Tag Archives: screenwriting

How to Avoid a Common Weakness in Writing

Writing padIT WAS while teaching classes on Story that I confirmed a common weakness in novice writing – writing that is on-the-nose.

This means that the movement of a scene occurs on the surface, at the level of plot, and not sub-textually where the reader is most involved.

Think of this as writing external action that lacks inner conflict. To avoid this pitfall, and go a step further, present inner conflict as something that the reader is aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, and interest in the scene because they will be privy to something that a character may only become aware of later, if at all.

Stronger Writing

My advice to new writers is to have them create scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation – where a character says one thing but means, or intends, quite another. This creates a subtext of conflict in the scene, substantially deepening our enjoyment of it.

In Moulin Rouge Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, his life will be in danger from the Duke who wants her for himself. So in order to protect him she lies to Christian, telling him that she does not love him, that she will marry the Duke instead. The audience is aware that her lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, doubling our emotion.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist, dreams of one day solving his equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. But we realise that being past his prime, Benjamin is unlikely to ever achieve this, and our compassion for him increases.

In both examples, it is what lies between the lines that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation of characters makes for engaging stories.

The Heart Remembers

Santa on a BikeI was not going to write a blog this week – so close after Christmas and so close to the new year. I’m so chock-a-block with chocolates, good Greek food, and merriment that, frankly, I thought I’d not be in mood. Truthfully, I have never been a great one for that sort of festivity.

But as I think about the moments of the past day or so, moments spent with family and friends where new memories were laid down for future access, I get to thinking about love and memory and how they are golden threads that stitch our lives together and give it meaning, so I decide to write down a few words anyway.

I have often wished I could travel back in time, back to some juncture in my life and change something small – go left instead of right, pick up the phone when I did not; small things that sometimes have big consequences.

As if to torment myself, I often imagine revisiting such moments, over and over again. I see two versions of myself, one standing to the side, like an invisible unsmiling time-traveller, looking on at my younger self as he goes about his business, and I wish I could whisper in his ear about the things I know now.

But of course the past is a place to be frequented by the heart, while the present affords us the opportunity to ensure that the past will be a good place to visit in the future.

So, now, as I say goodbye to friends and family for yet another year, I take the time to hug each of them a little tighter and longer than before, and tell them how much I enjoyed our time together.

I throw a wink over my shoulder at my future self standing under the big tree in our yard to let him know that I finally get it. This time I imagine he is smiling.

Action, Description and Dialogue

Man in silhouetteBlending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well. Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too.

But too much dialogue can distance the reader from the physical environment of the scene.

Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description. Characters casually leaning, smiling, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo. The phallic nature of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story, had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour. References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text:

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still.

Interspersing your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Blend action, description and dialogue together to vary interest and deepen your scenes.

How Do You Become A Better Writer?

Multicolored chalkA writer’s path from competence to excellence is a difficult one. It meanders, advances, turns back on itself. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that the traveler will reach her destination. Excellence will elude all but the most talented and fortunate of writers.

Great writing requires a special combination of mental skills, social circumstances, effort, passion, as well as a fair bit of luck — few of us will keep writing if we keep failing to be published or to garner some positive criticism from our readers.

Despite this, I do believe that the ability to write well can be taught, I wouldn’t be a teacher of the craft if I didn’t believe in the benefit of practice and study. I believe writing is a craft, as much as an art, like woodwork or cooking, although it requires much more than technique to cure into a great dish.

While acknowledging that there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development falls into three distinct categories:

1. Understanding the function of structure in stories — how structure paces and orders the reader’s response.

2. The ability to identify meaningful ideologies, ideas and trends from life and distill them into specific themes, characters and events in a way that makes the story both specific and universal.

3. The ability to develop a distinct voice — a difficult entity to pin down, but one that might be understood as the unique pattern arising out of the writer’s body of work.

I have found that thinking about my development as a writer in this way allows me to identify and group specific weaknesses into categories and work on them in a more methodical way.

Perhaps you might benefit from a similar approach?

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the broader categories.

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Show Me With Your Body

Girl holding sunThe adroit use of body language to enrich character meaning and intent both in screenplays and novels is a necessary skill. It forms part of the show-don’t-tell arsenal of techniques that makes our writing crisp and resonant.

Take the following snippet from my recent novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

To put you in the picture – Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist the story, watches an apparition, a version of himself, slumbering in a deckchair in his candlelit room while a cyclone approaches.

I could have written:

I stare at the slumbering figure intently. He seems pained, buffeted by raging nightmares. I can’t help but wonder about the extent of fear and regret tormenting him.

Pretty lame, right? Instead I wrote:

I study the ashen-faced man slumbering in front of me. His lips tremble. His eyes rage behind closed eyelids. His jaw grinds down on the bones of all the years.

This is better.

Although the body language centers around small actions, such as trembling lips and a grinding jaw, and throws in a metaphor to boot, it does a better job at conveying the tormented inner life of the sleeping figure. It obeys that much vaunted bit of advice of showing the reader the clues and letting her work out the emotion for herself, rather than handing it to her in a platter.

The use of body language to convey the inner state of a character is a powerful technique that helps to keep an audience or reader engaged in your story. It should always replace a spoon-fed description of your character’s emotions.

Summary

Use body language to describe a character’s inner life.

A Great Story Depends on Great Timing

Clock faceIn a previous article I discussed the importance of syncing your hero’s outer journey to his inner journey – to his character arc. Today I want to say a bit more about the nature of that syncing.

It’s important to emphasise that your hero should not act beyond his state of moral and practical wisdom – his performance at the level of the outer journey has to reflect his knowledge at the level of the inner journey.

But why, then, if the hero keeps learning from the outer journey’s knocks, if the hero keeps improving, does he keep failing to attain the goal, until the end of the story?

The answer is to be found in the precise nature of the syncing, which is to say that the lesson learnt is always one step behind the evolving challenges posed by the outer journey. Hence, the knowledge the hero brings to a new confrontation is less than required to gain the goal and defeat the antagonist at that moment.

It is only towards the end of the journey that the hero is able to integrate the wisdom gained from the series of hard knocks, dig deep inside and produce a superlative response which defeats the antagonist and gains the goal.

In my best selling novel, Scarab, for example, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants (to win Emma’s love) in order to gain what he needs (to save Emma’s life). It is a realisation that takes most of the story to achieve.

Summary

The lessons learnt by the hero lag behind the evolving challenges of the outer journey and the wisdom needed to defeat the villain and gain the goal until the end of the story.

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
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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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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.

Image: Oliver Tacke