Tag Archives: amwriting

Oppenheimer – the morality of scientific progress

Hero or Villain
Oppenheimer – Hero or Villain?

Today, we delve into the acclaimed film Oppenheimer, a masterpiece that takes us on a gripping journey through the life of its complex protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

As the film progresses, we get to know Oppenheimer as a brilliant physicist, driven by a passion for scientific discovery. At the start, his character effervesces confidence and intellectual brilliance, arrogance even, seen through his charismatic interactions with fellow scientists, and his passionate and ambitious pursuit of groundbreaking research.

Oppenheimer’s early character arc reveals a deep commitment to his work, a side dish of womanising, a more than a passing interest in communism, and a seeming indifference to the moral implications of scientific progress.

As the story unfolds, however, we begin to notice a shift in his priorities and demeanour. The death of his one-time lover, too, seems to affect him deeply. The conflict within him begins to emerge after he is tasked with heading the project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. This once confident scientist is suddenly faced with the ethical dilemma of helping to bring about the creation of a weapon capable of destroying the world.

We witness Oppenheimer beginning to wrestle with his conscience, questioning the moral consequences of his actions. This is the beginning of a profound transformation of his character arc.

As the war progresses, so does Oppenheimer’s internal conflict. The weight of his choices on his conscience starts to affect him physically and emotionally. This is seen in his strained relationships and haunted expressions.

As his character arc approaches its completion, we witness Oppenheimer grappling with the consequences of his choices. This once-confident scientist is now a man burdened by the moral complexities of his actions. We are left with a nuanced and thought-provoking portrayal of someone whose pursuit of knowledge has led him down the path to moral ambiguity.

The climax of Oppenheimer’s character arc occurs when he fully confronts the devastating impact of the creation he has helped to develop. The contrast between his initial enthusiasm for scientific progress and the brutal reality of nuclear devastation creates a tremendous narrative tension.

Summary

The film Oppenheimer, then, adroitly explores the complexities of its protagonist’s character arc. As writers, we can draw inspiration from Oppenheimer’s transformative journey to help us write rich, true-to-life characters who reflect on the results of choices they make in the pursuit of knowledge and progress.

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Hero or villain

Scenes analysis: How to use it

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

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

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

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

  1. Save the Cat Beat Sheet

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

2. Set-up

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

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

3. Scene Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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Five Techniques for Great Exposition

Great exposition in Arrival

Ever wondered how to inject great exposition seamlessly and unobtrusively into your story? Here are five techniques to help you do just that!

TECHNIQUE 1: Emotion as Camouflage.

One way to camouflage information is by pulling at your audience’s heartstrings. This is how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does it, and does it brilliantly. The film introduces us to Joel and Clementine, who have had their painful memories erased. As their memories are rubbed out one by one, emotions take center stage, rendering the exposition less intrusive.

EXAMPLE SCENES: We see Joel and Clementine being initially happy together. Then, as they begin to argue and confront the erasure process, we learn about their troubled history. Their emotional rollercoaster uncovers their past without the need for dry exposition.

You see, emotion is an effective way to capture the audience’s attention while you convey essential information. Additionally, transmitting backstory through your characters’ feelings and reactions avoids spoon-feeding your audiences.

TECHNIQUE 2: Layer Information.

Next, let’s look at how to Layer information. It might sound complex, but it’s a game-changer for exposition. Here again, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterclass in how to use this technique. The film employs a Multiform or non-linear narrative structure, presenting fragments of the story out of order.

To apply this to your own writing, reveal exposition in drips and drabs, and out of chronological order, if suitable. This approach keeps your audience engaged, eager to connect the dots in an attempt to comprehend the bigger picture. Indeed, this layered approach to writing exposition increases our need to figure out what is happening in the story—it becomes the very point of the tale. It hides in plain sight the fact that the entire story is about making sense of the backstory.

