat 4 The plane turns to head toward Roger, who looks puzzled.
Beat 5 No coincidence. Danger! The plane is heading right for him. And dropping down to Roger’s level.
Beat 6 Roger hits the dirt just in time to avoid the plane.
Beat 7 Roger stands back up.
Beat 8 The plane circles back for another chance at him. Danger again!
Beat 9 Roger drops into a drainage ditch, just in time.
Beat 10 This time, the plane also strafes Roger with bullets, but misses him. The danger is greater.
Beat 11 Roger races out to the road, tries to flag down a car.
Beat 12 The car blows by him.
Beat 13 The plane is circling back for a third attempt on Roger’s life.
Beat 14 Roger runs like hell. Knocked down, bullets again.
Beat 15 Roger runs into a corn field and hides.
Beat 16 The plane’s pilot does not seem to be able to spot him. Success!
Beat 17 The plane dumps insecticide on the corn field (and Roger). A new danger, hinted at earlier.
Beat 18 Roger runs out of the field to get away from the poison, but he’s back in the open.
Beat 19 A truck speeds down the road.
Beat 20 Roger rushes into the road. Stands in front of the truck.
Beat 21 Despite honking, Roger holds his position. 
Beat 22 Before it can stop completely, the truck hits Roger (without injuring him badly).
Beat 23 The plane slams into the truck and explodes. It’s a fuel truck
(Note: This is the first time music occurs in the scene.)
Beat 24 As the fire spreads, the drivers exit.
Beat 25 One driver says to Roger, “Get out of here. The other tank may blow.”
(Note: This is the first dialogue in the scene, at 3:36.)
Beat 26 The drivers keep running into the clear.
Beat 27 Roger is running away as the other tank, indeed, blows.

The plot would have been served by one clearly threatening pass by the plane, which would show the danger and the broken promise. If the car had stopped for Roger at Beat 11, the story could have continued. Instead, we saw the danger escalate and Roger pushed the the limit. We learn about who Roger is and worry about him more because his enemy is extreme.

This great scene:
    •    Isolates the hero.
    •    Pulls an adversary out of an unlikely, apparently mundane situation.
    •    Shows the hero threatened with being smashed, shot, poisoned, and engulfed in flames.
    •    Pushes the hero to show ingenuity in the face of few resources.
    •    Forces the hero to show determination and courage.
    •    Goes to extremes, with Roger risking begin crushed, with the killer so intent on his mission, he loses his own life.
    •    Provides the audience with a powerful sense experience,
    •    … with amazing purity. (A nearly an empty location. The only sounds coming from the plane — primarily the plane’s motor.)
    •    Our attention is focused. There are no distractions, so the audience is immersed in Roger’s world.
    •    The power shift (and Roger’s survival) are held to the very end of the scene.

A thrilling scene (which can be in genres other than thrillers) depends on escalation, especially increasing concern for the protagonist. The adversary is show to do more than attack. He creatively responds to Roger’s moves and shows determination. This demands more from the hero.

Showing the main character acting heroically can bond the audience to him/her. (This adds emotion, like falling in love with a character, making the scene more memorable because of what happens inside us, not just in the scene.) The more that is stripped away from a scene (props, music, dialogue), the more the audience is forced to participate. This is one of the most immersive scenes in cinema because it is so spare. Here, action alone reveals Roger’s intelligence without leaning on words at all (dialogue or voice over). We see Roger’s choices even as we are looking for options for him.

Note that not everything from previous posts are in the analysis of this scene. And it provides new tools, adding to our list. While you can use what I’ve provided so far in your own scenes, I promise I’ll provide a post that includes all of them. But not quite yet. I have another scene to share.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 3 - Clarice and Hannibal

Real blood doesn’t bug me. My brain can protect itself when I need to respond to an urgent situation. But I am repelled by movie violence. I’ve missed some classic scenes because I’ve closed my eyes. So what — among the horrifying clips of The Silence of the Lambs is my nightmare? I know immediately. It’s in the scene I’ll cover this week, and you may be surprised why. It’s not a scene I wanted to revisit, but it has real value as I continue to explore making scenes brilliant.

