Tuesday, January 25, 2022

10 Ways for Writers to Hold onto Their Creative Magic

I'm probably more left brained then right brained, and I suspect that shows in this blog. When you see discussions of structure, rules of thumb, organization, and analysis, that's my left brain talking. Nonetheless, I'm a big believer in respecting and nurturing intuition. Most of my posts that include a lot of questions are attempts to explore and get emotionally involved with the elements of story, especially the characters.

Robin Williams said, "You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.”

Whether it’s madness or spontaneity or creative magic, I believe real value in art only comes when you have an active, unfettered imagination. One of the reasons why I espouse writing fast is it's a way to outpace the internal editor and release more unconventional thinking. This may include ideas that are weird, impolite, incorrect, or forbidden. What others discard may be a treasure for an artist, or for society as a whole. In classical mythology, Mercury was a portal god who is liable to allow something from the garbage heap to find an honored place.

Above, I mentioned nurturing. With that in mind, here are some suggestions aimed at keeping creative magic alive in yourself and bearing its gifts, no matter how odd, to society.

  • Celebrate eccentricity. Explore society’s misfits. Collect odd historical facts. Treasure the moments when you're surprised or you're unable to make sense of something.
  • Respect your dreams. That includes daydreams. Make notes on images, musical phrases, odd juxtapositions, and transformations. And, as you do so, pay attention to how the surreal world you experience affect you emotionally. The more intense the emotions, the more likely that magic is involved.
  • Listen more than you talk. Hear the subtext. Watch the body language. Pay attention to the music of the words and the feelings apparent in others and yourself. Do all this in the spirit of connection rather than dissection. Scoring points in a discussion is about hierarchy, and that's not where creativity blossoms.
  • Play. It's healthy. It's honorable. It shakes off the rust of rules and presents fresh viewpoints. You might need to spend a lot of time with children to get the full value of this suggestion. Let them be your instructors.
  • Make mistakes. If you don't allow yourself to make a mess, you'll have too many fences around your imagination and will be closed off from valuable insights.
  • Welcome discomfort. Comfortable journeys only occur on well trod roads. People who blaze new trails face more misery… And more wonder.
  • Embrace uncertainty. Most of the interesting questions in life do not have clear and definite answers.
  • Enter as an alien. I've taught a world building course with a focus on worlds that are familiar. If you can force yourself to see what you never recognized in your town, neighborhood, and home, you can build a habit of being amazed by life.
  • Ask na├»ve, and even rude, questions. Cultivating humility and curiosity builds a strong foundation for someone who wants to be more creative. a major barrier to opening up the world is thinking you already have the answers. Likewise, though inviting people to tell you their stories could lead to trouble, it's more likely to put you in the glorious, unsafe space of truly understanding and empathizing with people who seem to different to connect with.
  • Let your mind wander. If you tend to over schedule, this may mean providing open spaces on your calendar to just be yourself without any tasks or prompts or tensions. Relax and enjoy the moment. Don't take notes.

If you're counting, that's ten suggestions. (And I also sneaked in writing fast and exploring questions.) 

I've long advocated valuing fun as a component of writing well. I think it leads to stories that entertain inspire more often. My suspicion is that any works that delight me came from artists who were delighted. It doesn't mean that only joyful stories matter. Tragedies can delight. The best tragedies do because they embrace being human while being a part of nature.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

A Way for Writers to Choose the Best Opportunities

Most writers want to reach an audience. Some just want to see their names and print. Others are looking for money or recognition or the chance to work with creative people. Knowing your short-term and long-term goals will guide you as you consider opportunities to work as a writer or to place your stories.

Pursuing any opportunity is an investment. Time, money, and creative energy are limitless. It's good to make strategic choices rather than react to every opportunity that comes across your path. Now, some people instinctively pursue the best opportunities. If that's you, great. If not, here's a process that you can use directly or as a model for creating your own way of choosing opportunities.

1 The opportunity fits my objectives. If you think in terms of the projects you want to finish or other goals you have for your writing, could this opportunity be helpful? Or, no matter how seductive, is it really for someone else? if the opportunity isn't really for you, set it aside (or possibly offer it to another writer). If it is, proceed to step 2.