EXAMPLE SCENES: In the movie, we see glimpses of Joel and Clementine’s relationship at different stages, forcing us to piece together the story’s puzzle. This non-linear approach beautifully unpacks their past, making it more captivating and suspenseful.

TECHNIQUE 3: Use Objects as Memory Triggers, symbols and metaphors.

Remember that old trinket you found in your attic, which suddenly brought back a flood of memories? In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, objects serve as memory triggers. Joel revisits key moments by interacting with his fading memories.

EXAMPLE SCENE: When Joel finds a forgotten Valentine’s card, it takes him back to a cherished moment with Clementine. The card becomes a powerful symbol, unlocking emotions and memories that had been erased.

Employ objects in your own stories to trigger the memories of characters and reveal exposition. Objects offer a unique and relatable way to convey the past and connect your readers and audiences to the characters on a deeper level.

TECHNIQUE 4: Keep exposition short.

Brevity is key. Consider the film Arrival, where the backstory of the extraterrestrial visitors unfolds through subtle clues and linguistic exploration of alien modes of communication, encouraging your audience to use its imagination and critical thinking to make sense of the story.

“Exposition, although necessary in providing essential information to readers and audiences, ought to be rendered deftly to avoid appearing heavy-handed and on-the-nose.”

TECHNIQUE 5: Distract through action:

As writers we know all about, Show-don’ttell. This means that instead of merely informing the audience through direct dialogue, we should also strive to unveil our backstory through the actions and behavior of our characters.

In the film Unforgiven, a retired gunfighter, William Munny, now a down-and-out hog farmer, accepts a contract to kill a couple of ‘no good cowboys’, who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny is shown to be jaded, unable even to stay on a horse or hit a target with his gun. By contrast the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, the man Munny is up against, is a tough, formidable opponent who seems more than a match for the hog farmer. The looming clash between the two men—the core tension in the story, is set up through a masterful use of exposition rendered through small acts that reveal much of what we need to know about the plot and characters.

So there you have it then, five powerful techniques seen operating in three successful films.

Summary

Write great exposition by using emotion, layering information, using objects as memory triggers, being brief, and revealing backstory through action. These techniques will help to make your exposition more engaging, emotionally resonant, and memorable.

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Dissecting Story Secrets

The power of Secrets in the movie, Knives Out.
The power of Secrets in the movie, Knives Out.

I believe that secrets in storytelling are some of the most potent narrative components at the writer’s disposal. Secrets shape character and plot. Additionally, they are prodigious subtext generators.

Let’s look into how secrets conspire to keep readers and audiences engaged,

How Secrets Affect the Plot

In Knives Out, the central plot revolves around the mysterious death of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey. As the story unfolds, we discover that each family member has something to hide. It’s the nurse, Marta Cabrera, however, who holds the biggest secret: she accidentally administered a lethal dose of medication to Harlan, thinking it was harmless.

This secret sets the entire plot in motion. It leads to the investigation by the gifted detective Benoit Blanc, who begins to unveil a series of family secrets, lies, and betrayals. Without Marta’s secret, the murder mystery at the heart of the tale would not exist.

Generating Subtext

Knives Out excels in generating subtext through the characters’ secrets. Each family member hides his or her motives, manipulations, and true feelings about Harlan’s will. Ransom Drysdale, for instance, pretends to be close to his grandfather while secretly plotting to get his hands on the inheritance.

These secret agendas create a rich tapestry of subtext, helping the audience to piece together the puzzle of the characters’ true intentions. We’re constantly on edge while we try to decipher their motivations, thanks to the secrets they harbour.

“Secrets are prodigious generators of subtext.”

Developing Character

Beyond impacting the plot and creating subtext, secrets play a powerful role in character development. Take Marta Cabrera for example. Her secret—her overwhelming guilt, changes her from a passive character into an active one. She becomes not just a nurse, but a central figure in the investigation.

