Monthly Archives: March 2015

How to Fix Lackluster Scenes

Fix it dolls

Fix It!

We’ve all written scenes which almost work. Almost, but not quite.

Such scenes are difficult to fix since we can’t easily put our finger on what’s wrong.

The subtext seems to be in place. The dialogue seems to be communicating the plot and revealing character. Yet, something seems amiss. The writing seems too unimaginative, too lackluster.

In one of my recent classes a student presented us with such a scene. She had a strong female character giving instructions, in her high-tech office, to a male employee about some top-secret project. Everything seemed in place, yet the scene seemed stolid, dull. Something was definitely wrong.

My usual remedy in such cases is a series of variations – a change of location, a change of time period, and, in more stubborn cases, a change of character.

Luckily, here, a change of location did the trick. Instead of having the woman instruct her employee in her office, I suggested she does this in a hothouse, while trimming exotic plants. That way each comment could be accentuated by a snip of her pruning clippers. This would immediately add a deeper layer of subtext to the scene.

The student thought about it and ultimately decided to move the scene to an aviary, which worked just as well. It allowed the warm tone of the setting to add an interesting spin to the dialogue.

The result was an inspired scene that ticked all the boxes. Not only did the character’s actions grant an element of irony to the woman’s tough demeanour, the new environment lent an element of visual variety and contrast, too.

Summary

Consider changing the location, time-period, or background-action of your characters to pump up stolid, lackluster scenes.

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

What is Multiform Narrative?

Soap bubbles

Multiple Worlds:

In last week’s post I dealt with the category of multi-strand stories, drawn from my Ph.D thesis Multistrand and Multiform Narratives in Hollywood Cinema.

This week, I’d like to talk a little about the remaining category – multiform narrative.

Both categories attempt to deal with the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life, but whereas multi-strand stories do that through multiple strands featuring multiple protagonists not tied to a single plot, multiform narrative comprises of stories featuring a protagonist who inhabits separate realities in an existential and ontological sense.

This necessarily means that the protagonist splits up into several copies of himself, each occupying a different realm – whether it is the multiple universes of Donnie Darko, or the illusionary realities of dream and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the virtual reality inside of The Matrix.

Open multiform narratives, such as Donnie Darko, stubbornly refuse to cue the viewer as to the preferential reality of the story. Donnie, for example, ostensibly appears to be both alive and dead in the movie, since the beginning shows him coming home from having slept the night on the golf course, only to discover that a jet engine has smashed into his bedroom.

But the end of the film replays the incident only this time Donnie sleeps in his bedroom and is killed by the jet engine.

Both incidents can’t be right in a single spatiotemporal framework. They present us with a paradox that can only be resolved if we place the two events in separate realities. In one universe, Donnie dies. In the other he lives.

Closed multiform narratives such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, by contrast, differ from their cousins in the open multiform category in that they announce which world is real and which illusionary. Here, the filmmakers are at pains to show us Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, et al., entering and exiting the matrix through telephone lines, while Lacuna’s memory-erasing procedure cues and orientates us in a similar way.

Open multiform stories, then, tend to be more subjective and bewildering, whilst closed multiform narratives offer a helping hand through well-placed cues.

Both categories, however, succeed in reflecting the multiplicity and uncertainty inherent in lives littered with smart phones, video games, and multiple apps open on multiple screens – lives from which that much-needed sense of solitude and aloneness seems forever banished.

Summary

Multiform narratives encode the bewildering complexity of modern life by showcasing multiple realities featuring copies of a single protagonist.

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

What is Multistrand Narrative?

Man spinning woolAs writers of novels or screenplays we are familiar with using character, setting, dialogue, plot, and genre, to convey theme, mood, and moral premise of our stories.

But to what extent do we utilise narrative structure itself to reflect these last three elements?

In my Ph.D thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I point out that the canonical structure comprising of a beginning, middle, and end, first elucidated by Aristotle, involving a single plot and protagonist pursuing a specific goal, is not the only way to tell a story.

Multistrand stories, also referred to as ensemble, thread-structure, and multiple-plot narratives have become increasingly common in the past few of decades. Woody Allen’s films, for one, tend to employ this structure, as do romantic comedies such as Love Actually, Sex in the City, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, and dramas such as Crash, Babel and Syriana.

Distinct from multiform narratives such as Donnie Darko, Jacob’s Ladder, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which use multiple realities to keep us off center, multistrand stories portray the bewildering simultaneity and multiplicity of contemporary life by intercutting independent stories together, without subsuming them under a single plot.

Instead, equally-weighted strands cohere through a common theme. Each features its own protagonist and explores an aspect of the premise — love heals, for example — by having each individual story reach a similar or contrary conclusion.

Laying down several strands within a limited number of pages affects how much time the writer has available for introducing the various characters, and how those characters are portrayed. Vignettes tend to be the order of the day, here. Complexity within each strand, too, is kept to a minimum since the audience would have difficulty in keeping track of multiple plots involving multiple protagonists.

