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

On the page

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Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

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Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

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.

Lessons from bad movies – The Canyons

canyons poster

I believe that you can learn something from every experience you have, and because I am trying to learn more about screenwriting and films, this means watching bad movies. Thus, I was intrigued when I saw Netflix was showing a film called The Canyons.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star-going-legit James Deen, The Canyons shows the decay of Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling young actor who is still in love with his former girlfriend who is now the adornment of an unbalanced but oh-so-controlled producer on a trust fund. Paranoid from birth, the producer eventually learns of rekindled flames between the two and slowly his self-control ebbs. To tell you more would be to spoil the (complete lack of) surprise in this film.

Although the story was straightforward and highly predictable, I have to admit to being confused by one very big thing: I don’t know who the protagonist is. Through whose eyes is the audience supposed to see this story?

Lindsay Lohan’s Tara (the girlfriend) shares almost equal screen time with James Deen’s Christian (producer) and Nolan Gerard Funk’s Ryan (actor), and the story’s perspective seems to shift on a whim. If I go purely by a scale of which character left me feeling least icky in their behaviour, I would have to say Ryan was the protagonist. But he feels more like an unwitting pawn in this film.

Interestingly, however, if I was forced onto a limb, I would actually say Christian was the protagonist despite his antagonist schtick. As a character, he is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman…possibly his baby brother…although there is no comparison between Christian Bale’s performance and James Deen’s.

Speaking of which, the wooden performances of the actors don’t help my quest for a protagonist. (At her best, Lohan’s glamour-gone-gory Tara was reminiscent of Ann-Margret’s characters in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy at their most strung out.) Without distinct emotive clues and any sense of subtext, I really have no clue what any of the characters hopes to accomplish…there simply aren’t any goals, again with the possible exception of Ryan.

Lohan-Margret

To continue piling on, I would be intrigued to find out what kind of movie director Paul Schrader thought he was making.

On the one hand, with rampant over-use of black & white images of derelict movie houses, it seemed Schrader was going for art-house film, using the photographic decay as a metaphor for the social decay of Hollywood (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo).

At the same time, his rampant insertion of lengthy scenes of graphic sex gave the film a B-movie, soft-core porn feel. Here, Schrader may have been going for a moral decadence metaphor, but if so, I think he failed terribly. Instead, we were left with a humping morass of buttocks and breasts that a 13-year-old boy couldn’t be bothered to whack off to.

the-canyons-04_article

But the one scene that truly grabbed my attention was a lunch conversation between Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina, played by Amanda Brooks. What caught my attention, however, was not the scintillating or captivating dialogue (there wasn’t any) or the repressed subtextual exchanges (they were incapable) but rather the fact that even the camera was unable to pay attention to the scene.

On either close up, the camera angle perpetually slid to the left or the right, and sometimes back again. Not panned to capture a background element. Slid, as if someone had forgotten to tighten the flange that holds the camera to the tripod. The camera literally nodded off.

So then, if this movie was so bad, how could I learn a lesson?

The lesson of The Canyons is that if you can get an actor of sufficient name recognition who is trying to prove something (e.g., I’m not washed up) interested in your script, you can get anything made.

 

Postscript:

As I looked up some background facts on this movie, I learned that The Canyons was the first film to be largely funded via crowd-sourcing. Given the performance of subsequent crowd-sourced films like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (poor) and Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars (modest), I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some merit in studios having some influence on whether and how a film gets made.

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.)

A matter of character

Method improv taken a tad too far

Method improv taken a tad too far

When we create stories, we try to come up with truly amazing characters; characters that will resonate in our audience’s memory, long after they’ve finished with our story. Unfortunately, what usually happens is we end up with characters that flatten on the page, becoming two-dimensional versions of our goal. The character may flare momentarily when their plot becomes particularly exciting, but for the most part, they are lifeless and have no depth.

Like subtext in our dialogue, so much that makes a character real has nothing to do with what they are saying or doing. It’s the intangibles, the subtleties that inform their speech and actions.

Would Darth Vader, for example, have been nearly as imposing without the emphysema? What would you think of Forrest Gump without his omnipresent blankness?

Years ago, in an improv class, we did an exercise in character when the instructor told us to endow our character with some physical attribute, but not to share that attribute with others, whether verbally or by incorporating it into the scene. Let the attribute impact your character and see what happens was the request.

I decided that my character’s left foot caused him excruciating pain every time he took a step. As the scene unfolded and my character found it necessary to move, I found that my sentences grew shorter, more clipped, and my patience with people wore thin. Requests to come look at this or hand me that were met with general reluctance and irritation. Everything about my character screamed leave me alone.

