Tag Archives: screenwriting

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.

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

Why Your Story’s Ending Determines its Beginning through its Middle

Zig-zag

Storyline

Teachers of storytelling often tell us that we should know our story’s ending before we start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind. But why should this be the case? What’s so important about a story’s ending?

Well, think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, its theme – it’s raison d’être. The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, emerges as the product of two opposing characters, or forces, clashing in a final showdown and yielding a winner: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly crafted stories.

The Matrix

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, curtails the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further constrains the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining your three points, then, will result in a zigzagging line which climbs upwards to the ending.

Summary

Crafting a story’s ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.

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Image: Victory of the People
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How to Validate Your Characters’ Traits

The number 4

Validating Character Traits

One of the wonderful things about being a teacher of writing, and author, is that I get to think about my craft and discover hidden treasures that surprise and reward me at unexpected moments.

During a recent screenwriting lecture, a student asked me how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear less trite and forced? She felt that in many of the films and books she’d read, some by accomplished authors, this contrasting trait appeared superficial and misplaced and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall work.

Just to rewind for a moment: A typical character comprises of four defining traits, the forth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and generate interest in the character. For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city …

I thought about this for a while and realised that I hadn’t, perhaps, sufficiently emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.

So, if a man keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?

In other words, seek to explain, in a believable way, where his ‘stupidity’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point, or at the midpoint. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen our understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.

Speaking of which, I’d really love to know what bit of backstory fully explains Hannibal Lector’s (the TV series) drive to create macabre meals from human flesh. Perhaps you can write in and let me know.

Summary

Tying character traits into specific and significant events of a character’s life through the backstory, especially the fourth contrasting trait, is essential in creating characters that are interesting, yet believable.

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Image: Jukka Zitting
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Writing Characters that Sell

Money flying

Successful Characters:

At the end of his chapter on character development (Writing Screenplays that Sell), Michael Hauge offers the following useful summary:

According to the Hollywood screenwriting guru, there are three facets to character: physical makeup, personality and background.

In order to create character identification and sympathy, Hauge suggests variously placing your lead in jeopardy, making her likable, introducing her to your audience early, making her powerful, witty, or good at her job, positioning her in a familiar setting, and granting her familiar flaws and foibles.

Ensure originality by performing adequate research on specific individuals whose lives seem authentic, unique, and interesting; go against cliche by altering the physical makeup, background and personality to make your character less predictable. Pair her up with an opposite or contrasting character and cast her, in your imagination, assigning her role to an actor that is best suited to the part.

Remember that there are two levels of character motivation: outer motivation, which is the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story, and, inner motivation which is the reason she strives for the goal in the first place—the why to the what and how.

The sources of conflict are outer conflict—conflict between other characters and nature, and, inner conflict—conflict between warring aspects within the character herself.

The four categories of primary characters are: hero or protagonist, whose motivation drives the plot, the nemesis or antagonist who tries to prevent the hero from achieving the goal, the reflection or guardian who most supports the protagonist, and the romance character, who, according to Hauge, alternatively supports and quarrels with the hero.

Secondary characters are created as needed, in order to provide additional plot support, add obstacles, bring relief, humour, depth and texture to your story.

Summary

This post summarises suggestions for developing successful characters for your stories.

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
Image: OTA Photos

Story-Structure Checklist

Ticked off items

Story Checklist:

A story checklist helps to concentrate our attention on important aspects of story construction. Here is one on story structure, once more, gleaned from Michael Hauge’s book, Writing Screenplays that Sell.

1. Does each scene, event, and character contribute to the protagonist’s outer motivation.
The beginning of the story poses an overall question in the viewer’s/reader’s mind that will be answered by the end of the story. In The Matrix, for example, the overall story question is; Is Neo The One?

2. Is each hurdle and obstacle in the protagonist’s path to her goal, greater than the last one? In The Matrix, Neo’s journey is strewn with obstacles—from not knowing how to fight, from a lack of self-belief, to finally being shot in the chest by agent Smith.

3. Does the pace of your story accelerate to the climax? In the third act of the The Karate Kid, the scenes are spaced closer and closer together—reconciling with Ali, being admitted to the tournament, participating in the initial matches, suffering a broken knee, and taking part in the final match.

4. Is the emotional through line made up of peaks and valleys? In The Karate Kid, the tournament scenes are interspersed with quieter scenes of plotting by the Cobras, coaching, and fixing Daniel’s leg.