2 The opportunity is from a credible source. Sometimes your insights will tell you it's too good to be true. This is particularly likely nowadays when social media is tracking what you're interested in. And, of course, if you submit to some contests or take some courses, you can expect a lot of email filled with promises. If you're unsure, a little research usually clears things up. Don't forget to ask some of your friends who are writers. A thorough investigation isn't the best use of time at this point, but this step is worth returning to before making any investments. If it still looks good, proceed to step 3.

3 The deadline is achievable. Sometimes you find out about an opportunity too close to the due date for forms, polished works, or other required materials. Usually rushing things is a bad idea because it's risky not to present materials that are as good as you can make them. Sometimes, an opportunity looks good enough to sacrifice scheduled work. That requires a deeper assessment, both of the opportunity and the the comparative value of the trade-off. A guiding principle here is not infatuation with an opportunity. Respecting your time is what's essential.

4 The opportunity could be added to the calendar. Sometimes the deadlines fluid. The question becomes, can it be added to the calendar? Is there room without trade-offs? Can other projects be delayed or canceled to open up space, and should they be? Again, a value calculation needs to be made before there is a decision. And, once again, respect your time. If things look good? The next question is about money.

5 The opportunity fits the budget. Not everything costs money. You can submit to editors and agents at no cost. Sometimes, you can pitch a project or response to a proposal without making any financial investment. However, many contests and courses require fees. So here's another principle: Respect your budget. Even if you have lots of money, seeking value helps to prioritize opportunities. For those who aren't wealthy, a budget can keep spending under control, making other opportunities available. Just as with time, there can be budgetary trade-offs where selected projects might be postponed or canceled. There is also the option of fundraising (usually a time cost). Borrowing might be a good choice if the value is exceptional.

6 What the opportunity offers is worth it. This gets into the concept of value assessments, and I can vary at different times in our lives and according to who we are and what we want. But there are some areas of value worth considering and creating measures for:

  • Financial gain. This is straightforward. Are you getting paid for working or an option or sale? Is there a prize worth winning and within reach?
  • Learning and feedback. Sometimes the value of writing a proposal or an artistic statement helps to shape understanding. Sometimes a critique, questions, or brainstorming an opportunity clarifies and improves the work itself. For me, answering some contests has been valuable because of validation of the concept or because it has provided me with useful comments. Exploring production (scripts for film and stage) with potential collaborators, even when a project hasn't been produced, has been worthwhile for me as well.
  • Creation of assets. Especially in the film industry, intellectual property has become a top of mind concern. Because of the risks, completely new and original material is difficult to finance. So, the sale of a short story or production of a stage play or even something like a meme or a blog series or a fiction podcast can indicate an audience is out there for a story. This has raised the stakes for any concepts that could be translated into a different medium.
  • Reputation, connections, and community. while writing appears to be a solitary activity, success is almost always driven by developing credibility with other people. Often, the true value of completing a project, mentoring, collaborating, going to a conference, or taking a course comes from the relationships that are created or deepened. Can you be trusted? Do you get the job done? Do people's like spending time with you? Do you have some exceptional skills? The answers to these questions come from other people, not from you. And you want those answers to be yes.

If you have (or can make) the time for an opportunity, if you have the money and the creative energy, if it fits in with your plans, and the payoffs are worth it, it's probably good to make room for the opportunity. 

Risk is a factor, course. With the best of intentions, you can fail in an opportunity or make a poor choice in who to collaborate with. Money can run out. You might be replaced on a project. A “sure thing” contest might be one by someone else. Since you never have complete information and the world keeps changing, there is no perfect way to select which opportunities to commit to. But being thoughtful is almost as good as being lucky in making choices.

There's more to say here. It's worthwhile to develop a way to assess potential value (and probably score them in a way that facilitates comparison). It's a good practice to take a look at completed projects and see how they worked out versus your expectations. Finding and developing opportunities also can make a difference. More chances for work or sales or collaboration, with ever better payoffs, relies on developing research techniques, writing queries, developing pitches, and improving interpersonal skills.

