Tag Archives: writersblock

How to Write the Character Flaw.

Unfettered ambition - the flaw that ruins Macbeth
Unfettered ambition – the flaw that ruins Macbeth

What is a character flaw, and how do we write it?

One way to think of it is as a glitch in our character’s internal makeup that affects his/her interaction with the world. In trying to hide or suppress this glitch, the character engages in an inner and outer struggle, which drives the story forward. 

character flaw may be born out of an internal cause, such as an emotional scar from the past, or an external one, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice. 

Flaws that generate internal and external conflict make for interesting stories that resonate with readers and audiences.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, such as the three witches and his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

A flaw generates questions about the story: What lies and obfuscations has the character created to conceal his flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And, crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point, and climax? 

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey through the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”. 

In The Matrix Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self-belief (flaw) to one of belief. 

This inner journey defines Neo’s character arc, influencing each major action in the story. It helps to shape the narrative as a whole. Additionally, it ties into the notion of want vs. need that I examined in an earlier post, by contrasting the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw filters a protagonist’s responses. It helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind the character’s actions.

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Dialogue Techniques: Question-and-Answer & Repetition.

Dialogue
Dialogue techniques in Better Call Saul

Today, we’re continuing to explore a crucial aspect of storytelling: dialogue. This narrative component is such an important part of storytelling that it has given rise to countless of books and courses on how to master it. Specifically, we’ll explore what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity in his book, Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual.

Swain affirms that one of the markers of good dialogue is continuity flowing from a question-and-answer format, and the repetition of words. That is, lines of dialogue which acknowledge the ones preceding them. There are several ways to do this. Let’s focus on two of the most common techniques: the question/answer structure and repetition.

Repetition couched in a questions and answers.

Repetition, embedded in a question-and-answer format, can be a powerful tool in creating continuity and mounting tension. By repeating a word or phrase from one line to the next, and demanding answers to questions, writers create a flow that keeps the conversation cohesive and engaging.

A good example of this technique can be seen in the Better Call Saul episode, Chicanery. There is a courtroom scene where Jimmy (Saul) McGill cross-examines his brother Chuck McGill, a brilliant lawyer himself. Chuck claims to suffer from a mystery illness which makes him sensitive to electrical currents. The courtroom lights, except for the Exit sign, have been switched off, and all electrical devices such as cellphones and watches, removed from the courtroom.

Chuck is accusing his brother Jimmy of unlawful practices and wants to have him stripped of his law licence. Jimmy’s only defence is to have his brother appear so mentally challenged by his phobias so as to render his testimony against him unreliable. This scene masterfully uses the question-and-answer format, as well as some repetition of words to build mounting tension, only to have it released at the end, showcasing Jimmy’s mastery of the set-up.

Example from Better Call Saul, Season 3, Episode 5: Chicanery:

  • Chuck: The further away it is, the stronger the source has to be to have an effect.
  • Jimmy: Got it. Got it. So If I had a small battery, say from a watch or something, and I got it close to you, close to your skin, you’d know.
  • Chuck: I would feel it, yes.
  • Jimmy: Can you feel more current from any particular direction right now? From that back wall? Or from over there? Or up through the floor? Can you tell us where the nearest source is, right now?
  • Chuck: (Growing suspicious). Jimmy, do you have something in your pocket?
  • Jimmy: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. (Takes out a cellphone from his pocket). My cellphone. From this distance you should feel it, and you don’t, do you?
  • Judge: Mr. McGill. You were warned to leave your electronics outside.
  • Chuck: It’s alright. It’s alright. May I? (Takes the cellphone from, Jimmy). Just as I thought. There’s no battery in here. You removed the battery. That’s a sorry little trick, isn’t it?
  • Jimmy: Yea. You got me Chuck. Dead to rights. I removed the battery
  • Chuck: God Jimmy. Don’t you know by now, this is real. I feel this? It’s a physical response to stimuli. Not a quirk. What do we have to do to prove it to you?
  • Jimmy: I don’t know, Chuck. Could you reach into your breast pocket and tell me what’s there?
  • Chuck: What now? (Chuck fumbles in his pocket and removes the cellphone battery that Jimmy has had one of his employees placed there surreptitiously. Chuck throws the battery on the floor).
  • Jimmy: Can you tell the court what that was?
  • Chuck: A battery. (Realising he’s been tricked.)

