Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 5 - So true you feel it

Hitchcock said in Psycho, after the shower scene, the audience did all the work. People scared themselves.

The master of suspense had already created a world that was more terrifying than viewers had ever seen, where the apparent female lead was dead, the stolen money didn’t matter, the world was cut off from help and normal rules, and the last major character(s) standing made no sense in terms of anything they’d seen before.

Classic horror movies often skipped special effects and worked to engage the audience’s imagination. The monster was never shown in the film or only shown very late in the story. But no one had ever created a monster as spooky and dependent on audience expectations as Norman Bates’s mother.

So one powerful way to add credibility to a story is to brilliantly set up the story and then dramatically reverse expectations. Pull the rug out from under them, and doubt loses its footing.

More often another technique based on emotion is put to work to make a story believable. The author uses a sympathetic character’s interpretation of incidents. By creating a protagonist people deeply identify with, writers can support that character’s selection of information, how it is ordered in its presentation, and the contexts for each bit to feelings build confidence in the legitimacy of what is observed, even though it might have logical inconsistencies. Once a character gains trust, his or her perspective is more easily accepted. Essentially, this a subtle (and presumably benign) form of spinning.

There’s one way any character (including the villain) can convince an audience (or at least get them to suspend disbelief). A monologue that is self-revealing can create an unquestioned feeling in people viewing a film or stage presentation. The requirements are that the monologue must be aimed at a specific character who is part of the story (and to whom a disclosure would make sense), the monologist must have a powerful and clear motivation for sharing something that matters deeply, and there should be an indication that a sacrifice is being made. For a monologue to be vital, it needs to be presented at a price.

Many times I’ve seen important truths included in a story and discovered that other people seem to miss them. I think this is not surprising when information is presented within the context of humor (and sneaks in under defenses) or where the story works at multiple levels (as often happens with the best children’s stories). But sometimes what the writer presents gets missed because of distractions or the way it is framed. In general, revelations need to be featured in some way. Get the audience’s attention first, then share the truth.

Respect is another important consideration. No audience wants to be talked down to or held in contempt. Unless the audience believes the writer sees them as an equal, those hard-earned treasures being offered will be rejected. We listen to people who have our best interests at heart, who care about us.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 4 - The opportunities of genre

One thing to watch for, in terms of gaining and maintaining reader or audience confidence is expectations set by genre. Work will be accepted within the context of how it is categorized and the precedents that have been established.

Obviously, a documentary or something explicitly categorized as nonfiction is best treated journalistically. However, there can be variations based on other information, such as the reputation of the work's creator. For instance, ever since Michael Moore produced Roger and Me, the expectation has been his facts will be shaped for a specific perspective (his argument) and much of what is presented will be there to provide humor.

There are many works that are "based on a true story," and these are assumed to be truthful about most of the elements.  They often borrow credibility from the audience’s recognition of accepted facts, places, and incidents. The writers who take their stories away from what's documented may tag their works as "inspired by" true stories, which keeps the audience by providing that designation as a caveat. It's worth noting that some people can't tolerate any playful or dramatic responses to reality, but I suspect most people can. No one wants to be deceived, but most people are willing to make allowances for a tale well told. I love the interweaving of fact and fiction in Doctorow’s Ragtime, but I know people who find experiencing it (as a book, a movie, or play) frustrating.

Closely akin to nonfiction is the roman à clef, a genre where characters and incidents parallel those in real life, often with the implication that a straight, nonfiction treatment would lead to a lawsuit. I remember when the movie Seven Days in May came out how people in Washington DC speculated about who the characters might represent in real life. That was part of the fun.

Hard science fiction builds a case for using facts and extrapolating them with as much logic andveracity as its authors can manage. The joy for readers comes from creating a future that  both evokes wonder and seems possible, given current knowledge. The Andromeda Strain goes so far as to provide footnotes throughout for journal articles and other references, many of which actually exists.

