Enrich your Scenes with Counterpoint

Woman playing celloIn my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading scenes with seemingly contradictory cues to increase interest through tension.

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

The bad way to write this scene it is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party winning the argument at the end.

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow.

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected.

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands, holding the higher ground, always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up, towering over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him, causing Cage to back up.

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair and is startled.

This small incident reveals the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue.

Summary

Add tension and interest to your scenes by having the action play out in counterpoint to a threat being delivered through dialogue.

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Aristotle Said It First!

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Aristotle:

I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer and lecturer.

We were talking about the increasing tendency in new television series to present protagonists that are not only flawed, but are downright pathological. The chief difference between the protagonist and antagonists here seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dexter, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like them, in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer is that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through her eyes. She is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for her dilemmas and motivation.

Dark protagonists, too, are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient.

Dexter keeps outsmarting his opponents, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business.

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He is like a quantum particle constantly staying ahead of the observer and surprising him with its unpredictability.

But ultimately, even a dark protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dexter loves his son and sister deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had.

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to like the main character first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your dark protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

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Brevity, Clarity, Precision.

Diamond ring

Crystal clear:

If brevity, clarity, and precision are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay. Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short. Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, it’s a good place to start.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays—use of verbs, and scene descriptions.

Here are three examples of lame verbs:

1. Susan enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Susan enter the room? Does she breeze, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

2. Joe looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care. Consider this character description from one of my screenplays:

I started with: “BRUCE DODGE is very big, very crude, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “BRUCE DODGE is built like an army barracks shit-house but moves like a ninja.”

or…

“A casually dressed BARRY FIN, pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“BARRY FIN pads into the room, a panther in jeans and tee-shirt.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Be brief, clear, and precise in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

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Keep it Simple, Stupid!

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Keeping it simple:

We’ve all read books and articles in which ideas rendered by verbose, obscure language are tied up into long sentences and knotted paragraphs.

I know I have.

When I started reading for my Ph.D on narrative structures I needed aspirin to keep the headaches away. I even considered going on antidepressants. How could I ever contribute to the field when I could not even understand the gist of what I was reading?

I understood the words of course. My problem was not a limited vocabulary. My problem was making sense of the convoluted way experts expressed themselves.

Their approach was to pack as much complexity, eccentricity, and obscurity into a sentence as possible; balance as many relative clauses on the back of the main clause and add as many qualifiers and modifiers to it as they could.

Do it consistently and you’d be allowed to join that exclusive club from which the common person is barred by default: The specialists club.

It was hard going but I stuck to the task. I remember the day of my breakthrough. I was sitting on the Ipswich train from Brisbane. The ride home was a good half-hour and I often used the time to catch up on my reading. I was wading through postmodernism and had previously failed to make much headway.

Then it happened. A particularly obscure paragraph suddenly flicked into focus. I blinked and read it again.

Yes, it definitely made sense. So did the next paragraph. And the next. Before long, I found I understood the whole chapter.

I quietly congratulated myself. I was no longer masquerading as an academic. I was an academic. I could not only understand the speak, I would soon be able to emulate it.

It was not long before my writing and speech adopted the mannerisms of a specialist. I solicited nods and smiles from fellow academics and frowns and head-shakes from everyone else.

I had arrived.

It was only years later, after niggling doubts about the usefulness of obscure forms of expression were fanned by my experience in lecturing college students, that I began to investigate the alternatives.

I poured over every style manual I could get my hands on—from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I became convinced that language that explores difficult concepts and ideas need not in itself be difficult to understand. Clear and precise writing that illuminates rather than confounds, writing that is accessible to anyone with a mastery of English, is preferable even when discussing academic matters. This is not dumbing-down language. It is making it more democratic—surely the tacit goal of any discipline.

You may notice from this post that I have not quite managed to expel the very elements I criticise from my own writing. The road to brevity, clarity, and precision is strewn with detours, but I am trying to stay on it.