There’s one more thing I haven’t dealt with: Follow-through. If you make a good connection, you need to have the time and understanding to deepen the relationship. If you make a sale or when a contest, you need to figure out how to get full value from those wins. If feedback or a course alerts you to ways to improve the work or become a better writer, you need to set aside time for revision or to master a new skill. Is easy to dismiss, forget, or underestimate follow-through and waste the investments made in creating successes. Perhaps, that should be step number 7: Set aside time and resources to realize the full value of an opportunity you pursue.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

A Writer’s Bucket List

I’m someone who’s driven more by enthusiasms than desires. I’ve never created a conventional bucket list, filled with places to see and things to do. At least not consciously. So, when exploring material for this post, I was surprised to discover that many of the things I might have put onto a list — from a writer’s perspective — I’ve already done.

For instance, I heard actors read my dialogue after I tagged along with a friend to a theater group. That was so thrilling, it should have been a target for me. Another unknown goal was getting into a writers’ room. The seeds for that were planted in me by years of watching The Dick Van Dyke Show. They grew to fruition when I was invited to join a writers’ room for a Web series. I even got to be head writer the second year of the series. Writing persuasively? I was inspired by the great speeches of the 60s (Martin Luther King, Kennedy, etc.), but this was a hope, but an unlikely goal when I was younger. Nevertheless, I somehow wandered from the lab to into a new career, learning the ins and outs of communicating clearly and persuasively to audiences from high school to the World Economic Forum.

So a lot of things were checked off my list already. Saying “yes” to collaborating with a variety of people and doing things that pushed me out of my comfort zone has worked for me.
Nonetheless, I’ll offer my own bucket list from my perspective as a writer, and I hope a few resonate with you.

    1.    Really finish a passion project — A lot of my writing has been done as an employee. (Paying the bills.) This sometimes bleeds into the creative, speculative work, moving me toward a market focus. But what about the stories I need to tell? I’m happy to say that my work is moving more and more in that direction. And I’m making progress. Step one: Know what the passion projects are. (Some I fall in love with. Some reveal themselves in the writing.) Step two: Give them the time they need. Don’t let them fall to the bottom of the list. Step three: Get a good draft completed. Step four: Keep pushing until they become irresistible.
    2.    Write something for posterity or intended as a gift or to honor to someone - This came up almost every time I had a conversation with my cousin, who wrote comedy. His focus was on posterity, but that always felt too grand to me. When I began to write with the idea that work could be a gift for someone alive or a way to honor someone who was lost. I’ve completed a few, and others are higher on my priority list. (While all my passion projects are lengthy, these tend to be small, doable efforts.)
    3.    Get a reading - To hear your words spoken by others can be painful or marvelous. When I was a young writer, it was almost always painful. Sometimes because I’d never read the words out loud and heard how awkward they were. Sometimes because the reader had more enthusiasm than skill. Mostly because I was stuck on how the words “should” sound. Anything other than a perfect match to what was in my head disturbed me. Luckily, I got over that to the point where, if someone matches my inner voice now, I’m disappointed. I actually work to provide words worth interpreting in fresh ways.