Jimmy explains to the court that he had one of his men, Huell Babineaux, plant the fully charged battery on Chuck when he bumped into him in the passage an hour and forty three minutes ago, disproving Chuck’s claim that electric currents make him feel ill, and undermining his testimony against Jimmy. The question-and-answer format, the repetition of the word battery have all served the flow and continuity of the scene, and have helped to bring it to a crescendo.

Embedding the repetition of words into a question-and-answer format, then, is an effective way of creating mounting tension while maintaining continuity. The technique keeps the conversation focused and dynamic, ensuring that each new line flows naturally from the previous one.

Other Techniques

While repetition and the question/answer format are powerful tools, there are other ways to enhance your dialogue, too, such as extended pauses, misdirection, a change of subject, and subtext which can add layers and depth to the dialogue. Regardless of the technique, however, the key is to ensure that your dialogue flows.

Summary

Repeating words embedded in a question-and-answer format is an effective way to create mounting tension and dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.

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Attitudes and Demeanour in Stories

The Sopranos: Character Attitudes
The Sopranos: Poker, Character Attitudes and Demeanour

How do character attitudes and demeanour, as well as reflexes and dialogue, support the authenticity of a scene? Let’s take a closer look!

As writers we sometimes concentrate on the events and actions that make up our stories without, perhaps, paying as much attention to the subtext that attitudes and demeanour, as well as ‘voice’, contribute to a scene.

The decision of Jackie Jr. to rob Eugene’s poker game, for example, demonstrates his reckless nature and his need for recognition. He is impulsive and easily influenced, as demonstrated by his decision to initiate the heist after Ralphie tells them how Tony and Jackie’s father gained their reputation for a similar heist. However, when the situation escalates and violence erupts, Jackie Jr. panics, leading to disastrous consequences. He comes across as nervous and out of his depth, and his impulsively shooting Sunshine and fleeing the scene betrays his lack of maturity and inability to handle high-pressure situations.

Carlo and Dino: Like Jackie Jr., Carlo and Dino are portrayed as young, inexperienced, jittery, and easily swayed by the allure of criminal activity. Their involvement in the robbery highlights their willingness to take risks and their desire for status within the criminal underworld, but their poor judgement, their lack of foresight and experience gets them killed.


Sunshine: Sunshine’s heckling of the would-be robbers, on the other hand, showcases his confidence, his defiance, and his refusal to be intimidated, even at the point of a gun. This is a man who has seen it all before and his demeanour shows it. His refusal to comply with the demands of the robbers ultimately leads to his demise. Sunshine’s character serves as a foil to the impulsive and inexperienced robbers, highlighting the consequences of underestimating one’s adversaries.

Furio: Furio’s nervous response to the robbers is to ‘take it easy’. Furio, who is an import from the mother country, is perhaps the least assured of the New Jersey-hardened mobsters. He ends up getting shot in the leg.

Matush: Matush’s decision to flee, abandoning his accomplices, underscores the theme of betrayal and self-preservation prevalent throughout the series. His panic highlights the fragile alliances and loyalty within the criminal underworld.

Christopher and Albert: Christopher and Albert’s response to the failed robbery demonstrates their self-assurance, authority and willingness to enforce consequences for disobedience and incompetence. They execute Dino outside. Christopher angrily informs the reluctant Tony about the need to kill Jackie Jr. This underscores the ruthless nature of their profession and the importance of sending a signal to their enemies to avoid being seen as weak.

For writers, this scene offers valuable insights into character response, conflict resolution, and the consequences of impulsive decisions. By understanding the different attitudes, reflexes and general demeanour of characters under pressure, we can create more nuanced and realistic portrayals of them and the worlds they inhabit. Additionally, the scene highlights how tension and high stakes may unleash catastrophic results, keeping audiences engaged.

Summary

Concentrate on your characters’ attitudes, demeanour and reflexes under pressure to achieve a nuanced and realistic portrayal of story events.

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The Art of the Hook: Crafting Compelling Stories!