My students are always the first to tell me when I stray.

Summary

Aim for brevity, precision, and clarity in writing.

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How the Hero Sells the Plot

Girl and man spying on eachother

Plot and Character:

A hero’s transformational arc is the moral and ethical backbone of many memorable stories. Handled well, it validates the hero’s actions and helps to sell the plot. But crafting an effective transformational arc often proves difficult for new and inexperienced writers.

After all, what exactly changes in the hero? What causes the change? How does this affect the plot? These are some of the most pressing concerns writers face when working with the hero’s transformational arc.

Let’s look at each in turn.

1. What changes in the hero? Typically heroes are good people who have lost their way or have not found it yet. They have potential. They are eminently redeemable.

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage prefers promoting the war effort behind studio cameras rather than taking the fight to the alien enemy in the field. He is smart, determined, good at his job, but he is also a coward. His transformation is from cowardliness to courage.

2. What causes the change? Change comes when external events trigger the hero’s positive character traits.

In The Matrix Neo is obsessed with a central question: What is the Matrix? He is intelligent, strong, and inquisitive, but lacks the self-belief to implement the answers he receives. But when agent Smith threatens to wipe out all resistance and enslave humanity forever, Neo allows Trinity’s kiss to bring him back from the dead and defeat the sentient program.

3. How does this affect the plot? Character growth supports the plot by motivating and explaining the hero’s actions.

The plot arises when the hero pursues a goal but is prevented by his nemesis from achieving it. It is only when he fulfills his potential that he is able to adjust his strategy, defeat his nemesis, and achieve success. The hero’s transformation from cowardliness to courage, self-doubt to self-belief, from ignorance to knowledge, therefore, affects the quality of his actions and the direction of the plot.

Answering a series of questions, such as those posed above, then, is one way of understanding the relation between your hero’s developmental arc and the plot.

Summary

A skillful interweaving of character development and plot is essential to the quality and success of any story.

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The Hero’s Journey

Man and camel in silhouette on a dune

Journey to the light

A student recently asked me how he could bolster the credibility of his hero’s actions in a story he’d written.

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, he could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Assuming your hero’s decisions and actions respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc.

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats.

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis.

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie your hero’s actions to her developmental arc to ensure her inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

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How Good is Your Story’s Title?

A film titling kit

Choosing Titles

In today’s competitive market a writer, especially an indie writer, needs to keep her eye on at least two balls – writing skills and marketing.

It isn’t enough that you’ve written a great first novel or screenplay. You need to generate interest in it.

The belief that a good writer will be recognised in time may be overly optimistic. For every writer that succeeds many others don’t. The truth is that wide-spread recognition, if it comes at all, has to be actively pursued, coaxed, massaged, grown.

Entering competitions, doing readings of your work, building a large online presence, giving guest lectures at book clubs and colleges, can help. But what you really need to do to get your new novel or screenplay noticed is grab the reader’s attention with a great title followed by a captivating logline or blurb.

I have discussed loglines and blurbs elsewhere on my blog. Today I want to look at the importance of a story’s title. Not only is the title a hint of what your story is about, it is an indispensable marketing tool, too.

I asked a friend of mine, an avid reviewer of kindle books, how she picks which story to read first amongst the many others she receives each day. She told me she lets the title and book cover do that for her.

When I worked for Elmo de Witt Films, one of my tasks was to look out for promising screenplays. There were always dozens of them in a pile on my desk waiting to be read. The ones that caught my eye first were always screenplays with great titles.

A great title ticks one or more of the following boxes:

It points to a genre.
It hints at the story behind it.
It has emotional content.
It is not the name of a character.
It sets up a question, hints at a puzzle, intrigues one in some way.

Titles such as, Rich and Famous, Gladiator, The Madness of King George, and Alien leave us in no doubt as to what the story is about. Others, such as Blade Runner, sound so cool and compelling they make us want to know more.

