Tag Archives: novelist

No villain, no hero

The villain in Ordinary People
The mother as villain in Ordinary People


The success of a story largely depends on how well the writer uses the protagonist’s inner and outer struggles, juxtaposed against a powerful villain, to prove the theme.

But it’s not all just about the protagonist. Behind every successful hero lurks a relentless and ruthless villain.

Inexperienced writers tend to develop their heroes and villains separately, instead of crafting them as polar opposites of a single narrative entity.

If your hero is a formidable Kung-fu expert you need an even more powerful villain to stand up to him. Pacific Rim is filled with battle-hardened hero types, driving highscraper-tall machines. The writers, therefore, had to come up with monster-size villains to fight them. 

The more powerful your hero, the more powerful your villain needs to be in order to generate risk, suspense, and excitement—to pose a worthy threat to the hero. 

Strength, of course, is not merely physical. In Ordinary People, the mom is a formidable and relentless opponent whose implacable determination to take custody of her young son drives the plot forward.

“Never forget that it is the villain that inadvertently spurs the hero to achieve his best in order to win the day.”

Although villains are crafty and tireless plotters, they are not always 100% bad. Remember, villains don’t see themselves as villainous. They feel justified in doing what they do. In their minds, they are merely seeking revenge, righting a wrong, balancing the books, for a perceived injustice perpetrated against them.

Additionally, a successful villain knows how to punch the hero’s buttons. He takes advantage of the hero”s weakness. If your hero is a rich stockbroker, the villain is an even richer businessman who manipulates the market to bring him down. If your hero is a champion boxer, his opponent is a seven foot, three-hundred pound Russian giant. 

Remember, then, that the hero and villain form a single unit. Identify the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength, and have the villain take advantage of that weakness—until the last moment when the tables turn and the hero uses the same technique against him. 

Lastly, have the final confrontation play out in the villain’s lair—the place that is most advantageous to the villain. It will raise the tension and fill your readers or audience with dread. Providing you have chosen an up-ending, it will also make your hero’s final victory that much sweeter.

Summary

The hero and villain are polar opposites, forming a single narrative unit.
The hero’s weakness juxtaposed against the villain’s strength complicates the plot and heightens tension.

Eccentric characters – Foibles, kinks and rituals.

Eccentric Characters - Uriah Heep
Charles Dickens’ stories are filled with eccentric characters such as David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep.

Eccentric characters in stories, are filled with foibles, kinks and rituals. As are real people in the world. .
We often like to do things in a certain way: follow a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, point us to some deeper truth.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other specialists, showcase personalities that range from the eccentric to the pathological.

As a writer of novels and screenplays, I too am interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with understanding emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story

“Eccentric characters, handled adroitly, make for colourful and engaging stories.”

I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do touch on those subjects. The best stories endure because they expose a character’s peculiarities and weaknesses—they offer us good drama, and in so doing, engage our emotions. If stories get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people they describe—colourful characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.

Some years back, I taught a documentary filmmaking course every Friday at a college in downtown Johannesburg. Traffic was bad at that time of morning so I would leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway. Trouble was that the college opened at 8am and I would arrive at my destination way before then.

Luckily, I could while away the time at a nearby Macdonald’s. Call me an early bird, but I was usually the first customer to be served when the doors opened at 6am. Hotcakes with butter and syrup and coffee were just what I needed before that first lecture at 8am.

But sometimes I was pipped at the post by an even earlier bird. 

Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There were, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around.

But then, there was the small matter of my favourite spot. 

The table, tucked away in a far corner of the shop was flanked on two sides by large windows that looked out into a parking lot dotted with trees. I really liked that spot. I liked it almost as much as I liked my hotcakes.

The trouble was, so did the earlier bird.

Now, good sense would have me gracefully yield my spot to her. First come first served and all that.

But on such occasions I secretly wished I had got there even earlier to stake my claim. Or that she’d been held up by some event or other, granting me first access. I found myself anxiously scanning the interior of the shop for a sign of her, even as I was pulling into the parking area.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help lowering my head in embarrassment. Was I really that petty-minded?

Even so, I believe that such foibles, habits, and rituals, trivial as they are, are useful markers of personality.

At the very least they offer writers an opportunity to inject their experiences into their characters, rendering them more eccentric and interesting. In observing ourselves through such characters, we may even succeed in purging ourselves of some of our more irrational inclinations.

Summary

Studying eccentric characters on a daily basis, ourselves and others, helps us write captivating, fictional constructs that bristle with life, eccentricity, and colour.

Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace
Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace

Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition. 