Film provides an interesting way to pull the viewer in – including real footage. This can be as simple as showing a city. (I love the way West Side Story opens with the view from above of New York.) Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan provides an interesting use of sources by incorporating the visual style (though not the actual shots) of Omaha Beach newsreel footage into its D-Day landing scene.

There are inside story works that purport to show unknown details of our world or culture. Arthur Hailey's novel, Hotel, presents the inner workings of the administration, management, and goals of the hotel. He did a whole series like this, e.g., Wheels and Airport. James Michener’s novels often took this to the limit, sometimes beginning with the geology of a region before finally settling into characters and story.

Similarly, there is a de facto genre around what I call first testimonies. As the culture has opened up to silence their voices – different genders, ethnic groups, classes, religions, etc. — novels that explore the experiences of people pushed out of the mainstream or forced into hiding have presented views taken to be authentic. Often, the credence comes from a level of courage that seems to be present in works that risk disparagement or rejection. Anyone "outing" him or herself is likely to be believed.

In an odd way, commonly can have an authenticity created by its not being taken seriously. My cousin comedian Barry Crimmins said humor was a way to "smuggle in truth." Credibility slips in sideways.

Things can be turned in another direction where facts may evolve into something unexpected, a kind of a con game. If you haven't seen Orson Welles's film, F for Fake, check it out. It's entertaining and provides insights with such wit I can't bring myself to spoil it here.

For me, the most effective path to authenticity has always been presenting a familiar and easy to identify with world with nothing outsized, and managing to presents truth through the characters (sometimes called “kitchen sink dramas”). From the very beginning Paddy Chayefsky's Marty quietly endears me to its characters, and it presents challenges that are completely believable and resonant.

The above examples rely on a variety of touch points for authenticity – journalism, common knowledge, characters that ring true, logic, sharing the secrets, the standing of the creator, and more. As with all genres, the secret to a writer's success is doing the homework. Reading through novels or watching films that are comparable to the work in progress and looking to see how authenticity is achieved (or what leads to artistic failure) is vital. So, analyzing work that's out there and noting the tools that bring credibility, along with how much deviation an audience might tolerate, is a great way to bring authenticity to your work.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 3 - Characters who reveal themselves

I can be completely charmed by a good romantic comedy. The twists and turns, the humor, and the love story can entertain me so thoroughly, I'll watch the movie repeatedly over the years. But sometimes promising stories in genres that rely on the relationships between the main characters don't work. It may be the writing, but usually it's the acting, or, more correctly, the chemistry between the lovers in the story. There's no spark. It doesn't seem real. And I can't get engaged with it no matter how clever the premise or how funny the jokes.

Relationships in a story provide the most powerful way to deliver authentic characters. But when there's something false about the relationship, the ability of readers to engage is diminished. So, if you want to improve the authenticity of your characters, the most important thing to focus on is bringing truth to the relationships between the characters.

How to create authentic characters by building authentic relationships:

Goals – Whenever you have two important characters in the scene, they should want something. They should be working to achieve a result that brings them closer to their goals. Ideally, the goals of the characters are in conflict because otherwise it's difficult to show who they are. People (and characters) reveal their inner selves through their choices and emotions, and success without struggles tend to make them stereotypes.

It is possible for characters to have a common goal and for that to be revealing, but only if it requires cooperation. Two people in a survival situation who work together and agree on what needs to be done and how to do it will be flat characters who are difficult to believe in.

Flaws – Real people are messed up, including your heroes. They’re also wonderful and inspiring and memorable. A deeply flawed character can still be likable, and even if he or she is not, readers are likely to stay engaged.

One of the most common (and for me frustrating) mistakes my students make is creating characters who are good through and through. Or characters who have the slightest flaws (usually, just virtues pretending to be flaws). Even when pressed, students who do this usually can't get themselves to include anything "bad" about the hero or heroine of the story. The excuse is that no one will like their character if he or she is flawed. I suspect the real reason is that adding a flaw to a character with whom the writer identifies feels too risky. The shame is that really wonderful stories get ruined because the characters are too nice.

