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.

pexels-web-276502

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).

SWYS-Facebook-Cover

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)

 

Re: Rewrites (Part Two)—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

Chitlik_2

In Part One of this post, we examined Paul Chitlik’s approach to reviewing the structural elements of a story, including the idea that a screenplay is actually comprised of four stories: The plot-based Main Story, the relationship-led Emotional Story, the protagonist’s internal Personal Growth Story, and the humanizing Antagonist’s Story.

 

Dissecting character

To truly understand your main characters, Chitlik recommends building something of a character profile that you can use as a steady reference while examining how the character acts and speaks within the screenplay. This is critical, Chitlik says, because often when you start writing a screenplay, you really don’t know your main characters and as you write, they will become more defined.

For assistance and more insights, Chitlik highly recommends Lajos Egri’s book The Art of Dramatic Writing.

 

Protagonist

Physiology – develop a sense of what your character looks like even if you don’t incorporate it into your story (something beyond “tall man in his mid-20s”)

Sociology – imbue the character with a social history: family life, school, jobs, etc.

Psychology – how does your character think and respond to his or her environment? Here is where the personal flaw comes to the fore

How is the character reflected in his/her dialogue? – in how he sounds, the word and grammar he uses, and how he acts

What is your character’s defining line? – Think Dirty Harry, a battle-weary cop with a strong moral center who is begging the criminal to make him shoot “Go ahead, make my day.”

 

Antagonist

Physiology

Sociology

Psychology

Human quality – what makes your antagonist more than a 2-D character? Why should we empathize with him or her?

How is the character reflected in his or her dialogue?

What is the antagonist’s defining line? – Think Terminator and “I’ll be back.”

 

Dissecting the screenplay itself

Chitlik then lifts his view slightly higher from the page, offering ways to dissect the screenplay in a more technical manner from its content to the paper itself.

 

Seeing the Scene

Each scene has all 7 of the structural elements of your story, so be sure you can identify them, although be aware that some elements may not occur within the lines of the scene but rather are implied or referenced within the lines.

Does the scene have any/enough/appropriate conflict? Chitlik finds conflict to be the #1 problem of new writers, which leads us to a discussion of goals

He is adamant that every character within a scene must have his or her own goal, however prominent or minimal to the plot. The conflict, he suggests, comes from the points at which these goals thwart or oppose each other.

Also, look at the emotions of the characters within the scene. Do you maintain them throughout the scene or when they change, do they change when something acts to cause the change?

And for emphasis, re-examine the conflict of the scene.

 

Looking for Cuts

Chitlik suggests he has never read a screenplay that couldn’t benefit from cutting about 10%.

He suggests you start by looking for scenes that lack conflict, don’t move the story forward (treading water) or fail to illuminate one or more characters in some manner.

Either eliminate these scenes or find some way to incorporate the missing ingredient.

Then look to cut off the heads and tails of scenes, starting later or ending earlier. An example he gives for the tails is leaving the scene when the final challenge arises or is issued, and he points at the work of David E. Kelley in this regard. The resolution of the challenge, he argues, can easily be worked out by the audience through the start or context of a subsequent scene. You don’t have to always spell things out.

 

Presently Presentable

This is the challenge of first impressions. Chitlik gives the example of a former student who sent him a screenplay she wrote and on the title page, she misspelled her own name. This, he says, did not bode well for what was to be found inside.

Chitlik describes this as the Mercedes Benz theory of script presentation. If you are going to spend $100K on a new Benz and you are presented with two cars—one that is absolutely beautiful and immaculate and one that is dinged up and dirty—which one would you choose to spend your money on?

Look at the pages of your screenplay and ask yourself how much of the page is black and how much white. Before looking at a single word, readers will be repelled by heavy screenplays with long descriptive sections or heavy dialogue. Find ways to break this up to leave more white space on the page.

Chitlik’s other cautions are: Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar.

 

The Rewrite Plan

Chitlik’s plan is straightforward and iterative:

  1. Write a biography of the protagonist in his/her own words/language
  2. Write a biography of the antagonist in his/her own words/language
  3. Reread the screenplay, making notes on the above topics
  4. Create a new beat sheet of the screenplay, adding new scenes that help your story play out and cutting old ones that don’t work or aren’t necessary
  5. Write new pages and rewrite old ones from the beginning
  6. Go back to Step 3

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is, but Chitlik promises that with each iterative run, the work gets easier and the outcome improves.

tsc-logo

Re: Rewrites (Part One)—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

Chitlik

One of the definite highlights for me at this year’s TSC was the rewrite session offered by screenwriter, director and producer Paul Chitlik, who is now also a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. For me, the practical sessions resonate much longer than the advice or adoration panels.

If there was one disappointment with Chitlik’s session it was that the 90 minutes apportioned to him were not nearly enough for him to really explain his process, try as he might. Thus, in many respects, the session was more of an appetite whetter for his book Rewrite: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay.