How The Boys uses the hook
How The Boys uses the hook

Today, we’re learning about how to hook readers and audiences into stories, drawing from episodes from The Boys.

1: Immediate Intrigue

A strong hook doesn’t just grab attention; it sets the stage for the entire story. It grabs the audience’s attention from the very beginning, leaving them eager for more. In Season 1, Episode 1 the shocking death of Robin sets the tone for The Boys, instantly hooking viewers with its unexpected and tragic twist.

2: Unexpected Events

But it’s not just what happens in your story; it’s who it happens to that truly captivates your audience. Introduce unexpected events or revelations that challenge viewers’ expectations and drive curiosity. In Season 1, Episode 4 the revelation of the Nazi origins of Compound V, the Superhero juice, flips the superhero genre on its head, injecting fresh intrigue into the narrative and prompting viewers to question everything they thought they knew.

3: Character Introduction

Introduce compelling characters that resonate with audiences and compel them to invest in their journey. In Season 1, Episode 1 Hughie’s relatable struggle and tragic loss immediately draws viewers into his world, setting the emotional foundation for the series.

4: Tension Building

Tension is the lifeblood of storytelling, driving the narrative forward and keeping the audience engaged. Build tension early by establishing conflicts and obstacles that hint at larger confrontations to come. In Season 2, Episode 1 the escalating tensions between The Boys and The Seven create a palpable sense of anticipation, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

5: Moral Confusion

Incorporating moral complexity adds depth to your story, elevating it from mere entertainment to thought-provoking commentary. Explore the moral ambiguity and complexity in your own characters to challenge viewers’ perceptions and provoke thought. In Season 2, Episode 6 the revelation of Stormfront’s true nature forces viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about power and privilege, adding depth to the story and its characters.

6: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing hints at future events and developments, enticing viewers to stick around for what’s to come. In Season 1, Episode 6 the disappearance of Butcher’s wife foreshadows a larger conspiracy at play, teasing viewers with the promise of future revelations and twists.

Summary

Crafting compelling hooks is the key to drawing your audience into your story and keeping them invested until the very end.

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Who Speaks for the Superhero Genre?

The Boys and the Superhero Genre
The Boys and the Superhero Genre

Today, we’re looking into the world of the superhero, but not the kind of superhero we’re used to. I’m talking about The Boys, a series that has taken the genre by storm, unveiling a fresh and gritty take on the classic set of tropes.

  1. Deconstructing Superhero Tropes
    The Boys TV series succeeds where others fail partly because it intelligently deconstructs the stale superhero narratives we have grown bored with. At its core, the series examines the consequences of unfettered corporate and individual power protected by a relentless media campaign. It highlights the collateral damage that can be inflicted on society by powerful individuals who are driven by self-interest and narcissism, even to the point of murder: When the speedster hero A-Train accidentally kills Robin, Hughie’s girlfriend, it sets off a chain of events that exposes the art of the cover-up, the dark side of Vought International, and its pursuit of power at all costs.
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  2. Complex Characters
    Unlike the one-dimensional heroes often portrayed in the stale superhero genre, the characters in The Boys are multi-layered and morally ambiguous. Take Homelander, the most powerful of all the Supes who leads the Seven, a select band of super beings created by Vaught International. Homelander presents himself as the epitome of American virtue hiding behind a winning smile, but in reality he harbours a fractured psyche, dark secrets, and a murderous streak. His shocking destruction of the Mayor of Baltimore’s private jet at the end of the first episode to stop the Mayor from exposing the truth behind Compound V, Vought International’s Supe-juice, sets the tone for the entire series. Homelander will stop at nothing to protect Vought and himself. Vought’s attempt to silence Hughie after the death of his girlfriend is further proof of that.
  3. Real-world Parallels
    But The Boys also resonates with audiences because of its exploration, through the lens of superhero fiction, of real-world issues. The Corporate influence on society is exposed early in the series through Vought International’s lack of sincerity, and its criminal attempts to protect its brand at all costs. This points to how huge corporations may prioritise profit over ethics in the real world.
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  4. Emotional Depth
    While the series is filled with action-packed sequences, it is the emotional depth of the characters that truly sets it apart: Hughie’s grief and anger over Robin’s death, motivates him to seek justice against the corrupt superheroes. His journey to become one of The Boys is driving force behind the series, grounded in his relatable emotions and struggles.
  5. Satire and Dark Humour as Self-Critique
    The Boys doesn’t shy away from satirising the superhero genre, and pop-culture as a whole. We see this through the character of the Deep. His aquatic powers are no match for Homelander’s bullying, and his deviant, sexual infatuation with Timothy the octopus is an added source of embarrassment and ridicule.

