Creativity unfettered

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Thank you for showing me that there’s a place for all of my thoughts & feelings to go. I was overwhelmed by emotion for almost the entirety of our class.

— Student

The urge to create is a powerful one. It can be so all-consuming that it overwhelms our senses.

At the same time, so few of us are born equipped to know where to begin with these feelings, how to convert that urge into positive, constructive energy. And if left untapped, we are prone to quell the noise, contain the chaos, if only to move forward with our lives in ways that we do understand, in ways socially acceptable.

I truly believe that all of us are born with this urge to create, and that it is as much the environment into which we are born and grow as it is our innate interests that determines what happens next.

For the many, the need to conform, the need to be good citizens, the need to normalize—often initiated by outside forces—leads them to confine those urges in a tightly packed container, left on a dark shelf deep in the lost recesses of their psyches.

For the few, however, those whose urges refuse to be contained, where the pressure to normalize is not so severe, creation is given voice, whether from the earliest days or later in life. Timid hesitant steps of interest give way to running vaults of passion, and creation floods ourselves and our worlds.

I am one of those lucky few; someone whose passions have been supported and nurtured from my earliest days. The hesitations and uncertainties of my past were largely self-imposed and have long since been removed and forgotten.

The need to create and to seek creation consumes and replenishes me. My world is one of possibility and opportunity; and if it is limited, it is only by my time here.

If I have been given the opportunity to act as nurturer and supporter to others—through teaching, social contacts, simple engagement with my universe—then I accept and welcome that function both enthusiastically and humbly. In the exercise, I receive as much and likely more than I could ever hope to give.

The urge to create is a powerful one. But it is nothing compared to the act of creation.

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Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

My thanks to Pexels for the free stock photos.

True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

One singular sensation

One

Well, that’s Draft Seven done. Talk about your long rows to hoe.

How long did you spend crafting and recrafting, conceiving and revising? Months? Years?

But you have it about as polished as you can make it, and in all likelihood, your brain hurts and you’re sick of the story.

Congratulations. You have achieved a wondrous thing. I mean that sincerely.

Now, take that radical writing, dazzling dialogue, cogent characterization, amazing action, and tell the exact same story in a single page.

No playing with page margins and point sizes. A single page that is easy and enjoyable to read.

It’s no easy task, under the best of conditions, but you should be able to do it. And if you can’t, it likely means that you don’t have a good handle on your story.

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Not just for producers

Even if you don’t have any meetings with producers or agents planned—in fact, BECAUSE you don’t yet have any meetings with producers or agents planned—you should develop a one-page synopsis of your work just to make sure you understand your story and that your story is solid.

The one-pager forces you to cut away all of the excesses that might disguise fundamental problems with your story and bring any such issues into the glaring light of day.

The one-pager forces you to understand how well you can concisely and clearly convey your thinking, and perhaps just as importantly, highlights how universal your idea is.

 

Not even one page

If you thought rewrites were a pain, you can only imagine how difficult these things are to write; at least for us mere mortals.

And to make matters worse, you don’t even have a full page to write your synopsis because of everything else that needs to be included.

  • Who are you and how does anyone get hold of you?
  • What is the name and nature of your project (i.e., title, genre, medium)?
  • Why are you the best person to tell this story (i.e., any special skills, knowledge, background)?
  • Logline or one/two-sentence synopsis of the story

And then a short handful of paragraphs that highlight:

  • Your protagonist & the world he/she inhabits
  • The goals and more importantly, what’s at stake
  • The main antagonisms/conflicts

And somehow you must do this in a manner that is interesting, engaging and entertaining, that reflects the mood and genre of the piece, and most importantly, reflects your voice and style.

TNL poster

As an example of a one-pager, I offer The Naughty List. I’m not saying it is a good one-pager, but it is one page and conveys my story (and me).

 

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Good luck.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

We could be heroes

A new day starts, and you rise from your bed. As you head to the shower, your mind drifts to the challenges your boss is having connecting with her 20-year-old son.

As your boss has focused on her career, both her son and husband have come to feel like second-class citizens, the younger adult acting out by joining a gang.