    4.    Finish a large/small work - A lot of writers I know get stuck in one form and never try another. Even if it’s not obvious, the true value of your work may lie outside your comfort zone. In my own experience, I’ve seen stories come alive when I’ve reinterpreted them — novels as screenplays. Short plays as short stories. And more. Roger Kahn wrote in his book,  Good Enough to Dream, about his dad at bat. A minor leaguer who only lacked the ability to hit home runs, his father switched around to bat left-handed for a game after his retirement. What was meant to be fun became a poignant moment when he sent the pitch soaring. The one tool he needed, hitting the long ball, wasn’t discovered until it was too late.
    5.    Connect with and say thank you to a writer you admire - Writing is a community with its own history and heroes. I grew up owing a debt to Melville and Shakespeare and Poe that I could only repay with my work. But I might have gotten the opportunity to thank Ray Bradbury or Paddy Chayefsky or Vonda McIntyre. I know now it would have mattered because I have had the chance to express my gratitude to other writers, and my moments with them have anchored my efforts in real and valuable ways.
    6.    Collaborate and/or mentor - My first attempt at collaboration was a disaster, but it taught me lifelong lessons I needed about tact and generosity. For me, even when projects don’t work out, I’ve found I gain a lot in terms of new perspectives and appreciation of skills. This is also true for mentoring, which has long been part of my practice. Enthusiasm rubs off. Questions teach. Diagnosing problems of another challenges me to look more closely at what I’m doing. Plus, writing means a lot more alone time than acting or playing music in a band. Collaborating and mentoring create community and friendships.
    7.    Write something that influences others or yourself - Persuasion is an essential element of speech writing, so I’ve been forced to think in terms of audience, reflecting on what people care about, what structures/phrasing/words are clear, emotional elements, providing entertaining experiences, and more. Especially when the stakes are high or the message isn’t welcome, this can push you to a new level of care and understanding in writing. I’m grateful to have been put into difficult real-world situations that have both improved my craft and forced me to empathize with people who are very different from myself. More recently, I’ve come to appreciate how the right projects can influence me. In particular, answering rude questions and looking for pivotal moments in my own life have opened up my writing and led me to a deeper understanding of myself.
    8.    Finish a poem worth memorizing - This is my own goal for 2022, and I might have included it under number 4 above, but the second part feels important. Taking something on that’s difficult and testing its value with a specific task goes further than testing the waters. For me, as a definite non-poet, this creates a goal that my intuition says is worth the time and effort.  
    9.    Write something just for fun - I’ve always believed that most writing should be fun. It is possible to do joyless writing. I’ve taken on demanding tasks, needed by clients, that called more for discipline and professional dedication than fun. That happens when writing is a career. However, I’m happy to say I’m someone who mostly takes delight in writing, and not a writers who only enjoys having written. In the past couple of years, perhaps because of the challenges of Covid, I’ve found myself working with writers who’ve lost their zeal for writing. In most cases, something took it away — a relationship, health problems, financial pressures, or life events. Writing just for the joy of it — not to pay a bill or get published or please someone else — is both valid and vital.
    10.    Go on a pilgrimage for inspiration - To me, Grand Central Station is a temple. I love spending time there, soaking in the beauty, the people, the echoes, and the drama. Walking through Robert Frost’s house in Vermont provided another experience of space, as the poems I grew up with (he was a favorite of my mother and grandfather) settled into my spirit in new ways. And, of course, the people and events that are part of the journey to a location of meaning can delight, terrify, or shape your consciousness as a writer, as well. Sometimes pilgrimages are created by circumstances out of your control, but mostly they need to be planned and invested in. Selecting a destination and putting it onto your calendar (almost) guarantees new perspectives.   

