True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Writers beating off

The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.

Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.

Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?

barkingdogcartoon

(Property of Jerry King: http://www.jerryking.com Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).

At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”

Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.

As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.

In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.

Imitation Game phone

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.

The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.

It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.

In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).

This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:

Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.

 

The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.

Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.

The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.

To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.

When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.

And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.

So, what’s the writer to do?

 

One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.

Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.

Two: Trust the process.

Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.

Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.

 

Imitation Game interview

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).

By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.

The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

The creativity is ours

Sparsely

When I have told a story well, I have merely put in place the elements from which you will create your own version of the story.

You meld these elements with your own perspectives, histories, moods and experiences to go places that I can’t begin to imagine.

In this way, Art is a communal exponential experience, and the Universe is as blessed by the one who receives the gift as by the one who first shares it.

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.

wall-e script

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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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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Beyond the mirror – finding characters

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Despite being a single species—Homo sapiens—humanity is a diverse and eclectic group of individuals. And yet, so often, when writers develop characters for their stories, they tend to stick pretty close to the mirror.

Sure, few of us have likely committed murder or adultery. Perhaps a handful have fought in war or garnered celebrity status. And I am confident that none have visited another planet or lived in the time of dinosaurs.

Despite this diversity of action, however, the main characters of these stories continue to largely reflect what the writer sees when he or she looks into the mirror or scans his or her living room. And because the majority of working writers—at least in the West—are heterosexual white men, our stories are largely told from the heterosexual white male perspective.

Mirror

I am a heterosexual white man, and for the longest time, my lead characters and the perspectives of the stories I wrote came out of that mirror. I know my glass house.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a move by women, by visible minorities (I hate that phrase) and by the LGBTQ community to create more stories from those perspectives. I think that is wonderful.

But it doesn’t have to stop there, particularly as it risks promoting the same problem, if from a previously underserved voice.

What if, instead, we all took the time to look beyond the mirror when developing our characters?

You don’t have to write a woman’s story to choose a woman as a lead character.

You don’t have to write a story about the gay community to choose an LGBTQ lead character.

You don’t have to write a story about race to choose a black, East-Asian or indigenous lead character.

You can already have a story clearly established in your head that fundamentally has nothing to do with those themes, and still make those choices for your lead characters.

We’re all looking for interesting characters. We want voices and thoughts with depth and texture.

And it is entirely possible to do that looking in the mirror.

But if that is all we do, we miss out on so many interesting voices and our texture risks becoming monotonous.

diversity puzzle

So many facets inform a character.

You have to ask yourself:

How, if at all, does the story change if my lead character is a woman—protagonist or antagonist? Even without becoming a women’s issue story, how does the choice of a woman influence action, themes, dialogue or plot?

What about a character of a different race or culture, reminding ourselves that there is heterogeneity within racial communities? Without falling into stereotypes or turning your concept into a race story, what impact does social experience bring to a character’s actions and reactions, dialogue and style?

That story is universal suggests there is a common thread that holds us all together in this world, a thread that intercalates our DNA.

But as much as our characters are about the Every Man—note the phrasing—characters are about nuance and individuality.

Looking beyond the mirror will necessitate some research to avoid the prejudices and erroneous beliefs to which we are all prone (see, I just judged everyone there).

But that is what writers and storytellers do.

We seek the truth of the moment or the situation in hopes that we skim but the surface of the greater truth.

And to do that, we must explore the whole of our universe, not just what we find in the mirror.

Diversity

To learn more about developing better stories, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

See also:

Why screenwriters should embrace the Heroine’s journey (Ken Miyamoto, ScreenCraft)

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.

Ladies who shop

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