Monthly Archives: September 2012

How to Avoid the Blank Page

The Blank Page

The Blank Page

In his book,The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field mentions that the great Irish writer, James Joyce, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re immediately working on.

Pantser or Plotter?

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill a blank page. Having a story roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and get us to our destination sooner — page by page.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word of the actual screenplay or manuscript. Others like to write from the seat of their pants — pantsers in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more helpful is knowing what the midpoint or turning points are. This allows us even more freedom — the freedom to drop into at any point in the story and write from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the Hero and the antagonist might be more appropriate.

Left or Right Brain?

Sitting down to write a story from a structural roadmap, however, often changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure (essentially a left-brain activity) that we outline in the cool light of day mutates when we massage it back to our right brain and finally onto the screen or paper. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planingning story structure.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for not having one at all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting our midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to the new direction that may result from the actual writing of our tale. Indeed, this to and fro movement between our left and right brain hemispheres may help to integrate the writing process and make us more accomplished writers — with only proviso: when letting the muse go, let her go. Don’t put her on the leash of structure. But when she pauses to rest, by all means, look over her shoulder and let the left brain take over for a while. Ideally, this occurs after the first draft has been written, as I have mentioned in a previous post. But there is no reason to assume that we shouldn’t pause to catch our breath from the creative hurly-burly and ponder on the direction of our stories, at any time.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories, no matter how scant or vague, helps us to drop in at any point of our protagonist’s journey and write from there. When the muse changes our roadmap in the act of writing itself, simply go back and adjust the map rather than assume it had no value in the first place.

Invitation

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Understanding Story Values

Story Values

Story Values

Good stories relate more than an outer journey that the Hero embarks on in pursuit of a difficult but worthy goal. Hollywood screenwriting consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that something more meaningful has to occur to deepen and universalise the story – the story has to address some aspect of the human condition and the values that underpin it.

Theme reveals Value

The search for justice, the pursuit of excellence, the striving for honour, the need for fulfillment – these are all aspects of a character’s inner journey that help audiences and readers identify with the Hero. A value system can be a negative or positive one. In the film, Gladiator, Maximus’s (Russell Crowe) actions seem ostensibly to be driven by his desire to revenge the slaughter of his family. But a closer examination reveals that he is also driven by his need to right the wrongs of government that arose as a consequence of the emperor’s death.

In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash (Russell Crowe) needs to solve a great mathematical problem in order to prove his worth. He is driven by great intelligence, which manifests, in part, in his condescending attitude towards his peers and teachers. Yet, at a deeper level, he strives for things of the heart, rather than just those of the mind: he makes up a fictional government agent who appreciates his abilities and encourages him to solve a puzzle which can save the world – a mark of his superior intelligence and his need to serve the greater good.

A story’s value system can spring from a character’s desire for authenticity, as in Driving Miss Daisy, in which Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) discovers her true self is more connected to those below her social sphere than she realises. A value system can also espouse social values – a fight for peace, justice, and freedom, as in Thelma and Louise and A Few Good Men. Whatever the emphasis, values underpin a character’s actions, helping to guide, inflect, and often create a story-enriching inner conflict.

Summary

Good stories rest on the bedrock of values. Values guide a character’s actions; a story’s value system is revealed by the theme, which is typically settled at the end of the story when the clash between the Hero and antagonist yields a final result – such as good trumps evil, or vice versa.

Invitation

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How to Create Visual Metaphors

Visual Metaphors

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger suggests that writers ought to do more than visually describe the specific world(s) of their story. They should also create visual metaphors. A visual metaphor is an image that connotes something over and above its denotative aspect – it carries an idea that resonates with readers or audiences on many levels. It forms part of an image system that informs and supports the story’s hidden meaning while at the same time helping to define its visual context.

Tom Jones

One of the most famous visual metaphors in film is the eating scene in Tom Jones. Ostensibly about eating, this scene is really all about sex – the spontaneity, rebelliousness, naughtiness of the carnal act, the excitement of going after the wrong woman, a metaphor for sexually devouring a lover’s body.

The Piano

In the film The Piano it is obvious that when Baines (Harvey Keitel) painstakingly dusts the instrument, he is not displaying his dedication to good housekeeping. His cleaning of the piano represents the woman he desires to touch, caress, and fondle.

Appropriate Construction

To work well, visual metaphors need to be adroitly constructed. Seger makes the point that eating a Caesar’s salad wouldn’t work as well as chewing on flesh and bone, in Tom Jones. Nor would dusting the piano with a rag be as effective as a naked Baines cleaning the instrument with his shirt. Choosing the right setting and detail of the visual metaphor is crucial to its communicating the intended nuance and meaning.

Visual metaphors may come in any form: broken glass may represent a broken life; blood can symbolise life or death; a mirror might represent the theme of illusion and deception, or a shattered persona. Shakespeare often uses visual metaphors to shed light on a story’s hidden meaning – a tortured soul surrounded by rain, thunder, and lightning in King Lear; the murder of a king causing imbalance in nature – as in Macbeth, where horses are reported to have eaten each other. Whatever the metaphor, however, the net result is the same – conveying information over and above the denotative aspect of the scenes in which they occur.

Summary

Visual metaphors point to the inner meaning beneath the surface of a story. They help support the story in an economical way by providing denotation and connotation in one seamless package.

Invitation

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Exploring the Story Network III

Story Networks

In this third and final post on understanding story networks, we look at the dynamic relationship that exists between the 2nd turning point, climax, and denouement.

The 2nd Turning Point & Climax

The 2nd Turning Point spins the story around in a new direction by introducing fresh information, which, in turn, announces and seeds the third and final act. The purpose of act iii is to bring matters to a head, preferably in a final do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist (Hero) and the antagonist, resolve loose ends, prepare the way for a return to the ordinary or changed world, and offer a moral statement in the form of the theme. The relationship of the 2nd turning point to the climax is one of growing dramatic intensity along the path set out by the 2nd turning point, revved up by a constant upping of the stakes, which by definition, involves twists, turns, and surprises, albeit of a less severe nature than those of the turning points themselves.

The Climax and Denouement

Resolving loose ends is precisely the function of the denouement. The final battle between the Hero and antagonist has ended, the Hero has returned in victory or defeat to a changed, or ordinary world, and the theme of the story has been determined. The relationship between the climax and Denouement, is, therefore, one of resolution and explanation.

Summary

The relationship of the 2nd turning point to the climax is one of mounting intensity, inflected by small twists and surprises; the relationship between the climax and denouement is one of resolution and explanation.

This series of posts has examined the main structural nodes of a story, not as lone units performing static tasks, but as nodes whose full function is revealed only when viewed collectively as a dynamic network, with each node defining itself by virtue of its relationships to the nodes before and after it.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.