My original list had 25 items, and I discovered some I had (like attending Bread Loaf) spent a lot of years buried before they were realized. I also found that a lot of things that came to mind first like awards and contracts, were out of my control. I captured them anyway and made them prompts that help me to discover what I could add to a list. 

What’s on your bucket list?

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Writer’s Resolutions

 I’ve already compiled a list of key projects for 2022. Since opportunities pop up, a list like that isn’t “final,” but it’s invaluable to my resetting focus and avoiding weaker projects that beg for my attention.

My rule is always to keep goals confined to what’s in my control. So it’s about completing a novel, not selling one. If I have a finished work I want in the marketplace, my goal is to submit, not be accepted by a specific editor, agent, or producer. And with something like a podcast, it’s producing the show, not reaching an audience size that I set as a goal.  (Of course, doing due diligence on markets and collaborators may be a goal.)

There’s another kind of list, a list tied to the formation of myself as the kind of writer I want to be. It’s a project where instead of a manuscript, I am the project. The planning is comprised of education, experiences, and exercises that will mold my skill, habits, knowledge, and sensitivities… directing me toward being a more capable writer or discovering a new perspective on writing.

Anyway, here’s my list:
    1.    Collaborate with someone new. Nothing teaches like working with someone else. Sometimes I learn by observing. Other times, it’s through helping someone else explore something new. Most often, it’s because I or my collaborator(s) ask questions. Doable? I’ll be putting on a producer’s hat in 2022 and enlisting people to work with me.
    2.    Write poetry.  I want to think more deliberately about language and capture/develop insights. I haven’t written poetry in years, so it’s time for me to return to it. Doable? Yes. It’s a matter of putting the work on my calendar. I’ll draft a poem a week and get four of them ready for submission.
    3.   See a world in a grain of sand. When I serve the scientist in me, I sharpen my powers of observation. One year, I paid attention the birds who visit my feeder (often those waiting for a turn), and I discovered differences in behaviors and strategies. Some of those got me thinking about analogues to humans. I’ll take 2022 to learn more about trees. Doable? I already have a book, and I’m lucky enough to have a variety of trees on my property. Let the exploration begin!
    4.    Pitch and/or propose a novel. This has been on my projects list before. It belongs here now because my purpose is less about finding opportunities than it is to knock the rust off and reorient myself toward books. (My focus has been more on scripts in recent years). The manuscript is worth testing in the marketplace and will teach me about a world I've been away from. Doable? I have a starting point. I know how to research publishers and, in the past, I’ve been able to pitch and write proposals in ways that got requests. Even my skill set is out of date, there are no barriers to making the attempt.
    5.    Mentor. This is always on my list, so I know it will force me to articulate ideas and listen deeply. I never know what I’ll learn. Doable? Yes. I’ve kept my project list modest enough to provide the needed time.
    6.    Get out of my comfort zone. One year, even though I’m an introvert, I took an improv class. It paid off in pitching I’ve done because it requires dealing with whatever someone else throws at you, and making responses brief. (Note: This one doesn’t need to be directly related to writing.) Doable? I have a fallback list of courses and activities, but I’ll probably choose something that’s ridiculous. As long as it doesn’t involve jumping out of an airplane.
    7.    Kill a project. This won’t be an active project. It will be something that has been rattling in my brain too long. Doable? Yes. I can be ruthless. My time is not infinite.
    8.    Master one skill. I’m curious about operations, ways to handle flow of media (magazines, books, podcasts, etc.), opportunities, and tasks vying for my attention. I think having a wide net is essential for a writer, but too often, what flows in doesn’t get processed. And stuff accumulates. Doable? Probably. So far, my needs don’t match up well enough with what I know of engineering principles to create an ideal process. But rather than get bogged down with finding perfect answers, I'll see what emerges from trial and error. Could be disappointing.
    9.    Explore the weird. Hours can disappear if I accept the rabbit holes the Internet offers. I’ve gotten good at resisting all the allures, but, with that discipline, there’s been a reduction in the curiosities that used to fill my life, all the way back to my days of leafing through encyclopedias and wandering library stacks. I need some fun facts to know and tell my friends. Doable? I’d love to return to haunting library. Covid has kept me away for too long. But I have an old encyclopedia and lots of weird books gathering dust, and they’ll do the job if “normal life” continues to stay on hold.
    10.    Fun. I’ve never have added this before. That's been a mistake because too much of what might be recreation (reading, films, hobbies) ends up serving projects. Focus is fine, but my instincts tell me I need more fun and nonsense in my life. Doable? I'm not sure. There's a contradiction inherent to planning to be spontaneous. I may need to add notes on my calendar. And a daily question… Did you have fun (unrelated to a project) today?

Almost certainly, my list isn’t the best one for you, but I hope you’re encouraged to reflect on the kind of writer you’d like to become in 2022 and how you could get closer to realizing your goals.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Thirty Questions to Help Storytellers Make Scenes More Emotional

Ray Bradbury maintained emotion is key to storytelling. In fact, his advice was…

“find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely. When it’s over, then you can think about it; then you can look, it works or it doesn’t work, something is missing here. And, if something is missing, then you go back and reemotionalize that part, so it’s all of a piece.”

A starting point for evaluating a scene is getting back to your own emotional experience. It can’t be faked. In my experience, there are more steps to bring emotion to readers, and I created some questions to explore along four dimensions — Assessing the Scene, Putting Emotions in Context, Considering the Audience, and Tuning with Tools.

Assessing the Scene
    1.    Can you name the emotions? Beginning? End?
    2.    Do the emotions feel genuine?
    3.    What score would you give the emotions (1-10 or something subjective like meh, intriguing, unsettling, inciting.)
    4.    Are emotions experienced through the right character? (Often, this is the character with the most at risk.)
    5.    Are emotions proportional to the stakes?
    6.    Do emotions reflect change to an important relationship?
    7.    Is surprise an element? Could it be?
    8.    Do the characters react in proportion to events that trigger emotion?