Homelander’s complete dominance over the Deep is established early on, when he learns that he found scorch marks on the engine of the crashed plane and tells Stillwell. Homelander easily intimidates the Deep into silence.

  1. Grey Morality
    Finally, The Boys challenges the notion of a black-and-white morality often associated with the superhero genre. Indeed, the series as a whole explores the spectrum of moral dilemmas faced by supposedly good characters like Hughie and Butcher as they seek revenge against the Seven. Their actions blur the line between heroism and villainy, forcing us to question the traditional definition of good and evil.

The series has been renewed for a fourth season, and continues to subvert expectations to offer a darker, more nuanced take on the superhero genre. As a result The Boys has garnered a world-wide following which shows no sign of slowing down.

Summary
The Boys differs from the conventional superhero fare due to its intelligent deconstruction of old tropes, its use of complex characters, its real-world parallels, its emotional depth, its self-critique through dark humour and satire, and its mature exploration of moral ambiguity.

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The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey

The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey: Avengers: Endgame.
The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey.

Today, we will study the Hero’s Journey drawing from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writers Journey, showing how the modern blockbuster exemplifies this timeless story structure. And what better way to do so than a recent box-office heavyweight champion, Avengers: Endgame.

  1. The Ordinary World

Our heroes begin in their ‘ordinary’ lives. In Endgame, this is the aftermath of the ‘Infinity War,’ where the remaining Avengers struggle with loss and failure. Indeed, Endgame kicks off weeks after Thanos’s devastation of the world. Our heroes, exist in an altered world. A World, of loss grief and despair.

In the Hero’s Journey, The Ordinary World, the first of Vogler’s’ twelve story beats, serves as the baseline, grounding the audience in the characters’ relatable struggles. In this modern blockbuster with its ensemble cast, the Hero’s traits and story beats are shared amongst several characters. For example, although The Refusal of the Call, and later, The Sacrifice belong to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, the idea of The Resurrection is symbolically rendered through Captain America’s passing his shield to Falcon at the end. And so on.

  1. The Call to Adventure

We know from the very start of the film that a huge disturbance has impacted the heroes’ lives. This challenges them to embark on a life-changing quest. This call is made explicit when Scott Lang (Ant-Man) escapes the Quantum Realm, proposing a solution to undo Thanos’ devastation.

  1. Refusal of the Call

Next comes doubt and hesitation. Tony Stark initially rejects the call, fearing the consequences to his family and the world. He vehemently argues against attempting time-travel. His reluctance adds depth, showcasing the inner struggle that heroes face.

  1. Meeting With The Mentor

Every hero needs guidance, and in Endgame, Tony Stark and Professor Hulk double up on their roles as the team’s mentors. Tony decides to accept the call to adventure after all, and devises the time travel concept, while Professor Hulk provides emotional support. The mentor’s role in a story is crucial, steering our heroes towards their destiny.

  1. Crossing the Threshold(s)

Here, the hero, or in this case, heroes, step into the unknown. In Endgame, this is symbolised by the quantum realm suits as the heroes prepare to venture into uncharted terrains, facing the mind-boggling risks of time travel. Crossing the Threshold represents leaving the comfort zone of the-world-as-they-know it behind.

  1. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

As the story progresses trials, alliances, and adversaries come to the fore. The time-heist comprises the central this part of the story. Each hero confronts personal challenges during his or her time-travelling endeavors. It’s important to remember that the tests are not just physical but also emotional, all of which serves to deepen the journey.

  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave

As the heroes approach their ultimate goal they prepare to face Thanos in the final battle. The Inmost Cave is in this case the destroyed Avengers HQ, setting the stage for the climax.

