Simplifying Compelling Characters

Compelling CharactersCRAFTING compelling characters for your screenplays and novels is a basic requirement for any successful story. A plot without compelling characters to drive it will seem trite and unconvincing.

There is no shortage of advice on how to set about creating successful characters for your stories – from writing lengthy and detailed backstories, their moral, political, social, and ideological viewpoints, to details about their personal tastes. What food do they like? What’s their favorite colour? Do they have all their teeth? And so on, seemingly, ad infinitum.

Truthfully, I have always found such an approach daunting and demotivating.

Certainly, the writer needs to know how a character will react to certain challenges presented by the plot. And, yes, character reaction needs to be rooted in who the character truly is. But do we really need to have prior knowledge of his dental health, unless that impacts the plot directly?

My personal experience has been that delving too long and too deep into the background of the characters may actually block the writing of a story. I get diverted and eventually lost in the details. Indeed, certain details, which initially seem like beacons of inspiration, often create a confusing kaleidoscope of colors that derail progress.

Writing compelling characters need not be that complicated

The point is that for some writers, the act of writing embodies an organic, perhaps even spontaneous fusion of many serendipitous elements – textures, senses, feelings, values, facts, intuitions, plot points. Pre-planing for them is an almost impossible task because many are often discovered on the fly.

My approach to theory, therefore, has been to learn as much about the different aspects of the craft as possible, identify, in broad strokes, the overall direction of the plot and the chief motivation of my characters, then get down to writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that in order to get to the heart of a character we need to know what that character wants – and not wants in some mild, would-like-to-have sort of way, but wants in a compelling, urgent, obsessive way.

Is it love? Then our character must desire it more than anything else in the world.

Is it wealth? She must be willing to push herself to breaking point to acquire it.

Is it revenge? He must be willing to risk death to get it.

In my latest story, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos is trapped by an all engulfing sense of loss resulting from the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. His unyielding desire to try to rewrite the past, through cutting-edge physics, drives his every thought and action.

Not only does this sort of obsessive desire increase the intensity of a character, but it gives the story direction. After all, the character’s wants are what drive the tale forward.

Just think of Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder, or Cinderella’s compulsion to go to the ball, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy.

You get the picture.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks: what must I know about a character before I begin writing her story?

I need to know what she desires and how far she is willing to go to achieve it. I can then begin to generate the plot by placing obstacles in the path of that desire.

Summary

Know your character’s compelling desires before you begin writing her story.

Understanding the Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

The FabulaTHE fabula and syuzhet are two of the most basic and important narrative concepts writers have at their disposal, yet few know exactly what they mean.

The syuzhet is the story that unfolds on the page or screen. It contains all the gaps, obfuscations, and convolutions that render the hero’s experiences interesting to the reader and audience.

The fabula, by contrast, is the sequence of events readers and audiences piece together in their minds while the story unfolds in order to make sense of it.

The fabula as the global perspective of the story

Think of the fabula as the all-revealing, areal perspective of a story. It affords full discloser, offers no surprises and grants no unsolved puzzles. It is, what I call, ontologically replete.

The syuzhet, on the other hand, represents the subjective, ground-level discombobulation of the fabula, intended to generate the kaleidoscope of emotions that keep us engrossed. Arguably, the syuzhet contains the artistic fingerprints of its creators. It is the level where most of the art and craft happens.

Memento, for example, has an extremely convoluted syuzhet. The hero, who suffers from short term memory loss, has to constantly try to understand events that make no sense to him, since he has forgotten the intentions and motives that have preceded them. The creators of the film offer a story that unfolds from present to past in order to capture the disorientating subjective experience of the hero.

Most films, even conventional ones, routinely hide information from us in order to build suspense or interest, until the appropriate point of release. In Manchester by the Sea the reason the protagonist is unable to form relationships and seems content to remain in an abusive, low-paying job is explained through a series of flashbacks later in the film.