The first week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story. Last week, with a look at the comedy Some Like It Hot, I added promise, escalation, and irony.

This time, it’s The Silence of the Lambs, and the scene where Clarice gets the name she needs. The deeper purpose of this scene appears to be to reveal the motivation — the deep and touching motivation — for Clarice’s sacrificial work to save a woman. Powerful stuff.  (You can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)

Beat 1Time is running out,
Beat 2 Argument: Clarice demands the killer’s name, but Hannibal wins, insisting on his quid pro quo.
Beat 3 Interrogation: Clarice’s story is revealed, prompted by Hannibal.
    Beat A Clarice awakes to screams.
    Beat B Clarice discovers the slaughter.
    Beat C She frees a lamb.
    Beat D She flees with it.
    Beat E She’s caught.
    Beat F Consequences: Clarice is exiled to the orphanage. The lamb is slaughtered.
Beat 4 The MEANING of the story is revealed.
Beat 5 Hannibal accepts her offering. (“Thank you.”)
Beat 6 Clarice demands her reward.
Beat 7 But they are interrupted by Chilton, who has her taken away.
Beat 8 A last bid by Clarice.
Beat 9 Clarice gets her reward.
Beat 10 She has a dividend taken from her. Hannibal’s touch.
Beat 11 Clarice and Hannibal are separated.

This scene is a bit of a cheat. A narrated sequence is embedded in the overall scene. The past collides with the urgent present. That takes time — over four minutes. The text in the script is amazing. (The scene starts on page 88.) But director’s choice was to forgo the flashback visuals. Instead,  the acting and camera work, especially Lecter’s eyes, SHOW us the cost to Clarice (and, by extension, the price she’s willing to pay for her quest).

The plot would have been served by Clarice asking for the name and Hannibal providing it. The scene purpose might have been served if Clarice (provided she knew it) had simply stated why she left the ranch and what had scarred her. The writer, instead, deepened the scene with a story that had to be extracted. And more. Want to guess what creeped me out the most here? That stolen touch.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a ticking clock.
  • It moves into a conflict.
  • The interrogation is filled with imagery, supplied by the imagination of the audience.
  • A revelation —through the symbolism of saving a screaming lamb (and a redemption) — is presented.
  • A false ending is provided with Hannibal’s thank you and Clarice’s demand. (Set up with incessant quid pro quos. We know how this works.)
  • This is frustrated by the interruption.
  • Clarice makes a final attempt. It’s her Hail Mary play.
  • She succeeds.
  • But she pays a higher price.
It's filled with power shifts that add to audience engagement, along with elements covered earlier (conflict, imagery). While the many techniques of film used to add to the scenes effectiveness can’t be ignored, some additional writer’s tools are on display: a ticking clock, suggestion (for imagination), a revelation, a false ending, frustration, a last chance, an unexpected loss (higher price).

I’ll continue to expand the options for brilliant scenes next week with the exploration of another classic scene.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 2: Some Like It Hot milks a joke

I suspect the reason why most people don’t get the most out of high-potential scenes is because the same parts of the brain the concepts boil up from contain a lot of disturbing and embarrassing material. Of course, it could also be a lack of persistence. (The thrill of a good idea can be enough of a payoff.) Or even laziness. (Exploration takes work.)

Last week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story.

This time, let’s look at a scene from a comedy, Some Like It Hot. The purpose of this scene appears to be to show Jerry (Daphne) the price of his pretending to be a woman. More immediately, his intent to get alone time with Sugar is frustrated. The natural stopping point would be his attempt being aborted by Joe (Josephine). After all, Jerry has been warned, and their lives are in danger. But here’s what happens. (Again, you can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)

Beat 1 Banter with a caution. We can’t be discovered.
Beat 2 This may be a surprise party. (Secret)
Beat 3 Double entendre stated related to the secret.
Beat 4 Telling intruder it’s private.
Beat 5 Cocktails. And it’s a party now.
Beat 6 Many people. Food. Crowding. “Daphne” fights against the tide.
Beat 7 “Josephine” is asked for cherries.

