Tag Archives: AmEditing

Making Your Character’s Actions Uniquely Appropriate

Appropriate Actions

Appropriate Actions in The Godfather

How does the writer determine which settings and actions are the most appropriate for the specific characters in a story?

In his book, The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing, UCLA Screenwriting professor, Richard Walter, calls this appropriateness integration. Integration refers to the unique suitability of events arising from the synchronous cooperation of all other story elements.

Appropriate Actions in Appropriate Settings

In The Godfather, for example, a wealthy man with a particular love of racehorses, defies the mafia. How should the writer craft his punishment? There are any number of gruesome ways to effect retribution. Burn him alive in his own house. Cut him up into little pieces starting with his fingers. But are these the most integrated, the most unique ways, given the man’s background and setting?

In the end the writer found a particularly diabolical punishment for the defiant man. In an unforgettably horrifying scene he had him wake up in his bed with the bleeding head of his prize racehorse under his blankets. Not a morally justifiable act, but one that uniquely fits the defies-us-and-be-punished-where it-hurts-the-most code of the Cosa Nostra.

In War Games, the young protagonist, a computer hacker, is being held by the military in an underground chamber. How should he attempt to escape? Through the air-vent system? Faking a spasm to get a guard inside and hit him over the head with a paperweight? These actions lack a unique fit.

Instead, the computer nerd records, on a miniature tape recorder, the sound key made by the unlocking of the electronically-controlled door and plays it back later to escape. His solution is both ingenious and unique to his circumstances and expertise. It integrates, in a fitting way, elements previously laid out in the story.

Integrating character, action and setting in this way, then, is an effective way of producing memorable and believable scenes.

Summary

Integration refers to the skill in crafting character action in settings that are uniquely appropriate to the story.

Cooking Your Story

Cooking

Cooking

WRITING is much like cooking. You select your ingredients and mix them in a way that you hope will yield a satisfactory experience.

In teaching story structure I often talk about the importance of the turn, and how it helps to keep your readers engaged through the element of surprise. By definition, this involves revealing new information that your readers did not anticipate.

But apart from surprise, what other ingredients are baked into turns? How are turns related to one another, if at all? Here are three suggestions.

Cooking your story

The first thing to note is that a turn is most often caused by an unexpected obstacle in the protagonist’s path to the goal. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, is told that a woman who resembles his dead wife, Miranda, has been enquiring about him in the Australian resort town of Mission Beach. This comes out of left field for Benjamin and spins the story around in a different direction.

Secondly, each turn should occur at a higher pitch than the one preceding it. As the stakes mount, new challenges bring higher risks to the hero and his world. Staying with The Nostalgia of Time Travel: As if an approaching category-five cyclone and an impossible appearance by his dead wife are not enough, Benjamin is paid a ghostly visit by his long dead uncle, whom, he is convinced, he killed through a spiteful prank when he was a boy. The experience is enough to have Benjamin contemplate ending his life.

Thirdly, for most of the story, the hero’s response to these obstacles is insufficient to gain him the goal, until the final climax, when he can finally absorb and integrate the lessons stemming from his defeats. At the climax of Nostalgia, Benjamin is faced with a choice. He can give up on life and let the cyclone take him, as his uncle’s apparition will have him do, or he can integrate, into his current life, his new understanding of a secret his parents kept from him and let that steer him in a new direction.

Surprise, pitch, integration. These are three important ‘turn’ ingredients involved in the cooking of your word soup. Use them liberally to add spice to your stories.

Summary

Cooking in obstacles and rising stakes increases the tension in your story. Write the ‘ah-huh’ moment as your hero finally integrates his actions with the lessons learnt.

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 makes a great writer?

Great writing from a great writer.
Great writing from a great writer.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, story consultant Linda Seger asks the question: What makes a great writer? It’s a question we’ve all wondered about at some time or another.

The answer largely depends on what we mean by ‘great’. Do we mean in the colloquial sense of popularity? Or do we mean something deeper and more enduring.