“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown. 

Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.

Structure in Stories— a personal perspective

Elmo d Witt and story structure
Elmo de Witt first alerted me to story structure as a foundational aspect of the art of storytelling.


Structure in stories.
Just what is structure and why is it essential to stories? Let me back up a bit first.

Writers love to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal. 

Some time ago, whilst shopping, I ran into a novelist I had a passing acquaintance with. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking about how my view on the subject has matured over time.

It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who almost three decades ago, suggested to me that story structure could be studied, and that one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it. 

“Elmo de Witt once told me that without an understanding of story structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing.“

My initial reaction was negative. I had recently graduated from the London international film school having studied the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.

But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head. 

I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I had, after all, been recently hired as a resident reader and screenwriter at Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know much about Syd Field? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.

Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it.

I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework I found that I didn’t want to. I found that my understanding of structure had freed me from the hit-and-miss aspect of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate more deeply on character, theme, symbol, and story content. 

Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure. 

This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.

That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too? 

Summary

One of the most valuable lessons writers can learn is to appreciate, then apply, story structure to their own tales.

Scene tension — how to achieve it

Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow
Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow

In my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading the writing with contradictory cues to increase scene tension. 

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

“The bad way to try and achieve scene tension is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party shouting the other down at the end.”

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected. 

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands. This is always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up. He towers over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him. Cage retreats. 

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair, startled. 

This small incident emphasises the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue. 

Summary

Create scene tension in your story by having actions play out in counterpoint to threats being delivered through dialogue.

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Success as a Writer

Juno was an unexpected success.
Juno was an unexpected success.

How do you measure success as a writer? Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

“No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits. Success is all too often elusive.”

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

If your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. But even if they don’t, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Maximise the chances of success while insulating yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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Title, Title, Title.

The title of the film says it all - Apollo 13 poster.
The title of the film says it all.

In today’s competitive market an indie writer needs to keep her eye on at least two targets – writing skills and marketing, and it all starts with the title.

The belief that all a good writer has to do is keep writing—that recognition will come knocking on his door in due course, is optimistic. For every writer that succeeds many others don’t. The truth is that wide-spread recognition, if it comes at all, has to be actively pursued, coaxed, grown.

Entering competitions, doing readings of your work, building a large online presence, giving guest lectures at book clubs and colleges, can help—but start by grabbing your potential reader’s attention through a great title followed by a captivating logline or blurb.

I have discussed loglines and blurbs elsewhere on my blog. Today I want to look at the importance of a story’s title.

“Not only does a title hint at what your story is about, it is an indispensable marketing tool, too.”

I asked a friend of mine, an avid reviewer of kindle books, how she picks which story to read first amongst the many others she receives each day. She told me she lets the title and book cover do that for her.

When I worked for Elmo de Witt Films, one of my tasks was to look out for promising screenplays. There were always dozens of them in a pile on my desk waiting to be read. The ones that caught my eye first were always screenplays with great titles.

The story title as a marketing tool

A great title ticks one or more of the following boxes:

It points to a genre.
It hints at the story behind it.
It has emotional content.
It is not the name of a character.
It sets up a question, hints at a puzzle, intrigues one in some way.

Titles such as, Apollo 13, Rich and FamousGladiatorThe Madness of King George, and Alien leave us in no doubt as to what the story is about. Others, such as Blade Runner, sound so cool and compelling they make us want to know more.

But titles such as K-PaxThe Island, August Rush?

Not so good.

The title, Emma, may have worked for Jane Austen over two hundred yeas ago, but names of (unknown) people don’t generally make for good titles.

I typically come up with ten or more titles for a new book or screenplay and ask family, friends, and students to pick their favourite from the list, before making my final choice. I consider it time well spent.

Summary

Choosing a compelling, eye-catching title for your story is the first small step in getting your novel or screenplay noticed.

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Reveal – ing your Reveals

The reveal is handled differently from the book in the film Notes on a Scandal

How and when do you reveal that big secret in your story? All at once? Through smaller increments and surprises?

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers stresses the importance of placing the reveals at the right place. He uses an example provided by UCLA’s screenwriting programme head, William Froug, about an old man feeding pigeons from a park bench. Should the old man dump the whole bag of crumbs on the grass right away, or scatter a few at a time to keep the pigeons interested longer?

“Placing a big reveal later on in the story, and hinting at it by sprinkling breadcrumbs earlier, is the better option.”

