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Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.

With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.

“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”

But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:

“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.

KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”

The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.

Summary
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.


Great Character Description in Stories

Character description in As Good As It Gets
Great character description in As Good As It Gets

How do you write a great character description in your screenplay or novel?


Do you include detailed physical attributes and forays into backstory, thinking you’re building a solid foundation that will pay off later? That might be the norm in pulp films and novels, but discerning audiences and readers are impatient with lengthy descriptions that stop the narrative dead in its tracks.

Your characters have to make a strong impression from the get-go. The best way to achieve this is with brevity, precision, insight, and laser-sharp detail.

“Great character description highlights some inner aspect of the character; it does not solely rest on the way a character looks. At the very least, the description hints at a reality beyond the physical.”

Here are some examples of good character description from novels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Hayes Barton Press, 2005, originally published 1885). Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left. (p. 38)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998). A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair. (p. 46)

Holes by Louis Sachar (2000). They were dripping with sweat, and their faces were so dirty that it took Stanley a moment to notice that one kid was white and the other black. (p. 17)

In all three examples above, the physical description, coupled with simile or metaphor, variously conveys an attitude, demeanour or theme beyond the description itself:

A head miraculously balancing the weight of a tub while moving in quick jerks under that very weight, suggests a skill indicative of classical Indian dance.

Eyes that glinting like black beetles under all the hair lends a sinister edge to the snapshot.

Faces that were so dirty that the race of the owners is not immediately apparent, connotes far more that the denotative description—it plugs into theme, suggesting that tags such as skin colour are superficial and trivial.

Great character description in screenplays

Here are three examples of character description in screenplays:

THE MATRIX (1999) NEO, a man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one. [This is a straight-from-the-hip description of the essence of Neo Anderson. It is a sharp and accurate snapshot of who the man is.]

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997). In the hallway. Well past 50. Unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. [A short, to-the-point summary of the protagonist. Far more powerful than a lengthy physical description about his shortcomings.]

GET OUT (2017) CHRIS WASHINGTON, 26, a handsome African-American man shuts the medicine cabinet. He’s shirtless and naturally athletic. He scrutinizes his reflection with a touch of vanity. [A clichéd, on-the-nose introduction to the character, with the exception of the last sentence, which exposes his narcissism.]

The point is to avoid superfluous physical traits and describe the way a character looks unless it is revealing of personality and plot.

Summary

When writing a character description stick to the essence of the character. Do not describe superfluous physical traits that are coincidental to the story.

Great Plot from Moral Weaknesses

Great Plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie
A great plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie

How do you generate a great plot from the moral weakness of your hero? You tailor-make the story goal to fit your hero’s weakness. Paring these two narrative events elevates your story to one of poetic justice.

One way to tie the character to the goal is to link it to the moral premise of the story. Ask, what does my character learn by pursuing and eventually gaining the goal?

If your character is stingy, he has to learn to be generous (Scrooge). If he is cowardly and narcissistic, he ends up in a situation where he has to save the world (Edge of Tomorrow.)

There is an ironic relationship between the character’s flaw or weakness and the challenge he is presented with because it is this very weakness that needs to be eliminated in order for him to become whole again.

“The point of a great plot is, at least in part, to teach the hero a moral lesson.”

Few films illustrate this better than Tootsie. In the film, Dustin Hoffman plays a man who has little respect for women, treating them poorly. But he is an out-of-work actor who desperately seeks an acting job. Ironically, he lands a part playing a woman by pretending to be a woman—a role he has to continue playing outside the studio. This exposes him to the sort of mistreatment he has subjected women to in the past. Experiencing this behaviour first hand is a lesson that causes him to grow and change. The plot is fitting because it is geared towards fixing the inner failing of the protagonist.

And so it’s should be with every great story. The plot should showcase the hero’s weakness by placing him in a situation that can only be solved by addressing that very weakness in the plot and in himself.


Summary

Behind every great plot is a protagonist who solves the story problem by addressing an inner weakness in his character.

Fabulous Scenes—how to write them

Fabulous scenes in Unforgiven
The end of one of the many fabulous scenes in Unforgiven

So, you have your logline, a short synopsis of your story, and you’re ready to start writing fabulous scenes. But how to do it?

There are several ways to classify scenes—reactive, proactive, turning point scenes, midpoint scenes, the must-have-scene, and so on. In future articles I will be looking at the specific similarities and differences between each type. Here, however, I want to lay out a general strategy for writing great scenes.