It’s not your place, but as you’ve known your boss for 15 years, you feel drawn into the family drama and spend your morning devising ways to intervene on her behalf while simultaneously coping with the poison-pill clause in the hostile takeover bid.

Hold it. Wait a second. No, you’re not.

Sure, if your boss is a friend and she’s struggling, you’d likely help. You have your own life, your family and your job, however, to worry about.

You don’t merely exist to serve your boss’s life.

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(Character likenesses are the property of DreamWorks Animation & are used here for teaching purposes only.)

Consider the movie Shrek, for a moment.

Among the characters, we have Shrek, Fiona, Farquad, Donkey, Dragon and Gingie.

Of those, who was the hero of that movie?

Given the movie’s title, it is pretty likely that the central protagonist of the story is Shrek. And given the way the narrative plays out, based on the scenes we watch, Shrek is indeed the hero of the movie.

But do the other characters see it that way?

Did Donkey wake up one morning with a mission to help an irascible ogre find acceptance not only within a community openly hostile to him, but also within himself through his sacrifice for another?

No, he had his own issues.

Did Fiona allow herself to be locked in a tower, guarded by a knight-immolating dragon, so that Shrek could see her example of isolation as a metaphor for his own, and in rescuing Fiona, he rescued himself?

Not so much. Girlfriend had her own agenda.

So, I ask again: Who was the hero of Shrek?

EVERYONE!

(At least from his or her own perspective.)

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Everyone saw the same events unfold, but everyone saw them differently.

Shrek followed his life course. Donkey followed his. Fiona hers. Farquad, Gingie, the Three Blind Mice, theirs.

And in seeking to fulfill their own wants and needs, they each experienced their own character arcs. They each suffered their own Hero’s Journey.

As a screenwriter—or more broadly, a storyteller—this understanding is vital to doing proper service to your characters. The secondary and maybe even tertiary characters cannot simply be treated as plot devices, or at least not if you hope to make them seem real.

As you introduce your characters to your story, give thought to what their journeys would look like. Consider what they hope to accomplish by spending time with your main protagonist or the other characters. See their various relationships through their eyes.

And then write them with that in mind.

When they react to a situation or another’s action, they must do so with their own interests at heart, at least as much if not more than their counterpart’s interests.

When one character acts, consider the consequences and stakes for each character, and then watch the dramatic tension rise.

Look for those moments when a character must choose between his or her agenda and the greater good, or those moments where another’s behaviour threatens his or her agenda. There lies conflict.

Hear the words a character speaks and consider if those words mean one thing to the larger story and a different thing to that character’s journey. This is the subtext—conscious or subconscious—that you seek.

You may not—likely won’t—accomplish this level of intricacy on your first draft. First drafts are about getting the central story line onto paper (or whatever medium you prefer).

It gives you several starting points, however, as you enter rewrites and search for ways to tighten and heighten your story.

And at the end of that process, you should be able to write a logline for each of the major characters’ perspectives.

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Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

IT happens (review)

IT-2017-PennywiseI have never read a Stephen King story and did not see the previous incarnation of the movie, so I saw IT: Chapter One with almost as open a mind as anyone can have. That said, I do not like horror in general and am easily startled, so I saw the film with some trepidation.

Fortunately, I did not need to worry as IT was a horror in genre only and had zero moments that startled. Rather, IT was a coming-of-age story better described as graphic young adult (YA) with all the attendant overwrought melodrama.

Without giving much away, the story revolves around the disappearance of a number of kids in small town Anywhere, U.S.A. With a growing group of friends, the brother of one of the missing kids look for clues to the disappearances, only to be haunted by a malevolent clown called Pennywise.

Although the evil clown is the titular IT, the movie is more about the bond that forms between the kids and the slow realization that they are stronger as a group than on their own.

Losers club

The demon-battling Loser’s Club make this more YA than horror

For me, this is where the movie could have been so much better, because the bigger evils in town were the day-to-day horrors these kids faced, forces as malevolent as Pennywise but insanely more powerful for all their normalcy. If anything, the clown was simply a metaphor.

To their credit, the child actors brought depth to the otherwise trope preteen outsiders—the skinny kid, the chubby kid, the African-American kid, the loner girl, the bespectacled smart-ass nerd, the Jewy kid and the whiner—and their connections felt real. It also helped that they had some really funny lines to take the piss out of each other.