5. Is your story chock-full of anticipation? The karate tournament, which we know about from the start, the fights with Johnny, the anticipated attacks after the party, all add to the overall sense of anticipation in The Karate Kid.

6. Are there surprises and reversals to our anticipation? In The Matrix, our expectation that Neo is indeed, The One, undergoes several reversals when he fails to jump across buildings, or when his meeting with the Oracle seems to indicate the contrary.

7. Does the story create curiosity? In The Karate Kid, we wonder how on earth Mr. Miyagi will manage to teach Daniel the requisite skills to stand up to his brutal opponent.

8. Are your characters, timing, and situation credible? The three month period provides enough time for Daniel to acquire fighting skills under the expert tutelage of Mr. Miyagi, but the time is adroitly condensed by the screenwriter so that the audience can stay involved.

9. Are the events in the story sufficiently foreshadowed? Q. How can we possibly believe that a boy with a broken knee and three months training can win a tough tournament? A. By introducing a secret weapon in the form of the Crane Stance and Mr. Miyagi’s healing abilities.

10. Does your story have an effective opening and ending? The Karate Kid uses a new arrival opening from New Jersey to Van Nuys to introduce Daniel, which is appropriate to the slow build up of the story. The final match, a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, is an appropriate climax which settles the overall question established early in the story: Can Daniel win against all odds?

Summary

The story-structure checklist focuses the writer’s attention on important aspects of story construction. Familiarity with such a list makes the task of troubleshooting one’s tale that much easier.

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Image: Oliver Tacke

The Future of Writing

Shades pic

Bright Future

There has never been a better time to be a writer. After years of concern that reading might be on the wane, especially for our attention-challenged teenagers forever bent over their smart phones and computer keyboards, reading is once again becoming cool, supported by the gadget revolution and the e-readers that it has spawned—Kindle, Nook, Kobo and the like.

Additionally, the virtual side of stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble have provided a shopfront where authors can sell their work directly to the public and let it decide on its merit.

No longer need we plaster our walls with rejection slips from reluctant publishers, nor struggle to find reputable agents willing to take us on. Had that been my only option, I’d probably have fallen by the wayside, never having had the stomach to pursue that route in the first place. My first novel, Scarab, completed some 14 years ago, shelved and quietly forgotten about, might never have reached the No. 1 spot in the science fiction/hard-tech category on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, nor would its follow up, Scarab II: Reawakening, have seen the light of day.

Luckily, I entered the market at a time when Amazon had already provided an alternative to the traditional publishing route through their kindle reader. For me it was a no-brainer. The reading public is, after all, our ultimate judge: It is the public we have to please if we are to succeed as authors—in an economic sense, at least. Of course, now that one’s work rides the best seller lists, traditional publishers no longer seem as reluctant.

Another factor fueling the writing resurgence is the number of new authors the changed landscape had allowed to emerge. People who would never considered trying their hand at writing are now doing so. Although an exponential increase in the democracy of writing has allowed the birth of material that seems below par, it has also allowed amazing new talent to be discovered. Hugh Howey, whose series, Wool has put him on the map, has admitted in a recent interview, that the traditional route would never had garnered him the success his indie status has.

Last, but not least, as indie writing grows into a giant industry, a number of services are springing up to support it. The number of how-to-write and market-yourself books, websites, and story doctors is growing by the day. Editors married to traditional publishing houses are realising that their services have coin with indie writers too—perhaps even more so. Inevitably, this will impact the quality of indie writing, driving it ever upward. Not only will this benefit the reading public, it will also affect the quality of movies that are increasingly drawing from this pool of new talent.

So, my fellow indie writers, put on your shades, for, whichever way we look, the future of writing seems bright indeed.

Summary

The positive outlook for reading and writing seems set to continue, supported by a growing number of hardware innovations and trends.

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Photo: M Vegas. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

How Conflict Leads to Character Growth

In order for the characters in your story to grow, Lagos Egri informs us, you must lead them into situations of increasing conflict.

Conflict emanates from contradiction. Contradiction results from the clash of two powerful wills, pitted against each other. Animosity, fear, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition pitted against their opposites are some of the the ingredients that make for a powerful conflict.

Conflict will not thrive without heaping trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision, they make another, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on. This provides the causality that drives the story forward like a stack of falling dominos.

Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others who are stubborn will never give up.

As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, by their physical and psychological make-up, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They try to achieve their goal, no matter what.

Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels these characters toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise.

The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth, such as from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most exciting and successful stories.

