Tag Archives: writersblock

Structuring Emotion in the Novel and Screenplay

Emotion in the novelIN a recent article I wrote about how to avoid blunting the creative impulse resulting from excessive preparation of a novel or screenplay.

I suggested that for some writers knowing the protagonist’s obsessive desires, then placing obstacles in her way, is enough to start us writing.

But for those who need to know a little more about character motivation from the start, what other background facts would be helpful?

Character Motivation in a Novel or Screenplay

In a chapter on shaping character Lagos Egri suggests that we first need to understand the underlying causes of obsessive desire for a specific goal. Is the action driven by jealousy, as in Othello? If so, we need to know that before jealousy there is suspicion; before suspicion there is antagonism – a primary motivator of hate; before antagonism there is disappointment.

Identifying the underlying emotions that drive our characters will help us propel them through the story. Strong ambition, for example, implies the need for fame, wealth, power. But all of these might stem from a suppressed but potent sense of insecurity. In constructing that particular sort of character, then, the writer knows that she has to include scenes which explore these emotions.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Nugget’s hatred for Paulie, the story’s protagonist, arises from jealousy. Anthea, the girl he loves, seems to like Paulie, a mere labourer, more than him. Being a senator’s son, Nugget believes he is the superior choice. Her preference for Paulie, undermines his fragile confidence in himself.

Additionally, he fears that his failure to procure Anthea will diminish him in the eyes of his father, whose success is difficult to emulate. Coming up with a plan to defeat Paulie, therefore, stems from his jealousy, which in turn, springs from his insecurity.

In brief, then, exploring the chain of emotions that results in a character’s obsessive desire, is a useful spur to the writing process.

Summary

Know what lies behind your protagonist’s desire to achieve some tangible goal, prior to starting your screenplay or novel.

Understanding Scene Sequences

Scene SequenceA scene does not exist in isolation from other scenes. It is organically connected to the overall network of scenes that makes up a story.

Scene Sequencing

In Making a Good Script Great Linda Seger reminds us it is more useful to think of a scene as being a member of a scene sequence – scenes that are so tightly connected to one another that they create causal narrative blocks within the story.

These sequences might be chase scenes in a city that get progressively shorter until they end in a car crash or getaway; they may build up to the final explosion in The Guns of Navarone; they might culminate in two lovers reuniting as in When Harry met Sally.

In The fugitive the first sequence of scenes might be called murder and the sentencing. They form a tight causal unit and last eleven minutes in the film. The next sequence could be called the escape, leading to the train wreck. The sequence following that could be labeled after him and include the scenes of Deputy Sam Gerard starting the chase, culminating in Kimble arriving in Chicago.

And so on.

The point is that all these scenes are grouped together by cause and effect, or, at least, action and consequence, leaving little room for irrelevant, off-the-point action.

In my novel, The Level, for example, the protagonist, in the beginning of the story, finds himself bound to a sturdy chair in a pitch black room. To make matters worse he is suffering from amnesia and has no clue why he is in this situation.

Later, a mysterious woman in a burka appears to him from the darkness and unties him. She leaves him a series of clues he needs to follow in order to escape.

The story becomes a connect-the-dots mystery, driven by dangerous traps that threaten the protagonist’s every step. It may be argued that the entire story is driven by causally connected scene sequences, each of which reveals a part of the puzzle, leaving little room for boredom.

Summary

Organise your scenes into scene sequences in order to drive the action and maintain the pace in your stories.

Writing Great Point-of-View Characters

Writing point of viewWHAT makes for a great point-of-view character? In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty offers us the following advice.

A great point-of-view character is one whose problems fuel the story; the character who has the biggest emotional and physical stake in the story – the most to lose if things go belly up for her.

Writing Point-of-View

Such a character is at the center of the action. Passive characters who merely observe rather than act are not vehicles through whose hearts and bodies we want to experience the story. Imagine if Edge of Tomorrow‘s Major William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, was a mere observer to the alien invasion rather than a key figure in defeating it.

Point-of-view characters are the most interesting. Their thoughts, feelings and opinions are what the readers find most intriguing and absorbing.

A point-of-view character is the most complex. The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s Benjamin Vlahos is such a character. Guilt, nostalgia, and longing, coupled with a powerful intellect have brought him to a stalemate. He can’t go back and he can’t move forward. Not unless he finds the solution that has eluded him for thirty years – prove that time travel to the past is possible.

Other point-of-view characters may appear deceptively simple, but only from the outside. In Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea, the character of the old man appears seems straight forward. But his tenacity in holding onto the fish, even when all seems lost, speaks of a deeper reason.

The old man has a reputation of coming home empty handed from his fishing expeditions. No one wants to go out on his boat with him any more. He appears habitually unlucky and this has cast a shadow over him. It is something he needs to shake off if he is to hold his head up high again.

Interesting, complex, and emotionally invested characters who have the most to lose in a story, then, are great candidates for the point-of-view mantle.