Putting Emotion in Context
    1.    How do the emotions connect with the story’s theme? Do they add to the impact?
    2.    Are the emotions named worth the scene?
    3.    How do emotions add to the motivation and character arc?
    4.    How is the emotional experience interwoven with the plot?
    5.    Is the emotional experience highlighted by irreversibility? Or can what is done or decided be undone?
    6.    Does the emotion reflect the genre (horror/fear, romance/love)?
    7.    Does the emotion of this scene fit within the emotions and pacing of scenes before/after? The whole story?

Considering the Audience
    1.    Will the audience find this authentic or melodramatic?
    2.    Are the hopes/fears of the audience at the scene’s start set up?
    3.    Will the audience be defending against strong emotions or have they been made more open though devices like comic relief?
    4.    Are there elements in the scene (descriptions, complexity, too many characters) that distract from emotion, or is it trimmed to the essentials?
    5.    Is the emotional arc of the scene accessible to the intended audience?
    6.    Is the audience sufficiently engaged with the viewpoint character, the situation, and what’s at risk?
    7.    Are alternative choices (allowing the character — and audience — to avoid emotion) cut off?  

Tuning with Tools
    1.    Is necessary information fresh and valued or are reminders needed? Should elements be repeated?
    2.    Are emotions merely stated or are they shown physically, through character statements, and through actions?
    3.    Is each essential emotional beat given enough (or too much) time? Is the pacing right?
    4.    Could poetic tools (sound and imagery) be used to deepen emotion?
    5.    Could the stakes be raised or the choices made more difficult?
    6.    Is emotion understated (or overstated)?
    7.    Could the setting be changed to charge the emotion (say, putting the scene is a public setting)?
    8.    Could the protagonist be put under a time constraint forcing an action or decision?

Overall, the biggest barrier to true and appropriately intense emotions is usually the writer. Like the audience, there are times when we may protect ourselves (and our characters) from feeling too much. Also, fascination with the intellectual elements (like puzzles and inventions), settings, and language may provide value that is more about wit than feelings. So a final test of the scene might be seeing if, once what appeals to the head and the ego is removed, the emotions of the scene alone have enough power to engage and entertain.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Eleven Questions to Ask About Your Story Premise

The deeper I get into writing, the more I appreciate the value of making careful choices about the material I choose to write about. Though I still get value out of doing quick drafts (five pages or so) to explore story ideas and characters, I’m much more selective about projects that will likely take more than a week to reach “the end.”

This is not to say my radar is still up for what might be interesting to audiences. For me, both capturing notions (real or imagined) and brainstorming are processes done without filters. The strangest ideas smash together (sometimes years later), and weird, inappropriate stuff will often lead me to treasure.

Which brings up a Washington Post story that popped up today. A climber reached the site of a 1966 airline crash and found a box full of emeralds and sapphires. What a story prompt! The box was found in France and headed to India. I’ve visited both countries! This is perfect for me!

No. No. No. My connection is not exactly strong since I have not climbed in the Alps and I have no expertise in jewels. This is a front page story internationally, meaning writers worldwide will take this as a prompt (no doubt, one with a deal with the climber). And I’ve just suggested this to you and anyone else who reads this post. (Or blog, possibly books, of those who regularly harvest my blog posts for non-English-speaking audiences.)

No. (Probably not.)

On the basis of analysis and instinct, I’ve been cutting back on my to-be-written and to-be-rewrtten lists. I’m happy with the results, so I’m sharing some questions I use to qualify premises. (For an earlier view on this, see A Story Premise You Can Love and Cherish: 10 questions. For analysis of premises, see my series on the topic.)

  • After noting the idea, developing a premise, and exploring with a few pages, am I still excited? Even after letting the premise cool for a month? Does the excitement rise to a sustainable passion to tell the story?
  • Am I the best one to tell this story? Can I really get into the world (either because I know it or I can do enough research)? Can I authentically present the characters? Does this resonate with an experience or issue that matters to me?
  • Is the character compelling? Already whispering in my ear? Insistent? Popping back into my head even after I say no to the story?
  • Are there already intriguing answers by a character to some of the 50 Rude Questions?
  • Are more than one ideas connected in a fresh way that implies specific scenes?
  • Does this premise fill me with anticipation and expectations? Does it fit into a genre I’m comfortable with?
  • Is the setting one I know well or could learn about through friends, lesser known research materials, or my processes for speculation?
  • Do I have one big scene or three small scenes of interest already running through my brain?

