Live life, then write

ZoologyFew, if any, writers have practiced the craft of storytelling their entire lives.

Sure, almost all of us have written since we first learned how, but few saw this expression as anything more than personal amusement or a passing phase. And when we completed our last essay in high school or college, most put the quill aside for more socially acceptable vocations.

In my case, it was a life in Science, getting first a degree in zoology and then a degree in molecular biology. Others went to law school or into medicine. Yet others worked a production line or took up a trade.

In any event, we all largely dismissed writing from our lives or at best, saw it as a hobby on par with doodling.

And yet, despite putting our pens away and mothballing our creative tendencies, these years were not lost. Quite to the contrary, these years have been invaluable to making you the writer and storyteller that you are today.

Friends will sometimes ask me to speak to their adolescent and college-aged children who have expressed an interest in writing. They want their offspring to understand both the opportunities and challenges of the lives they desire. And I am happy to oblige.

Where the kids are willing to share with me, I listen to their interests and goals, offering insights where I can. But in almost every conversation, my ultimate piece of advice is the same.

Live a life and experience your world.

This is not to say you should give up on your writing, even for a brief period. Dear god, no.

Write. Write. And keep writing.

My point is more that your writing will be so much deeper, richer and more meaningful when you have life experience under your belt. Your greatest asset as a writer is the time you’ve spent interacting with your world, even when only as an observer.

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You write the people you know, the lives you’ve led

Life exposes you to the amazing diversity of people and perspectives that populate this planet.

Life teaches you about human interaction, in terms of both relationships and conflict.

Life unveils the subtleties and nuances in communication, and the insane power of silence and subtext.

Life is how you instinctively know what to write next. How your character will respond to an event or statement. Why your stories will resonate with others who have similarly lived lives.

And because my life has been different from yours—at least in the minutiae—we will write different takes on a story even when given the exact same starting material.

As you can imagine, the advice is not always welcomed. Life can feel like a delay to the gratification of self-expression.

And yet, not only is it not a delay, a life lived is the embodiment of the self in self-expression.

Your life lived is your truth, and good storytelling (even fictional) is about truth.

 

To improve your storytelling skills, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Bizarre faces

Without a strong understanding of self, there is only empty expression

Leading our own cheers

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Intelligent, articulate women who also danced for the Marlies Dance Crew

This past weekend brought the start to another season of my beloved Toronto Marlies. And as is the case with every new season, we were met by many familiar faces and a lot of new ones, both on and off the ice.

What we were not met with this season, however, is the Marlies Dance Crew, the small group of women who entertain during stoppages in play. And I find myself oddly torn over this.

On the one hand, I have never been comfortable with the Dance Crew as a concept, and cheerleading squads for pro sports teams in general (I see high school and college squads in a different light).

In the absence of male squad members, the Dance Crew simply seemed like a salacious attempt to get a rise out of parts of the crowd…and based on comments I would hear around me, it worked.

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Torn between dance as art and cheerleading as objectifying women

By the same token, over the seasons, I have actually come to know many of the Dance Crew members, finding them charming, articulate women who enjoy the art of dance. They are friends and part of the Marlies family, with whom I try to maintain contact via social media even after they have moved on to other things.

Cheerleaders in hockey is an odd thing, and I appreciate that it would be impossible—given the concrete floors and metal railings—to perform truly acrobatic stunts that you might see at college events. This may be why the whole Dance Crew concept never sat right with me, because in the absence of that artistic/athletic angle, it felt like the women were reduced to eye-candy.

Thus, while I will miss getting to know new family members, I am not terribly heartbroken over the Dance Crew’s absence this season.

And to the members who have moved on, I wish you all every success and hope you visit the Ricoh Coliseum on occasion, so we can say hi.

Family and friends

Family and friends

Race in writing

One race, many peoples (from mediadiversified.org)

One race, many peoples (from mediadiversified.org)

I’ve spent a few months now reading dozens of teleplays, and one thing that stood out as a new trend for me was the phrase “mixed-race” when describing a character.

“Attracted to the noise, JOANNE (27, tall, mixed-race) looks up from her laptop. A smile blossoms across her face.”

Now, lest anyone take offence, I really don’t care to what race a character is attributed. Nor do I care if the character has parentage of different races or even different species (looking at you, Spock).

Instead, what struck me was that in only one of these teleplays did the fact that the character was mixed-race in any way influence the story and/or the character’s worldview. Which begs the question:

Why mention race at all?