As Marta grapples with her secret, we witness her character arc, seeing her evolve from simply being an observer to someone who actively pursues the truth, despite the risks. This transformation would not be possible without the secret she carries, making her one of the most compelling characters in the film.

Keeping Readers and Audiences Engaged

Another significant thing a character’s secret does for a story is to keep the audience engaged and invested. In Knives Out, the audience is constantly guessing, intuiting, theorising, in an attempt to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The secrets serve as bait, luring viewers into the intricate web of deceit and suspense.

As the film progresses, we do not remain as passive observers, we become active participants in solving the mystery. Our emotional investment in uncovering the truth keeps us locked-in from beginning to end, underscoring the power of secrets in storytelling.

Summary

Knives Out masterfully demonstrates how well-constructed character secrets shape the plot, add subtext, aid in character development, and keep audiences and readers engaged.

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How to work with metaphors in stories

Metaphors in Inception
Visual Metaphors in Inception

How can we use metaphors to elevate our stories?


Let us first remind ourselves that traditionally metaphors draw comparisons between two unrelated things, suggesting that they are alike in some way. Metaphors are efficient ways of communicating complex ideas and emotions through powerful imagery. ‘He’s a damp squib,’ is one such metaphor. Here the connotation of being a disappointment, failing to live up to expectations, rather than being an actual damp firecracker, is the meaning we’re after. Metaphors like symbols make objects, actions and events luminous—they make them glow, as it were, with significance that reaches beyond the denotative boundaries of the original. But unlike a symbol which stands alone, as it were, a metaphor is paired with the item it is juxtaposed against.

Here’s how metaphors function in the film Inception. Perhaps the most striking is the concept of inception itself—such as planting an idea in someone’s mind, but in the film, it is elevated to a literal and bizarre level. This idea of planting a seed that grows and takes root mirrors how metaphors can be subtly introduced and then bloom in your story. Just as Cobb and his team design intricate dream worlds, writers craft metaphors that transport readers to alternative realities where themes and emotions come alive.

Metaphors are a figures of speech in which the thing described makes a direct comparison to something else.”

Mal, Cobb’s haunting psychological projection, is not only an indication of his state of mind, she is also a metaphor for his guilt and unresolved past. Mal, is a specter from his suppressed memories, much like how our inner demons and unresolved issues can manifest to haunt us in real life.

Layered dreams are in themselves metaphors highlighting the complexity of the human mind. They expose how thoughts and emotions can interweave—much like metaphors provide layered meaning in a story, enriching the narrative.

The dizzying rooftop chase, for example, is not just action, it is metaphorical drama. The heights are visual metaphors for the challenges and obstacles we face in our lives, and the chase represents the pursuit to solve our inner conflicts.

Let’s end with the iconic spinning top. Yes, the top is a tool used in the story to indicate to Cob whether he is still dreaming: If the top continues to spin, he is still dreaming, but if the top obeyed the laws of physics and tips over, he is awake. But the top is also a metaphor for reality’s uncertainty, an idea that lingers in our minds long after the film ends, much like a well-crafted metaphor lingers in our readers and audiences’ thoughts.

Inception, then, serves as a brilliant example of how metaphors can be seamlessly woven into a story’s fabric; how they allow the writer to challenge perceptions, generate insights between seemingly unrelated things, and create fresh, ineffable and lasting impressions behind the literal meaning of the plot.

Summary

A metaphor makes a comparison between two unrelated things, suggesting that they are alike in some way.

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What is meant by Save the Cat moment?

The Save the Cat Moment in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The Save the Cat Moment in Spider-Man: No Way Home.

One of the best storytelling concepts in movies and novels, can be found in Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat. This concept highlights the importance of crafting a likable and relatable protagonist by featuring his or her humanity through selfless acts of kindness, and the like.

