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.

Individual or traditional – Breaking the mould

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Blazing your own trail can be rewarding, but comes with risks. Photo by David Valuja via Pexels (bit.ly/davidvaluja)

If you read enough—screenplays, novels, articles, poetry—your mind can go numb to the sameness of storytelling, whether in subject, structure, narrative style or innumerable facets you no longer see.

As a storyteller, I dread the idea that my work falls into that category, and yet I know some of it does.

The urge, therefore, is to come up with ways to surprise the reader, to give their eyes, minds and souls something they have never experienced before.

We are creatives, so why should we not be creative?

How can I shake things up in my storytelling to dazzle the reader?

What if my characters all spoke in limericks? What if I wrote my action descriptions as music? What if I named my characters using the military alphabet (see M*A*S*H)?

Yeah, what if you did any of those things?

 

Novelty and expectation

The biggest challenge in going with your own style is that it absolutely has to work. There is no middle ground.

Out of the gate, you are going to piss off traditionalists: 1) they expect to read things in a certain way and don’t embrace change easily; and 2) they see your decision not as innovative, but rather as the act of a storyteller wrapped up in his or her ego.

Who are you to think of yourself as above the law?

(Very melodramatic, these traditionalists.)

Even with readers willing to go on a ride, however, you’re going to need to prove that your method is worth the effort, that it brings something to the storytelling experience that a more traditional approach does not or cannot.

In a recent Go Into The Story blog post, Scott Myers looks at how the writers of Wall-E used a very unconventional, almost poetic style for their scene descriptions. Offering examples from the screenplay, Myers shows how simplifying the descriptions allowed the writers to focus on what the heart felt rather than what the eye saw. In the process, they created a very fluid and impactful read.

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Descriptions more poetry than prose. (Wall-E, written by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon)

Up for the challenge?

So, should you rush back to your manuscript and do the same thing? Or do an equivalent that best suits your specific narrative?

The answer to those two questions is unfortunately two other questions.

Is there an appropriate equivalent? And can you pull it off?

Even if there is an alternative way to present your story, you may not yet be ready to effectively execute it.

Your writing skills may yet require some seasoning until you can effectively pull off non-traditional approaches to storytelling.

Alternatively, you may be approaching this challenge with the wrong (I hate to use that word) mindset; that you’re seeking novelty for the sake of novelty and not because it will enhance the power of your story.

That said, if you really want to try something new, if you really want to challenge yourself, then go for it.

 

Go for it

Nothing is permanent. Versions can be saved. You can always retell the story in a more traditional manner.

Even if it doesn’t work, you have improved your storytelling skills for the experience.

And ultimately, to counter my earlier point about others’ reactions, most of us tell stories because we have a passion for storytelling. The business of storytelling is secondary.

I welcome and encourage you to continue to explore that passion, both for your own happiness and because that is how you will create the truly remarkable.

 

To learn more about effective storytelling, as well as the power of story analysis and story coaching, visit:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

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Lead on, Macduff – Connecting characters

Something wicked

Many years ago, I struck upon the idea of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a solo performance, where each of the secondary characters were not real people but rather manifestations of the Thane’s own psyche. The entire story, as I envisioned it, was one long inner monologue by a very confused man, struggling to rationalize his beliefs with his desires.

King Duncan represented the old way of doing things; slow, methodical, political.

Macduff represented the idealized warrior; righteous, proud, skilled, noble.

Lady Macbeth represented unbridled ambition; envious, avaricious, clawing, unfettered.

Banquo represented compromise; willing, hopeful, forward-looking.

The Witches represented chaos; confusing, enigmatic, truthful.

Beyond conversation with addled classmates and my bemused English teacher, however, this concept never really became more than a memory that I recount today. (Shakespeare himself had been dead for a few years and could not be reached for comment.)

But the idea has stuck with me ever since, and I have come to see its merits as a tool or approach to characters in many works I have written in the intervening years.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?

Macbeth, V, iii, 40

So often, when reading stories written by others—I struggle to do this with my own work, to which I am too close—I find characters that seem to float into and out of the story. They enter, perform a function in the story, and then exit, leaving almost no impression. They are simply mechanisms to move the story forward.

Now, I am not talking about the nameless, faceless characters that populate the background of pretty much every story; the extras or day-laborers of the film industry. Even if they have an action or offer the odd line, I see those characters very much on par with props.

I’m talking about the somewhat larger characters who may be central to a scene, interacting regularly and with purpose with one or more of the main characters to raise a dramatic question, but seeming to be otherwise disconnected from the rest of the story.

I ask myself (and sometimes the storyteller):

If you eliminated this character from your story and gave his or her actions/functions to another character, would your story suffer?

If the answer is no, then the character should probably be eliminated.

But sometimes the answer is yes; exactly why, however, is not always clear.

This is where I go back to my Macbeth concept.

Much as the antagonist of any story is a reflection of the protagonist, I believe there are opportunities to solidify these more nebulous characters by asking what they represent to the protagonist.

Are they alter-egos to some aspect of the protagonist’s personality, needs or wants? And if not, can they be?

