Do not go gently – Having an impact

Indifference

Few are the creatives who do not want the world to love, or at least like, their work. We pour our heart, our soul, our tears into our art, and live in the dread that it will not find a receptive audience.

But are we dreading the wrong reaction?

Meaningful creative, to my mind, should evoke a reaction, and ideally one that is visceral and emotional before it is intellectual.

I want the viewer or reader to react instinctively, involuntarily to my creative, long before reason steps in and helps him or her modulate the response to more socially acceptable forms.

Thus, I fear less the angry or violent response to my work. Express those emotions and tell me why you revile my work. What is it in the creative that elicits such primitive, basal responses?

And if you find the work itself primitive, crude or malformed, the work of an unseasoned hand, then tell me how better to season it. What skills do I lack and how can I add them to my repertoire?

No, it is not rejection I fear. It is indifference.

It is the thought that my work is so devoid of meaning that it leaves you without any feeling whatsoever. It is simply not worth considering.

An emotional response, whether positive or negative, enhances my creative because the energy you expend to respond adds meaning to my work. Indifference, however, renders me and my creative effort void (collectively speaking, of course).

When we create, we should worry less about eliciting a positive reaction, and more about striking something at the very core of our audience. Something that they cannot ignore because it touches unnervingly close at their very essence.

 

For more on ways to improve your storytelling, visit:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

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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

Indirect influences

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I naturally speak with one voice. If pressed, I can speak with a second, more professional voice; the one that presents concepts to advertising clients or interviews corporate executives for a magazine. But most of the time, I speak with one voice that uses a vocabulary and attitude established over my many decades of life.

I think this is largely the case for everyone, which is why it is not surprising that people tend to write stories with a series characters that can largely sound the same. The protagonist is typically quite distinct. The antagonist is often distinct. But after that, I don’t know that I could tell who was speaking if I didn’t read the names.

These secondary characters, by their very nature, are not our focus as writers, so they tend to have the least developed back stories even in our heads. Other than age or gender, what makes the paperboy different from the local sheriff from the school teacher?

The same thing that makes you different from me. Our experiences, past and present.

One of the tricks for informing a character that I learned in improv was to endow a character with a trait that only you as the performer knew, and ideally a trait that had absolutely nothing to do with the scene that was developing.

In one exercise, I decided that my character had a bad right ankle, so that every time I took a step, my ankle would cause me pain. I didn’t hobble or verbally express the pain with either an “Ow” or “Would you slow down, my ankle hurts”.

The pain was expressed, however, in how my character responded to his environment and the other characters in the scene. What might have been a middle-of-the-road character suddenly became a terse character, someone in a hurry to get things over with, quick to anger or frustrate, less apt to engage in activities.

The bonus aspect of the exercise, for me, was that my fellow improv performers quickly got and responded to my character, but when pressed, could not exactly say why I behaved as I did.

Now change that ankle pain to a foot orgasm (read about it this week online) and see where that character would go (probably jogging).

The sore ankle had no impact on what role the character played in the scene, but more in HOW that character performed that role. And this made the character stand out from all of the others.

I go back to this exercise often, when I find myself creating secondary or tertiary characters that aren’t differentiated from the background. A little something to make them stand out, however briefly, in their scene.

If you find yourself stuck, give it a shot. What could it hurt, other than possibly your ankle?

(Image is property of owners and is used here without permission, because it makes me happy/indifferent/snarky/hot.)

I can explain

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Michael (Jeff Goldblum): Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

Sam (Tom Berenger): Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

 

Many of us struggle to accept feedback, and in saying that, I put the emphasis on the word “accept”.

It is easy to receive feedback, but to accept feedback takes a certain degree of confidence that most of us struggle to achieve, and the earlier we are in the development of our Art, the worse our ability. It is a cruel irony that this struggle is at its zenith when we most need the feedback.

It seems that the minute someone offers feedback, even if we’ve requested it, our initial response is to explain why the work is the way it is or why the feedback provider is wrong. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill put so eloquently, we rationalize.

Now, before you try to explain why you rationalize or try to convince me that you don’t—you know you were going to—let me tell you that it is a natural response that was bred into us from our earliest days.

As a child, if you came home late or missed an appointment, you were likely met with an angry parent asking where you were. Unfortunately, for the most part, parents don’t actually hear the answer, because with the rarest of exceptions, your answer is unlikely to ameliorate the punishment.

And any attempt on your part to simply accept responsibility with “I am sorry, Mummy. That was disrespectful of me and I shall try to be more thoughtful in the future.” (all 5-year-olds talk like that, right?), was met with continued pressure to explain yourself.