I did not wince when I walked. I did not massage my foot while seated. I did my level best to give no outward sense of what was wrong.

When the instructor surveyed the other students, both within the scene and watching, about what our various attributes were, none of us really knew. All they could say was that my character was very angry and a bit of an asshole.

When told I had an extremely painful foot, it was obvious. And please realize, I am NOT an actor. This was not about my Oscar-worthy performance.

But it does show that by making a very small choice about a character, a choice that has nothing to do with plot, you can significantly inform that character and how he or she interacts with others and his or her environment.

When I worked on my first screenplay, I looked for something that affirmed how cool a customer my antagonist was. I wanted something subtle that would indicate he had the ultimate confidence in himself and his manifest destiny. Something that said I have all the time in the world because the world will wait for me.

It was my last point that settled it for me. My character would never use contractions in his speech. From his perspective, every word he uttered was important, was specifically chosen for maximum impact and so why would he remove any of the letters. And because his destiny was your destiny, you would sit patiently and absorb everything he had to say, no matter how long it took.

Now the average reader or movie goer may never consciously notice this, but for many, they’ll experience the malevolent calm of the character.

And perhaps more importantly, as with the sore foot in the previous example, the contraction-free speech informed how I wrote the character. It forced me to slow down as I wrote his dialogue, to consider each and every word he spoke, to ensure they fit the creature I had created. Ironically, that I the writer served him the way he would expect to be served.

Based on the reader feedback to date, it is working.

Look at the characters you’ve created and ask yourself what physical tic, affectation or neurosis informs their lives. If you can’t identify one, can you introduce one to increase the depth of the character or heighten his or her reactions?

Even if it only helps you to better understand and write your character, the exercise will have been worth it.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, because I didn’t eel like asking.)

Too cool for fish school

Too cool for fish school

Can you relate?

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I spent three days this week wandering the show floor of a conference on stem cells, interviewing scientists and corporate executives for a series of articles I am writing. As this is the first time I have met most of these people, the conversation usually starts somewhat tentative as the people try to figure out how to address my journalistic needs while fulfilling their marketing agendas. This is just the nature of such interviews.

Luckily, I have a secret that tends to break the ice a little. Early in the conversation, I try to find an opening in what they are telling me to relate a personal anecdote or observation about my own scientific training as a protein biochemist—yes, I actually used to be quite smart.

Within seconds, the interviewee’s posture changes, their voice takes on a new timber as they realize that I am a kindred spirit even if my uniform has changed. Suddenly, they know I can relate, and the conversation becomes one between friends or colleagues.

The same holds true for storytelling.

When the reader picks up your novel or short story, the viewer sits down to watch your movie, the initial engagement can be tentative as the reader tries to figure out what you’re doing, where you’re taking them. The reader holds back from completely engaging with you as they wait for that magic moment when they can relate.

No matter how fantastical or mundane your story, the reader must be able to latch onto something, to find a kindred spirit.

More often than not, it is your protagonist—the canonical Everyman or Everywoman—who has some visceral need to fulfill or challenge to overcome. Killing the dragon is the superficial challenge, but damned few of us have had much experience killing dragons. Most of us, however, have fought for the respect of our community or have had to overcome a fear and step forward to take control or responsibility.

Hell, readers might even relate to the dragon, as in the movie Dragonheart, where Sean Connery’s Draco finally explained that his assaults on the townsfolk were [SPOILER ALERT] his attempts to save the last dragon—him—from extinction.

In the rarest of cases, it may not be a character, but the environment to which someone relates. This is my situation with the series Mad Men. I find it difficult to relate to any of the characters and their hyper-exaggerated soap opera problems. Having spent more than five years in advertising, however, I can relate to the creative challenges within the office. I find myself getting angry or frustrated as I watch pitch meetings or client presentations because of my own baggage.

As a creator of your story, you cannot hope to know everyone who will come across your story. Thus, you cannot—nor should you—build your story to accommodate these varied experiences. You have to tell your story to tell it effectively, but you can broaden its appeal by making sure your characters (and possibly your environment) offer clear parallels to the current human experience. (If your primary audience is dogs or fish, then change the word “human” as appropriate.)

At their most basic levels, what are the human conditions that your characters express or are trying to repress (oooh, subtext)? When you get a good handle on that, you’ll have a better understanding of how relatable your story will be to your audience.

(Images are used without permission.)