Tag Archives: writer

Why have our stories grown stale?

Banish the stale! Follow Chinatown’s example.
Banish the stale. Follow Chinatown’s example.

Much of our viewing consumption, whether at the cinema or through streaming services, has grown stale. There is a repetitiveness to the story structure, genre, theme, and the subliminal messaging. Superhero stories predominate, and what’s worse, the sequel-generating machine has diminished the spark that may have existed in the original. The disconnected and visually numbing Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, is a case in point.

What’s the reason for this? I’d venture a lack of originality and character authenticity which the presence of the brand alone can’t compensate for. Then there’s the easy access to tons of tv series and films on streaming services which has educated audiences about the tricks that go into a story. Formulas are exposed for being just that—formulas. Add the avalanche of cardboard characters and limp story lines and you get the picture.

So, what’s the remedy? My instinct is to go back to creating strong, authentic characters driven by credible goals, hopes and ambitions—characters who harbour wounds and secrets, and who are immersed in situations, albeit fantastical on occasion, that we find believable. 

“We should banish what is stale in our stories by getting back to the basics, by concentrating on originality and verisimilitude.”

One of the things that makes Chinatown a great story is the power of the wounds and secrets that Evelyn Malwray harbours. These drive the entire story—wounds and secrets whose consequences affect the characters, generate subtext, and create story questions. And what a staggering reveal late in the story when Evelyn finally comes clean to Jake Gittes!

Citizen Kane too is an enduring classic in no small part because Kane has a painful secret that the audience is dying to know. Indeed the whole film is predicated upon unraveling the meaning of the word ‘Rosebud’ uttered by Kane on his deathbed. The theme that is encoded in that word—that the value of family outweighs material wealth and fame, also lends the story a transcendent meaning that elevates it and keeps it resonant and fresh. If only we could inject such verisimilitude into the current parade of stories.

Summary

Many stories have fallen prey to stale, repetitive formulas, plots, and shallow characters swimming in the sludge of endless franchises of dubious worth.

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Story beats and archetypes in the Hero’s Journey

During one of my lecturers on the Hero’s Journey based on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, a student asked me about the nature of the relationship that exists between the eight archetypes and the twelve beats that comprise a tale of this sort. Before answering the question let me remind everyone of the Archetypes and story beats.


The Archetypes are: 1. Hero, 2. Mentor, 3. Threshold Guardian, 4. Herald, 5. Shapeshifter, 6. Shadow, 7. Ally, 8. Trickster.

The story beats are: 1. The Ordinary World, 2. The Call to Adventure, 3. Refusal of the call, 4. Meeting with the Mentor, 5. Crossing of the First Threshold, 6. Tests, Enemies and Allies, 7. Approach to the inmost Cave, 8. The Ordeal, 9. The Reward, 10. The Road Back, 11. The Resurrection, 12. Return with the Elixir.

“Story beats and archetypal characters are two sides of the same story coin .”

One of the most essential relationships between story beats and archetypes is their proximity to each other—archetypal characters tend to be evoked at specific points in the story: The introduction to the Ordinary World, for example, entails that we meet the Hero in the context of his or her world. The Call to Adventure demands that we throw the Herald into the mix. The Meeting with the Mentor means that the mentor has to persuade the hero, who has previously Refused the Call, to take it on. The Crossing of the First Threshold necessitates that the Threshold Guardian makes an appearance to defend his threshold. Tests, Allies and Enemies means that these characters interact with the hero (and to us), to aid or block his path towards his quest.

The point is that the archetypal characters are embedded in the hero’s journey—they are two sides of the same coin. Together, they tell of how a character, the hero, rises to the challenge to subdue outer threats, which necessitates integrating the warring energies within himself or herself represented by the very archetypes.

Summary

Archetypal characters appear at specific points in the hero’s journey, so much so that several of these story beats contain their very name.

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The Decision Scene

The decision scene in Stand by Me.
The decision scene is in full displays in Stand by Me.

Are you struggling to make your story feel authentic and engaging? Then look no further! One of the keys to powerful plots lies in mastering how to craft the realisation-decision-action scene triad, as humans are wired to think and act in this order.

According to Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting, not inserting a decision scene between a realisation scene and an action scene can make the story appear forced, disconnected from the plot, and without depth. A decision scene provides the reasoning and motivation behind a character’s actions, making them feel more genuine and relatable.