All this happens in about two and a half minutes. We are SHOWN Jerry is reckless, persistent, and horny.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a deception.
  • Hints at a secret (which is also a promise).
  • Private becomes public, with the intrusion.
  • Jerry and Sugar work at cross purposes.
  • The humor leans heavily on irony, 
    • since the audience (but not Sugar) gets “Daphne’s” joke
    • and understands the sexual frustration.
    • And the audience also sees the growing danger, something Jerry’s distracted from and Joe is sleeping through.
  • There is escalation. The growing number of partygoers continues to be obliviousness and their increased participation in the party (more complicated drinks, food, enthusiasm) makes it tough to back out. The widely shared event raises the risk and stakes.
  • Imagery is pajama party sexual, something Jerry can’t indulge in.
  • The power shifts from Jerry’s sexual designs and a powerful secret to Sugar’s desire for alcohol and fun.
  • Still, as Jerry’s frustration grows, he acts obsessively. He doesn’t give up. Even as things get crazier and crazier.
  • Ultimately, authority is brought in with Joe’s awareness of the situation.
Much of the scene is adding to the complication by making a romantic tête-à-tête into a party. But the humor is milked by raising the complications, number of participants, obsession, and dangers. Underneath it all is growing panic that turns a chuckle into a belly laugh.

This adds a promise, escalation, and irony to the list of elements of a great scene, but there’s more to come. Next week, a look at a horror scene.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 1: Lessons from Casablanca

There are places in a story where you get to really know a character. Or places where the writer makes a promise. Sometimes, tension will build to an unbearable level or laughs will cascade, one upon the other.

Each great scene has a promise, but that's not enough. It must include a beginning, middle, and end. There must be careful balancing of the elements, whether that's imagery, dialogue, narrative, or description. Curiously, there must also be timing. Scenes that are too abrupt or too padded never work. How long do you extend the tension? How much should you milk the joke? How detailed do the descriptions need to be to suggest just enough of the experience?

For most writers, getting the timing right means cutting away clutter that's disguised as brilliant prose. I think 90% of the professional writers I know write "long." My own first drafts are almost telegraphic. There's nothing to cut. Much to add. And the inspiration for looking more closely at how great scenes are given the space they deserve came from some recent critiques I've gotten where readers asked for me to extend scenes.

So, first I made notes on my assumptions regarding great scenes, based on a lot of wonderful reading experiences and my own struggles to put what's in my head onto a page. Then I explored great scenes in film (because sharing these in a blog post works better than quoting from novels and short stories). Here's a source I'll work from 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.

Some scenes on this list are less useful than others. The one from Atonement leans heavily on the work of the director and cinematographer. The scene from Singin’ in the Rain depends on music and dancing. And many of these are climaxes, endings, or reveals. Those scenes follow slightly different rules. They may work because they pull together bits of information from across the whole story or they may intentionally leave pieces out so the film continues to resonate with audiences long after they left the theater. In most cases, scenes that carry the story forward provide the most insights.

Let's start with Casablanca's dueling anthems scene (one of the 36, if you want to look at the video). The purpose appears to be to provide Victor Laszlo’s bona fides as a heroic leader. We’ve already heard about him. Now we get a chance to see him at work.

Beat 1: The annoying Nazi’s treat the bar to a patriotic German song.
Beat 2: Which causes irritation and fear.
Beat 3: Victor moves to take control.
Beat 4: Ilsa notices (and becomes the viewpoint character).
Beat 5: Victor instructs the band to play The Marseilles over the Germans.
Beat 6: Rick gives approval.
Beat 7: Led by Victor, the singing of The Marseilles, bit by bit, drowns out the Nazis.
Beat 8: The Nazis give up their singing.
Beat 9: Victor is at the center of it all, the focus of the shift in power from the Nazis to the French.
Beat 10: People react, including those we doubted, joining in with tears and urgency.
Beat 11: Ilsa sees the man she worships.
Beat 12: It all culminates with Viva La France!
Beat 13: The defeated Nazis scowl.
Beat 14: People applaud and cheer.

