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 dĂ©nouement 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.