Monthly Archives: June 2015

To Celebrate or Lament? That is the Question.

Birds flyingWe, in the so-called liberal westernised societies, are wading through murky waters.

As writers, whose job it is to record and reflect on the social fabric, we are particularly aware of the rising damp.

Of course, every epoch, at one time or another, declares that times they are a-changing. And certainly, there are enough external indicators to support the claim. The Industrial Age is characterized by the erection of new industry and its concomitant social effects; as are the Nuclear and the Information Ages.

What I find interesting is not so much the external landscape, the repositioning and repurposing of the world’s furniture, but changes to the beliefs and values that underpin our inner lives.

Now, more than before, we see a real shift happening. Our confidence in the political, social, economic and religious systems upon which much of the western world rests, is eroding. Digital media expose enough scandals, corruption, nepotism, and incompetence, on a daily basis, to undermine these institutions.

Our understanding of what constitutes the family unit — a unit comprising of a mother, father, and children, too, is changing. The words ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ no longer mean the same thing today they did in past epochs.

I recently read the bio of a fellow writer on tweeter who described himself as a ‘husband to my husband.’ ‘Married to my partner,’ now includes same-sex marriage and is no longer a clear indication of the union between a man and a woman.

The word ‘friend’ can mean chatting to someone on Facebook you never met in person, while ‘texting’ can mean communicating with someone on a mobile device while neglecting the people in the room around you. An ‘actress’ is no longer an actress. She is now an ‘actor.’ I presume a male actor is still an actor, though.

I accept that language is subject to adaptation and renewal, as is cultural practice, and so, perhaps, it should be. But these are significant changes to the strands of meaning with which we weave our lives. I say this not in judgment of these changes, but in support of my contention that we are entering a time where the social construct is openly mutating in hitherto unexplored and unpredictable ways.

What the long-term effect will be on a society that is replacing one set of fundamental norms with another, is unknown. What is certain, however, is that the change is underway and the world we knew will never be the same again.

In the meantime, we could do worse than record these changes in our writing, no matter on what side of the fence we stand.

Summary

Reflect upon the changing times in your writing.

Storytelling Through Action Points

DominoesAction points are bits of new information that spur further actions in a story — actions that cause reactions.

Linda Seger, in her book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, provides the following example: In Tootsie, Michael is told by Sandy about the availability of a female role in a soap opera. Desperate for a job, the luckless Michael masquerades as a woman (Dorothy) and takes the interview.

Sandy’s action has caused Michael’s reaction.

He gets the part (action), meets Julie and is instantly attracted to her (reaction). The mutual attraction results in Julie inviting “Dorothy” for dinner (action), which causes Dorothy/Michael to begin falling in love with her (reaction).

Each action here is strong, visual, and dramatic, and demands a response of some kind. Different actions will demand different sorts of responses, but in all cases, the scenes will be driven by actions that are strongly linked.

One of the structural weaknesses in stories is that they sometimes contract the episodic malaise — one scene related to another by chronology alone, rather than physical, emotional and psychological causality. This makes for a tenuous connection between scenes. Action points avoid the pitfall by linking the scenes together through cause and effect.

Although action points may occur in any act, they are indispensable in act two, the longest of the three, which is in most need of momentum.

Summary

Action points link scenes together through cause and effect and help to add momentum to your stories.

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Let’s Talk About the Stakes

Man playing guitar on stepsIn Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger points out that studio executives, producers and story editors are fond of asking a writer: What’s at stake for your hero?

If the risks are weak or unclear, readers and audiences have no reason to care about the characters in our story or see any connection between their experience and the experience of our fictional characters — our characters will not evoke a sense of empathy.

Abraham Maslow has devised a seven-part hierarchy to explain what drives us, and what is at stake if we fail to get it. Most good stories draw on one or more of these needs.

1. Survival: Many excellent stories are about survival. This primal instinct is basic to all animals and we are no exception. By centering our story around the hero’s (or community’s) survival, we’re ticking the first box on the list of creating empathy. The movie, Deliverance, is a fine example of this.

2. Safety and Security; Once our survival needs are met, we seek a safe and secure place to keep the dangers at bay. We lock our doors, build forts, raise armies to guard us. Voyage of the Damned and Country utilise this need in their stories.

3. Love and Belonging: But what is a safe home without love and family? We have a deep need to connect with others. We need to love and be loved in return. In Places of the Heart, Edna desperately wants to preserve her family — a family that comprises of more than just her children. It includes Will, the blind man, and Moses, a black male. This need drives the story to its inevitable conclusion.

4. Esteem and Self-Respect: People desire to be looked up to, respected. But this respect has to be earned through knowledge and hard-knocks. Luke Skywalker earns respect at the end of Star Wars after a series of lessons learnt the hard way.

5. The Need to Know and Understand. We are insatiably curious creatures. We seek to understand how things work, how they fit together. We seek to know what life is, where we came from. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is driven, in part, by such a curiosity, while films such as Back to the Future and The Time Machine show characters perpetually struggling to understand how to travel back and forth in time.

6. The Aesthetic: Once we are secure and confident, we seek to create a sense of order in our lives by connecting to something higher than ourselves. This can be a religious or aesthetic experience, but it often involves the search for epiphany. Films such as Joan of Arc, Amadeus, and Never Cry Wolf, use this more abstract need to drive their stories.

7. Self-Actualisation: Finally, we need to express ourselves — to communicate who we are, to declare our skills and talents to ourselves and the world. Artists and athletes express this need through their desire to finish a work, break a record. The need to excel is strongly displayed in films such as Chariots of Fire and The Turning point.

Used in combination these needs, instincts and desires form a solid backbone for many successful stories. They create empathy in readers and audiences, linking their own desires to the dreams, hopes and fears of fictional characters.

Summary

Use Maslow’s hierarchy to motivate and explain your fictional characters.

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How Character Relationships Drive Your Story

imageIn her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that characters hardly ever exist in isolation from each other. With the exception of such stores as Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, or Steven Spielberg’s Duel, most tales consist of characters who love, hate, like, or dislike each other.

Novelist Leonard Tourney stresses that couples have become more important in fiction and in film.

Pairing people up into relationships changes their individual chemistry; it brings out differing aspects in them: Walter White’s complex master/slave relationship with Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, is one of the many examples of this sort of complexity. Older television series such as Cheers, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, and Moonlighting, are more cases in point. This is not limited to television alone.

How successful would Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rain Man, or Lethal Weapon have been without this chemistry between the lead characters?

All of these stories have characters based on traits that cause the most bang for the buck when mixed together. The mix is characterised by:

1. Characters who have something in common that brings them and keeps them together.

2. A conflict between characters that threatens to tear them apart and is the cause of much of the humour or drama in a story.

3. Characters have contrasting traits — opposites may attract, but they often combust when brought together.

4. Characters that have the ability to transform each other, for better or worse.

Marshaling characters utilising these relational traits is a useful method for creating interesting stories.

Summary

Writing characters that are driven by strong relational dynamics is an important way of generating interest in your stories.

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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.

Why Do We Love Characters In Conflict?

Fish eating its own tailWe’ve all heard about the importance of conflict in storytelling; that it is the fuel that drives the drama; that without it our stories lack interest.

But where do we find conflict? In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger stresses that conflict springs up between characters because of their differing motivations, backgrounds, wants and goals, values and attitudes.

Often, these conflicts are psychological. The traits that characters often find the most infuriating about each other come from their repressed sides; ironically, it is these very qualities that both attracts and repels them.

Conflict sometimes occurs because characters hide things from each other, either purposefully, or because of an inability to communicate, which, in turn, leads to misunderstandings. In Cheers Sam and Diane’s first kiss is fraught with conflict, albeit humorously rendered:

SAM: What is it you want, Diane?
DIANE: I want you to tell me what you want.
SAM: I’ll tell you what I want… I want to know what you want.
DIANE: Don’t you see, this is the problem we’ve had all along. Neither of us is able to come out and state the obvious.
SAM: You’re right. So, let’s state the obvious.
DIANE: O.K. You go first.
SAM: Why should I go first?
DIANE: We’re doing it again.
SAM: Diane, just explain one thing to me…Why aren’t you with Derek?
DIANE: Because I like you better.
SAM: Really? Well, I like you better than Derek, too.
DIANE: Sam…
SAM: All the jealousy I ever felt for my brother is nothing to what I’ve felt In the last five minutes.
DIANE: Oh, Sam. I think we’re about to start something that might be kind of great, huh?
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, You’re right. I guess we oughta like…kiss, huh?

But because nothing is ever straight forward between Diane and Sam, it takes many pages of discussion and arguing before they finally do kiss.

The point is that conflict does not have to be graphic to generate interest in the characters and drama; often, it is the more subtle, hidden conflicts that most hold the reader’s and audience’s attention.

Summary

Character conflict often occurs when characters try to hide something from each other, or are defined by differing values.