Sticking to the latter sense, a great writer, in my opinion, is one who sheds light on the human condition – someone who reveals a hidden truth about ourselves, but does so in a gripping and entertaining way.

Dr. Seger notes that a great writer is part psychologist, part philosopher, and perhaps, part theologian, as well as being a consummate wordsmith.

As the philosopher the writer asks: Do I examine the world through the lens of realism, idealism, pessimism?

The psychologist might ask: What motivates my characters? Moves them? What do they want? What do they need – is there a difference? How far will they go to get it?

“A great writer endures through the ages because he or she writes about human frailty and nobility across the cultural and temporal devide.”

The theologian asks, where is the good and the evil my story? What is the nature of sin? Indeed, the writer may even ask: is there such a thing as evil, good, or sin, at all?

Places in the Heart, written and directed by Robert Benton, for example, renders a theological theme with a value system rooted in a community sharing and helping each other during the Great Depression. Its psychological theme reveals a portrait of a woman overcoming her racism because her determination, and love of her children, motivates her to do anything to save her family. It espouses an optimism in life rooted in the notion that goodness and morality will prevail despite life’s challenges.

This multi-layering of motivational/belief systems makes this story, and others like it, truly memorable.

Summary

Great writers speaks to our times and beyond. They reveal our obsessions, secrets, and dreams, helping us to find the courage to live life nobly in spite of our failings.

Catch my latest YouTube video here!

Character Integrity in Stories

Erik Erikson on integrity
Psychologist Erik Erikson on integrity

In 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 one’s development by focusing on the topic of integrity versus despair – a topic that becomes more pressing as one enters one’s fifties.

Screenwriting consultant 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 scrutinizing  the true meaning of that success.

“Reflections on one’s own character tend to arise later on in life as wisdom and integrity accrue, unfettered by the ambitions of youth.”

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 integrity of our lives, and to reflect this in our writing.

Catch my latest YouTube video here!

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.

Thank You, Mr. Field.

Syd Field

Syd Field (1935 – 2013)

Every once in a while I come across a nay-sayer – a writer who believes that the study of writing as a craft, and the study of structure in particular, is anathema.

Such writers believe that greatness springs ready-formed from the inspired brain – that great writing, somehow, is handed down to us, preconceived and complete, like the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

But even if it were true that genius does not require training and a writing methodology, where would that leave the majority of us typing away on our keyboards in the dark?

When I first started writing I knew little about structure other than the old Aristotelean advise that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end. My efforts were guided mainly by the aggregated jumble of books I’d read and films I’d seen.

I was not short on starts. Images, sounds, ideas came to me in a bewildering stream of disjointed segments, but like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle taken from different boxes, they did not fit together in any coherent way.

Writing a story back then was a hit-and-miss affair. It was a sweaty, messy, grinding struggle that sometimes produced good passages. Mostly, however, the writing was bad enough to convince me not to give up my day job.

None of these passages survived.

It was only when I came across Syd Field’s, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, that the light finally flicked on. Here was a book that laid out the structure of a story in a series of beats governed by turning points that spun the tale around in a zigzagging manner, weaving in surprises to keep the reader interested until the climax and resolution at the end.

Suddenly, I could take an idea and plot it out before commencing the actual writing of it, regardless of whether the Muse had scheduled to visit me that day, that week, that month. My first novel, Scarab, which shot to the #1 spot in the Sci-Fi category on Amazon’s Kindle, is a result of this process.

It was the start of a wonderful journey that has spanned three continents and continues to this day. And though Syd Field is now only one of the many teachers I have followed, I’ll always remember him as my first.

And for that, I’ll toss the nay-sayers a shrug and say, thank you, Mr. Field.

Summary

Syd Field taught me the basics of story-structure.

What is Multiform Narrative?

Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind is a fine example of Multiform narrative.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a fine example of Multiform narrative.

This week I’d like to talk a little about multiform narrative drawn from my Ph.D thesis: Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema.

What is Multiform narrative?