But titles such as K-Pax, The Island, August Rush?

Not so good.

Emma may have worked for Jane Austen way back then, but names of (unknown) people don’t generally make for good titles.

I typically come up with twenty or more titles for a new book or screenplay and ask family, friends, and students to pick their favourite from the list, before making my final choice. I consider it time well spent.

Summary

Choosing a compelling, eyes-catching title for your story is the first small step in getting your novel or screenplay noticed.

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The Measure of Success

Money signs and instrument

How do you measure success?

Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth. No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

Chances are if your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. If not, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Insulate yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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Personal Reflections on Story Structure

Silhouette of a butterfly on a flower

Butterflies in the Dark

Writers like to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal.

I recently met a fellow writer queuing to cash a check from Amazon, like I was. We got to talking and, there and then, became friends. We now share ideas and suggestions via email, when meeting at the local bookstore isn’t possible.

Last week I ran into a novelist at the dairy section of a supermarket. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking how my views on the subject have cured over time.

It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who first suggested to me story structure could be studied, and one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it.

“Without an understanding of structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing,” he told me. That was way back in the early 90s. Sadly, Elmo passed away in 2011, but I still remember his words clearly.

My initial reaction was unfavourable. I had graduated from university and film school with degrees in English Language and Literature and a Higher Diploma in the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.

But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk, waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head.

I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I was, after all, the resident screenwriter of Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know a thing about Syd Field, and later, Christian Vogler, Michael Hague, John Truby, Linda Seger, and others? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.

Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it. Not glibly, but deeply and innocently. Its nuances. Its nooks and crannies. That’s what constitutes integrity.

I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework with impunity I found I didn’t want to. I found my understanding of structure had freed me from the vagaries of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate on the magic of character, theme, symbol, and story content.

Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective, and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure.

This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.

That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too?

Summary

One of the most valuable lessons South African filmmaker Elmo de Witt taught me is an appreciation of story structure.

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One Man’s Villain, is Another Man’s Hero

The Hulk

Hero or Villain?

As we have noted in previous posts, the antagonist performs a crucial function in any well-written story. He acts as a foil, spurring the hero on to achieve her true potential.

But the antagonist is more than a mere technical device. He is also a flesh-and-blood character with a personality, a belief-system, and a goal of his own.

How many times have we seen the bad guy doing bad things, but can’t understand why? This is because he is merely a cog in the writer’s plot. Since the antagonist and protagonist form a basic narrative unit that drives the story forward, a badly written villain will stall the engine.

Generally, all aspects of crafting a believable character apply to the antagonist, but one in particular warrants special mention — the villain believes he is the hero of his own story! He believes he is justified in doing what he does.

In The Matrix, agent Smith despises human beings. He hates their smell, their sweaty bodies, which he sees as prisons of meat. His job is to rid his perfect world of anyone who threatens to destroy it. He is clever, determined, skilled — in his own mind, a hero with a cause. It is partly this self-belief that makes him such a memorable villain.

In The Shawshank Redemption, the bible-punching Warden is obsessed with maintaining absolute order in his prison — in itself, a good thing. The problem is he is also a cruel killer.

In The Last of the Mohicans, Magua is a terrifying villain. His goal is to kill Grey Hair and eat his heart, but not before he hacks his children to bits while he watches. But, if that’s all there was to him, he’d be a one dimensional character, with little interest to us other than as a plot device.

But, later in the story, we learn that his village was destroyed by the English, his children killed, and he enslaved by Indians who worked for Grey Hair. To make matters worse, his wife married another man thinking he was dead. The backstory casts Magua as a tormented and bereaved husband and father seeking revenge — hardly a cardboard cutout serving only the plot.

Summary

The antagonist does not consider himself as being evil. He feels justified in his actions because of a wrong perpetrated against him in the past. Grant your antagonist a powerful cause to give him credibility and depth.

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