The most important things to know off the bat for writing great scenes are:

1. Who is the central character in the scene?

2. What is the character’s goal in the scene?

3. How does the scene advance the plot?

4. What is the emotion generated by the scene?

5. How does the scene reveal character?

The second thing to consider is the method: How do you intend to convey the above? Through dialogue, action, subtext?

“Fabulous scenes are fabulous because they do the simple things right and let the fireworks emerge from that.”

In Unforgiven, a young, bombastic gunslinger who calls himself the Schofield Kid approaches ex-outlaw William Manny at his farm. He wants to recruit Manny to help him kill a couple of cowboys who reportedly cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Clearly, Manny is not doing well as a pig farmer and needs money to feed himself and his two young children. Manny initially rejects the offer. The scene, which can viewed as the inciting incident, fulfills several of the points raised above:

  1. The focus of the scene is clearly about William Manny who is faced with making a decision.
  2. The goal is to show Manny receiving a ‘job’ offer for which he will receive reward money, and his response to it.
  3. ThIs advances the plot by dangling the possibility of Manny returning to his old ways in order to collect the reward money.
  4. We see Manny as a shadow of the hard-living gunslinger he once was. Instead of lauding his decision not to accept the offer, we are left feeling sorry for him and his poverty-stricken life.
  5. The scene has Manny declare that he is no longer the cursing, hard-drinking killer he once was—that his wife has cured him of his evil ways. There is a sense, however, that Manny yearns for the adventure and freedom of the old days. We sense that he is only fooling himself, and this deepens his character.

The scene uses subtext and the physical demeanour of the characters to juxtapose the flashy, big-talking, Schofield Kid against the seemingly spent pig-farmer. It is a great example of how to use the above-mentioned techniques to write a spectacular scene.

Summary

Fabulous scenes apply an appropriate method for revealing character goals, hinting at hidden emotions, and promoting plot.

THE FIRST LINE OF YOUR NOVEL

George Orwell’s 1984 contains a most memorable first line.
George Orwell’s 1984 contains a most memorable first line.

How many times has the first line or paragraph of a novel persuaded us to buy the book right away?
First impressions do count, so it is important that the writer nail the start of a story from the get-go. Who can forget these immortal openings, four of which are referenced from the excellent Oxford Royale Academy site.


1. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

The first sentence of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, sets a tone through its jarring use of the number thirteen. Not only is thirteen associated with bad luck, it suggests that something is off with the world, since traditional clocks have only twelve numbers. This creates a sense of anxiety in the reader that persists throughout the entire novel and keeps us turning the pages.

2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859).

Dickens’ use of contrasting clauses in the opening of his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, balanced by the repetition of ‘it was’, ‘we had’ and ‘we were all’, prepares us for the back-and-forth conflict that occurs in London and Paris prior and during the French Revolution—essentially a struggle between good and evil. The tale is rooted in the particular and the general, and this makes it a truly timeless and universal story.

3. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)

Here Jane Austin‘s somewhat satirical tone establishes the author’s posture towards the social norms of the day. The line, we later discover, is associated with Mrs. Bennet, a persistent woman who is determined to marry off her six daughters come hell or high water. We secretly enjoy Austen’s subtle but somewhat cruel social and cultural critique, and this keeps us wanting to read more.

“A great first line serves as a secret fountain to our story, allowing us to drink from it when all other sources dry up.”

4. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit, Tolkien (1932).

The unassuming simplicity of this line is precisely what makes it work so well as an opening salvo, harking back to countless fairytales. Furthermore, we are immediately intrigued by the word, ‘hobbit’. We ask ourselves, what kind of creature is a hobbit? And why does he live in a hole in the ground? We seek answers to these questions and so we keep reading.

And lastly, if I may be permitted the presumption of intruding upon such illustrious company:

“WHEN I was a young man and my life was bursting through like a newly sprung carnation, I thought about time as a phenomenon flowing from the equations of physics, something to be answered by the math; but now that I am older and given to bouts of melancholy during my ambles along the shore, time and space have become a longing and the equations have been tamed by syrup poured over waffles baked to a golden hue.” The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Stavros Halvatzis (2015).

Here, the narrator’s romanticised sense of nostalgia about his youth immediately betrays itself through the phrase ‘newly sprung carnation’. It also characterises him as something of a dandy. His initial belief in the equations of physics has been ‘tamed’, ironically enough, by time itself. There is something touching, however, about his failure to solve the intractable mathematical equation that has consumed his life, a sentiment bolstered by words such as ‘melancholy’, ‘ambles’ and ‘longing’. The impression that we are left with is of a once brilliant man in decline, forced to spend his time reminiscing about the past over ‘waffles baked to a golden hue’.