Taken together, however, the sheer number of independent strands encodes the bewildering intricacy, befuddlement, and moral ambiguity of contemporary life in a way that, perhaps, a conventional three-act structure fails to do. And therein lies the point.

Summary

Multistrand stories encode the bewildering multiplicity of contemporary life in their narrative structure.

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Image: Sukanto Debnath
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Need a Great Villain? Triple-Dip him!

Picture of Harry Potter Villain

Villainous Intents:

We’ve all heard about the importance of a powerful antagonist in stories.

An antagonist works against the protagonist to stop her from achieving the story goal. Together they form a dynamic pair whose ongoing battle forms the spine of the story.

We know that a well-written villain is clever and resourceful. He believes he is the hero of his own tale. He is often articulate, even eloquent, with a well-defined philosophy about life which motivates his actions and explains his loathing for the hero and her goal.

These characteristics emerge through his actions, but also through at least one great speech in which he explains to the hero, or another character, the depths of his villainous vision.

But it seemed to me that truly memorable antagonists needed something more – an extra ingredient that guaranteed their place in the annals of villainy. It was during one of my classes on writing that it struck me – great villains exhibit what may be described as a double, or triple dip. This is the moment when the character surprises the hero by plunging even deeper into darkness.

In the TV series, Outlander, an English knight, Black Jack Randall, has already proven to be a ruthless and cruel man capable of rape and murder. But in a crucial scene in a later episode he reveals to us the depths of his depravity.

He explains to his prisoner, Claire Randall, the Hero of the story, that the two hundred lashes, administered to a young Scot accused of stealing, were something beautiful, a work of art. We see the whipping as a flashback and flinch at the relentless violence of leather cutting into the torn, bleeding flesh of the young man – first dip.

Randall then seems to relent. He admits to Claire that he is filled with self-loathing for the man he has become, giving her hope that he will free her, and also, bolstering her cherished belief that any man is capable of redemption. But, suddenly, he turns and punches her in the gut, driving their air from her lungs. She falls to the ground gasping – second dip.

As if that’s not enough, he orders his reluctant soldier to kick her while she lies gasping on the floor, describing the kicking of a woman as something liberating – third dip.

These actions don’t only represent plunges into physical cruelty. They are an attempt to crush the spirit of the person they are directed against – Claire believes that Black Jack Randall can be saved. He proves to her he can’t. This isn’t only a physical blow, but also is a blow against her Christian belief in the ultimate Salvation of Man.

It is this triple-dip, combined with a relentless desire to destroy his enemy’s spirit that makes Black Jack Randall a truly memorable villain.

Summary

Double or triple dips, combined with a dark, relentless desire to crush the hero’s spirit, make for memorable villains.

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Image: Johanthan McIntosh
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Do you Write Gut or Stomach?

Book Cover

The Land Below

Most writers I talk to have at least two things in common: they want to be read and they want to write well. I’m one of them.

We dream of writing a book or screenplay that’s so accomplished, that so touches the nerve of some current or emerging issue, shedding new light on its emotional, social, and political ramifications, that it shoots up the best-seller lists.

Let’s not fool ourselves — we all seek an audience. Even those of us who pretend, in our darkest moments, not to care, or who fool ourselves into thinking that if only the gatekeepers could understand the depth and complexity of our writing, they’d smile and nod and fling open the doors to the pantheon.

Popularity, of course, is no guarantee of quality. But neither is obscurity. Shakespeare was popular in his day. So was Dickens. Hardly a pair of slouches.

In my line of work as a teacher and writer I come across wordsmiths who’s idea of quality is language and subject matter that is impenetrable and stolid. Indeed, it seems that some make it a point to choose words that are obscure over words that are familiar, as if a large and exotic vocabulary, is, in itself, a sign of creative talent.

Of course, as writers we should cherish all words. Building a large vocabulary is a necessary goal, but we should not remain blind to the sensual quality of words — the notion that words of Anglo Saxon origin, in creative writing, tend to be more explosive and tactile, than their Latin or Greek-based counterparts.

Depending on the context, for example, “I punched him in the gut,” tends to be more forceful and tactile than “I punched him in the stomach.” In my newly released book, The Land Below, I’ve used both, but each time I was governed by character and mood.

We should ensure the words we choose are not, by their texture and nuance, broken bridges to the feelings and ideas we seek to express. And that, of course, requires we understand their origin as well as their meaning.

Finding a voice that speaks to the masses, while sharing the love of language and subject matter, is a worthy life-long goal for any writer. Living in an ivory tower with the echo of our own grandiloquence for company is not.

Summary

Sharing the love of words and subject-matter through clear and accessible language is a worthy goal for any writer.

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Image: Stavros Halvatzis (c)