Tag Archives: AmEditing

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.

Conflict, Complication and Complexity in Stories

Complexity out of complication and conflictIN HIS book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that conflict arises the moment the protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident and heads towards the turning point at the end of act one.

Act two, the longest act of any story, is held together by conflict, complication and complexity. Every obstacle the protagonist encounters in trying to attain the goal, is complicated by these three aspects.

But what is the difference between complication and complexity? Aren’t they one and the same thing?

Complexity from Conflict and Complication

Complexity, according to McKee, results from the deepening interaction between three layers of conflict:

Inner
Personal
Extra-personal

In Kramer Vs. Kramer, for example, Kramer, whose wife has left him and his son, is torn by inner doubt. He loves his son, but is he in over his head? Can he bring up the child on his own?

There is also personal conflict. The boy is acting-up. He is terrified that he’ll starve without his mother to feed him. Kramer has a hard time pacifying the hysterical child.

Finally, he experiences extra-personal conflict. The kitchen is a dangerous, alien place for the inexperienced Kramer. He does his best to feign confidence. Things, however, degenerate rapidly as he tries to fry eggs for his son.

As the ill-equipped father fights the forces that threaten to defeat him, comedy turns into pathos. The result is one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a middle-aged theoretical physicist, too, has to battle complex internal and external conflicts in order to survive. Years of deep-seated guilt, an almost intractable mathematical problem, and an approaching category-five cyclone threaten his life. Together these conflicts create complexity that makes for engrossing reading.

Summary

Complication rises to the level of complexity when a character experiences inner, personal, and extra-personal conflict.

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.

What Makes a Great Writer Great?

Are you a great writer?In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger asks the question: What makes a great writer? It is a question all writers have asked at some time or another.

The answers are varied, depending on whether we mean ‘great’ in the colloquial sense of popular, skilled in generic page turners, or whether we mean something deeper and more enduring.

The Great Writer

Sticking to the latter sense, a great writer, in my opinion, is one who sheds light on the human condition – who reveals some hidden or difficult-to-discern truth about ourselves, no matter what our particular circumstances.

As Dr. Seger notes, a great writer is part psychologist, part philosopher, and perhaps, part theologian, as well as being a consummate master of words.

As a philosopher the great writer poses questions such as, what is the meaning of a specific event? What is the purpose of a specific story? Do I examine the world through the lens of realism, idealism, pessimism?

As a psychologist she asks: What motivates my characters? What moves them? What do they want? What do they need – is there a difference? How far will they go to get it?

As a theologian, she asks where is the good and the evil my story. What is the nature of sin? Indeed, mixing these categories, 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

A great writer reveals our obsessions, secrets, and dreams, helping us to find the courage to live life nobly in spite our human failings and circumstances.

Logic, Heart & Good Manners

Logic, heart & Good MannersPREPPING for one of the honours classes I teach in research methodology in film arts I had occasion to watch several televised debates between proponents of theism and atheism as examples of the sort of logic used in hotly contested debates of this nature.

One such debate in particular struck me as informative. Both men were scientists, one, a mathematician from Oxford and a believer in the existence of God – a Christian. The other was a physicist from Arizona State University and an unflinching atheist.

The Logic of Heart and Good Manners

Both men, in my opinion, put forward narratives that were strong on logic and consistent within their world views. In terms of their delivery, the Oxford man was affable, warm, tolerant and kind. The physicist came across as cold, rude, arrogant, mocking, and condescending. When I asked my honours students who they thought won the debate, a surprising number of them thought that the Christian did, even though that might have been at odds with their own beliefs.

The point is that the logic of a narrative, be it scientific, historical, or fictional, is only part of the story. The heart behind it plays a role in the art of communication too. It is not enough for a scientist to say that we have it by the numbers and that pleasantries, therefore, do not matter. Certainly, it will make no difference to the hard mathematical proofs whether you come across as arrogant or kind, but it will make a difference to how effective you are in advertising your field.

The mathematician and string theorist Brian Greene is proof of how hard science can be delivered in a warm, persuasive, and cogent way that makes it accessible to lay people. His documentary The Illusion of Time, is a good example of his affable, passionate style. Special and general relativity and black holes are explained in a way that makes one want to know more.

So it should be with any narrative. Behind the facts and logic, we should sense the presence of a human mind and heart seeking to communicate the wonder of being alive, not only through logic, but through the power of tolerance and kindness.

Summary

Use logic, heart and good manners to persuade others of the merits of your narrative.

Old Age and End of Life in Stories

Old Age and End of LifeIn this final article on age-related categories drawn from Linda Seger’s book, Advanced Screenwriting, I examine themes related to old age and end of life.

Old Age

As we age even further we feel a pressing need to reconcile past deeds with our conscience. We seek to resolve past hurts, overcome alienation, heal relationships, deal with regret. On Golden Pond, tells the story of three generations of characters who meet in order to reconcile with one another. In Magnolia, the dying father recognises that in order to affirm his own integrity he has to reconcile with his son.

In my own novel, The Land Below, the aging Troubadour, wracked by guilt for having kept a startling secret from the young protagonist, Paulie, chooses a climactic moment to reveal the truth about his lineage.

End of Life

But as the prospect of death creeps even closer, another issue gains prominence. Linda Seger relates her observations in a nursing home for the aged where she noticed two basic types of reactions from people close to death – anger and mellow acceptance.

There were those who felt that they had somehow been cheated out of their just deserts, or that life had somehow passed them by. These were issues that they had not resolved earlier in life and that were now coming home to roost.

Then there were people who seemed to accept the end of their lives with a mellow acquiescence and a deep gratitude for having participated in life’s adventure at all.

Although some stories, such as Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, deal with the subject of death and reconciliation in a breathtakingly insightful way, there is generally a dearth of stories featuring this last stage of one’s life – certainly in film. This could be a rich source to explore in the future, especially for a population that increasingly is achieving longer lifespans.

The point to stress, as Erik Erikson indicates, is that if we fail to deal with life’s themes at the time they occur they will continue to fester, under the surface, until we do.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Todd is forced to resolve issues of self-esteem, identity, integrity, and belonging because he never resolved these issues as a teenager. In Rain Man, Charlie, who carries with him the pain of a childhood in which he felt he didn’t belong, has to reconcile issues of achievement and success juxtaposed against the need for intimacy and integrity before he can resolve his inner conflict.

A character who is dying, then, may be forced to face unresolved issues at the time he is least equipped to do so.

Summary

Confronting unresolved themes during old age is the last great task we have to perform as people, and through fictional characters in our stories.

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.

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.