Think of Chuck Nolan discovering the plastic door in Castaway, or Vern and the boys deciding to investigate the dead body in Stand by Me, or the nurse in The English Patient making the decision to stay behind. These decisions lead to significant plot development and create an air of authenticity that draws the audience in.

“A decision ought to follow a realisation and lead to action showing the outcome of that decision.”

A decision, then, involves a character or characters inspecting, investigating, questioning or simply observing, before coming to a decision. This leads to action being taken directly after as a result.

So, if you want to take your story to the next level, make sure to include a decision scene between the realisation and action scenes.

Summary

A decision scene follows a realisation and provides the reason for the action that follows it. It grants your story verisimilitude.

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The Confrontation Scene

The confrontation scene in American Beauty.
The confrontation scene in American Beauty.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger explains that the confrontation scene is one which uncorks the pressure that has been building up in the story between characters.

It is typically about one character’ s anger or dissatisfaction directed at the wrongs, real or imagined, perpetrated by another against him or her. The time for hints and innuendos has passed. This scene allows a buried truth to be uncovered. Here the subtext finally explodes to the surface. In the words of Seger, this is the scene where a character ‘tells it like it is.’

In the film American Beauty Lester confronts the lies in his life. He desperately needs more from his job, his sexuality. And he needs something deeper from his wife who elevates her job and the couch above the meaningful things in life. Here is Lester’s confrontation with her about the gulf between them stemming from her shallowness and confused values.

LESTER: Carolyn, when did you become so joyless?…This isn’t life. It’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.

Lester’s words are not overly angry or numerous, but their import is devastating.

“The confrontation scene is where the subtext explodes to the surface.”

Sometimes the confrontation scene is anticipated, which builds tension. At other times it is unexpected although the reader or audience has sensed that it is coming.

In the film Tootsie, Michael confronts his agent for not informing him about an audition for a play. The agent suggests that Michael’s problems have made him essentially unemployable. The scene exposes Michael as being in need of therapy.

Summary

The confrontation scene is typically one where the subtext bursts to the surface, where one character confronts another about a wrong perpetrated against him, whether real or imagined.

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Revealing backstory

Linda Seger talks about revealing backstory.

In her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger wraps-up her chapter on creating and revealing a character’s backstory in this way (I paraphrase her here):

Creating backstory should be a process of discovery. The writer ought to keep asking questions about a character’s background in a back-and-forth fashion in order to explain or support that character’s motivation for their action. When the writer is in the flow, the information seems to reveal itself rather than be imposed by brute force through specific formulas. The result is a process of expanding, enriching, and deepening a character in an organic and effortless way. To help us in this process, Seger suggests that we ask these questions as we write:

“Revealing backstory in an adroit way is indispensable to the crafting of accomplished stories.”

  1. Is my work on backstory a process of discovery? In other words, do I let the character’s backstory unfold naturally as needed rather than imposing excessive detail on the character in a way that may not be relevant?
  2. As I reveal backstory, am I careful not to show more than the bare minimum needed for a character to carry the moment?
  3. Am I layering the information throughout the story, not lumping it all into info-heavy speeches?
  4. Am I revealing information in the shortest, most economical space possible? Am I able, for example, to reveal bits of backstory in a single sentence, with the help of subtext, so that the attitudes, motivations, emotions, and decisions of characters are revealed?

Although not replete, this bit of advice will improve your ability to fashion a character’s backstory in a more economical and flowing way.

Summary

Ask a series of questions to help you create an economical and organic approach to writing and revealing backstory.

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Start late, end early.

Akers on how to start late and leave early.

One of the most common errors inexperienced writers make is to write scenes that start early and end late. There’s just too much fat at both ends, especially in a screenplay, where every unnecessary line costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars to shoot.

One way to eliminate unnecessary material is to concentrate on the gist of your scene. What is it that you want to convey through your character actions and dialogue? Do so and move on!

In Your Screenplay Sucks, William M Akers provides this example of how to cut a scene to the bone. An earlier draft looked like this:

———————

INT. GRAHAM’S SEVEN PAINTINGS.

Huge, nearly abstract canvases of bloody, dead, eviscerated animals. Road kill under a layer of sloppy handwriting. Graham poses with Magda, more photos.

Magda departs. Camilla approaches.

CAMILLA: I’m Camilla Warren. Nice night.

They shake hands, slowly. She is very appealing.

GRAHAM: Buying, or watching?

CAMILLA: Watching.

She inspects him.

CAMILLA: Sold anything?

GRAHAM: I will.

CAMILLA: When you do, find me.

And she’s gone.

————————-

Here’s how the scene ended up:

INT. GRAHAM’S SEVEN~ PAINTINGS

Huge, nearly abstract canvases of bloody, dead, eviscerated animals. Road kill under a layer of sloppy handwriting. Graham poses with Magda, more photos.

Magda departs. Camilla approaches.

CAMILLA: Sold anything?

GRAHAM: I will.

CAMILLA: When you do, find me.

And she’s gone.

—————————

So, there you have it. To start late and end early means to get to the point. This entails getting rid of unnecessary diversions, greetings and niceties since they slow the pace and muddy the story.

Summary

Scenes should start late and end early. Your story will be more compelling and energetic for it.

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Become a Master of Emotion in Writing

Throw Mama from the train showcases masterful emotion in writing.
Throw Mama from the train showcases masterful emotion in writing.

Here is a masterful example, taken from William M. Akers’, Your Screenplay Sucks, of how to set up a scene in order to create genuine and powerful emotion—in this case, tear-jerking compassion!

In Throw Mama from the Train Larry Donner, played by Billy Crystal, is roped into attending dinner at Owen’s house. Owen (played by Danny DeVito) lives with his mother. He is Larry’s worst writing student at the community college where he teaches. Owen is a rather simple-minded, talentless, irritating imp of a man who lives with his mother, a cantankerous old woman with a painful voice and an even worse personality. We learn that Danny’s father is dead.

The dinner is terrible, Owen is as irritating as ever and his mother is just plain horrible. ‘Owen, you don’t have any friends,’ she rasps, stating the obvious. Larry desperately wants to leave, heck, we want him to leave, but he seems stuck there out of an abundance of politeness.

Up to now, the scene has made us uncomfortable, generated feelings of confinement, of being trapped in a hostile and hopeless environment. We shift in our seats and pray for it to end.

Finally the mother goes off to bed. Here is Larry’s chance to escape! But no. Owen asks Billy if wants to see his coin collection, and Billy is forced to say yes, again out of politeness.

“Knowing how to evoke emotion is the single most important skill to master in story-telling.”

Up to now, we have come to dislike Owen, well, for being Owen, and for putting Larry through such an excruciating evening. Not much to like here.

Then Owen dumps several coins on the floor—a few worn out quarters, some old dimes and nickels. So that’s it? This is his magnificent coin collection?

Then this happens: I’ll quote Akers who quotes Owen’s exact words from the scene: ‘ “This one here, I got in change, when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul, and Mary. And this one, I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus. My daddy let me keep the change. He always let me keep the change.” ‘

Wow! What a shift in our emotions—not a dry eye in the house! We’ve gone from loathing Owen to loving him through this sudden injection of feeling rooted in his nostalgia for his past life with his father. It explains why, in a certain sense, the child-like Owen stoped growing beyond the days spent with his father. He is still irritating, but now we understand him a little more, and we adore him for it; perhaps we even feel a little guilty for having loathed him in the first place.

This is masterful writing. Well done to the screenwriter, Mr Stu Silver!

Summary

Knowing how to evoke emotion in writing is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your stories.

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Understanding the dual function of Archetypes

Christopher Vogler on the dual function of archetypes.

In a previous post I talked about the dual function of archetypes as presented by Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writers Journey, namely a dramatic and a psychological function. This deserves further explaining.

The dramatic function of an archetype, such as the Hero, is to display behaviour in a way that drives the story forward, but also in a way that pulls readers and audiences into the drama.

Heroes finds themselves in a position where they have to solve a local or societal problem, and to do so in an intriguing and captivating way, if the tale is to succeed. This comes down to the writer employing good dramatic principles such generating suspense, placing the hero before a dilemma, having him or her struggle to master difficult skills, go on a journey of self-discovery, and the like.

“The dual function of archetypes offers the writer a complete system of managing character behaviour.”

The psychological function of an archetype, on the other hand, demonstrates how the hero can achieve success though a process of integration, to use Carl Jung’s term. But integration of what, you may well ask?

Simply stated, the integration of the remaining archetypes, or to put it in another way, through the integration of the energies that dwell within the Self, primarily the Shadow (the dark energy within us all), but also the Mentor, the Herald, the Threshold Guardian, the Shapeshifter, the Ally, and the Trickster. It is only when the Hero acknowledges these energies within, then manages to achieve a balance between them, that he can overcome the physical challenges in the world.

A story, then, can be seen as the projection on the pages of book or the surface of a screen of the energies struggling for balance within one’s self—as the externalisation, personification and hence dramatization of these forces. Understood in this way, Christopher Vogler’s archetypes offer a complete system of writing stories that arise from myth, our collective unconscious, and our deep literary traditions. They are about ourselves as much as they are about the world.

Summary

The dual function of archetypes includes not only the dramatic dimension of stories but the psychological remnants found in humanity’s collective unconscious that form the basis of our rich, mythic traditions.

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How to introduce characters in a screenplay

What a way to introduce characters!
What a way to introduce characters!

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M Akers admonishes us to introduce characters in our screenplays in a concise but telling way. He provides the following counter example:

“MURIEL REED, a grounds Keeper, captivates Gary. She fills the sprayer with soda and mists brown over the grass.” This is perhaps a little too scanty. Akers suggests that you tell us about a character’s personality, their flaws or tics, but hold back on the smaller physical details until they are of importance. He suggests that specifying race and height, unless truly relevant, is best left out.

“When you introduce characters for the first time in the action block of a screenplay avoid superfluous physical details. Hone in only on details that provide a snapshot of personality.”


It is better to include physical detail that characterises—does double duty. Here’s an extract from Good Will Hunting:

“The guy holding court is CHUKIE SULLIVAN, 20, and the largest of the bunch. He is loud, boisterous, a born entertainer. Next to him is WILL HUNTING, 20, handsome and confident, a soft-spoken leader…”

From Ghostbusters:

“Venkman is an associate professor but his rumpled suit and manic gleam in his eyes indicate an underlying instability in his nature.”

This example, from The Big Lebowski, is Akers’ favourite:

“It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shirts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.”

There you have it. A no nonsense approach of how to introduce the characters in your screenplays from one of the best.

Summary

Introduce characters by highlighting some quintessential aspect of their identity. Avoid superfluous details.

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Is this the right genre for your story?

Bob Rodat scored a hit with Saving Private Ryan after his agent rejected his earlier screenplay in the gangster genre.
Bob Rodat scored a hit with Saving Private Ryan after his agent rejected his earlier screenplay in the gangster genre.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers stresses that understanding the right genre tropes and conventions and their current popularity is essential if your story is to have a chance in the market place. He stresses that if you don’t have a clearly defined, simple to understand genre, you’re probably off to a poor start.

Is the genre of your story a sci-if, a western, a coming of age story? Still not sure by page ten of your screenplay or novel? Then ‘you’re toast.’ If you’re not sure, the readers certainly aren’t either.

Additionally Akers advises that writers work in a genre that they like and are good at. If you only watch cop movies but have decided to write a love story, that might be an attempt to spread your wings, but you probably lack the experience in the genre to pull it off right away.

“Picking the right genre that is going to be all the rage by the time you’re done writing your masterpiece is at best a hit-and-miss affair. The point is to write in the genre you like and to never stop spinning that wheel of fortune.”

Have you decided to write in a specific genre because it’s currently all the rage? Probably a dumb idea. Here’s why: It will take you several months to write that script or novel, perhaps even longer. Now consider how long it takes to bring a story to the screen or press. The genre could well have lost steam by the time you’re done.

Akers provides the example of Bob Rodat who decided to write a gangster movie but send it to his agent on the same week three gangster movies opened and bombed on the circuit. The agent shrugged his script off.

But the story has a happy ending: Bob never gave up and went on to write Saving Private Ryan!

The point is that you never know when the timing’s going to be right for a particular genre. Akers’ advice is therefore to write in a genre you like or are competent in. Be aware, though, that someone else might be thinking the very same thing too. Just never, ever give up on writing and you might get lucky, just like Bob Rodat did!

Summary

Write in a genre that you like and are competent in, knowing that its popularity depends on some timing and a lot of luck.

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