Monthly Archives: January 2015

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.

Image: Usfpasj
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Aristotle Said It First!

Close up of Aristotle's head - statue

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.

Invitation

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Image: Tilemahos Efthimiadis
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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

Image: Jeffrey Beall
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Man scratching his head while reading a book

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.

Invitation

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

Image: James Arboghast
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode