Monthly Archives: July 2016

Transitions – the Hard Cut

Cuts and transitionsTransitions are a necessary part of storytelling. Leaping over unnecessary chunks of narrative through hard cuts keeps the story pacy and exciting. They free the reader from having to trudge over flat terrain.

This is no more obvious than when comparing today’s films and television to those of even a couple of decades ago. What would once have been considered lively viewing now seems dull and languid.

Pace and Transitions

No doubt the pace of our contemporary lifestyle has much to do with the speeding up of the narrative flow. But it also has to do with the realisation that gaps created by effective transitions allow the reader or audience to fill in the gaps without a loss of pace. It also increases participation in a story.

But the attempt to keep things moving, especially in action genres, is not new. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, points out that Alistair Maclean faced a potential pacing problem in his novel, Where Eagles Dare, when Major Smith and his group get to the Oberhausen airfield and have to wait for the rescue plane to arrive.

A scene of the fugitives sitting around waiting would make for unexciting narrative. Instead, Maclean switched the viewpoint to the pilot in the rescue plane, which brought with it new information and renewed interest.

In my own novels, Scarab and Scarab II, I extensively use this technique of switching viewpoints to important characters to leap to significant parts of the story. This does not only keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, it injects new interest by exploring new information from the best possible vantage points in the story.

Additionally, when done well, the technique allows readers to fill in the missing parts which, significantly, ramps up involvement in the story.

Summary

Use hard cut transitions to skip over unnecessary parts of a story.

How to Sympathise with a Flawed Hero

Sympathise with  flawed heroOne of the most important requirements in writing a successful story is that we sympathise with the hero. The hero, in a typical tale, is the character through whom we chiefly experience events.

This does not mean that the hero has no flaws. Indeed, the flaw is what helps define the hero’s character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful action to swift and righteous action that helps him achieve his goal.

Yet, crafting a sympathetic hero has become increasingly difficult. A variety of scandals involving our politicians, military and religious leaders has served to soil our trust in the existence of unsullied, altruistic heroes.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc.

The notion of a flawed hero, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. These tragic heroes are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes, in recent times, is noteworthy.

Dexter, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe.

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters pulled this off? Here are some suggestions:

We sympathise with a flawed hero because …

The hero finds himself in a situation of undeserved misfortune:

Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can ill afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay his bills.

The law-breaking hero is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to do this and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he outsmarts both the police and his criminal victims time and again.

The hero acts for a cause other than himself:

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Understanding the underlying motivation of these deeply flawed heroes helps soften our critique of them.

Summary

Understanding a character’s motivation, no matter how flawed, helps us to sympathise with his predicament.

How to Involve Your Audience in Your Feature Script

FeatureI recently consulted on a feature script that was nearing pre-production. The script had many things going for it – a social and historical context, a strong uplifting theme, driven characters. Certainly, there were tweaks and shimmies still needed to bring it to a final draft, but the bulk of the structural work had been done.

It just needed to amp up audience involvement in the story. The problem was that the solution had been wrongly identified as the need for more action.

Ramping up Audience Involvement in Your Feature

Sometimes writers mistake involvement for action. They erroneously add a fight scene here, a chase scene there in the belief that it will suck audiences in through sheer pace. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.

Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to solicit sympathy, at the very least. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.

Additionally, at the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. It take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.

Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story.

How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?

The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.

In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if stays away from her forever. It is a reversal that increases our involvement in the story.

With regard to the script I consulted on, I suggested that we replace a couple of poorly motivated ‘action’ incidents with two ‘barrier’ events and a reversal and leave it at that. That seemed to do the trick.

Summary

A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal increases audience involvement in a story.

How to Keep Evolving Stories on Track

Evolving storiesAre stories evolving? In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.”

This insight may well be applied to all stories.

Evolving Structures

In my own PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I trace the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when experience changes.

The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space.

Meaning, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our salient understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.

This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.

These films muddle our understanding of linear sequencing, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.

The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotion are not effective.

My advice to authors and screenwriters who choose to write in evolving, non-linear forms, then, is to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion in us – passion, sadness, joy, disdain – the usual fare of traditional story-telling.

I’d like to think I followed my own advice in my non-linear novel, The Level.

Evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to give a damn.

Summary

Never allow the evolving form and structure of stories to get in the way of emotion.