In a screen- or teleplay, you should only be telling me things I need to know to understand the story or interpret a character’s behaviours and attitudes. Unless being 7 feet tall means a character can do something no one else can do and the plot in some way turns on that ability, then I don’t need to know the character is 7 feet tall.

Likewise, if a character is a Korean-Italian and the only thing this fact influences is possibly his or her name, who cares? Where are the subtextual or textual influences of this genetic melange?

Spock was every bit his warring human and vulcan sides

Spock was every bit his warring human and vulcan sides

In the case of Spock, entire stories were built around the internal and sometimes external conflicts arising from his mixed heritage. He fought constantly to suppress his human side and that influenced his relationships and reactions with everyone else.

In the single teleplay I read where the character’s mixed lineage did matter, the character struggled with being treated as an outsider by both communities. Thus, in being ostracized by both cultures, she built the defence of being a rebellious loner and responded to her world thusly.

American father, Chinese mother, Kwai Chang Caine lived conflicting cultures

American father, Chinese mother, Kwai Chang Caine lived conflicting cultures

In none of the other teleplays was anything like this even remotely the case. In none of those scenarios, did the writer use the choice to inform the character. In fact, in almost every mixed-race teleplay, the writer never specified what races had been mixed.

That’s how unimportant this fact was to these writers. And there’s the real shame.

Although I don’t know what the writers intended by making their characters mixed race, I suspect it was simply to make themselves look socially conscious.

What they achieved, at least in my eyes, was the exact opposite.

Losing two hours to “The Book Thief” – a review

BookThief

I just finished watching The Book Thief and I must admit that I am quite conflicted.

Released in 2013 with an amazing cast including Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and the mesmerizing Sophie Nélisse in the title role, The Book Thief tells the story of a young German girl adopted by aging parents in the months leading up to World War II.

Through Liesel’s eyes, we watch fascism take hold of Germany while good people try to lead simple lives. We watch her struggle to comprehend anti-Semitism through conversations with a young Jewish man her parents are hiding and at the same time, find her own gift for words through her exploration of books. We see the beauty of love and the pain of uncertainty.

All in all, the film was beautiful and heartfelt. And yet, in the end, I feel like I have witnessed a life, not heard a story.

Liesel floats through the world that moves around her. In only the rarest of instances does she actually drive the story forward. Instead, people and the fates make decisions for her at every turn. She is not the protagonist or hero of the story; rather, she is the victim of events.

Adding to my challenge is that, despite its setting in WWII Germany, there is no real conflict in the story. The ideological conflict amounts to Hitler bad, everyone else good. And even here, it’s discussed within isolated groups. There is no—or very little—confrontation between the two camps.

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As our hero, Liesel has no goal and therefore nothing stands in her way. She has no need to make a plan and therefore nothing truly thwarts her.

And perhaps because of this—at least spinning out of this—there are never (NEVER) any repercussions of her actions or those around her despite the number of times the screenwriter (Michael Petroni adapting a novel by Markus Zusak) or director (Brian Percival) have set them up.

(SPOILER EXAMPLES)

When the vicious little Brownshirt Franz threatens to expose Liesel and her little friend Rudy for keeping secrets, nothing happens. When Liesel’s friendship with the Burgermeister’s wife causes Liesel’s mother to lose her valuable laundry contract, there are no repercussions. Even her spilling the beans about a Jew hiding in the basement has no impact on the story.

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As we would describe in screenwriting lingo, there were no turning points where the hero has to make a decision, and there was no crisis and therefore no climax to the story.

Thus, my conflict with the movie.

A visually interesting film, acted beautifully, and yet I was unable to invest in the story at all because I never felt anything was in doubt. Where there were the odd surprises, they were telegraphed by the narrator, who popped up so haphazardly, I could never figure out why he was even in the story. And the choice of who narrates is also very odd.

And then, one after another, the loops of the bow-tie formed as the story came to a close, everything being explained away to leave the final screen moments devoid of meaning or feeling.

Sad, really. There was so much to like about this movie.

Just tell the story – Austin Film Festival

Ron Nyswaner

Perhaps the most interesting advice I heard while attending the 2013 Austin Film Festival came from the Just Tell the Story session by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who suggested that not all stories are movie-worthy. It’s not that such stories are unimportant or not worth telling, but rather that film is a very specific medium—as are novels, videos, television, etc.—and therefore requires specific criteria be met for appeal.

1. Do you have a worthy protagonist? It is important that the audience understands the protagonist’s struggle, that the character is constantly dealing with questions of life, loss, yearning. There should be clearly understood interior and exterior conflict.

