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Character Action and Character Dialogue

Clint Eastwood: Quintessential Minimalist Character Action

Clint Eastwood – Quintessential Character Action in the Spaghetti Western

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DIALOGUE, as I have often stated in my classes and articles, is an important part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, reveals character, and, at its best, draws us into the minds of the story’s characters.

But, sometimes, scenes are better served through action alone.

When Character Action Trumps Dialogue

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind. Here the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence, from ape to spacefaring humanity, is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

And who can forget the laconic style of the Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gun slinger whose draw is lightning fast?

As he faces off against man after man, willing them to draw, tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, unflinching gazes, twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns, and the like. No need for dialogue here.

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggest that he is disconnected from the world.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very existence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

An absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on character action and its significance.

A Good Villain?

Pablo Escobar as the chief villain

Pablo Escobar as the chief Villain

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IN his book, Screenwriting, UCLA professor Richard Walter, reminds us that just as there are few purely good or purely bad people in life, a well observed character, particularly a villain or an anti-hero in a story, should contain at least some small trace of good in him.

“What Makes A Good Villain?”

In Narcos, for example, the drug lord, Escobar is responsible for establishing the cocaine trade in Miami, and murdering many innocent people in his own country, Colombia, as a show of force against the government.

Yet, his love for his family and his generosity to the poor people of his own town point to some good traits in him. When the tables are turned on him by rival cartels, as well as an equally brutal police force, he is separated from his family as he attempts to get them out of the country to safety. To make matters worse, they end up in the hands of the Colombian police. That is the beginning of the end for Escobar.

As his men are killed off one by one he becomes increasingly isolated. His father rejects him. His wife asks him to turn himself in. Despite his record, we cannot help but feel a wisp of sympathy for him.

    “A villain who is completely villainous, without a single trace of humanity in him, is essentially uninteresting and unconvincing in a story.”

In the 1970’s television series, Archie Bunker, the lead character is portrayed as stubborn, not very bright, and bigoted, hardly traits that we admire.

But who amongst us has never felt some prejudice or acted in a willful way towards others? Despite his negative traits, and because of the skillful writing of his character, we, unexpectedly, come to love the bigoted, stubborn Archie. Richard Walter suggests that part of the reason for this lies in that in comparing ourselves to Archie, we can at least feel relief that we are not as bigoted as he is.

Additionally, we are forced to recognise that prejudice can reside in anyone – a beloved grandfather, a friend, even a spouse, and we strive to guard against it in our own lives. The reason that we give such characters the time of day at all, then, is because, at the very least, we feel some sympathy for them. Without sympathy, without liking some aspect of their character, we would not waste our time on them.

Summary

Add some sympathetic traits to your most unlikable characters, especially to your villain, to avoid making them flat and stereotypical.


Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters

Emotional changes

Signaling Emotional Changes in Character

ONE of the hallmarks of good writing in films and novels is that there are emotional changes to the characters through time.

In stories, as in life, people learn from their mistakes, from life’s hard knocks, and try to prevent them from recurring by adjusting some aspect of their character.

Some, of course, never do, but that’s a topic for a future article.

But how do characters move from one state to another? How does love turn into hate? Passion into indifference?

Cueing Emotional Changes

Novice writers often make the mistake of creating characters who erratically jump from state to state. I’ve written before in this blog about the need for introducing transitional emotional states.

But how do we specifically convey these shifts to our readers? Is it through dialogue? Is it through narration?

In most cases, the best way to signal change is subtly, through small but telling actions. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty offers the example of a girl falling out of love with her boyfriend.

Does the girl tell him outright that she no longer loves him?

That might be too abrupt (unless that is the specific effect we are after). It would also be spoon feeding the reader. The story might require that the breakup be dragged out a bit.

In the example provided by Geraghty, the character stops using hair conditioner when washing her hair. It is a sign that she no longer cares about looking her best for him – that he’s not worth the extra cost of conditioner.

Subtle, but telling.

In planning for an emotional shift in your characters, then, identify the spot where the shift is to occur, then insert a telling but subtle action to signal it. This technique will add polish and finesse to your writing.

Summary

Signal a significant change to the emotional state of your characters through subtle but telling actions.

Writing Great Dialogue Hooks

Unforgiven contains great dialogue hooks

The film Unforgiven contains some great dialogue hooks

Great dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that its study fills countless of books.

In this article I want to touch on one technical aspect of great dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity.

(See Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual).

Swain suggests that in order to have dialogue hang together it needs to contain a dialogue hook. That is, each speech needs to acknowledge the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition and question/answer:

Two Technical Keys to Great Dialogue

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story.

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

This question and answer structure, as well as the repetition of the word ‘dead’ and ‘killed’, not only links the dialogue between the two characters, it bridges the second and third acts of the film. Munny’s shock and disbelief turns into unrelenting revenge with dire consequences for the perpetrators.

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate.

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

There are other ways to link dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question/answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

Question/answer and repetition are two simple but powerful techniques to help you write great dialogue hooks for your novels and screenplays.

Archetypes and Characters in Stories

Archetypes - Gandalf in Lord of the Rings

Gandalf as one of the Mentor Archetypes in Lord of the Rings

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood studios, offers us eight character archetypes found, in one or other combination, in many successful stories.

They are the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster.