Summary

Writing point-of-view characters whose emotions and actions drive the story forward makes for absorbing stories.

What Drives Your Protagonist?

ProtagonistCONTINUING my exploration of Robert Mckee’s, Story, I highlight an important technique: How to make your protagonist more engrossing. This entails that I talk about the tension between want and need.

The Tension driving your Protagonist

The protagonist is a willful character. His pursuit of his desire is relentless. It is also the outward manifestation of an unconscious inner conflict. It stems from what he believes he wants in life.

In The Land Below Paulie’s desire is to reach the surface in search of wonder. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel it is Benjamin’s obsession with solving an intractable mathematical equation. In Scarab it is Jack’s desire to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.

But the greatest stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles to desire. They also pit him against himself.

They do this by infusing him with an unconscious desire that is at odds with his declared want. The result is an inner conflict which is resolved only when he realises that his want is inferior to his need.

Indeed, it is this very recognition that is the final proof that the protagonist has grown. It indicates that he has learnt from his mistakes. It heralds his final readiness to face and defeat the antagonist at the level of external action.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in self-forgiveness through art. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires.

In these, and other stories, it is the tension lurking beneath what the protagonist wants and what he needs that fascinates readers.

Summary

The tension between what a protagonist wants and needs is the engine of conflict in the protagonist.

Surprise and Explanation in Stories

SurpriseONE of the joys of reading a well-written story is found in the element of surprise.

A surprise can prevent complacency and help avoid predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Surprise and Explanation

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the young protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, fails to understand the reasons why his uncle is disliked by his mother. Consequently he plays a childish prank on him, hoping to drive him away from their home. When his uncle is found dead in his bed the very next day, Benjamin thinks it is as a result of the prank and the guilt stays with him for decades. It seeps into other areas of his life, including his taking the blame for the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. By remaining unresolved the poorly understood event helps to define his life.

I knew that I had a powerful mechanism at my disposal that could ripple through the entire story. I just had to ensure that I used it at the right moment, in this instance, the climax – the nexus of the protagonist’s inner and outer life. I also had to make sure that the explanation it offered was credible. I did so by placing sufficient clues along the way, drawn from the backstory.

Judging from the reviews of The Nostalgia of Time Travel has received thus far, it appears that I may have succeeded.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story ties your protagonist’s inner and outer life together and leaves a lasting impression.

Structure of Stories and Intuition

Structure of intuitionSTRUCTURE is helpful in showing us how to write stories that flow well.

Developed from Aristotle’s core advice that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, the study of structure has expanded then crystallised into a set of techniques that add detail to specific parts of a typical story, such as the inciting incident, turning points, and the like.

Certainly, tweaking a story at the editing stage through knowledge of such structural nodes helps the writer to smooth out the drafts that inevitably follow.

But how does a knowledge of structure help us write a better story while we are actually writing it? Surely, few of us write while thinking about such abstractions? Don’t we mostly follow the fire of the story, wherever it may lead us, at the level of the story and not of structure?

Structure and Intuition

Sidestepping debates of whether you are a plotter or a pantser, and avoiding an outright cognitive discussion of the process, I think the answer is that we do, at the point of contact, have to shift our synopsis to the background and write from the gut. We have to follow the fire.

But the fire is inevitably influenced by our knowledge of structure. And, of course, by our experience of life. So, while it may appear that the words flow spontaneously from our brains, they have been cultured, at a deeper level, by our knowledge of the craft and life.

We all have different ways of manifesting this deeper knowledge while we write. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘midpoint approaching’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to flit to exemplars in order to intuit how great works have navigated similar problems.

My own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence, which alerts me to the possibility that I may have missed a structural node, or that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my mind, then, I often find myself jutting out an elbow, or pushing out a hip as I try to feel, in a visceral sense, necessary changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance – a free flowing stream that assumes shape through bends, turns, through its changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth – that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the creative flame.

Summary

Our awareness of story structure during the first draft should nestle in the background, influencing the story but not inhibiting the creative fire.

Literature. Can it be as Popular as Genre Fiction?

Popular Literature?JUST LATELY I’ve come cross several blogs and editorials in social media that criticise literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies are seen as boring, introverted, and static while the former are pacy and exciting.

Now, goodness knows, literature can be slow and boring, as can off-beat movies. I’ve said so here on more than one occasion. But the same can be true of popular writing and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against laughable plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

Literature versus the World

I don’t know about you but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find a large number of them to be more boring than most literature or art films. Which is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in the potential of convention.

But I do believe that there are many things we can learn from literature and art film.

What kind of things, you ask?

Well, how about integrity, truthfulness, and enhanced observation that lead to a strong sense of connection with fictional characters? In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I tried to create just such a connection between the reader and my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos.

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with truthful observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot need not harm the deep search for truth and meaning – the purvey of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to run-of-the-mill readers and audiences as well as endowed with deeper layers of value – namely, meaningful stories that contain strong and exciting plots.

