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.

charACTer

Anyone writing stories NEEDS to read the blog post by Chuck Wendig listed below!

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/06/03/just-what-the-humping-heck-is-character-agency-anyway/

Wendig blog

Seriously. Please read this!

His pivotal point: “The story exists because of the character. The character does not exist because of the story.”

Too often, I read screenplays where the protagonist is merely swept along like a bobbing cork on a sea of conflict. They merely REACT to the injustice around them rather than ACT to change it. They are the victim of the story.

To my mind, a much more interesting character is one who takes action when presented with conflict and then deals with the repercussions of that action. In some stories (the best ones to my mind), the protagonist is his or her own worst enemy, bringing conflict upon him or herself.

It is not enough to chase your hero up a tree and then throw rocks at him. He can also catch some of the rocks and throw them back, perhaps hitting innocent bystanders who then turn on him as well.

As a reader and viewer, it is through the actions of your characters that we learn their perspectives, their world views, and thus, their flaws. And if your story has a redemptive angle, it is through the complete failure of this world view and the character’s re-evaluation of it that he or she is reborn.

Just like giving the same premise to 12 writers results in 12 different stories, placing any of 12 different characters into the identical situation with identical opponents will result in 12 different outcomes if the characters are real.

Honour that in your writing and honour your characters.

They are called char-ACT-ers, after all, not char-REACT-ers.

 

Wendig is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChuckWendig

Many levels of review – Part Two

Whenever someone asks me to review their writing, I try to be thorough and look at it from many levels. Yesterday, we looked at how I approach writing from the 30,000- and 5,000-foot levels. Below, we dig deeper.

1000_foot_view

The view from 1,000 feet: Now that I’ve identified the major structural and thematic issues and determined there is a reason to keep reading, I go back to the beginning and really start to peel things apart.

If I have a thing for character—and I do—I might follow an individual character through the story to see if I can reverse engineer the writer’s profile of that character. I am making this sound much more formal than it really is. Basically, what do I know about the character and are his or her actions and reactions consistent with that knowledge given: (a) where that character is now in the story; and (b) where he or she is trying to get or accomplish?

From the plot perspective, I begin to look at individual scenes and ask if the interplay between characters makes sense for their relationship and respective goals within the scene. For that matter, does each character in a scene have a clear goal?

How have the characters within the scene changed from one end of it to the other? Did one start with the upper hand and that power shift somewhere through the scene to the other character? This last point is not a necessity, but is merely one way a scene can experience reversal.

Likewise, is the scene clear with one predominant purpose or has the writer tried to accomplish too much too quickly, muddying the scene and leaving the reader uncertain as to what refers to what?

At a slightly broader level, how do the scenes play against each other? Are there smooth or logical segues from one scene to another, and if not, does the hard plot swing work? Does the scene in question set up a future one or pay off a previous one, and has it done this job effectively?

200_foot_view

The view from 200 feet: Now I really start to get into the weeds, looking at paragraphs and individual lines. From the narrative perspective, does the reader have all the information he or she needs to make sense of the story? Does the scenery or environment serve almost as another character at this point, representing a source of conflict or support for your characters? Again, this last point isn’t necessary, but can be quite effective such as in movies like The Perfect Storm.

Alternatively, has the writer massively over-written the narrative, demonstrating his or her superhuman vocabulary and/or visual imagination at the expense of the story and poor befuddled reader? As a personal aside, this is my greatest sin as a writer…but then you probably already knew that. Can I recommend any broad strokes edits (not copy edits) to help reduce the clutter and maintain the flow for the reader?

If it’s a screenplay, does the writer interrupt the reader too often with small directorial nods to the actors? For example, during a particularly heated scene of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist, is the writer constantly reminding the actors to furrow their brows or shrug? I try to determine whether these narrative directions are absolutely necessary to get the idea of the scene across.

The problem here is that the regular intrusion of direction takes the reader out of the moment, disrupting the story and the emotional power of the characters. The senses, if only at the mental level, are forced to trip back and forth between things like subtle movements and emotive energy. Thus, in even the most action- or tension-packed scenes, too much narrative can sap the energy of the scene such that the read becomes plodding. By removing these superfluous lines, the reading speeds up and the energy of the scene is renewed.