I am a firm believer that we invite into our lives people who serve a purpose, who help us rationalize our places in the universe, who either soften the blow of being stuck in a mire we hate or inspire us to become more than we are. We may never be conscious of what their purposes are, but we are somehow drawn to these people and they to us.

Understand your associates and you will understand yourself.

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Our lives are a web of connections, but are we the spider or the fly?

As gods of the stories we create, we have introduced specific characters into those stories for a reason, and I suspect it goes well beyond functional plot points. Rather, I feel it speaks to the nature of the protagonist or one of the other central characters.

At the very least, it is an avenue to explore when you find a character that just seems to float through your story, a character that could easily be eliminated, but for some reason, you want to keep.

Your starting point may be in figuring out what they represent to the protagonist. In the process, you may just develop a deeper understanding of your central character(s).

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To learn more about improving your story telling, as well as opportunities for story coaching and story analysis, visit:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

 

You suck (How awesome is that?)

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You suck. It’s true. No need to be embarrassed.

I suck, too; quite regularly, in fact. Possibly unlike you, however, I revel in that fact.

In almost any facet of life, when we are called upon to do something, many of us have concerns that we might not be up to the task, that we suck.

Depending on the task, the individual, the timing and innumerable other factors, this fear may give only the slightest pause or it may result in complete catatonia, leaving us bereft of the will to do anything let alone the requested task.

And I think this fear of suckage—yep, just made that word up—is perhaps the greatest in creatives as it is in creativity that we face our harshest critic: ourselves.

I have myself, and seen others, stare at a blank page, completely immobilized, incapable of the first squiggle that would start the creative process.

At best, we’re trying to consider every starting concept in our heads, lest our suckage be recorded for posterity and later ridicule. But just as often, it is blank-screen paralysis, our thoughts as immobile as our body.

I’m here to tell you that they are just negative manifestations of a positive experience.

In many ways, sucking is not only normal, it is also wonderful.

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When I teach screenwriting, I start every lecture with the same question:

“Who sucked this week?”

And at least until the students have adjusted to the question, mine is the first hand that goes up.

You cannot help but suck at something until you don’t, and the timeline of skill is different for every individual and every task.

But actually sucking—as opposed to the fear of sucking—means you are trying. You are making an effort to push through your personal suckage, and that is amazing and wonderful.

Even the fear of suckage is a good sign, if not a good feeling, because it is an indication of how important the assignment is to you. If it wasn’t important to you, you wouldn’t care if you sucked.

So suck. Jump in with both feet, ignoring as best you can that little voice that warns you of doom should you suck.

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Take the next step, and then the one after that

For one thing, even once you have developed great skill in a field or activity, you will still have occasion to suck.

With apologies to the magnificent screenwriter Terry Rossio, for every Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean, there is the odd Lone Ranger.

For every record-breaking season, Wayne Gretzky missed an open net on occasion.

No professional photographer keeps every shot she takes, nor painter every painting, nor songwriter every lyric or note.

You are going to suck.

The silver lining, however, is that the more you suck now, the less likely you are to suck later.

God knows I still do. And I’m very happy about that.

 

To learn more about effective storytelling and maybe gain insights from my years of suckage, visit:

So, What’s Your Story (web site)

So, What’s Your Story (Facebook)

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Working for free – Worth every penny

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At some point, if not several points, in their career, every writer is faced with a familiar dilemma.

Someone has a great idea for a story and is looking for the perfect writer to bring it to life. As with any job situation, you bring samples of your work, you highlight previous projects and you develop a rapport with the excited creatives across a boardroom table or in a coffee shop.

You see their vision for the story. You’ve added exciting elements off the top of your head. They clearly like the way you think. This is going brilliantly.

And then you get to the crux of the matter: compensation.

“Well, you see…” the creatives start inauspiciously. “We’re still lining up financing, but once we sell the story or the final project, then we all reap the benefits. Besides, this is a passion project.”

Ummm…the word “dollars” never appeared once in that monologue.

“If it helps, we’re not making any money out of this either.”

They seem sincere. This doesn’t feel like a scam. So, do you take the gig (or non-gig, as it were)?

It really depends to some extent on who is sitting across the table from you.

Martin Scorsese. George Clooney. Kathryn Bigelow. Ed Catmull. Alison Brie.

Yeah, maybe you take a flyer with them. Although, I would be suspicious as to why any of these people were experiencing financing delays.

More likely, you’re meeting with lesser known, less accomplished filmmakers who simply don’t have the contact lists of the big names and for whom financing is as much about family and friends as it is about Hollywood’s biggest backers.

Doesn’t make them bad people, although I would hope you had Googled them before the meeting to see what you could learn about them. But they are putting a lot of the risk onto you as the writer, risk that could leave you penniless after a lot of hard work.

Truthfully, if they haven’t got the financing in place already, then they have no business asking someone to develop a story for a promissory note or I.O.U.

Gigs for free

You’ll hear/read phrases like:

Future compensation: Fine if the money ever arrives. But the brutal reality is that if the project is even completed, almost none of these small projects ever makes enough money to cover costs…and you are one of those costs.