The book upon which the film Notes From a Scandal is based starts with a big scene in which it is revealed that the Cate Blanchett character has had an affair with one of her students. The book handles this information as the inciting incident. It’s a heck of a start to the story, but it does give away the biggest secret right away. The film version handles this differently, revealing the news a little later. It keeps the audience on a string and loads up the reveal with more punch. 

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, screenwriter, William Goldman, saves the small surprise that Butch is from New Jersey until the movie is well under way. He later offers an even bigger reveal when the men are about to hit the payroll guards in Bolivia. During the face-off with a bunch of rough-looking bandits, Butch tells Sundance that he’s never shot anyone before. It’s not a good time to let your partner-in-crime know about your lack of experience, but it is a hugely impactful moment for the audience. 

Imagine, if you will, if Goldman had started the story by having Butch introduce himself to Sundance with, ”Hi there. My name’s Robert Leroy Parker. I’m really from New Jersey. I’ve never shot anyone in my life before!” 

That would be pretty lame, right? Luckily, the screenwriter knew better!

Summary

Withholding crucial information for as long as possible, and releasing it as a well-structured reveal at a dramatically heightened moment, makes for keener audience interest and improves the quality of your story.

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Complete Story ~ essential ingredients

Complete story:Tom Cruise in The Edge of Tomorrow
In Edge of Tomorrow the complete story arises as a result of the A and B lines coming together at the climax.

In his book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder offers us this piece of invaluable advice on writing a complete story: “Keep in mind the only reason for storytelling, and why the A and B stories must cross throughout: It’s to show the true reason for the journey is not getting the tangible goal, but learning the spiritual lesson that can only be found through the B Story!”

This is what the tale is really about: learning the spiritual or moral lesson that allows the hero to overcome the obstacles that life and the antagonist throw his way.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

At the inciting incident, the hero is given a wake-up call. A bump disturbs his trajectory through the ordinary world. His first response is usually an incorrect one. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise is told he is to go to the warfront to film the allied invasion. His response is to try and blackmail the General in order to force him to reverse his decision. Not a good call.

“In a complete story the A and B narrative strands criss-cross each other at crucial moments.”

The first turning point represents the true start of the story. It also sets the outer goal. Tom Cruise is killed, but gets covered by the blue blood of the Alpha Mimic, which causes him to return to relive the day. His response upon finding himself back at square one, however, is to try and talk the Master Sergeant into letting him call his superiors. Lesson still not learnt.

By the midpoint, Cruise finally realises why he keeps returning to the same event, over and over again. He has to team up with the Angel of Verdun and defeat the Mimics by killing their leader, the Omega. Our reluctant protagonist has gone from unwilling participant to motivated Hero. Here, the outer and inner stories fuse to produce a single and clear purpose—a plan to save the world from the invading Mimics—even if it means sacrificing oneself to do it.

By the second and final turning point, his recurring efforts are in danger of stalling—a blood transfusion will rob him of his ability to relive the day, just as it did the Angel of Verdun’s. And while he is at first reluctant to sacrifice her to this permanent-death scenario, he realises that he has no choice but to risk it if he is to have any hope of defeating the Mimics. This represents a step up in growth and is a perfect illustration of the A and B stories supporting each other.

The inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, and the second turning point, then, present the writer with the perfect opportunity of fusing the Hero’s transformational arc to his pursuit of the outer goal.

Summary

The B Story underpins the A story. It is the transformational arc the hero undergoes in order to acquire the true goal.

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Creative Writing — Art and Craft

Stavros Halvatzis on Creative writing
On creative writing.

Those who have taught creative writing, specifically the novel or short story, will remember being asked, at some time or another, that pertinent but most difficult of all questions: What constitutes good writing? 

The question is pertinent because that’s what teachers of the craft purport to teach. It is difficult because people have been trying to provide a definitive answer to it since first picking up chisels and quills.

Here’s my take.

The First Layer: Spirit, Ethos

I like to separate the craft into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit or ethos of the times, and our view of it.

It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being aware of contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new.

These insights stem from our level of maturity. They can not be hurried.

The Second Layer: Story Structure

The second area concerns the structure of stories.

“A study of creative writing that lacks awareness of the layers that make up the craft is like a rudderless ship loaded with treasure but destined to meander endlessly at sea.”

Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? If not your story may lack a specific direction.

The Third Layer: Words and Sentences

The third layer has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we creating powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so?

Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? All of this affects how the reader experiences our story.

In my opinion, these three layers make up the craft of writing. Together they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the writer. Incorporating this approach when writing a new novel or screenplay increases its chances of success.

Summary

Excellence in creative writing involves mastering the three layers rooted in the micro and macro levels of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author. 

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