Multiform narrative attempts to deal with the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life, (as does multistrand narrative, discussed in another post). But whereas multi-strand stories achieve that through multiple strands featuring multiple protagonists who are not tied to a single plot, multiform narrative comprises of stories featuring a protagonist who inhabits separate realities in an existential and ontological sense.

This necessarily means that the protagonist splits up into several copies of himself, each occupying a different realm – whether it is the multiple universes of Donnie Darko, or the illusionary realities of dream and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the virtual reality inside of The Matrix.

“Multiform narrative encodes in its very structure the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life.”

Open multiform narratives, such as Donnie Darko, stubbornly refuse to cue the viewer as to the preferential reality of the story. Donnie, for example, ostensibly appears to be both alive and dead in the movie, since the beginning shows him coming home from having slept the night on the golf course, only to discover that a jet engine has smashed into his bedroom.

But the end of the film replays the incident only this time Donnie sleeps in his bedroom and is killed by the jet engine.

Both incidents can’t be right in a single spatiotemporal framework. They present us with a paradox that can only be resolved if we place the two events in separate realities. In one universe, Donnie dies. In the other he lives.

Closed multiform narratives such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, by contrast, differ from their cousins in the open multiform category in that they announce which world is real and which illusionary. Here, the filmmakers are at pains to show us Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, et al., entering and exiting the matrix through telephone lines, while Lacuna’s memory-erasing procedure cues and orientates us in a similar way.

Open multiform stories, then, tend to be more subjective and bewildering, whilst closed multiform narratives offer a helping hand through well-placed cues.

Both categories, however, succeed in reflecting the multiplicity and uncertainty inherent in lives littered with smart phones, video games, and multiple apps open on multiple screens – lives from which that much-needed sense of solitude and aloneness seems forever banished.

Summary

Multiform narratives encode the bewildering complexity of modern life by showcasing multiple realities featuring copies of a single protagonist.

Catch my latest Youtube video here!

Do you Write Gut or Stomach?

Book Cover

The Land Below

Most writers I talk to have at least two things in common: they want to be read and they want to write well. I’m one of them.

We dream of writing a book or screenplay that’s so accomplished, that so touches the nerve of some current or emerging issue, shedding new light on its emotional, social, and political ramifications, that it shoots up the best-seller lists.

Let’s not fool ourselves — we all seek an audience. Even those of us who pretend, in our darkest moments, not to care, or who fool ourselves into thinking that if only the gatekeepers could understand the depth and complexity of our writing, they’d smile and nod and fling open the doors to the pantheon.

Popularity, of course, is no guarantee of quality. But neither is obscurity. Shakespeare was popular in his day. So was Dickens. Hardly a pair of slouches.

In my line of work as a teacher and writer I come across wordsmiths who’s idea of quality is language and subject matter that is impenetrable and stolid. Indeed, it seems that some make it a point to choose words that are obscure over words that are familiar, as if a large and exotic vocabulary, is, in itself, a sign of creative talent.

Of course, as writers we should cherish all words. Building a large vocabulary is a necessary goal, but we should not remain blind to the sensual quality of words — the notion that words of Anglo Saxon origin, in creative writing, tend to be more explosive and tactile, than their Latin or Greek-based counterparts.

Depending on the context, for example, “I punched him in the gut,” tends to be more forceful and tactile than “I punched him in the stomach.” In my newly released book, The Land Below, I’ve used both, but each time I was governed by character and mood.

We should ensure the words we choose are not, by their texture and nuance, broken bridges to the feelings and ideas we seek to express. And that, of course, requires we understand their origin as well as their meaning.

Finding a voice that speaks to the masses, while sharing the love of language and subject matter, is a worthy life-long goal for any writer. Living in an ivory tower with the echo of our own grandiloquence for company is not.

Summary

Sharing the love of words and subject-matter through clear and accessible language is a worthy goal for any writer.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday

Image: Stavros Halvatzis (c)

Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

Image: Chris Yarzab
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode