Tag Archives: screenwriter

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

Invitation

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Characterising details – what are they?

Book cover of a nook which contains a chapter on characterising details.
Characterising details—an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Characterising details do not only provide important facts about story characters, they grant insight into their traits through a show-don’t-tell technique.


In her chapter, CHARACTER OBJECTIVE AND CONFLICT (Creating Characters: The complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Mary Kole defines characterising detail as “[a] multilayered piece of information or action that teaches us something deep-seated about a character.”

Height and hair colour are usually not significant details. Far better are small but telling actions that tell us something hidden about a character.

Someone who drops a sweet on the ground, looks left and right to see if he’s being watched, then picks it up and surreptitiously pops it into his mouth, does tell us something significant about that character: that he so compulsively loves sweets that he’s willing to eat germs off the ground to reacquire them, and that he is ashamed or embarrassed by his action. Importantly, it does it through the show-don’t-tell technique, making it a more rewarding reading experience.

“Characterising details are snippets of telling action that shed light on a character’s hidden traits.”

Place descriptions, too, may serve to characterise through a similar technique.

“The house was in desperate need of repair. The floors were damaged and caked with grime and dirt, the wall plaster was peeling, the ceilings were descending into the rooms like great arching sheets of cloth. There was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in.”

This is not a bad description, but here’s a better one:

“Matthew studied the shell of the house. He’d have to start right away if he were to have it ready before she arrived—rip down the damaged ceilings, replaster a good portion of the walls, sand down the wooden floors and fit in new boards to replace those destroyed by termites. Finally, he’d have to paint and varnish the whole catastrophe. And all this in a week. With no money. It was an impossible task, but that, of course, was what Matthew did. Pursue impossible tasks. Like impressing an impossibly beautiful girl who had ignored him for a year.”

This passage is more effective because it not only puts us in the head of the character, it shows us something about his grit, drive and objective, too: to try and win the attention of a beautiful girl who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Exercise: Find a passage in your own writing that describes the motivation of a character. Does the description contain superfluous details that leave the reader un-engaged? Replace them with detailed actions that characterised through the show-don’t-tell technique.

Summary

Characterising details are snippets of telling information, usually revealed through action, that tell us something important about a character

Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.

Effective characters – how to write them

Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog
Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog

In his book, The Art of Character, David Corbett offers several suggestions for constructing effective characters: Characters must demonstrate a powerful desire, hide a secret, suffer a wound, and display a contradiction. What is equally important, however, is how these elements interact to produce authentic and individual behaviour. 

In this article we’ll examine the relationship between a character’s desire, secret and wound—three crucially important elements for authentic behaviour. I would argue that David Corbett’s fourth element—a character’s clashing traits, such as a murderer with a soft spot for stray animals, although useful, can be subsumed within the character’s secret or wound. It is, therefore, not discussed at length. 

In House of Sand and Fog, Kathy Nicolo is defined by a desperate desire to keep the house she has inherited from her father, not only because it provides security, but because its loss will expose the secrets she has been hiding all along—that her husband has left her and that she is suffering from depression which renders her incapable of living a normal life.

”Effective characters fight for external goals while simultaneously struggling against their inner demons. Characters must confront these demons before they can exorcise them.”

Kathy’s desire, her secret and her wound, then, are causally connected—a row of dominoes about to fall. Kathy’s desire to keep the house stems from her wound, while her secretive behaviour stems from her need to keep the truth hidden.

Here is an extract from David Corbett’ s book that highlights the power of wounds and secrets, and how they motivate character behaviour: 

Midnight Cowboy exemplifies a psychoanalytic view of man’s condition: We are wounded psychically, often early in childhood, and live with continuous anxiety over abandonment, rejection, or abuse. To protect ourselves from further wounding, we develop a shell, a false persona, a defence or adaptation—we drink, do drugs, become perfectionists, work ourselves to death, pursue only meaningless affairs, get stuck in unfulfilling marriages, shy away from the risks necessary for true success, adhere to Pollyannaish optimism, hide away in cynical isolation.”

“An effective character is created by a writer who understands the relationship that exists between a character’s desire, secret and wound, and uses it to drive authentic behaviour.”

In the Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist, seems more than a little eccentric. He goes to the same beach cafe every day, eats the same waffles, drinks the same coffee, and works on the same equations representing an intractable mathematical problem. His behaviour seems totally unreasonable, given that he has done this for thirty years. It is only when we dig deeper into his secrets that we begin to understand his motivation.

We could sum up a character’s behaviour, then, as desire + secret + wound = authentic action.

EXERCISE: Before writing a new story identify the central desire of your protagonist. Next, motivate his need by tracing it back to a wound that occurred in his past. Foreshadow, but do not reveal, the secret motivation for his behaviour by dropping hints along the way. Find the right moment to reveal all.

Summary 

Create authentic behaviour for effective characters in your stories by causally linking their desires, secrets and wounds.

Five points to consider prior to pantsing a new story.

Nabokov believed that any new story starts with a ‘throb’
or a ‘glimmer’ of recognition.


What’s the quickest way to get into a new story?


Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.

Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.

“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”

Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:

  1. Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
  2. Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
  3. Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
  4. Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
  5. State the theme of the story.

These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.

Summary

Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.

The Story Question — how curiosity saves the tale

Story questions in Marathon Man
An intriguing story question in Marathon Man: “Is it safe?“

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a good story question has also saved the life of countless of tales.

In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge points out that when a character or event is not fully explained, the reader or audience ploughs on in search for an answer.

Murder mysteries rely on our insatiable curiosity to discover the identity of the killer. Our curiosity increases with each red herring.