Other more ontologically complex films reveal information at a more formal level. The result is the existential surprises of the sort we see in films such as Donnie Darko, Vanilla Sky, Jacob’s ladder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many others. Such puzzle films present the audience with two or more levels of existential reality, making it harder to construct a sensible fabula from a stubbornly uncommunicative syuzhet.

In my own novel, The Level, the syuzhet withholds crucial ontological information from the readers, challenging them to build a coherent fabula before they can understand the meaning of the story.

The benefit of fabula construction lies at the initial stage of story-creation. In planning a complex tale it is best to build a comprehensible fabula before attempting to shift, hide, and surprise through an artful syuzhet. Failure to do so will leave writers as confused as the readers and audiences they are attempting to woo.

Summary

Construct a cogent and replete fabula before attempting to write a convoluted and artful syuzhet.

Are your Stories Plot or Character Driven?

Plot and character in Gladiator

Plot and Character: Russel Crow as Maximus in Gladiator

Students of writing often ask how character relates to plot. Which is more important, or at least, where should the emphasis fall?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than a European art film that concentrates more on character.

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because plot and character are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other?

How character affects plot

The following analogy is helpful: Plot is to character as a beam of light is to a prism passing through it. The prism refracts the flow of the plot.

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena?

Much more fitting is that Maximus pull the Emperor’s sword from his belly with his bare hands and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it.

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story is directed through the prism of character.

Where to Begin your Tale

Starting your tale

Lighting up your tale

How should your tale start? With a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or with a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters?

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings, Speed. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the story, the point of attack.

Interrogate your Tale

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is our genre? Are we writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when we know the answer to those questions can we know what note to strike in our opening.

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue.

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back.

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you need to strike in order to determine the precise starting point of your tale.

How to Write Great Loglines

Writing LoglinesIN ONE of my recent classes on storytelling I invited my screenwriting students to come up with three loglines, before choosing the best amongst them.

Some were more enticing than others. Fresher concepts, new angles on old ones, dangling questions that demanded answers.

Others, not so much.

The Essence of Loglines

When the dust had settled and the best loglines stood shoulder to shoulder one thing seemed obvious. They all foregrounded concrete, outer journey elements of the story while simultaneously revealing essential aspects of the inner journey – the reasons and explanation of why the hero acts in the way that he does.

Being loglines, they did not go overboard in fleshing this out. They provided just enough information to intrigue the reader.

Loglines and high concept have this in common: They allow the reader, in the words of Steven Spielberg, to hold the story in the palm of her hand – to glimpse, in one fell swoop, what the story is about – although high concept focuses on elements of uniqueness and originality far more than any ordinary logline.

So it is with any commercially viable story. Without a concrete, palpable plot in which the hero has to struggle in physically challenging spaces against a powerful villain to achieve his goal, there is no story to tell.

The point is important. If the reader can not see the physical arc of the story in a logline she will probably not be interested in reading the rest of the tale in order to reach its themes and concepts.

This is not to say that the inner journey is not of vital importance. Many of the greatest stories ever written had powerful inner journeys – Lord of the Rings, The Spire. But it is to say that the inner journey will only be of interest if the vehicle that carries it, the outer journey, is concrete and palpable.

The logline, “The Land Below is a post-apocalyptic story concerning a young orphan boy who embodies the themes of survival versus freedom,” is not as good as:

The Land Below is the story of a lowly orphan boy who secretly plots to escape his suffocating post-apocalyptic existence in a converted goldmine, knowing that if betrayed, he will be executed for fermenting resurrection against the social order.”

In the second logline the themes of survival and freedom are still present, but they emerge through the visceral and emotive use of concrete, palpable words such as “plots”, “suffocating”, “goldmine”, “betrayed,” “executed,” and “resurrection”. The logline allows us to hold the story in the palm of our hand.

Summary

Write effective loglines using concrete, emotive, and visceral language that creates a snapshot of your hero’s outer journey, while simultaneously hinting at his reasons for undertaking it.

How to Break Through Writer’s Block

Writer's blockWriter’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another.

It happened to me while writing my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One minute I’m conjuring up a storm, full of plot plans and enthusiasm for the characters in my story, the next I realise that a month has passed without my having added a single word to the text.