All this happens in less than two minutes. We are SHOWN Victor is a hero.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a conflict.
  • Is engaged by a character’s (Victor’s) deliberate (and courageous) intention.
  • Builds in terms of those engaged and the intensity of the gesture.
  • Is sensual (music, great faces).
  • Involves multiple (in this case, the three main) characters.
  • Includes growing role by and risk to a character (Victor).
  • Shows an unmistakable shift in power.
  • Advances the story.
  • Supports the theme with imagery and meaning.
  • Includes both action and reaction.
  • Provides a stand-in (Ilsa) for the audience and demands attention.
The essentials are Nazis singing, Victor cuing The Marseilles, and the Nazis being drowned out. But these alone would not have been enough for a great scene. Without the time investment made in showing reactions, including other characters, and presenting an intensifying struggle, it would not have been noteworthy.

Next week, I’ll look at another scene with some different lessons.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Humor Between Characters - Disconnection, reactions, and affection

I've been studying Neil Simon's work as part of an acting class. Inhabiting the role of Oscar Madison (in The Odd Couple) got me thinking about humor from the inside. Neil's brother Danny was the model for Felix Unger and was one of the great teachers of comedy. In fact, he is the one who told a generation of writers they needed to focus on relationships over what he called "joke jokes."

One practice that helps create humorous relationships is contrasts between the characters. (The Odd Couple, with slob Oscar and fussy Felix is an obvious example.) Big differences create conflict, which can drive your story. And though it's not always the case, most comedies have strong stories. But sharp contrasts create commitment, which makes compromise and connection difficult.

A major characteristic of a good comic character is determination. In general, great humor comes from obsession and the unwillingness to explore alternatives. When two characters both are convinced that they are right and they know what must be done, sparks fly. From their points of view, there is nothing funny or strange about their decisions, actions, and positions. Those of us who observe these characters find humor in this sort of blindness. I suspect, on some level, many of us are aware that we have acted in similar ways without going as far as comic characters do. Being in a superior position (or presuming we are) allows us to laugh while still embracing the characters.

Both characters can't be right all the time. But both characters tend to feel they are only being sensible. They miss the absurdity, but we don't.

The disconnection between committed characters is funny, but also creates tension. It keeps us involved in worried about the characters. (Really bad things might happen, but unless it's very dark humor, we can assume there is a tacit agreement between us as readers/viewers and the writer that no one will truly be hurt.)

While occasionally characters may (with feelings of justification) intentionally hurt others, usually the negative impacts they have are surprises to them. They are not looking to alienate or harm the other characters. Felix is a great example of this. How could he be anything but the perfect roommate when he keeps things clean and organized and he serves up gourmet meals? He doesn't see his lack of flexibility or the way he constrains Oscar.

So announced that the humor when good intentions lead to horrible consequences or surprising reactions from others. Often, we can see it coming while the character can't. This terrific plan or perfect solution will be disastrous. And it ends up being even worse than we suspected to our surprise and, mostly, to the comic character's surprise.

And here's an important point. While it's all funny to us, it's deadly serious to the characters. One thing I saw over and over in my acting class was if the actor seem to be in on the joke or trying to make it funnier, it lost its spark. Playing it straight was always funnier. So it's the human obsessions, not ironic behavior, that provides the foundation for much of great humor writing.

There is a third thing beyond disconnections and surprising reactions that is invaluable to relational humor. That's affection. First, we usually have affection for the characters. There's a level of empathy even if they are ridiculous. Even as we can see them stumbling, our hearts go out to them.