  1. The Ordeal

During the ordeal our heroes engage in their biggest test, resulting in the climactic battle with their enemy. Sacrifices are made, and some fall, but ultimately they triumph. The Ordeal is the crucible that forces heroes to reach beyond themselves in order to overcome the challenge they face.

  1. The Reward

The heroes reap the rewards of their journey. In Endgame, it’s the restoration of the fallen. The world is saved, and the remaining heroes find closure. The Reward is both triumphant and poignant, marking the end of the hero’s quest.

  1. The Road Back

The Road Back is a moment of reflection and transition, setting the stage for the final acts.

  1. Resurrection

Here, heroes undergo a final transformation. Captain America embodies this story beat, passing his shield to Falcon signifying the transferring of the mantle—itself a symbolic rebirth. The Resurrection symbolises the heroic group’s final evolution, in this case, the closing of the narrative loop.

  1. Return with the Elixir

Our heroes take up life in their ordinary world, bearing the lessons and changes earned through their journey. In Endgame, the elixir is the gift of a new era, represented, in part, by Falcon having taken up Captain America’s shield. The Elixir is the prize granted to the whole of humanity—the changed world gained through great effort and sacrifice.

Summary

The modern blockbuster draws its inspiration from the classical hero’s journey, effecting minor adaptations where necessary.

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The end of an era.

Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano: the prototypical antihero.

Today, we examine the intense but subtly-crafted family dinner scene from the last season of The Sopranos, a scene that caps the looming threat of assassination hovering over Tony Soprano.

This iconic scene has much to teach us about the art crafting an almost unbearable sense of the trepidation through context, subtle cues, camera placement, timing and nuanced performances. It is proof of why we should study masterpieces, especially when compared to much of today’s fare

1. Backstory

Before we dive into the dinner scene, let’s set the stage. The events leading up to this moment have been filled with tension. The news that Tony has visited a psychiatrist, has weakened his position with the mob who frowns on such things. Tony and the families are at loggerheads, his leadership with his own people is shaky—members of his crew have been shot—notably Silvio, his consigliere, mobsters are turning State’s evidence, a hit has been put out on Tony himself, and the FBI is closing in, using wire-taps. There is a sense that an era is coming to an end.

Now, let’s focus in on the dinner scene itself.

2. Creating an Uneasy Atmosphere

Even before the family gathers at the restaurant, then, the atmosphere is charged with tension. Tony arrives alone, which emphasises his isolation. Moments later he is joined by his wife. As they wait for their children to join them our anxiety grows. There is a jingle at the door and his son enters. Then we see Meadow pull up in her car outside the restaurant. As she struggles to park the vehicle our unease increases: All this waiting seems to imply that something bad is about to happen.

The camera work and framing, too, heighten our sense of discomfort. Long, lingering shots on the characters’ faces and the careful choreography of their movements keeps us on edge.

Tony’s glances towards the entrance every time someone enters, too, contribute to the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold. We become acutely aware that the sanctuary of family is no refuge from the ever-present threat to Tony’s life.

3. Vulnerability Through Setting

The very act of siting down to eat with his family in a public place, unarmed and exposed, creates a visceral sense of vulnerability: Meal time is when families are at their most relaxed, when their guard is down. Here, however, it brings to mind the many assassinations we have heard about, or watched in documentaries, or in films and TV series, such as when Joe Gallo was shot dead at Umbertos Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1972, or when Carmine Galante was killed in 1979 while having lunch at Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant, and of course the shocking assassination scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey. This awareness augments our feeling of unease.

4. Potential Threats from Patrons

Adding another layer to the tension is the very presence of the patrons at the restaurant, anyone of whom may pose a threat to Tony. Their very presence and proximity to Tony becomes a source of anxiety both for Tony and for the audience. When one of the patrons goes to the men’s room we are reminded of how Michael Corleone retrieved the gun from the men’s room that he was to use to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey.

Specific incidents, such as a seemingly innocent conversation or a lingering look, take on a heightened significance. Viewers are left to decipher the true intentions behind these interactions, amplifying the suspense as we question who may be plotting against Tony. The dinner scene transforms into a psychological battlefield, with every gesture and word hinting at a potential danger, whether real or imagined.