In other words, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat moment is predicated on the idea that we are more likely to root for a protagonist who performs a selfless and/or heroic act, and does so early on in the story. The moment humanises the character and establishes a connection between readers or audiences, and the protagonist, from the get-go. To illustrate this, let’s explore the recent blockbuster, Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Peter Parker’s Character Arc

In the movie, Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, grapples with the consequences of revealing his true identity to the world. As a result, his life and the lives of his aunt and friends become imperiled. Peter’s initial solution is to erase the world’s memory of his alter ego, Spider-Man, through a spell conjured up by Doctor Strange.

Save the Cat Moment through Action

But, it’s not just Peter’s dazzling powers and his endurance of the conflicts that beset him which endear us to him; it’s his humanity: Peter realises from the start that his actions have far-reaching consequences for those who know him as Spider-Man. In a moment of selflessness and empathy, he asks Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to cast a spell that will erase not only people’s memory of his identity but also their memory of their relationships with him. He wants his loved ones to be safe, even if it means they have to forget about him entirely.

This decision is Peter’s Save the Cat moment in the film. It’s an act of great sacrifice, a willingness to shoulder the emotional burden of being forgotten by those he holds most dear. It is a moment that foregrounds his responsibility, empathy, and the moral content of his character.

“The Save the Cat moment occurs early in the story and reveals the hero as someone who is compassionate and kind, and willing to sacrifice his or her desires and ambitions for the benefit of others.”

Audience Impact

As viewers, we are not only witnessing a superhero with incredible powers, but a young man who genuinely cares about others. This creates a powerful connection between him and the audience. We root for him not just because he can spring from skyscrapers or defeat terrifying foes, but also because we appreciate the moral quality of his choices, and empathise with his human struggles.

Conclusion

Spider-Man: No Way Home, then, exemplifies the power of the Save the Cat moment, a concept popularised by Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! It reminds us that in storytelling, it’s the moments of our shared humanity that truly captivate us, that truly resonates with us.

What is the save the cat moment in your screenplay or novel? Don’t have one? Revise your work to include one in your story—it is the key to creating a memorable and beloved protagonist.

Summary

The Save the Cat moment encapsulates Blake Synder’s advice of how to write a story protagonist who is likable and relatable.

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Setting: How to Write like a Cinematic Genius.

Masterful settings in Anna Karenina
Masterful settings in Anna Karenina

How important is the setting you choose for your story and characters? The short answer? Critical!

In cinema where locations come alive, as much as in novels, your choice of setting is a potent tool in supercharging your storytelling. To illustrate this, let’s draw inspiration from the brilliant location choices of Anna Karenina, All the Pretty Horses, and The Last Voyage of the Demeter as proof of how choosing the right setting can make or break your story.

Anna Karenina: Russia’s Snowy Embrace as a Character

In Anna Karenina, the brilliant Leo Tolstoy turns snowy Russia into a character as compelling as any protagonist. In this classic tale, a snowstorm isn’t just a backdrop. It is a dynamic force that shapes the characters’ choices and actions. The sensation of being inside this world, adds depth and realism to the story. As writers, we should learn to do no less.

All the Pretty Horses: The Southwestern Borderlands as a Plot Driver

In Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the Southwestern borderlands setting is far from coincidental. It reflects the pivotal conflict of the story, where the disappearing cowboy way of life forces the protagonist on a journey into Mexico. The arid and desolate Southwest is not just a backdrop but a character in its own right, emphasising the intimate connection between setting and plot. As storytellers, we must recognise that the place we choose can be as crucial as any character in our narrative.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter: Tempests and Confined spaces

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a tale that emerges out of the intricate threads of Count Dracula’s legend. The story’s significance lies not only in the eerie confines of the doomed ship but also in the relentless force of the storm that envelopes it. As the Demeter sails from Varna to Whitby, the tempest mirrors the mounting dread of the crew, accentuating the horror that lurks in the cargo hold below. The setting, a claustrophobic ship with dwindling resources on a tempestuous sea, becomes a pressure cooker of dread and paranoia. The link between setting and weather in this tale showcases how, when skillfully exploited, a surrounding can become a character in itself, breathing life into the story, shaping the characters‘ actions and emotions, and influencing the tone.