I had succumbed to writer’s block – that insidious creature that slouches in the shadows hoping to snatch our muse away and keep her prisoner in his dungeon.

But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of our writing careers.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.

Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery.

So, what to do?

You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis.

Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain momentum.

So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.

Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on.

Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned.

Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.

Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road.

And don’t be too surprised, if, a mile or two along, you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker, wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about kidnappings and dungeons, and how she escaped them both.

Summary

Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one bit at a time, one day at a time.

Do your Minor Characters Have Character?

Minor charactersIn his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers admonishes us to make all our characters, even minor characters, memorable and fascinating in some way. He believes that no role is insignificant unless you make it so.

In Body Heat, for example the writer gives assistant D.A. Ted Danson, one of several minor characters, an interesting habit – he pretends he is Fred Astaire, often doing little dance steps as he swings across the room much to the bewilderment or amusement of others. It is a small thing but this makes his character interesting. He stays in our minds long after the film has ended.

In the film, Down Periscope, one of the the minor characters, Seaman 2nd Class ‘Sonar’ Lavacelli is blunt and a bit of a roughneck, but he is also loyal. He has amassed an impressive collection of whales sounds on tape. When, during the war game, he finds himself in the presence of an enemy ship, he plays the sounds of whales having sex in order to confuse and divert the attention of the enemy away from the submarine.

Eccentric behaviour often does wonders to beef up a minor character. Imagine a character who is so obsessed with order and neatness that he measures the distance of every object in his room after cleaning to ensure that it is in precisely the same position as before. This not only speaks volumes about his character, but it is visually interesting to watch.

Or someone who is so spotless that she washes and shines the vegetable cans she has purchased before placing them in the cupboard for storage.

You get the idea. Go have fun with the minor characters in your stories by giving them interesting and fascinating things to do.

Summary

Make each character colorful or unique in some way in order to make her memorable and fascinating.

What is the Hollywood Story Structure?

Hollywood signI am a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Story Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such stories as Hollywood stories), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage – sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea.

Commercial structure, then, orders an interconnected set of events about a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to an arrangement of interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing a difficult problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

What sparks a storyteller

What sparks a storyteller?

As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.

There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.

Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.

A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.

A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.

My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.

Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.

Summary

One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.

Great Writers Have This In Common

Great writers

Leo Tolstoy – one of the world’s great writers

What makes great writers great? I’ve ruminated on this topic before, but the subject is so fascinating that I find myself revisiting it each time I read or reread a truly great story.

There have been many great writers throughout history: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and many others writing in a multitude of languages across the world.

Most of these writers differ significantly from one another in style and subject matter. So in what sense can they be said to share the same appraisal?

What makes a writer great, anyway?

And why is it that so many remain relevant today when the world they lived in, the manner and style of their writing, has changed? Just compare Shakespeare to Hemingway, for example.

Something timeless must surely be part of the lense through we recognise great writing. It must be something that not only focuses on the historical context, but locates in the work an immediate relevance to today’s society, despite the anachronisms and eccentricities of language and nationality.

It can not be style alone, although all great writers have it in abundance, because style succumbs to anachronism.

Nor can it be solely form, because form evolves with time. Linear story telling, for example, is increasingly competing with non-linear forms.

The essence of great writing therefore has to contain something that excludes change from its definition because it is already fully evolved.

The set of universal values, perhaps?

Great Writers and Universal Values

Although many academics argue against the objectivity of universal values, I believe that they do exist and have always done so. Great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love form some of the values which ennoble us as a species and whose absence or negation exposes the worst in us.

Throughout history great writers have been humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the timeless relevance of those values. They write stories that track the consequences to societies and individuals when love is supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition – when the values that make us human are ignored or negated: A Cathedral’s newly added spire that threatens to collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire), the families and villages that are torn apart by greed (The Pearl), the blind ambition that leads to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal human values that renders great writing immortal and perpetually relevant to us all. Long may it continue to do so.

Summary

Great writers write stories that affirm universal values.