This brings us to dialogue, which is easily my greatest challenge in screenwriting. I think novel writing gives you a bit more leeway with dialogue but I am less familiar with the medium from a writing perspective.

When I review dialogue, I try to sense how natural the dialogue feels…perhaps even reading it aloud, if I am not certain. Are these sentences that real characters would say and are the lines apt for the character who is saying them? From what I have surmised about the character, would he or she use those particular words in that way or to that purpose? Is the character saying exactly what he or she is thinking (on-the-nose) or is there some sense of subtext, whether known to the character or not?

Similarly, is the dialogue as tight as it could be, saying only what needs to be said and in the best way? Now, please note, I did not say or mean to imply in the shortest way, with the fewest words. People rarely keep their sentences to a minimum, but rather when caught up in the heat of the moment, tend to spew a bit more than necessary. There is a cadence to an individual’s speech patterns, so each of the characters should have their own cadences.

In a conversation between two or more characters, is the subject and banter clear or am I left with some uncertainty about what line corresponds as a response to what previous line or thought. To map it out somewhat mathematically, it might read something like A then A’, B then B’, C then C’, etc., rather than ABC then A’, D then B’C’, etc., where each of the letters and its prime counterpart represent a thought and its response or reaction. By the same token, however, I have to be alert and sensitive to cases where it is perfectly natural for that character to blurt out a series of thoughts and the resulting confusion may be consistent with the plot.

splashdown

Splashdown: Only once all of that has been settled, do I get to the cosmetic aspects of story review. This is where I might recommend copy edits and what have you to ensure the screenplay or novel is clean. This can include looking for stylistic inconsistencies (e.g., capitalization) or spelling errors. Personally, this part bores the hell out of me and I know that for every error or inconsistency I find, I have missed two or three others. As a courtesy, however, I will point out those that I do find and hope someone else catches the rest.

I find that by the time we reach splashdown, writers either love me or hate me…and I am okay with that. Although I prefer the former, I understand the latter and don’t take it personally. Putting your work out there for critique and possible criticism is difficult and not just a little nerve wracking. I applaud anyone who does that almost as hard as I applaud them for having written in the first place.

I just hope that, at the end of the day, I have helped the writer improve his or her work.

(Images are the property of their owners and are used here without permission because it’s more impactful.)

Many levels of review – Part One

puzzle

Every time I read something, I find something I never found before. Thus, when someone has built up the nerve to ask me to read something he or she has written, I try to read it in several waves, each one moving deeper and deeper into the details of the subject or story.

30000_foot_view

The view at 30,000 feet: Particularly if it is a complex narrative, such as a novel or screenplay, I try to make my first read an uncritical one. This may sound counterintuitive to the requested task, but until I’ve read something from front to back, I don’t feel as if I have sufficient information to be critical.

A thought or comment made at first read may be rendered moot or significantly larger one, ten, fifty or a hundred pages later. I need context to see what the writer is trying to accomplish before I know what is working or what isn’t.

If possible, I will remove all writing implements from my pockets and move somewhere completely isolated so that I can give the piece my full attention. If I become immersed in the work, absorbed by the story and characters, then I know less work is needed, and I can drill to the deepest, most detailed level of comment quickly.

If, however, I find myself drifting from the story, or worse, struggling to move from page to page or scene to scene, then I know there are larger structural or thematic issues at play. Things that potentially make detailed feedback moot upon rewrite.

If you can’t resist using a pen at this stage, try just adding an asterisk next to the line of interest for a quick reminder later. Attention to details breeds attention to details, and you’re apt to miss the bigger picture.

5000_foot_view

The view from 5,000 feet: In the second read, I try to focus my attentions on the larger structural and thematic questions that arose in the first read. By being familiar with the story and knowing who is whom, I am less likely to need to flip backward through the pages to remind myself how I got here.

More importantly, I know where the writer is trying to go with the plot and characters, which should make it easier to identify bumps or inconsistencies along the way.

These moments typically take the form of a quick shuffling of pages to see if I’ve missed something or if two pages have stuck together. In my head, if not aloud, I find myself using phrases like “Wait. What…?” and “Hold it. I thought…”

If I did my first read well, I may remember struggling at this point in the story, and if it’s big enough, having to force myself to move on. Alternatively, I didn’t bump the first time through but now that I know the full story, this scene or moment has become a problem. What made perfect sense an hour or two ago has now become confusing. Regardless, it is a moment that has to be recognized, understood and adjusted.

Most writers in my experience have the greatest problem with notes at this stage because it often cuts to the core of their story and changes her can have a significant impact on the direction of the story. In some cases, this is where the writer might find out the story doesn’t work and needs a complete overhaul.

New writers, in particular, may either completely refute the notes to avoid being so fundamentally “off base” or simply give up the piece because they feel incapable of sacrificing all that hard work, ironically enough, and trying to rescue what was working.

At this stage, I’m asking pretty broad questions. Do I understand why this story is happening (why today)? Do I clearly see who is playing what role in the narrative (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, etc) and how they interrelate?

Can I recognize the plot and subplots, and do they make sense? How do they relate and am I seeing a coherent theme? Is there any conflict in the story and does it rise in scale or intensity as the story moves forward?

Part Two: In the next section, we will continue our journey into the depths of how I review stories with complex narratives, rapidly approaching ground level.

(The images are the property of their respective owners and are used here without permission because they’re beneath me.)

Do you see what I see?

How can you NOT want to describe this place?

How can you NOT want to describe this place?

Now that I have worked on several screenplays, which I have shared with a number of friends and fellow writers, I have come to a conclusion: I am a novelist.

Fret not, fellow travellers. I say this not to suggest I will cease to write screenplays but more in recognition of an inherent weakness in my screenplays, or perhaps more accurately, in myself. I am addicted to narrative.

The problem is I instinctively write what I see, even when I only see it with my mind’s eye. If I were a painter, I would own brushes that only had one or two hairs. The concept of a paint roller would be anathema.

Nothing in a scene is unimportant to me. I see people, things, phenomena in terms of metaphor, although I do my best to avoid poetry.

I cannot simply write: The boat bobbed wildly on the waves. (Even writing that line now was taxing to me.)

Instead, I’m inclined to write: The battle-weary skiff, a patchwork of wood and fibreglass, tossed helplessly on the ocean swells, each wave of its own purpose, refusing to work together toward anything resembling a current.

The former is what is happening. The latter is how I envision it. To me, everything is a character in a story—an antagonist, an ally, a victim—and as such has its own story arc, however small.

I also want to make sure that my reader “sees” the movie I would like to make—the challenge of a pictorial and aural medium presented literally. I want the reader to “feel” the scene before the first word of dialogue is spoken, both to establish the mood of the scene and give a sense of how the line is said.

Unfortunately, in my zeal to be informative, I instead become onerous or tedious. My screenplay becomes a challenge to read as long tracts of narrative slow the story to a crawl. Instead of making it easier to read my manuscript, I’ve made it more challenging and less desirable.

I was once accused of writing a travelogue of Northern Italy in a screenplay. Oh, what I had written was beautiful and made some people dream of travelling to the region—Lago Maggiore—but 90% of what I had written was completely unnecessary to the telling of the story.

So, what to do?

As of this moment, my writing process is my writing process, and I believe that any attempt to significantly change it would simply increase my challenges in writing at all. No, better to have written a first draft badly than to have never written.

Instead, I have chosen to rely on this little miracle I have discovered. They call it Draft Two. This will be my chance to go through my screenplay with a harsh eraser, and remove all of the lines or description that is not absolutely necessary to tell my story or to explain a character’s behaviour.

Sure, this may necessitate some rewriting of dialogue so that I don’t end up with mile-long verbal tracts. But in all likelihood, these speeches were too long and in desperate need of shortening.

One step at a time, though, for today, I continue to write Draft One of my screen-novel.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, but plenty of description if you read my screenplay.)