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Fifties through Eighties in Stories

Fifties through EightiesIn Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson, the German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings, ends his discussion on the subject of one’s development by focusing on the topic of integrity versus despair – a topic that becomes more pressing as one enters one’s fifties.

Linda Seger defines a character’s integrity as the ability to hold to one’s ethical or moral identity, despite the powerful forces that threaten to knock one off track. Erikson believed that discovering how we can hold onto our integrity as we move through life is something we have to confront head-on.

As we begin to look back on our lives we ask the questions: How have we used our talents? How have we contributed to the world? In short, have we made of our lives something to be proud of?

Whereas during our earlier years we tend to focus on our achieving or rounding off success in the world’s eyes, our later years are devoted to scrutinising the true meaning of that success.

Fifties through Eighties

If one has compromised one’s integrity in pursuit of gain during our twenties, thirties, and forties, dealing with the spiritual and psychological consequences during our fifties and sixties becomes a growing preoccupation. Stories abound of unethical practices being revealed later in life, often stripping the character of her material possessions and public esteem.

Although Erikson sees this conflict as maturing in one’s sixties, it can pop up at any age. At home and in grade school, we are taught not to cheat or steal, and we do so at the expense of our conscience, leading to inner conflict – although it is probably true that our later years grant us more time for reflection.

The importance and longevity of this age-related theme is reflected in the number of films that have received Academy Awards in recent years: The Green Mile, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Elizabeth, The Lord of the Rings, Traffic, The insider, L.A. Confidential, and the like.

Summary

Advancing years – fifties and beyond – offer us the perspective to consider the true value of our lives, and to reflect this in our writing.

Young Adults Want This in a Story

Young AdulthoodAlthough young adults may share some of the themes associated with the teen years, such as the search for love and intimacy and discovering one’s identity, this thematic category digs deeper than the former – explored in last week’s post. It tends to focus more on achievement and efficacy in the world. It not only establishes the theme as a protagonist’s goal, it scratches for the truth that lies below the surface.

Stories, such as Titanic and Elizabeth, for example, respectively explore the consequences of choosing someone to love that our parents would disapprove of, or choosing duty over love.

Young Adulthood and Story Themes – Linda Seger

Because many popular stories and films tend to cater for readers and audiences in their twenties and thirties their themes center more on success and achievement – strong driving forces in that age group.

Themes about success focus on achieving success in the world’s eyes – about public achievement. If the protagonist fails to have her dream acknowledged in the public arena it may be that the dream is unimportant or insignificant. Important achievements, by contrast, carry the stamp of public approval: John Nash wins the Nobel Prize in A Beautiful Mind, the first Star Wars ends with a ceremony, and Clarice receives an award at the end of Silence of the Lambs.

Stories in the category, can, however, be more inwardly-looking, exploring the conflict between career and family (Melvin’s Room, One True Thing), or the tension between fame, materialism and integrity – Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Quiz Show. Here the storyline tends to explore the outer goal while the inner story, driven by a more intimate exploration of the theme, examines the inner world through subplot.

Regardless of the level of intimacy, however, stories that fall in the young adulthood category focus more on the consequences of pursuing success or fame through career, its rewards and costs, rather than discovering the themes as goals in the first instance – the first order search in teenage stories.

The young adulthood category, then, represents a maturing of the teenage dream into an ostensible set of goals that have public and personal effects.

Summary

Stories involving characters in the young adulthood category tend to explore the consequences, good and bad, of pursuing career, success, and fame.

Teenage Dreams

Teenage themesTeenage Dreams, the second in a series of articles dealing with age-specific stories, follows on from last week’s piece on childhood themes, drawn from Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting.

Seger asserts that almost all teenage stories deal with the notion of identity, since our teens and early twenties are driven by our need to discover ourselves – who are we, what do we want to do, or be, when we grow up.

Teenage Themes

A teen-orientated story typically explores the themes of sexual identity (Risky Business, Boys Don’t Cry), discovering love (Titanic), finding one’s creative self in a conformist society, securing one’s individuality in a culture that often prescribes who you are or might become (Room with a View, The Cinder House Rules).

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie, the book’s protagonist, who is nearing the end of his teens, refuses to accept the dictates of the Governor and Senators who insist that life on the surface of the world is unlivable and that one should not, under any circumstances, spread rumors to the contrary.

Fighting against these dictates, Paulie rejects his social status as a lowly orphan when he develops feelings for the Governor’s daughter and ends up becoming the leader of a band of teenagers seeking to escape the suffocating confines of the Land Below.

Paulie, in effect, redefines his place in society. But in doing so he threatens the Governor’s grip on the closely controlled subterranean world. It is this conflict between the freedom to choose and the impulse to control, rooted in the opposing needs of the protagonist (Paulie) and antagonist (Governor, et al.) that creates the plot of the story.

Importantly, then, the theme in any story steers the plot, turning it this way and that, as the protagonist continues to explore and test it until the end of the tale.

Summary

Teenage themes cluster around questions of who are we, what do we want to do, or be, when we grow up.