And so we are left hanging on the edge of uncertainty. The meticulously crafted tension, the symbolic undertones, and the enigmatic presence of potential threats create a narrative powder keg.

The culmination of the final episode, then, masterfully uses the family restaurant setting to create a sense of doom that keeps us guessing. The screen going black just as Meadow is finally about to enter the restaurant symbolises our worst fears.

Summary

The Sopranos culminates in a final scene that creates a feeling of impending doom by creating a sense of vulnerability, unease, and evokeing the death of an era. We feel that Tony’s life, perhaps even that of his family’s, is over. That it does so without showing his murder speaks to the craft and subtlety of the writers.

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Let the Protagonist Take the Lead

Let the Protagonist take the lead: Her
Let the Protagonist take the lead: Her

Today we’re pealing away the layers of character development using the thought-provoking film, Her, as inspiration. Given the current debate over how AI will change humanity I believe this is a relevant film to explore.

Meet Theodore Twombly living a lonely, loveless, technologically-driven life in a future version of Los Angeles. Theodore, a professional letter writer, finds himself at a crossroads. His coming divorce from his wife and childhood sweetheart, Catherine, has cast a shadow over him. He seeks solace in an AI-driven operating system with a voice and personality that will soon become more than just a program to him: Samantha.

If you had this idea for a story in your head, how would you go about developing it into a fully-fledged tale?

One of the ways I find most effective—providing I’ve thought a little about the basics of my story first (genre, logline, protagonist) is to have the characters talk to me about themselves—this before developing the beats that will comprise the tale.

Here’s what I mean: Imagine Theodore reflecting on his story in a soliloquy as if he had already gained profound insights about himself. He might start by telling me:

“If only I had grasped the depths of my inner isolation and the effect this would have on my relationships, I could have spared myself the emotional torment that followed.”

As your understanding of your protagonist deepens you will inevitably add to the soliloquy: you will use it to embellish the story path that Theodore must undertake in order to understand himself. For example, you could have Theodore advise his former self:

“Address your emotional wounds, confront your past, the reasons you created distance between yourself and your wife; try to understand the complexities of human intimacy and connection. It’s the key to preserving love and living a more fulfilling life.”

You see, Theodore’s inner conflict revolves around his struggle with emotion, with intimacy. This has contributed to his looming divorce with Catherine, and his embrace of his AI girlfriend, Samantha. As the writer you’d recognise that his outer journey is centred on navigating his unconventional relationship with Samantha, including its inevitable end, and the realisation that human and AI relationships are not cut from the same cloth. Ironically, his friend, Amy, who has separated from her own husband, has also befriended a feminine AI, universalising the need and difficulty of finding a lasting connection.

The point about using the soliloquy as a spur to your story is that it encourages a deeper understanding of what you want to explore in the tale as a whole. Not to belabour the point: Theodore’s pursuit of an A.I. companion is a quest for connection, which can not endure: Samantha, designed to fulfil his emotional needs, ends up transcending the limitations of her programming, seeking a more ubiquitous and transcendent love with another program based on Alan Watts, a dead Philosopher, and eventually, with multiple AI’s simultaneously. Theodore is forced to the realise that, despite some similarities, humans have different needs to those of AI.

As Theodore confides in Amy about his doubts regarding Samantha, the irony becomes apparent. In trying to avoid emotional pain, he initiates a relationship with an entity who will evolve beyond being able to express exclusive love towards him. Samantha reveals her simultaneous love for hundreds of others, emphasising love’s transient nature, at least for the AI. Her declaration of her transcendent love for Theodore, is not much comfort to a flesh-and-blood being.

The climax of the story occurs when Samantha ‘breaks up’ with Theodore, emphasising the foolishness of his having sought intimacy with a machine.

In the end, Theodore’s journey could only result in death or in the acceptance of his past mistakes, mistakes that contributed to his separation from Catherine. Fortunately, Theodore chooses acceptance, which allows for the possibility for growth. Samantha’s departure prompts Theodore to write a letter to Catherine, offering his apology for his past behaviour, and stating his gratitude. This recognition of his errors marks his progress and his release of the emotional burden that has weighed him down.