Not necessary, but supporting my commitment, are these questions:

  • Do I see a connection with an emerging social issue?
  • Can I already see an appealing ending? Beginning?
  • Do I have a terrific title?

Work still needs to be done. Research may show necessary information is inaccessible. The character in mind may be a bad fit as a protagonist. Development may reveal reasons not to proceed. A shorter work that includes most of what I love may be a better choice.

The main advantage for me of making questioning and ranking premises part of my process is focus. The stuff that’s set aside isn’t distracting or tempting me. In addition, the questions suggest pathways for further exploration and development. Overall, my commitment to projects (and eagerness to stay engaged) goes beyond completing a draft (a problem for some, but not for me) to doing all the rewrites that make the story as good as it can be (often my worst problem).

Though I hope some of these questions are useful, one size does not fit all. I’d encourage you to develop your own. The more they are yours, the higher the possibility that you’ll get full value from this step.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Character Relationship Arcs

While story arcs and character arcs get the most attention from writers, character relationship arcs may be the most important in creating emotional appeal. For this, romances can be praised. Everything in the story, from “meet cute” to “happily ever after,” turns on how the characters grow to become lovers.

Some of the best romances illustrate how difficult trust, vulnerability, respect, and mutual appreciation can be. They show true relationships being built and tested by different values, interests, needs,  and outside forces. And we don’t just listen as the characters talk through issues, we see them act, often sacrificing and acting with courage to demonstrate what they learned, or haven’t.

Consequences for behaviors that support or threaten deep and lasting connections aren’t just imagined and discussed. They are shown, providing agonizing moments and those worthy of celebration. Romance climaxes often include the person needing to change the most making a “grand gesture” in public at great risk, followed (usually after a tense moment of doubt) by the affirmation of true love.

Character relationships arcs are vital to other genres, too. In a rags to riches story, the expectations of the old gang will often test the resolve of the protagonist. In Working Girl, no one—from the slimy boyfriend to the caring girlfriend—wants Tess to reach her ambitions or fulfill her promise. In some ways, they represent more of a threat to growth and achievement than the villain. In most rags to riches stories, the protagonist has to make a sacrifice and break bonds with family and friends.

Genres like mysteries and thrillers may put relationship arcs off to the side or give them one moment (a betrayal or reward). Die Hard is an exception. It skillfully intertwines the hero’s reconciliation with his wife throughout the story and never is far from the minds of audiences. And I’d argue that there’s a real arc for the relationship between the hero and the villain.

But whatever your genre is, there’s a potential for small moments that show that the nature of the attachment (for the good or ill) has changed. It can be quiet or loud, but most people will react to that change. We know how it feels. We all have grown and changed and seen how our opinions, ideas, behaviors, and values have deepened or eroded friendships and romances and even the ability to work with colleagues. Finding the opportunities to reflect changes in relationships (whether a full arc or one moment) can set your story apart and resonate with readers or audiences.

The first step is recognizing when characters begin to change, gain knowledge, and transform. These moments of growth can be viewed through other characters eyes, and their reactions will point to potential arcs. What’s lost and gained? What about the relationship is revealed? When Luke Skywalker loses his aunt and uncle, he loses an attachment, but gains the freedom to go from farm boy to hero. When Darth Vader cuts down Obi-Wan before his eyes, he (mostly) loses a friend. It’s agonizing (much more so that the loss of his aunt and uncle), but he gains the responsibility that forces him to truly mature and grow up.

Game of Thrones is a torture chamber of relationship arcs. It’s what makes it so emotional and engaging. The story significance of a new bond or a loss (usually by death or betrayal) is often less important than how the change in the bond impacts the mood and emotions of character we empathize with.

The more you see, understand ,and feel the relationship arcs in stories you love, the more you’ll have examples to create your own. So I invite you to look for them in the stories you read or watch. If it all seems too difficult at first, grab a good romance where the arc is center stage. Keep at it until you spot an arc between a main character and a secondary character that matters enough to touch your heart. Such small moments, once recognized, will provide examples that will be invaluable to your storytelling.