The flaws, of course, get interesting and reveal truths when they challenge relationships. If you take any of the Seven Deadly Sins and give that Sin to your protagonist, it will impact friends, enemies, and lovers. The Sin will need to be resolved or managed in the story or the relationships will probably become abusive or broken. That is truth. That is engaging. That is storytelling.

Subtext — You can have the most complex character in the world, and, if he or she answers every question directly, exposes all secrets, and explains what and why he or she is going to do something, that potentially intriguing character becomes a bore. Truth makes you vulnerable. As Elvis Costello said, "it's easier to say I love you than yours sincerely."

So, ironically, authentic characters are deceptive. They don't answer questions directly. They speak the truth through what they say between the lines. They hide their purposes.

It can be very difficult to write subtext. For me, a lot of this kind of writing happens in revision. I actually print out the story, mark the "on the nose” dialogue and fix it line by line. Sometimes this means rewriting whole scenes. What makes it authentic is knowing the characters (which usually has been achieved by the time I'm rewriting), and allowing them to evade in their own idiosyncratic ways, dependent on how they see the other character (mostly the level of trust).

Acting techniques — Whether you use the traditional approach of creating a character from the outside in or the Method approach, which creates characters from the inside out, effort must be made in finding the truth of your principle characters.

I have friends who work from the outside in creating back stories, collecting pictures, and rigorously going through details from eye color to where they went to school to birth order. Some people use astrological signs and others create psychological profiles (like Myers-Briggs). Personally, I write until I begin to have questions. Then I interview my characters. I think because I’ve worked for so many years as a speechwriter, it's hearing the character’s voice that tells me what I need to know about the truth. In most cases.

Reality — About half the successful writers I know base their main characters on real people. These may be people they know intimately. They may be people they met briefly (usually in an intense situation that leaves them questions). Or they may be historical characters.

When a character is based on a real person, there are clear reference points. The writer has anchors in facts, if not truth. There is, however, a risk of getting caught up in the reality. When I worked on a historical novel, it was difficult for me to move away from the real events. It was only when I gave myself permission to provide a happier ending for my character (in real life, she died in childbirth) that the work came alive for me. But I think most experienced writers don't have too much trouble leaving the facts behind if it permits them to tell a more entertaining and authentic story.

I’ll note that in my story, it was the relationship between the protagonist and her father (well-established in the historical record) that revealed what most appealed to me, her cunning. And I was delighted to share how she got around his restrictions and the limits society imposed on her.

Freedom — Authentic characters rarely can't call their plot points the way the writer asks them to. Those who are manipulated were forced to follow a rigorous outline are less likely to come to life on the page.

I had this experience outside of writing recently. An actor took a character I had created, who was somewhat self-absorbed on paper, and turned him into the most sympathetic character in the story. He did this without changing one line of dialogue. The director did not rein him in to fit the intent of the script, and the result was a deeper and more complex story.

It happens on the page, too, and can make for some strange writing experiences. But when a character makes a break for freedom, the result can be delightful for the writer and the readers.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 2 - Bringing truth to scenes in your story

I read a novel recently where every scene was acutely, painfully authentic. I’ve met the writer, and he is warm and funny in person, but he does not spare his readers. I admire that, but I’m not eager to read such a relentless book again. For my own taste, there should be truth throughout and the story as a whole needs to be authentic, but it’s okay to have most of the book be entertaining and to have mercilessly truthful scenes in key moments. Like rhetorical devices, a little bit goes a long way.

Pivotal scenes often benefit from an adherence to honesty that may feel like an invasion of privacy. It must be set correctly. It can’t stand out as if it came from a different manuscript (or even a different author), but it should be memorable. In practice, you may write a whole novel without considering entertainment (or even the audience). Then, if you wish, you can revise to add fun later on. My preference is to write only select scenes—those that feel critical to me—with more attention to a heightened fidelity than to my perfect reader. And all of the scenes chosen matter greatly to one of the characters in the story.