And this is made more powerful and compelling when the characters have or discover affection for each other. As different as they are, they don't want the inevitable conflicts to pull them apart. They really want to find legitimate connection with each other. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger really care about each other. Even when they want to kill each other, they have affection for each other. That's a subtle kind of writing that works well in tragedy as well as comedy. Exploring the common humanity between very different characters elevates all kinds of stories and makes them unforgettable.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Writing Efficiently Despite Having All the Answers 2 — Five ways to work in a connected world

Last time, I offered guidelines for a writer using the Web to get the work done with fewer distractions. This time, I have  recommendations on good habits that might save you from the Internet's siren song.

1. Track your activity. This does not have to be the lawyers habit of logging every 15 minutes (although that works well). Simply writing down your estimates of how much time you spend online in the morning, afternoon, and evening can be eye-opening. Get a good sense of where your time is going to see if it is in proportion to your goals. One week of tracking every few months can help you see how close you are to activity that will help you reach your hopes and dreams.

2. Start your day without connection. While the Web is not all junk food, it offers a lot of sugary treats. (I almost wrote tweets.) Just as starting your day with candy pretending to be cereal is a bad idea, hitting all your favorites (email, social media, videos) before you’ve gotten any work done will not help your productivity. Two suggestions: Three suggestions:

First, get something started at the end of the day and put it where you can’t miss it. I usually place an ideas paper on the kitchen table (since I often wake up with story solutions or concepts), as well as a page with three to five open questions (in case I don’t wake up with things I need to get on paper right away).

Second, turn your wifi off before you go to bed. This puts temptation a step away.

Third, avoid anything digital for the first hour of the day. The morning is the best time to cultivate connection with the tangible world. It helps if you actually turn a mechanical timer to one hour and give yourself those minutes as a gift.

3. Time box distractions. Being open most of the day to every bell, buzzer, and alarm that pulls you into email, Facebook, and other Internet lure hands control of your time over to other people. It’s also hugely inefficient since most of these are not valuable. Interrupt mode work is less productive that batching your responses. So set times during the day where you permit yourself to respond and keep to those times. It helps, again, to set a timer for these activities.

Time boxing is difficult if you normally have no barriers to these activities (or worse, find yourself checking email or social media repeatedly during the day). Rather than enforce optimal rules right away, it might be good to turn your computer’s sound off or reset alerts or just  set an hour or two of quiet time you know you can commit to. Building good habits gradually (perhaps with each step on your calendar) is often less discouraging and painful.

4. Have “insteads” ready. One vulnerability for writers is unexpected free moments, especially 10-20 minutes that becomes available unexpectedly. I often hear that writers “reward” themselves for getting something done early by checking on social media. The ten free minutes easily become 30, 40, or 50 minutes of low-value engagement. Having something valuable to do, designed for short openings, can help support good habits.

I call these interstitial tasks “insteads.” Instead of making yourself vulnerable to a time sucking activity, read a poem or memorize something or make a list of possible titles for a story or answer a plot question or interview one of your characters or read an article. All of these (for me) have natural stopping points that allow me to use open time well, and then get on with priority work.

It’s best if these task require Web searches or the possibility of real-time interactions. Writerly things (like marketing, cultivating an audience, looking for opportunities, or discussions with peers) carry the risk of being snared into bigger (and less valuable) time commitments.

5. Make physical activity part of your routine. I stretch every 40 minutes. It helps keep me healthy, and it also makes it impossible for me to keep my hands on the keyboard longer that I should. It stops my brain from restless cycling. And even if I’m productively engaged in the Internet (say, by doing research), it forces me to reflect on the purpose and value of the activity. It makes it harder to make excuses for less than productive activity.

The focus above is on positive activities, good behaviors that can support productive work without invoking shame or (currently) impossible objectives. You don’t have to do them all at once. You don’t have to do any of them perfectly. And you can substitute your own positive activities, these are not rules that must be obeyed.

No matter how obsessive your relationship with the Internet may be now, you can take small steps to keep things proportional. To not be a slave to alerts or twitch behaviors. Those steps may help you to prioritize how you use your time so you can do your best writing. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Writing Efficiently Despite Having All the Answers 1 — The Web as a tool, not a distraction

What makes a great writer? Curiosity? Inspiration? Knowledge? Care?