Summary

A great first line does one or more of several things: It establishes mood, theme, and genre. It showcases the main character. It hints at the main conflict. It poses story questions. And it does this in an unexpected or eccentric way. That’s a lot of technique packed into a single sentence.

Want vs Need — Part II.

Want vs Need in Unforgiven
Want vs Need in Unforgiven

What is the difference between want vs need in a character? And why is it important? In order to answer these questions we need to delve a little deeper into the developmental arc of the character, once more.

The character arc, we are reminded, describes the path that a character takes from a state of incompetence and moral ignorance, to that of excellence and moral superiority. The arc is intimately tied to the plot, since plot is a tapestry woven out of characters interacting with one another.

Practical and moral superiority, however, can only be achieved by passing some difficult test. It stands to reason, therefore, that a state of true knowledge can only be achieved late in the story—deep into the character arc.

One way for a character to prove that she is making progress is for her to acknowledge that her want, her stated reason for pursuing the goal, is not necessarily her need, at least not on its own. She first has to discover her true motivation and begin healing past wounds, correct existing flaws, in order to unleash her inner strength. It’s a moment of self-revelation that spurs growth.

“A character’s want is established early in the story and stems from a false motivation for pursuing a goal. The character’s need, by contrast, stems from a later realisation of a wound or flaw that has to be healed in order to achieve practical and moral efficacy in the world.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, this moment occurs when Benjamin Vlahos realises the truth about his parents, allowing him to begin healing the wound that has kept him a prisoner of an intractable mathematical problem for thirty years.

In Unforgiven the moment of self-revelation occurs when Ned Logan realises that he can’t bring himself to kill one of the cowboys who reportedly cut up a prostitute. Although a secondary character, he does act as a foil to William Munny, the protagonist of the story. Munny, who lacks a character arc, remaining largely static, does not hesitate to take the rifle from him and shoot one of the men in cold blood. Ned’s want for a monetary reward, however, has been replaced by his realisation of his true need—to live a peaceful life back at his raunch with his Indian companion.

A character’s want being replaced by his need, then, is a truly transformative moment and usually occurs deep into the story. It represents the true start of a characters healing process.

Summary

Want vs need lie on opposite sides of a character’s developmental arc. They represent the growth from ignorance to knowledge.

How Character shapes action

Character shapes action in Braveheart

Character shapes action and ultimately story. But no two people are exactly the same and, therefore, neither is the motivation behind their actions. 

Slap one person across the face and he might turn the other cheek. Slap another and he might punch you in the gut. A pacifist responds differently to a threat than would a war-monger. Different actions lead to different stories.

Personality shapes action. The inner life of a character is moulded by that character’s genetics, but also her hopes, desires, fears and wounds. It is these differences within a character that create the full tapestry of human response.

But personality is not static. Fears migrate, change, increase or decrease. Hope grows, shrinks, is fulfilled or snuffed out. To write a viable character arc, namely, the growth of the hero from ignorance to knowledge, or vice to virtue, we need to track the transformation of the elements that define personality.

In Braveheart, William Wallace goes from a disinterested farmer to a courageous and engaged rebel leader seeking to overthrow the English yoke. In Edge of Tomorrow Major William Cage goes from a cowardly public relations officer to a fearless soldier willing to die over and over again in order to save humanity by defeating an insidious alien enemy.

“Character shapes action. Write stories that tie the character arc to the plot in order to ensure the verisimilitude of your tale.”

If the above is true then it stands to reason that the growth of character helps to order the sequence of the narrative events that make up the story.

Tracking the change of say, cowardice to heroism through four or five stages, provides a roadmap for creating ‘ action’ scenes that feel authentic and believable. The result is stories that are motivated and well written—never a bad thing in the pursuit of success.

Summary

Character shapes action. Write believable and successful stories by tying your hero’s character arc to the flow of narrative events that comprise your plot.

Start Writing, but How?

Start writing - Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker’s hidden lineage provides a great springboard to start writing a great character

How do you start the writing process? Do you develop your characters and backstory first before growing the plot, or visa versa? Or does the pantser in you choose a genre and strike off immediately, finding your characters and story as you go along?

There is probably no single answer to that question. So much depends upon the personality and style of the writer. I can tell you what my approach is, though.

I fall somewhere between being a pantser and plotter. Some structural pre-planning of the story is needed, especially for screenplays, to guide my writing, but I don’t want to suffocate any spontaneous creativity that might occur when I’m half-way up the mountain.