2. Does you protagonist have face worthy obstacles or a worthy antagonist? The antagonist should represent the opposing view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the antipode to your protagonist’s views. Overall and within individual scenes, there should always be a sense of ideas in conflict. Nyswaner stressed the importance of the hope-dread axis—What do you hope is going to happen and what do you dread is going to happen in a scene—suggesting that the stronger the axis, the more tension you build in your story.

3. How strong is the central relationship? Sydney Pollack suggested that every story is a love story, and Nyswaner followed on that, suggesting that the relationships between your characters, and particularly the protagonist and antagonist, is what drives the story forward. The stronger that relationship (positively or negatively), the stronger the story. He also discussed the idea of triangulation; the effect of adding a third party into a scene to increase the tension or stakes.

4. Where am I (the writer) in the story? Who am I? All good art is personal, Nyswaner said, so the writer should look for his or her emotional connection with the story. By making the story personal to you, you develop a deeper story.

5. Take your audience into a world that’s interesting. If the audience cannot connect with the environment that you’ve created, they will find it difficult to get into your story. This doesn’t mean that the environment has to be familiar so much as understandable and relatable.

6. Do you have enough turning points to carry through a feature? A good film story is constantly changing direction, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. Without sufficient turning points, audience members disconnect from the story or worse, get bored. Attitudes and powerbases should shift throughout the story to keep the audience guessing.

7. Does the audience love the story and its characters? Nyswaner suggests writers must be ruthless, paraphrasing a quote (trying to remember by whom) that a writer is a person who will betray the people he loves to impress people he will never meet. The key for a writer is to give everything to the story he or she is trying to tell, even at the cost of real-world expectations and relationships. This is not to say that success comes from being the biggest asshole, but rather that it is important to keep the focus of a film on the story and its characters to the detriment of other external factors (as best as possible).

 

Ron Nyswaner is perhaps best known for having penned the movie Philadelphia, but has also worked on television (Ray Donovan) and in print, and teaches film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

What more did you need?

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There is an allegory that was better told by Karl Malden on The West Wing, but it goes something along the lines of:

There was a man who lived by a river, and one day, he heard a weather report that said the river was going to flood and that everyone should move to higher ground. A devout man, he said, “God will protect me. I do not have to leave my home.”

The rains started and a policeman came knocking on the man’s door, telling him he had to evacuate. The man smiled and said, “The Lord will protect me. I’ll be okay.”

The river flooded and the man was stranded on his roof, when a rescuer in a boat rowed by, telling him to get into the boat. The man shook his head and said “I have prayed and God will protect me.”

Eventually, the river swept the house away and the man drowned, and when he got to heaven, he stood confused before God and asked, “Lord, you let me drown. I am a good man, why did you not protect me?”

And God looked down and replied, “I sent you a weather report, a police officer and a rescuer in a boat. What more did you need?”

 

I recount this story because I have a colleague who is going through similar stages with her screenplay.

After months of feedback from writing groups and instructors that suggested several issues with her screenplay, the most prominent being the passivity of her protagonist and complete lack of conflict in her story, my colleague stood fast by her story. She defended her choices vigorously and left us in no doubt that she was going down the right road.

As it is her story, that is her right, and so many of us stopped discussing these issues with her.

More recently, she’s had the opportunity to send her screenplay to a film producer she knows, who was more than happy to give my colleague her thoughts. A few days later, she shared the feedback with us and smack in the middle was several issues related to the behaviour and actions of the protagonist. My colleague was unimpressed and vaulted upon her Steed of Rationalization, charging into the night.

A week or so later, my colleague received feedback from a film director and again, was smacked with a lack of central conflict and a passive protagonist. And again, this elicited response of being misunderstood and dismissive anger.

And the screenwriting gods looked down and replied, “I sent you a screenwriters group, a film producer and a film director. What more did you need?”

 

We all want people to agree with our views, particularly when it comes to something as personal as our art. Agreement validates us as individuals and confirms that our art has merit in the world beyond.

But in the search for that agreement, we must be prepared for disagreement. And while it is always our prerogative to ignore contrary opinions, we lose the right to complain when the contrary feedback is consistent and still we choose ignore it (or worse, rail against it).

I don’t believe that anyone has to accept external feedback; positive or negative. But if you want your art to be more than mental masturbation, you should be prepared to listen to all input and incorporate what makes sense to improve your art.

Otherwise, shut up and let the rest of us evacuate the flood plain.