 

Stages of review

For Chitlik, a good rewrite means taking 8 separate passes at your screenplay, which include:

  1. A review for structure
  2. A review for conflict
  3. A review of descriptive paragraphs
  4. A review of the protagonist’s dialogue
  5. A review of the antagonist’s dialogue
  6. A review of the supporting character’s dialogue
  7. A review of cuts that can be made
  8. A review of the presentation of the screenplay

According to Chitlik, this iterative review process causes many of his students to groan, but his attitude is that if you don’t like your script enough to read it eight times, you seriously need to rewrite your script or you need to throw it away and work on something else.

 

Structure: The main story elements

Before starting his specific rewrite techniques, Chitlik took us on a bit of an overview of the main elements of the main story, acknowledging that this number will vary depending on who you read or to what storytelling philosophy you ascribe.

His main points or pillars are: Ordinary life, inciting incident, end of Act I (goal or plan), midpoint, low point, final challenge, return to the now-forever-changed normal life.

In the ordinary life, we find our protagonist impressionable and naïve, and from Chitlik’s perspective, our first visual of the protagonist should give us some clue as to his or her character flaw. This is where we see the character in context and how the person’s flaw interferes with his or her normal life.

With the inciting incident, something external to the protagonist impacts his or her world, changing the world forever and forcing the character to take action. Chitlik acknowledges there is a lot of debate on where precisely within a screenplay the inciting incident should occur. He actually prefers later (toward page 15) to give us time to get to know the protagonist.

By the end of Act I, the protagonist has had a chance to reflect on the inciting incident and formulate a response. This is where the story really begins as the protagonist takes the lead. Chitlik acknowledges that this isn’t always the case, however, and offers the example of Thelma & Louise where Thelma doesn’t really take control of her world until the midpoint.

By the midpoint, the protagonist has been pursuing his or her goal but an external force spins the story on its axis, leaving the protagonist to come up with a new goal or plan. For Chitlik, the protagonist should also learn something new about him or herself when this happens.

By the end of Act II, though, the protagonist reaches the low point, ideally triggered by his or her flaw, where all is lost and the goal seems completely unattainable. As Chitlik notes the cliché, the dark night of the soul.

At some point, an external force triggers the protagonist to engage in the final challenge. Here, the protagonist must overcome his or her flaw, and often repairs a relationship. Chitlik notes that while this final challenge is often large and dramatic (e.g., a battle), it can also be quite small and subtle, but it must involve the protagonist overcoming the fatal flaw.

The protagonist then returns to the new normal. Life often moves just as it did in the beginning, but the protagonist’s approach or viewpoint is forever changed in some way.

 

Chitlik then suggested that the story is actually four stories, each of which has its own version of the 7 story elements, but are ideally intertwined with each other:

The Main Story included the basic plot points or challenges the protagonist faces

The Emotional Story describes the central relationship of the protagonist, whether with the antagonist, a love interest, or some other form

The Personal Growth Story shows how the protagonist comes to face and then overcome his or her flaw

The Antagonist’s Story highlights that the antagonist has his or her own goals in life (wants and needs)

Chitlik adds that we may never see the antagonist’s ordinary life and instead of a flaw, we want to show his or her human quality, which makes the antagonist both more empathetic to the audience and a bit more chilling.

 

In Part Two of this post, we will look more closely at Chitlik’s advice on dissecting first your main characters and then the actual screenplay itself.

tsc-logo

Another year, another AFF Second Rounder

20th AFF poster

So, it would seem that rewrites work.

Last year, I entered my screenplay Tank’s into the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition and other than some amazing notes, it went nowhere in the competition. (My spec teleplay of The Big Bang Theory, however, reached the second round before bowing out.)

Fast-forward a year and four rounds of revisions, I just learned that the same screenplay made it to the second round of the competition before bowing out…Tank’s made it to the top 10% of its category, which feels pretty good considering the AFF received more than 8,600 screen- and teleplays this year, its highest submission rate ever.

Aside from the $200+ refund on my registration fee, what makes this really awesome is the esteem in which Second Rounders and higher are held at the screenwriting conference portion of the film festival. You see, the Austin Film Festival is more than just a whack of movie screens and Hollywood A-listers (like my own Toronto International Film Festival; on now). The AFF is also a 4-day screenwriters’ conference and love-fest, as 400+ introverts try to get just drunk enough to come out of their shells and commune with Hollywood screenwriters and film-makers.

If you are a screenwriter and have never been to the AFF, GO! It is worth the money.

Sure, some of the sessions amount to little more than hero-worship where you’ll hear questions like: “Remember that scene in X-Files when Mulder gave Scully that look? Did you write that, because that was awesome?” But most of the sessions are actually helpful discussions and learning opportunities with the film and television world’s elite writers…and best of all, these Gods not only stick around, but they’ll actually talk to you at the BBQ or in the bars. It’s like they give a shit about your shit.

Last year was my first AFF, and I was the introvert amongst introverts looking for the closest corner in which to nurse my beer or G&T. This year will be different. This year, I will move out of the corner and occupy the middle of the room…who knows, I may even talk to someone. (God, I need a drink!)

Oh, the Austin Film Festival runs October 24-31 from the Driskill Hotel.

PS If you think I’m bragging, my prowess is kept in check by a friend I met at AFF who had two Second Rounders and one Semifinalist screenplay in last year’s competition alone.