“Respect the setting and weather as you do the characters in your story. Your tales will be the more vivid for it!”

As writers, we should always ask which setting(s) will have the most impact on our story. If the answer is: “I’m not sure”, or, “very little”, it is be time to reassess. The characters in Anna Karenina, All the Pretty Horses, and The Last Voyage of the Demeter, don’t merely exist in their surroundings, they are an organic part of them.

Summary

Setting and weather are not just backdrops; they are active participants in the story. Embrace both, let them shape your characters and plot, and watch as your stories roar to life.

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Symbols – your secret power

Symbols in  The Joker
Symbols in The Joker

What are symbols, and how can we use them to prolong longevity, add resonance and depth to our stories?

In his book, Man and his Symbols the renowned psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung wrote: ‘What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us. A word or image stripped of its connotative aspect is a mere sign—it denotes or points to an object or event that has no added significance than its function—such as a chair, a table, and the like.” 

The strength of symbols, especially symbols that emerge from the unconscious to manifest as Archetypes, is that they endure. To put it in another way, as primordial remnants bubble up from the human unconscious, they are expressed by the conscious mind as universally applicable archetypal symbols. They do so by cleaving to specific actions, events and objects in myths and stories.

“Symbols, when rendered adroitly, promote the longevity of any story.”

To generate symbols in your own tales, start with story and character: 1. Ask, what is the genre of your story? 2. What is the key idea, theme, and moral premise of your story? 3. What goals and struggles are your characters engaged in?

The answers to these questions will direct you to the sorts of symbols you need to use. A note of caution here. Your symbols shouldn’t attract attention to themselves—they shouldn’t be too obvious. They need to grow on us as vessels of meaning. They also need to be specific and to generate emotion. The key here is to work out how they relate to the characters and to each other: Are these symbols actual objects that would feature effortlessly in the characters’ everyday lives? Again, subtlety is key.

Here’s how Todd Phillip uses character symbols in his film, The Joker:

The film opens with Arthur Fleck applying his clown make-up. We don’t immediately ascribe symbolic significance to this. Arthur is merely preparing to do his job as a clown. But as the story progresses the clown imagery deepens in meaning, driven by story questions: Why is it that after Arthur loses his job, he continues to wear his clown make-up? Is it that it offers him an escape from his dreary reality? Does it have deeper psychological connotations—indicate his rejecting his identity due to some past trauma that makes him wish that he was someone else?

“Well crafted symbols are universal and eternal.”

The figure of the clown now comes to symbolise the breakdown of social structures in Gotham—the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. The mob dons clown dress and rises up against the authorities, with the Joker, as inspiration.  A clown suit and mask are no longer symbols of fun and laughter—the Joker has become the symbol of something dark and dangerous—the symbol of chaos.

Symbolism can also emerge from setting, providing context, atmosphere and bolstering the theme. In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mordor, as opposed to the idyllic life of the Shire, is shown to be a place of hellfire and horror—the entire landscape is symbolic of the evil represented by Sauron. 

And of course, the rings themselves are highly symbolic, with the last ring being especially significant. Having been forged by Sauron on Mount Doom it represents pure evil. But the ring also symbolises desire and greed. We see this clearly in Bilbo and Gollum’s desire to posses it.

The ring also symbolises temptation. Even honourable characters such as Gandalf and Boromir are tempted by its beguiling power. This temptation gains in resonance by reminding us of the original temptation in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the apple of good and evil.

When deploying symbols remember to show rather than tell, to point them towards your key ideas and themes, to select symbols that give rise to emotion, and to avoid being heavy-handed in their use.

Summary

Use symbols to add resonance, meaning and depth to your stories.

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Fascinating characters are a little paradoxical

Paradoxical characters in A Fish Called Wanda.
Paradoxical characters in A Fish Called Wanda.