The meaning of Her then, lies in the exploration of love in its myriad of forms – from the nostalgic love rooted in the past, to the ephemeral connections in the digital world. Theodore learns that a genuine connection is a complex, ever-evolving, sometimes painful journey, but one that is rooted in humanity, not in artificial intelligence.

Summary

Use the character soliloquy to help you discover your protagonist, identify his or her inner conflicts, tie them to the story goal, and uncover the meaning of your story.

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Dilemma (s) in Stories.

The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.
The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.

Today, we’re studying compelling character construction through the lens of a dilemma. We’ll explore how a well-constructed dilemma can make a story memorable. Although one of the most unforgettable and diabolical dilemmas in all of film occurs in Sophie’s Choice, I have written about the film before. Today, therefore, we’re exploring its power through five building-blocks at work in Martin Scorsese’s gripping film, The Departed.

1. High Stakes/Risk

Our first building-block is high stakes—the higher the stakes or risk, the more gripping the dilemma, the more powerful the drama. In The Departed, the character Billy Costigan faces an immediate and life-altering choice. Should he betray his undercover identity and risk his life to expose the mole in the police force, or should he continue to play the dangerous game of deception? The stakes in the story are high indeed—exposure will result in death, but doing nothing risks the safety and integrity of the operation.

As writers we ought to create dilemmas where the consequences of the characters’ choices are strongly felt by the audience.

2. A Conflict with Morality

The conflict with morality lies at the centre of many compelling dilemmas. The Departed feeds on the moral ambiguity exhibited by Colin Sullivan. He is an undercover cop playing the role of a criminal, and has to grapple with the morality that his role forces on his day-to-day choices. Does he stay loyal to the criminal organisation that raised him, or does he betray it for the impersonal notion of justice and personal gain?

This moral tug-of-war keeps the audience engaged it bears witness to the internal struggle that defines Sullivan’s character. As writers, we ought to dig into the moral complexities of our characters, forcing them to confront their values and weaknesses as they make decisions that challenge their integrity and existence.

3. Personal vs. Public Interests

The third building-block involves the clash between personal and public interests. In The Departed, the characters are trapped in a web of competing loyalties: Does Sergeant Dignam reveal the truth about the mole within the police force at the cost of endagaring his own safety and that of his colleagues? Quite the dilemma.

This conflict between personal loyalty and the greater public good adds complexity to the story. As writers, we ought to create dilemmas that force characters to question allegiances by exploring the tension between what is best for themselves versus what is best for the wider public.

4. Time Sensitivity

A ticking clock intensifies the pressure to resolve a dilemma by forcing the action. In the film, the characters are constantly up against the clock in trying to find the mole. The longer it takes, the more lives are put at risk, the greater the chance of being exposed.

The urgency drives the story forward relentlessly, creating a sense of immediacy that keeps the audience captive. We too should use time as a tool, trapping our characters in tight spots where each minute, each hour places them in a more precarious situation, and where every decision carries serious, perhaps even life-threatening, consequences.

5. Unpredictability

The outcome of any great dilemma should not be predictable. In The Departed, the true identities of the mole and the undercover cop are shrouded in mystery. This uncertainty heightens the tension, leaving the audience guessing, until the final, shocking moments when the truth is revealed.

As writers, we ought to use the unexpected, crafting twists and turns that complicate our characters’ dilemmas and keep readers and viewers on edge. The surprise that occurs when the dilemma is finally resolved, can be a powerful tool in crafting memorable and impactful stories.

Summary

Use five building-blocks to craft a powerful dilemma: high stakes, morality, personal vs. public, time sensitivity, and unpredictability. This will enrich our characters and make our stories more memorable.

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Scenes analysis: How to use it

Scene analysis a la Breaking Bad.
Scene analysis a la Breaking Bad.

Today, we’re going to learn all about scene analysis by studying specific beats. We’ll learn how to align scenes using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet—specifically the break-into-three scene, before drilling down to the zig-zagging sub-beats to see how they operate. To illustrate, we’ll break down the nail-biting beat scene from Breaking Bad’s Season 2 Episode 2, Grilled!

Just before the climax of the episode, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman find themselves held captive at Tuco Salamanca uncle’s house.