Great exposure: You had to Google these guys, so how much exposure do you expect to receive? And the only exposure you are guaranteed is as someone who will work for free.

Passion project: If the passion (or idea) isn’t yours, then that is pretty meaningless.

And as I realized first hand a couple of years ago, working for free can really complicate ownership of intellectual property.

I wrote a short screenplay based roughly on an idea shared by two young filmmakers, a story that to the best of my knowledge was never made. My bad: we had no written agreement. I have no idea if the screenplay is mine or if they would have a legal case to come after me should I place it into competition or try to make it myself.

Fortunately, it was a short, so I only lost days rather than months or years. But I still lost days that could have been spent earning money.

At best, you should really only work for free for your own projects—particularly germane to writer-directors, writer-actors, and the dreaded triple threat writer-director-actor—but I’m not even sure that this is a good idea.

Unless you’re still in college, you should really have your financial ducks in a row if you ever hope to be taken seriously.

At the very least, payment for services rendered can be bartered, if cash is an issue.

You’re a filmmaker with an idea in search of a writer? Well, I’m a writer with an idea in search of a filmmaker. Let’s barter services.

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Is your Art valued or seen as a commodity?

I know it is flattering when someone is so enthused by your storytelling capabilities that they want you to bring their vision to life.

Truthfully, though, it is only flattering when they value the skills you bring to the table, and that value deserves compensation in some tangible form.

Try convincing your landlord, the electric or cable companies, or the grocery store to accept “future compensation” or “invaluable exposure”.

 

Know your value. Be familiar with the regularly updated Writers Guild rate sheets:

Writers Guild of Canada

Writers Guild of America – West

 

Learn more about effective storytelling and the benefits of story analysis and story coaching at:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

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Why story coaching?

Coaching

No matter where you are in your writing career, your work can almost always be helped by feedback from fresh eyes that do not have a vested interest in the work itself.

Story analysis can help you see challenges in your story that might be invisible to you, whether through inherent biases or because you see the story clearer in your head than it has been recorded on the page.

Story analysis can also help you see opportunities in your work that you overlooked, if only because you are too close to it. Your priority for that early draft, in all likelihood, was simply to get things out of your head and onto the page, and we all walk with the fear of wandering down so many blind alleys that we never come out of the other end, wherever that end may be.

 

So fine, story analysis is helpful. But what the hell is story coaching?

Almost by definition, story analysis happens AFTER you have completed a draft (or several). It comes AFTER you have wandered the desert of creative confusion. It comes AFTER you have bled your creative juices onto the page and have become smitten with your creation.

And in some very unfortunate cases, it never comes at all, because the storyteller never completed the project, whether due to fear of failure, a sense of being intractably lost, or simply because Life intervened to distract from the task at hand.

This is where story coaching can help.

Story coaching is about a work-in-progress, whether a screenplay, a novel, the writer him or herself…whatever the storyteller needs most.

Hurdles

As with life coaching, business coaching or athletics coaching, story coaching is about providing guidance to the storyteller on a regular basis, whether simply as a second set of eyes to critique the work or as a mentor who uses the work-in-progress as a framework within which to help the storyteller develop as an artist.

Story coaching is also about commitment and accountability for the storyteller.

By hiring a story coach, the writer has made his or her creative art a priority in life. Why else spend the money?

And working with the storyteller, the story coach establishes expectations and deliverables, whether that is new story ideas, number of newly written pages, rewrites. These are the foundations of creative habits that can be difficult to develop and entrench in solitude because the creative process is so personal and fraught with self-doubt and self-recrimination.

 

But I can get this from a writing course or a writers’ group.

Yes, this is true…to an extent.

Writing classes can be invaluable, depending on the composition of your classmates and the skill of your instructor.

With a roomful of students, however, it can be difficult for the instructor to provide truly focused guidance to an individual student. More typically, the student is presented with a spectrum of general direction, all of which can be valuable but only some of which may be germane to a given work-in-progress.

Writers’ groups can also be a wonderful resource, again depending on the composition of the group. That composition and the individual writer’s position within the skill hierarchy, however, are critical.

Most writers’ groups are comprised of peers with relatively equal experience, and so may not be able to provide the more advanced analysis and mentorship that an individual wants or needs. And if an individual is the most advanced or skilled within a given writers’ group, he or she may find little opportunity for improvement.

[NOTE: I firmly believe that you will always find something in the feedback of any group of readers. The question is more whether it is worth the effort you put into the group.]

Sports

Although it is not impossible, you are very unlikely to ever become a professional football or hockey player by spending any amount of time playing flag football or pond hockey with friends. Why would we expect storytelling to be any different?

 

How do I know a story coach is right for me?

You don’t. Well, you don’t until you start a conversation with him or her.

 

Oh, hey! Is the story coach going to try to tell me what stories to tell?

Absolutely not.

The story coach is here to understand what story you want to tell or help you understand it better yourself, and then help you tell it in the most effective manner.

You are the Creator. The story coach is not.

 

If you want to learn more about Story Coaching, feel free to reach out to me (no obligation) at:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

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