To be clear, I am not saying there is a problem with writing with only entertainment in mind. Those stories have value, and they may be what you were made to write. And the writer may not always know where truth is hidden. Conan Doyle thought is other works were superior to Sherlock Holmes. A lot of readers would disagree.

So, how do you create an authentic scene? I don’t know. But I can share how I write and authentic scene and I hope that will provide some guidance.

Preparation—While sometimes these scenes sneak up on me, I generally take the notes on story events and highlight scenes that may need the authenticity treatment before much composition is done. I purposely choose too many, knowing I can tone down scenes knock the story out of balance later on. When it comes time to write the scene, I try to leave the perfect reader and the editor behind. I come armed with my research, my sense of story theme, and research that includes keen observations. I use music and method acting techniques to open myself up.

Often, I will write a first sentence for the scene the day before, and I try to write one that makes me uncomfortable without straying from what feel like the core truth of the scene. When I can do that, the next day is easier. I reserve the time to avoid interruptions and distractions (and this may mean that it is scheduled to be written out of sequence). I may jot down notes before I begin to compose, especially if I wrote the sentence the day before. Often, my brain will deliver a lot of material right after I wake up.

Composition—Once I sit down to write (or, better yet, dictate), the only interruption is pacing. I don’t look up any words or do any research. I don’t change anything once it’s written, though I may [bracket] a bit that I realize needs to be embedded in text that’s already written. I listen my characters unless they want me to be more polite or judicious. All the way through, I mangle sentence if it means more truth is captured. I offend myself if that’s where honesty takes me. I go where the scene must go, even if it disrupts the plot. I allow myself to be distressed and surprised.

The biggest danger in composing an authentic scene is composing one that pretends to be authentic. If it’s easy or a cliche, that’s a good sign that I’ve taken a wrong turn. If I drift into generalities, especially in dialogue, I probably am avoiding the hard work, pain, and discomfort that is often required for an authentic scene.

Revision—The temptation to revise prematurely is biggest with these scenes. In part, this is because they tend to be important and other parts of the story depend on them being right. I’ve learned, if they are mostly right, they won’t mess up the rest of the story for me. Rewriting right away isn’t really necessary, it just feels that way. And the urge to fix these scenes, in my experience, is not related to better writing. Instead, it’s about stepping back from the truth. So I leave it alone. Ideally, though I may make notes, I won’t even correct spelling until the whole manuscript is done and has had a chance to cool down (for about a month, if I can do that).

As with any scene, things can go wrong, and these can undercut even the most honest scenes. It can be unclear. It must have a goal. It must have a beginning, middle, and end. The logic can fail, or a fact may be wrong. Luck can only go in the antagonist’s favor (no jammed guns for villains). A development may violate something readers “know.”

These scenes need a fresh look in terms of how they fit in, and that may need special attention to the language and the mood. Some of these scenes end up in the wrong place or must be so close to another authentic scene that I need to shift them more into the entertainment space (or into a different story). The perfect reader who lives in my head is brought back in to help, followed by the editor in my head.

Authentic scenes in particular need to play out. In general, this means there will be three to five turns or beats (which generally indicate power changes, often through revelations). While it can be effective to have shorts scenes (I’ve read great one sentence scenes) elsewhere, these scenes need to be given their due.

In revision of these scenes, I like to include emotional validation. This is when the viewpoint character (usually) response in a way that indicates the emotion the reader is intended to feel. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can lock the scene in the reader’s mind.

Authentic scenes are fresh, so I always ask if it it feels too familiar. Have I seen this before?

Authentic scenes are especially vulnerable to any part where the character acts “out of character.” I think this is because if it seems as if the characters are being manipulated, especially in a scene that may create discomfort, the readers will suspect they are being manipulated. That is a sure way to destroy authenticity.

I have one more thing to check at this point. Was this scene earned? Did I pay a price for its authenticity? Will the reader sacrifice (at least comfort) to gain its truth?

Next week, we’ll look at how to make characters more authentic. With a character who comes alive and has his/her own reality, a lot of scenes approached as entertainment will automatically be deeper, more memorable, and more authentic.