Let's take them one by one, and explore them in relation to the essential tool of our time — the World Wide Web. And for each, I'll suggest some efficiency guidelines so that the web can become a help more than it's a hindrance.


If you're writing instruction manuals, curiosity has limited use. Basically, the steps need to be expressed clearly, without a lot of opinion and nuance. But art happens when unexpected connections are made and often the impact depends upon the spaces in between. This makes the thrill of collecting bits and pieces of life and exploring them in enough detail so that their relationships become visible a positive practice for writers.

Even before the Web existed, I remember getting lost in libraries, often learning more from adjacent books than the ones I came to refer to. The web provides this library effect on steroids. With a few clicks, arcane subjects can be run down, often providing bizarre discoveries that are totally unrelated to the original intent.

This is a good thing when not taken to extremes. Unfortunately, it's easy to spend more time collecting artifacts (which can range from data to quotations to intriguing biographies) than creating new works.

Guideline 1. Spend no more than half as much time feeding your curiosity online than you spend drafting stories.


Articles, news stories, images, and opinion pieces can provide delicious, often nearly formed prompts and ideas for fiction. And this can be true from the inception of stories to their development to the drafting of scenes and chapters to finding just the right piece to complete the revision of a draft which includes an important hole.

For me, complete stories have come from a chance remark or a little-known fact. The shapes the stories have, at times, been determined by the structures of successful works that parallel my intentions. And I've often stumbled across an article and had it come to mind as my subconscious was busily searching for the answer to a story problem.

It's good to read regularly and broadly. But it's not very useful for writer to read opinion piece after opinion piece that dissects the latest outrage in the news, especially if these all come from similar perspectives. (That's just one example of feeding anger or hardening positions or be obsessive urged to read about subject past the point of diminishing returns.)

Guideline 2. Set a timer before you begin reading articles on the web, and choose the time of day that is other than your most productive writing time. (Give preference to your writing.)

One reason people read books, including fiction, is to learn new things. James Michener made a career out of elegant, in-depth novels that promised readers they would know more about a subject, essentially developing college course level expertise painlessly. Research into a region or a business or a time in history or technology can differentiate a work of fiction and support storytelling. It can, however, become a great excuse not to begin (or finish) a story.

In addition, I suspect some writers get to the point where the facts get in the way of the storytelling. It's very easy to dismiss options, include real facts that are difficult to believe, and magnify elements that are unrelated to the story's theme. I usually rely on my intuition when deciding when to stop research before a draft is written. I also may collect information about something specific over years before I know what story needs to be told.

When I am doing research as part of revision, that work is targeted toward filling holes and answering questions.

Guideline 3. What a story is not set, collect topic information in one file (preferably with some useful subcategories) that is clear, organized, and accessible over years.

Guideline 4. For revision research, clearly articulate what is needed, the specifications for satisfactory information, and how what is learned will be used for the work in progress.

When drafting, I go to extremes to keep forward momentum. When I lack a fact or have a less than perfect word in the text, I'll mark it off with brackets.  If I don't have a near substitute, I'll simply put in the word, "bagel," and fill in those blanks with references once the draft is complete.

Getting it right, my care for the work, is secondary while I’m engaged in the creative process. But I need to move beyond that in revision. Before others see the work, I need to make make sure my facts are correct and my language choices are as good as I can make them.

A writer depends upon keeping the confidence of readers. Mistakes in language and facts can cause a reader to doubt or even abandon the work. Getting it all right matters. And this can't be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and dependence on editors (as essential as they are). It's part of the responsibility to not be sloppy and to demonstrate respect for the work and the readers.

Guideline 5. Judiciously use Internet references (including fact checking sites) to make your manuscript as close to error-free as possible.
I hope this is a good starting point to explore your use of the Internet as a writer. Other uses (email, social media, entertainment, and marketing) may have more of an impact on productivity than these, next time, I'll provide some guidelines on avoiding distraction and generally fitting the Internet into the life of the disciplined writer.