Summary

Conflict promotes growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, where one trait gains prominence over the other.

Writers’ Winning Ways

Winning Writing Habits

Although neither sacrosanct nor replete the list below reveals some of the winning habits of writers and creatives across the world.

1. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

2. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

6. Write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point here is to support the writing habit and it will support you.

7. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage.

8. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

Summary

Becoming a successful writer often involves traveling down a long and difficult road—it is not for the faint-hearted. Fostering healthy habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals easier to achieve.

Inspiration

Lightbulb over head

Inspiration:

In this post I take time-out from my usual exploration of specific creative writing techniques to ruminate about a subject that I’ve been interested in since I started writing. At its core, it’s about the relationship between plotting and pantsing, the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

I hold the view that a pre-determined plot is necessary prior to the commencement of the first draft, especially in a screenplay where there is limited space for things to fall into place. But I also maintain that magic often comes unexpectedly.

Certainly, our knowledge of structure, dialogue, pace, and the like—essentially a left brain activity, is necessary during the editing of the drafts to follow, but can this theoretical knowledge of the craft ever take the place of spontaneity, serendipity, and the efficacy of the muse—the activity stemming from the right side of our brain?

I think not. Nor should it have to. I think the purpose of theoretical knowledge is to saturate both hemispheres so that the level of practical knowledge (active skill) is seamlessly guided by the theoretical.

In writing Scarab II: Reawakening, for example, I meticulously plotted the shape of the story, using my knowledge of structure, before commencing work on the actual writing. Yet, perhaps the most interesting, and, in my opinion, gripping part of the novel, the expanded role of Dr. Kobus van Niekerk, the South African archeologist, occurred at the last moment, during the actual writing itself. This was quite unplanned for and was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it will be to the reader. This was a moment of inspiration that rode above the pre-planned plot—although it did significantly add to it.

My point is that large structural changes or additions can assail one at any time, and should be absorbed, if deemed fitting, at any stage of the writing process. They are perhaps the clearest sign of the two hemispheres working together in concert and, therefore, that plotting and pantsing are not rivals but co-conspirators in the craft of writing.

Summary

Insight often comes unexpectedly and seems, at first sight, to be at odds with our original direction. Integrating it into our creative process, however, often makes for a more original and inspired story.

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How to Upgrade your Story Idea

Girl with light over head

Idea-to-Concept

How do you come up with a story concept that’s potentially a winner? In other words, how do you take an idea and turn it into a concept that causes movie producers or book publishers to sit up and take notice?

Start with the Basic Idea

Let’s say you have an idea for a story that goes something like this:

A story about the dangers of DNA experimentation.

Or

A story about a psychopath who skins young girls alive.

Or

A story about a man who keeps ending up in extraordinary situations.

Put the ideas in a “What-if format”:

1. What if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong?

2. What if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations?

3. What if a psychopath, who skins young girls alive, keeps evading the police?

The Magic of Modifiers

Modifiers are specific techniques used to trigger or inspire an improvement to the story idea. Listed below are some of the most important ones:

1. Take the idea to an extreme level.
2. Collide two opposites together.
3. Raise the stakes.
4. Make the environment unique.
5. Ensure you have the most appropriate main character.
6. Ensure you have special inter-character relationships
7. Include a unique dilemma.
8. Ensure it has a powerful twist.
9. Change the sex, age, race, nationality, species.
10.Change the norm.
11.Ensure your plot includes a fascinating plan or strategy.

Here are three examples of modifiers used to improve a story idea:

If we apply Modifier 1 to our first example, (what if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong), we might end up with a story about a theme-park full of prehistoric animals grown from the DNA acquired from the blood of mosquitos preserved in raisin—Jurassic Park.

Applying Modifier 2 to example 2 (what if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations), we could end up with a story about a simple-minded man who accidentally acquires wealth and becomes part of the most important political events of the 1960’s—Forrest Gump.

Applying Modifier 6 to example 3 (what if a psychopath, who skins young girls alive, keeps evading the police), might inspire us to come up with a story about a young female FBI agent who enlists the help of a brilliant cannibalistic psychiatrist who agrees to help her in exchange for playing mind-games with her—Silence of the Lambs.

As an exercise, try applying the remaining modifiers to some of your existing story ideas.

Summary

Taking an ordinary idea, putting it in a what-if format, and applying a modifier to it, often helps to lift it up to the level of an inspired story concept worthy of being turned into a book or movie.

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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.