Most writers are familiar with some of these archetypes, albeit by different names, such as the Protagonist (Hero), Antagonist (Shadow), and Sidekick (Ally). Others, such as the Shapeshifter and Trickster, however, are less obvious.

The Trickster and Shapeshifter Archetypes

The Trickster represents mischief and the desire for change in the story. Clowns and comical sidekicks are examples of this sort of character. A chief psychological function of the Trickster is to cut the Hero’s ego down to size, typically through humour, in order to spotlight some absurdity in his thoughts and actions.

The Trickster’s dramatic function, as distinct from his psychological one, is to add comic relief to the tale. Some Tricksters may even rise to the level of a Trickster Hero, such as Bugs Bunny or Duffy Duck. Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, captures many of the energies of this archetype, disrupting the Californian police system, while remaining unchanged himself.

The Shapeshifter expresses the energy of the animus and anima, which, in Jung’s psychology, characterises the male and female elements in our unconscious mind. We all embody aspects of the opposite sex within us, traits which are often repressed by society. We are told that girls play with dolls and teddies, and boys with cars and guns. When they cross over, it creates conflict in the characters, which, in story terms, enriches the plot.

The Shapeshifter’s dramatic function is to bring uncertainty and suspense to the tale. When the Hero keeps enquiring, “Is he friend or foe? Does she love me? Will she betray me?” a Trickster is generally present. A famous Trickster, who also embodies the attributes of the Shadow (Antagonist), is Iago who helps push Othello to murder and despair.

Women, portrayed through sudden changes in mood and appearance, typically make great Shapeshifters. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the woman quickly shifts from passionate lover to murderous harpy when the man with whom she is having an affair tries to end it.

Wizards, witches, and ogres are typical of this archetype in fairytales. The femme fatale, found in the noir films of the forties and fifties, finds deadly expression in cop and detective stories – Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Archetypes, then, allow us to create more complex characters by mixing them together to create more unique characters. At the same time, they allow us to map and track the psychological and dramatic requirements of a story – a boon to any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Understanding the psychological and dramatic function of archetypes allows us to mix specific elements from each. The result is new, exciting, and viable characters for our stories.

Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.

Summary

Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.

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.

Are your Stories Plot or Character Driven?

Plot and character in Gladiator

Plot and Character: Russel Crow as Maximus in Gladiator

Students of writing often ask how character relates to plot. Which is more important, or at least, where should the emphasis fall?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than a European art film that concentrates more on character.

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because plot and character are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other?

How character affects plot

The following analogy is helpful: Plot is to character as a beam of light is to a prism passing through it. The prism refracts the flow of the plot.

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena?

Much more fitting is that Maximus pull the Emperor’s sword from his belly with his bare hands and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it.

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story is directed through the prism of character.

Where to Begin your Tale

Starting your tale

Lighting up your tale

How should your tale start? With a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or with a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters?

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings, Speed. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the story, the point of attack.

Interrogate your Tale

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is our genre? Are we writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when we know the answer to those questions can we know what note to strike in our opening.

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue.

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back.

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you need to strike in order to determine the precise starting point of your tale.

How to Write Great Loglines

Writing LoglinesIN ONE of my recent classes on storytelling I invited my screenwriting students to come up with three loglines, before choosing the best amongst them.

Some were more enticing than others. Fresher concepts, new angles on old ones, dangling questions that demanded answers.

Others, not so much.

The Essence of Loglines

When the dust had settled and the best loglines stood shoulder to shoulder one thing seemed obvious. They all foregrounded concrete, outer journey elements of the story while simultaneously revealing essential aspects of the inner journey – the reasons and explanation of why the hero acts in the way that he does.

Being loglines, they did not go overboard in fleshing this out. They provided just enough information to intrigue the reader.

Loglines and high concept have this in common: They allow the reader, in the words of Steven Spielberg, to hold the story in the palm of her hand – to glimpse, in one fell swoop, what the story is about – although high concept focuses on elements of uniqueness and originality far more than any ordinary logline.

So it is with any commercially viable story. Without a concrete, palpable plot in which the hero has to struggle in physically challenging spaces against a powerful villain to achieve his goal, there is no story to tell.

The point is important. If the reader can not see the physical arc of the story in a logline she will probably not be interested in reading the rest of the tale in order to reach its themes and concepts.

This is not to say that the inner journey is not of vital importance. Many of the greatest stories ever written had powerful inner journeys – Lord of the Rings, The Spire. But it is to say that the inner journey will only be of interest if the vehicle that carries it, the outer journey, is concrete and palpable.

The logline, “The Land Below is a post-apocalyptic story concerning a young orphan boy who embodies the themes of survival versus freedom,” is not as good as:

The Land Below is the story of a lowly orphan boy who secretly plots to escape his suffocating post-apocalyptic existence in a converted goldmine, knowing that if betrayed, he will be executed for fermenting resurrection against the social order.”

In the second logline the themes of survival and freedom are still present, but they emerge through the visceral and emotive use of concrete, palpable words such as “plots”, “suffocating”, “goldmine”, “betrayed,” “executed,” and “resurrection”. The logline allows us to hold the story in the palm of our hand.

Summary

Write effective loglines using concrete, emotive, and visceral language that creates a snapshot of your hero’s outer journey, while simultaneously hinting at his reasons for undertaking it.