Fast-forward 20, 30, 40, 50 years. A classmate, instructor or colleague has just read your manuscript and has trouble with one or two things. The instinctive reaction—thanks Mom and Dad—is to respond “Uh-huh. Well, you see…”

We immediately want to explain why we made such an astounding choice. We feel we need to prove we’re not stupid or crazy, and in some cases, to prove that our readers are. And this instinct is even worse when we either can’t remember why we made that specific choice—the “I dunno” scenario—or we thought it was a bad choice but felt we had no better ideas—the “I’m a talentless hack” scenario.

If we can just suck all of the oxygen out of the room, the reader will suffocate and no one need know of our disgrace.

STOP! BREATHE! RELAX!

Shut up and listen. Don’t respond other than to indicate that you’re following what the person is telling you.

You’re not being attacked. They don’t hate you. They’re not trying to convince the world that you’re a terrible human being.

Fight the urge to explain yourself and instead think about what you are being told. You may not understand right away, so feel free to ask for clarifications (not offer rebuttals). Take the input away and mull on it.

This is an opportunity to learn something about your work, your abilities and yourself. Take advantage of that.

You likely asked for the feedback, either implicitly or explicitly, and your reader has something to tell you. They may be right. They may be wrong. Annoyingly, it is likely to be somewhere in between. Regardless, they have had a reaction to your work, and you must respect that.

You do not, however, have to act on their feedback. If, after sober reflection, you feel that the feedback is not for your work, then move on, confident that you have heard and considered what they said.

Ahhh.

See? There is still air; you’re not choking. The skies have not darkened. Wagner does not play. You need not walk into the light.

It is tempting rationalize, to try to explain away our feared shortcomings. It has been programmed into us.

Rationalization is a natural reaction, but it isn’t necessary.

(Image used without permission due to alien infestation.)

Unpacking baggage – Part One

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and realized that you’re not really arguing about the topic at hand? Reacted emotionally to an event or a person’s actions but not understood why?

We are the baggage we carry. We see everything in our universe through the lens adjustments of past events.

This can lead to problems—toothpaste in the sink upsets me not because there is toothpaste in the sink but because it is merely the latest in a string of actions that prove my feelings aren’t important to you—but it doesn’t have to. I can well up on the subway watching a young person being kind to a senior citizen. That ocular moisture isn’t about them; it’s about my life with my grandmother.

What’s true for you is also true for the characters you create. Long before they showed up on a page in your screenplay or novel, each of your characters led a life. And that life shapes—or should shape—every response and reaction your character has throughout the screenplay.

You’ll hear people—particularly actors—talk about back story. What is this character’s back story? But to me, baggage is a much more appropriate term because I think it speaks so much more to their motivations in life.

Stephanie and Margaret both come from middle-class white homes in the suburbs. They are the same age, are both actors, went to identical schools, have working dads, stay-at-home moms, and two younger siblings—one male, one female—in college. They have the same back story. What about baggage?

Stephanie’s family believe that if you can achieve, you can over-achieve. Success is everything. And while they support her acting career, they really don’t get it. Her brother is studying medicine. Her sister, law. Stephanie was expected to lead by example.

Margaret’s family believe that if you can achieve, you can over-achieve. Success is everything, but it comes from within, not from without. They support her acting career, and even if some of them don’t get it, they’re happy for her. Her engineer brother and biochemist sister come to all of her shows.

In your screenplay, Stephanie and Margaret are on their way to an audition. Both carry coffees through a crowded Starbucks and spectacularly collide, coffees spewing everywhere. How will each react?

Baggage deepens a character. It makes them more real and more sympathetic to the reader or viewer. It subconsciously informs their decisions and their word choice, ideally without dialogue that is completely on the nose (e.g., “Agh, this is like that time in Kapuskasing with my dad!”).

Baggage is indispensable to subtext.

If your character is well-written, the audience should be able to identify his or her baggage and be pretty close to what you were thinking. Although, if they come up with something completely different, they may be pointing out something in you of which you were not aware, which can also be exciting.

As writers, we find it hard enough coming up with the events within our story. For some, the idea of coming up with events and interactions before our story may seem to be extraneous work for no benefit. Without baggage, though, you run the risk that all of your work will have been for nought.

And let’s face it. A story is a journey, and when have you ever gone on a journey without at least a little baggage?

Part Two: Knowing your character’s baggage isn’t enough, in and of itself. You also have to make sure you weave that baggage into the page.

The essentials of my baggage in Costa Rica.

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