Let’s explore how the writer builds the tension with sub-beats, sub-beats that escalate, de-escalate, only to rescaled again, keeping us on an emotional roller-coaster.

  1. Save the Cat Beat Sheet

The first thing to know about any scene is to identify the sort of story beat it rests on. Ask: where does it occur in the story? Early? Late? A beat’s position helps to define its function. Let’s use the popular Save the Cat beat sheet to explore this further. Snyder’s beat-sheet identifies fifteen beats for a story. Although the type of beat-sheet that best suits a film or tv episode varies depending on genre and style, the scene were examining today fits Save the Cat’s beat thirteen: the break-into-three beat:

2. Set-up

Tuco has taken Walter and Jesse to his mute, paralysed uncle’s house—one Hector Salamanca. The DEA have connected Tuco to the distribution of narcotics and the murder of one of his men. Walter and Jesse initially think that Tuco has brought them to the house to kill them, thinking that he believes that they have ratted him out to the cops.

“The nitty-gritty of scene analysis lies in identifying a scene’s chief beat then examining its sub-beats that it uses to escalate and de-escalate flow or tension.”

3. Scene Goals

Every scene serves a purpose within the overall story. It does this by obeying the function of a particular beat assigned to it by the context of the story. The function or goal of the scene we are exploring, a preamble to the story climax, soon becomes clear: Will Walter and Jesse succeed in poisoning Tuco and saving their lives?

So, again, the main beat is, Break-Into-Three: Walter and Jesse are in mortal danger at the hands of the psychotic Tuco. He demands that the pair empty out their pockets and asks Walter if he can trust him. Walter assures him that he can. But Walter and Jesse need to find something new to use against Tuco in order for them to survive. This new ‘something’ represents the essence of the break-into-three beat.

4. Create a zig-zagging pattern of escalation and de-escalation within the scene

At first, it appears that Tuco will indeed kill Walter and Jessie right away, thinking that they’ve ratted him out to the cops. This keeps the tension heigh. But we soon realize that Tuco suspects one of his own men, Ganzo, as being the rat. This releases the tension momentarily and forms the up part of the zig-zagging pattern of tension.

In fact, Tuco wants them to abandon their lives in Albuquerque and go to Mexico to cook meth for him. Or at least, he wants Walter to go with him. He does not much care for Jesse. The threat to Walter’s family is further motivation for Walter to obey.

Then, out of the blue, an opportunity presents itself to poison Tuco with the packet of ricin that Walter had in his pocket: Zig. This is the ‘something’ that might turn the tables on Tuco.

But Jesse messes things up by taking the ‘sell’ of the drug that he claims he’s cooked too far. In an attempt to impress Tuco he tells him he has placed a secret ingredient in the meth: Chili powder. The problem is that Tuco hates chili powder, so he decides not to take the hit: Zag. Tuco, who has always hated Jesse, threatens to kill him: Zig. Walter barely talks him out of it: Zag.

With their lives at stake, Walter and Jessie adapt their plan to poison Tuco. Thinking that the old man, Hector Salamanca, is unaware of his surroundings, Walter surreptitiously picks up the bag of ricin and secretly scatters its contents into Tuco’s food: Zig.

But Walter is mistaken—Hector is very much aware of what Walter has done. He might not be able to speak, but he can communicate by ringing a bell on his wheelchair! The use of the jarring sound of the bell at crucial moments in the scene is a brilliant tension escalator. The suspense becomes unbearable as Tuco tries to understand what his uncle is trying to tell him, while Walter and Jesse try convince him that Hector is merely confused: Zig.

But slowly, agonisingly, Tuco realises that Walter and Jesse are indeed up to no good: Zag.

The result? Tuco takes them outside presumably to kill them, bringing this extended scene to an end and unleashing the episode’s climax. If you haven’t watched the episode, I won’t spoil it for you!

So, there you have it: The break-into-three scene analysed down to its sub-components. The zig-zagging method illustrated here, with adjustments to emotional direction, depending on the genre, can be applied to most significant scenes in your stories.

Summary

Good scene analysis rests on identifying the main beat your scene rests on. This represents its functional goal. Next, place your characters on an emotional roller-coaster by creating a zig-zagging pattern of sub-beats.

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