Given the plethora of books, TV series, and films available nowadays, there is a danger that stories and the characters that inhabit them become stale and repetitive—poorly disguised imitations of themselves. It’s therefore important that we find a way to make them fascinating and colourful to avoid turning them into mere cliches.

One way to make a character more fascinating is to inject paradoxical elements into his or her personality. In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, quotes the novelist Leonard Tourney on the subject: Tourney writes “Characters are more interesting if they are made of mixed stuff, if they contain warring elements. To create these warring elements, you begin by establishing one, then asking, ‘Given this element, what elements are there in the same person that would create in that person a kind of conflict?” A ruthless hit man who donates all his money to a foundation for war veterans is an example.

“Paradoxical characters make for fascinating stories.”

But an all-out war between traits, however, is not the only way to create paradoxes—your character/s could merely display an unexpected conjunction of personality tendencies, habits, hobbies, or interests:

In A Fish Called Wanda, Otto is presented as nervous, dumb and jealous, yet he meditates and reads Nietzsche. This is surprising, which makes the character instantly more fascinating.

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character, Will, recently paroled from jail and now a janitor at M.I.T, solves a difficult math problem posted on a blackboard that has stumped everyone else. Although this is not necessary a display of contrary traits, it does make us wonder why such a smart man ended up in jail and now works as a janitor.

To quote Seger, “Human nature being what it is, a character is always more than just a set of consistencies. People are illogical and unpredictable. They do things that surprise us, startle us, change all of our preconceived ideas about them.”

As writers we should seek to do no less.

Summary

Characters who display paradoxical or unexpected traits, traits that have been skillfully selected, make for fascinating stories.

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Describing characters and Action

Describing characters and actions in GI JANE.
Describing characters and actions in GI JANE

In screenwriting, where economy of space is at a premium, it is important to write action and character descriptions crisply and effectively. Although this article applies mainly to screenwriters, novelists ought to take some of these suggestions to heart too.

In describing characters or incidents in the action block: a) Write in the present tense: the story is unfolding right in front of you after all. b) Be concise: Describe only what is essential to the character and the story. Limit your descriptions to three or four lines, or less. c) Cut to the chase—describe only the essence of an action or incident. d) Have every word count. Use strong nouns and verbs. Don’t bolster weak words with adverbs and adjectives—choose better verbs and nouns.

In his book Story Robert McKee implores us to write using only apt nouns and verbs that capture the essence of character and action. The words should immediately paint vivid pictures in the minds of the readers.

In GI JANE the character who propels the protagonist on her mission, a US senator, is described in this way:

‘DEHAVEN is a tough-hided old Southern-belle, Scarlett O’Hara at 60. In her arsenal she carries conversational hand-grenades — and she’s apt to pull a pin at the slightest whim.’

“Be concise and impactful in describing characters and action. Make every word count.”

This description not only imparts information about Dehaven, it conveys her attitude and general demeanour, too. Not bad for two sentences.

Sometimes even the shortest of descriptions will capture the essence of the character:

‘Slimy Piet is short, rough, with the hygiene of an army privy on a hot day.’

Notice how the use of a figure of speech makes us wrinkle our nose. Figures of speech, used as vehicles of exaggeration or comparison, are powerful conveyers of the writer’s attitude towards a character. They are communicators of atmosphere, attitude and detail. Use them sparingly, but do use them.

In writing action, too, we should also use every opportunity to characterise, and convey ‘posture’ and demeanour. Never waste the opportunity to pack as much as possible into a verb or noun: Never write ‘walk’ when you can write ‘saunter, stroll, meander, mosey, and wander. Or if more energy is required: stride, march, storm, dash, streak, and the like. Each of these words says much, and does it economically.

As an exercise unearth one of your neglected stories. Pour over each character description and action block and implement some of the suggestions on offer here.

Summary

Be concise, precise, and impactful in describing characters and actions. Your writing will be the better for it.

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