A film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit poses its title as a question whose answer drives the entire plot.

Less obvious are examples involving curious objects and actions such as the recurring motif of a peculiar mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the reason behind Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby.

“An intriguing story question generates curiosity in the reader or audience. It keeps us interested in the story.“

The longer the writer withholds the answer to a question the more satisfying the revelation.

In Citizen Cane, discovering the meaning of “Rosebud” whispered by the dying Charles Foster Kane to a reporter, drives the entire story.

In Silverado, the Kevin Kline character, Paten, is often asked, “Where’s the dog?” Our curiosity is piqued. Why do the characters keep asking about the whereabouts of this animal? It‘s only towards the end of the film that we learn that Paten was once captured during a robbery because he tried to rescue a dog. This does not only satisfy the audience’s curiosity over the unanswered question, it increases our sympathy for Paten, too.

One of the most riveting scenes in all of cinema occurs in the film, Marathon Man. The old, drill-wielding Nazi, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, keeps asking a terrified Dustin Hofmann, “Is it safe?” “Is what safe?“ the panicked victim asks, over and over again.

It’s true that the technique of asking questions throughout the tale is not enough to carry the entire weight of the narrative alone. However, used with other structural devices such as turning points, pinches, and the mid-point, such questions propel the tale towards its climax and resolution in a compelling way.

Summary

Prevent your tale from flagging, by posing a story question at strategic points in your tale.

Who is the Viewpoint Character in your story?

Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby

Stories are inhabited by many characters, each exploring the theme from a different perspective; only one, however, is the viewpoint character.

All characters exhibit a point of view, of course. And, indeed, one of the functions of a character archetype is to offer a glimpse of the moral premise as seen from a specific perspective. Typically, the hero, or protagonist, being the character through whom we most often experience the story, is one whose moral vision carries significant weight—certainly by the end of the story where maturation has occurred.

Sometimes, however, the hero is not the viewpoint character. The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway is a case in point. The plot does indeed revolve around Gatsby, but it is Nick Carraway who not only relates events from his point of view, but also transmits the moral perspective of the entire story.

It is important to identify the viewpoint character prior to commencing the writing of the story. Start by asking the following questions:

1. Which character is closest to my (the writer’s) point of view? Whose clear, moral perspective pronounces the theme of the story? In The Great Gatsby, Nick is this character—although the pronouncement is about Gatsby himself.

“A viewpoint character transmits the moral perspective of the story.“

2. Who has the biggest stake in the story and has the most to lose? Who cares most passionately about solving the story-problem? Your answers will point towards your point of view character(s). 

In The Land Below, Paulie, the protagonist, is the character with the biggest responsibility and with the most to lose, but the Troubadour offers the deepest moral perspective in the story—despite the secret he has kept from Paulie all these years.

2. Which characters are the most interesting or the most intriguing? These are the characters the reader or audience wants to know most about.

3. Which of the characters are most involved in driving the story forward? Passive characters are the least interesting and tend to slow the story down.

4. Which characters are the most complicated? Complex characters hold our attention through their unpredictability, complexity and depth. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is such a character—we are uncertain whether he will choose to live or die by the end of the story. 

Summary

Create a viewpoint character by granting that character the moral perspective of the story.

Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.

Building Characters in Seven Steps

Building characters in The Godfather
Building characters in The Godfather

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby lays out seven steps to building characters:



The seven steps chiefly apply to the protagonist of the story since the protagonist is the vehicle through which the story is channeled. Truby illustrates these steps through an adroit analysis of several films. Here, we look at his break-down of The Godfather, taken directly from his book, although the pattern applies to any well-written story.

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent 
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Hero: Michael Corleone.

Weaknesses: Michael is young, inexperienced, untested, and overconfident.

Psychological Need: Michael must overcome his sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Moral Need: He needs to avoid becoming ruthless like the other Mafia bosses while still protecting his family.


“The path to building characters that are effective is one that tracks the protagonist’s journey from weakness and need to a new equilibrium, forged through the crucible of battle.“

Problem: Rival gang members shoot Michael’s father, the head of the family.

Desire: He wants to take revenge on the men who shot his father and thereby protect his family.

Opponent: Michael’s first opponent is Sollozzo. However, his true opponent is the more powerful Barzini, who is the hidden power behind Sollozzo and wants to bring the entire Corleone family down. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.

“A strong opponent is someone who finds and exploits the protagonist’s weakness throughout the story.”

Plan: Michael’s first plan is to kill Sollozzo and his protector, the police captain. His second plan is to kill the heads of the other families in a single strike.

Battle: The final battle is a crosscut between Michael’s appearance at his nephew’s baptism and the killing of the heads of the five Mafia families. At the baptism, Michael says that he believes in God. Clemenza fires a shotgun into some men getting off an elevator. Moe Green is shot in the eye. Michael, following the liturgy of the baptism, renounces Satan. Another gunman shoots one of the heads of the families in a revolving door. Barzini is shot. Tom sends Tessio off to be murdered. Michael has Carlo strangled.

Psychological Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael still believes that his sense of superiority and self-righteousness is justified.

Moral Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael has become a ruthless killer. The writers use an advanced story structure technique by giving the moral self-revelation to the hero’s wife, Kay, who sees what he has become as the door slams in her face.

New Equilibrium: Michael has killed his enemies and “risen” to the position of Godfather. But morally, he has fallen and become the “devil.” This man who once wanted nothing to do with the violence and crime of his family is now its leader and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

Summary
Using a seven-step approach to building characters and story is a great way to mould protagonists who drive the plot forward in an organic and integrated way.