Adapt or die

Image

Recently, I’ve read a couple of screenplays based on novels, and with this albeit low number of examples, let me start by saying thank goodness I have yet to find a book I wish to adapt for screen. The process, it would seem, is tedious and fraught with perils.

Odds are, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, you’ve chosen to adapt a specific book because you love it.

You love the way it is written. You love the story it tells. You love the characters. You may even love the paper on which it’s printed or its cover art.

Congratulations. You’re doomed.

I say this not to be mean but to point out that the book was written as a book for very specific reasons. The format and structure of a novel is incredibly different from that of a film.

At its simplest, you have the space in a novel to indulge yourself in narrative and character introspection. More simply put, you can describe a setting or reaction in such detail that if linearly translated to a screenplay, it would result in ten minutes of film focused exclusively on waves rolling across a beach or on the angle of an eyebrow raised over the left eye of your heroine.

Even simpler, novels are verbal, ironically, while films are visual.

And unless you’re planning on running a voice over throughout your movie—please say no—I have no idea what your characters are thinking. I can try to guess from their facial expressions, but it is a guess and will have as much to do with how easy it was to find a parking place in the megaplex as it does with the actor’s talent.

The novel could afford to be 500 or 1000 pages. Your screenplay can’t.

I love Kenneth Branagh. I love Shakespeare. Branagh did a very linear interpretation of Hamlet for film. I was bored. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet? Held my attention and was entertaining. [Compare the two “alas, poor Yorick” scenes linked here.]

The difference? A very sharp editorial knife.

So, I am going to ask you to take the thing you love and hack it. Cut it with broad strokes and wild abandon. This is no place for finesse.

This isn’t about trimming paragraphs. It is about slashing subplots or entire chapters. It is about burning away all of the decorative niceties until you reach the essence that turns your crank.

Be cruel. Be ruthless. Be honest.

Take that Sistine Chapel and reduce it to the handful of bricks that make you sweaty; that keep you coming back time after time.

It will feel like murder. In some ways, it is. But it’s murder for the greater good, because once you’ve hit that core, you can begin to rebuild. You can start to rescue some of the elements you set aside earlier or add new ones that are truly unique to your vision.

What is that core? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

Maybe it was the setting. Perhaps it was the relationship between two characters.

Whatever it is, find it and make that your story. That is what you love. That is why you keep coming back for more.

Honour that and you’ll have a screenplay worth turning into a movie.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission. I’m adaptable that way.)

Dialogue v Narrative

Image

Yesterday, my friend Marsha posted a short piece on her blog—Why the Face (WTF)—where she discussed her challenges in writing narrative/action for a scene and how she found scene writing to be so much easier if she started the dialogue.

“On its own, free of formatting and figuring out what characters are doing physically,” she wrote, “it lets me really get into what these people are actually saying to each other.”

When I read this, I thought, what a fascinating approach as mine is the complete opposite.

When I start a scene, I can go on ad nauseum about the setting and what the characters are doing or how they are behaving, but I find actually expressing the characters in dialogue to be daunting. When I do start writing dialogue, I find that I am writing exactly what my characters are thinking (on-the-nose) or that their emotions and motivations are incredibly superficial.

When I describe a character’s behaviour, however, his or her emotions surface more slowly through unconscious tics. The tensions that I intone in my mind’s eye then inform the word choice when I start to write his or her dialogue. It is as though I have to psych myself into the character’s body before I can express his or her desires and impulses to the fullest.

What makes this ironic is that while discussing this with Leela, another friend, she reminded me of the days when I first started writing sketch comedy, and all I could seem to manage were a series of “talking-head” sketches. At that time, action was unimportant to me as I felt the only way to bring my point across was through words.

On paper, my sketches could be very engaging, whereas on stage, they were significantly less so. Thus, I needed to learn the power of the unspoken word. Apparently, the pendulum has swung full tilt and I am now in the process of finding a happy medium. (No wonder writing is so tiring.)

Ultimately, like a good Oreo cookie, the best screenwriting comes from the combination of solid narrative (icing) and solid dialogue (cookie), so I am glad Marsha has my back and I have hers.