It bullies

Clown horror weakened by everyday malevolence of kids’ lives

But this is where the film was more YA than horror. Rather than probe deeply into issues of bullying, sexual predation, grief management or drug-doping kids into docility, the film instead tapped into its inner Goonies, almost completely removing the horror.

A decently constructed film, performed well, the thing you need to fear the least is turning out the lights when you go to bed.

IT is just not that into you.

Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

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The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Cast of characters

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Discovering characters who aren’t THE HERO (thank you, Monty Python)

When you are developing a story, how do you construct your characters?

With the possible exception of the hero, it can be challenging to build characters that populate the universe you have created.

As the universe (and your concept) revolves around the hero, we often start with a very clear idea of what that character is up against and how he or she will respond. But in the myopia of storytelling, the other characters are often fuzzier.

In some cases, we do not know who these characters because we haven’t met them yet. We haven’t gotten to the part of the story in which they enter. They are nebulous possibilities.

Alternatively, until our hero has explored his or her world some and maybe faced a challenge or two, we don’t know what the hero requires in terms of an antagonist, a sidekick, a mentor, a love interest.

What if we create a character only to determine later that he, she or it is ill-suited for our hero?

Then you rewrite that character…or perhaps you don’t, and the character lives with its flaws within your story.

It would be supremely wonderful to have everything completely mapped out in your story before you uttered or typed the first word, but creativity simply doesn’t work that way.

Like life itself, stories evolve as our characters live them, and even the hero may undergo profound change from your first impressions when you formulated your concept.

To my mind, that is actually the exciting part of storytelling. I am just as surprised by what my characters do as my audience is…I just get to see them first.

So, when you are first developing your characters, take the pressure off yourself. You are not going to get it perfect, so don’t try.

Kang

Find your placeholder

Cast your mind’s eye

Cast your characters like a film or stage producer and director might cast their projects. Invite characters in to audition and then go with your gut until you know better.

When I wrote my animated screenplay Tank’s, I didn’t have a great handle on the antagonist of the story, so I stole The Lion King’s Scar (Jeremy Irons) until I did. Mentally seeing and hearing Scar whenever my antagonist appeared allowed me to keep writing without worrying about getting it right.

In a few comedy sketches I wrote, I would see and hear Mad TV’s Stephanie Weir (see YouTube clip below). In fact, I worked as though I was writing my sketch for Stephanie. Because I knew that wonderful comedian’s style, I immediately knew how my character would respond to a situation, what words she would use.

Four Kates

The four Kates

If I have a female role I am trying to fill, might I consider the four Kates?

Is the character a Kate Winslet; strongly independent but coming from a place of softness and wonder?

Is she a Kate Capshaw; the hapless victim, eternally floating with the current until pushed too far, who then comes out swinging?

Is she a Cate Blanchett; internal strength incarnate but with an intellectual prowess that cuts a foe down before anyone knows the fight is on?

Is she a Katherine Hepburn; fierce brawler one minute, playful kitten the next?

Choose any one of those four (sorry Katherine Heigl, but I don’t see me writing parts for you) and I never consciously have to consider that character again…the words, actions and reactions are obvious to me.

 

Isn’t that cheating?

No.

First, all story and character is based on what has come before it. What makes the story unique is the writer, then who ever works on it next (editor, director), and then the audience who takes it in.

When I use Scar, Stephanie Weir or Cate Blanchett as a placeholder and guide, I am interpreting those characters/people through my personal lens.

And ultimately, I am fitting those visions into the story I am developing, demanding different things of them than others have or might. It is simply a starting point.

My antagonist Kang is not Scar, although there are overlaps as there are with pretty much all Disney villains (not implying that Disney is interested in Tank’s…but I am accepting calls).

The point here is to remove or at least temper the roadblocks that stand between you and the completion of your story.

Remain open to the possibilities with your characters and I think you’ll find they will ultimately tell you who they are.

And who knows? Maybe your character will be so wonderful that the three living Kates will vie for the role.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about story and storytelling, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

 

Note: Until I assembled this piece with its images, I hadn’t noticed how monochrome my experiences were. I want to leave this post as is, but will give greater thought moving forward.