I start by knowing which genre I want to write in. Drama? Science fiction? The mood, characters and plot will differ greatly based upon genre.

I then think about the protagonist and his goal. What problem does he have to solve in order to save himself, his loved ones, the world? Crucially, I think about an impediment or reluctance stemming from some past wound or secret that the character harbours. This plants the seed deeper into the soil and allows me to grow my story in a more rooted and viable way.

Before you start writing ask yourself, “What is my protagonist’s weakness or wound? How does this weakness make him suited, or unsuited, for the task ahead?

In The nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos needs to solve a intractable mathematical problem in order to achieve his goal—undo a past event that cost his wife her life. But his nostalgia and a deeply suppressed secret about his past gets in the way of achieving that very goal.

Luke Skywalker has a terrible secret that he himself is unaware of. He is the son of Darth Vader, the very man who threatens the Rebellion. Luke’s pedigree explains his facility with the Force, but it also makes him vulnerable to the dark side. The tension between the goal and an inherent weakness is a great generator of any story.

Summary

Start writing by exploiting your protagonist’s weakness or vulnerability. You’ll not only create twists and turns in your plot, you will also allow your characters to act in a more unique and authentic way, adding to their credibility and hence to the overall success of your stories.

Television Series Bible checklist

TV Series Bible - stranger things
The Television Series Bible was essential in getting a show like Stranger Things off the ground

A Television Series Bible is a marketing document containing an outline for a new television series. It has to inform, entertain and captivate the reader if it is to have a chance of going into actual production. Here are some pointers.

  1. Do you have a strong concept, preferably a high concept, upon which your series is based? Remember that the series bible is a pitching document. It must capture the producers’ imagination and engage their emotions from the get-go. What if someone had pitched Jurassic Park as a tv series back in the day? I can’t think of a studio not snapping it up.
  2. Have you included a crisp logline for the show, and a captivating one-page pitch—essentially a synopsis of the series—that establishes the story world, goal, theme and tone of the show? The set-up logline for Breaking Bad might be: When a docile,  cash-strapped chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he starts cooking meth to provide for his family with the intention of stopping when he has accrued enough cash. But pride and ambition result in a change of plans.
  3. Does each season have a clear season question that is answered only at the end of that season? Does the entire series have a series question that is answered only at the end of the series? The season and series questions are compasses that guide each episode as it marches towards answering those very questions. For example, in Gotham, one season question might be: Who will win the hoodlum war amongst the rival gangs? The series question might be, will Bruce Wayne survive to become the Batman—and in what shape or form?
  4. Have you included short character biographies and episode synopsis, as well as ‘snapshots’ of intriguing objects from each episode—a picture or sketch of a gothic, jewel-encrusted crucifix side-by-side a pair of long fangs, for example, may go a long way in capturing the glance of a producer. What about a blood-stained suicide note to a lover?
  5. Is your bible design germane to the subject matter? Is it attractive to the eye? Textured backgrounds with lots of sketches are fitting for period or fantasy pieces. Neon colours and backgrounds are more appropriate for science fiction.
  6. Have you made clear in the character biographies what’s at stake for the important characters, both internally and externally? In other words, do we know what the protagonist’s goal is? Do we know why the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, oppose this goal? And importantly, do we know what shortfall the protagonist has to make up in terms of a secret, a wound, and/or a moral or physical flaw, in order to achieve the goal? The character’s developmental arc is tied up with the plot arc. Both have to be conceived as two sides of the same coin.
  7. Have you included a short synopsis of a second and third season? You need to show producers that your series has legs. Hence the importance of the series question. In Breaking Bad, the series question is: Can Walter White survive his cancer, ruthlessness and greed? Showing how you intend to develop your series is an important aspect on whether your series will be picked up or not.

“Television series bibles vary in style and content. The thing that makes the best bibles stand out is precisely an element of uniqueness rooted in their design style and subject matter.”

Summary

Making sure that your television series bible addresses most of these pointers will go some way in giving your pitch a chance of being noticed by producers.

Realisation, Decision, Action in Stories

Realisation, Decision, Action In You can count on me
Realisation, Decision, Action in You Can Count On Me.

A character decision in stories usually follows a realisation of some hidden truth. A pivotal action springs from that very decision, forming a realisation-decision-action unit. Although the timing varies, these three nodes are tightly integrated.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if a relisation leads directly to an action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear fake. Sandwiching a pivotal action in between realisation and action avoids this error: 

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the Machine World and Agent Smith. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

“Realisation, decision, action: Realisation leads to decision. Decision leads to action. Action defines character. Character creates plot.”

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.