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

I Hear You

anguish

“I hear you,” she screams,

Her voice echoing in the silence

Of a disquieted mind.

Fists pound temples

As temptation reigns

In paper-wrapped glass.

The sins of a thousand years

Await release, gnawing

At the bars built

To keep the world out

And the furies within.

Breath rasps, the belly of the snake

Drawing sinewy strength

From the still-warm sands

Of memory and desire.

Head sags, body slumps,

Blood slows, anguish grows.

Write, Sisyphus, write.

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(Images are property of owners, and are used here without permission…I heard you.)

Just tell the story – Austin Film Festival

Ron Nyswaner

Perhaps the most interesting advice I heard while attending the 2013 Austin Film Festival came from the Just Tell the Story session by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who suggested that not all stories are movie-worthy. It’s not that such stories are unimportant or not worth telling, but rather that film is a very specific medium—as are novels, videos, television, etc.—and therefore requires specific criteria be met for appeal.

1. Do you have a worthy protagonist? It is important that the audience understands the protagonist’s struggle, that the character is constantly dealing with questions of life, loss, yearning. There should be clearly understood interior and exterior conflict.

2. Does you protagonist have face worthy obstacles or a worthy antagonist? The antagonist should represent the opposing view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the antipode to your protagonist’s views. Overall and within individual scenes, there should always be a sense of ideas in conflict. Nyswaner stressed the importance of the hope-dread axis—What do you hope is going to happen and what do you dread is going to happen in a scene—suggesting that the stronger the axis, the more tension you build in your story.

3. How strong is the central relationship? Sydney Pollack suggested that every story is a love story, and Nyswaner followed on that, suggesting that the relationships between your characters, and particularly the protagonist and antagonist, is what drives the story forward. The stronger that relationship (positively or negatively), the stronger the story. He also discussed the idea of triangulation; the effect of adding a third party into a scene to increase the tension or stakes.

4. Where am I (the writer) in the story? Who am I? All good art is personal, Nyswaner said, so the writer should look for his or her emotional connection with the story. By making the story personal to you, you develop a deeper story.

5. Take your audience into a world that’s interesting. If the audience cannot connect with the environment that you’ve created, they will find it difficult to get into your story. This doesn’t mean that the environment has to be familiar so much as understandable and relatable.

6. Do you have enough turning points to carry through a feature? A good film story is constantly changing direction, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. Without sufficient turning points, audience members disconnect from the story or worse, get bored. Attitudes and powerbases should shift throughout the story to keep the audience guessing.

7. Does the audience love the story and its characters? Nyswaner suggests writers must be ruthless, paraphrasing a quote (trying to remember by whom) that a writer is a person who will betray the people he loves to impress people he will never meet. The key for a writer is to give everything to the story he or she is trying to tell, even at the cost of real-world expectations and relationships. This is not to say that success comes from being the biggest asshole, but rather that it is important to keep the focus of a film on the story and its characters to the detriment of other external factors (as best as possible).

 

Ron Nyswaner is perhaps best known for having penned the movie Philadelphia, but has also worked on television (Ray Donovan) and in print, and teaches film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

The First 10 Pages – Austin Film Festival

Lindsay Doran

For a new screenwriter trying to break his or her way into the film or television industries, one of the toughest tasks is getting someone to read your script. But even if you can get someone to crack that front page, the job isn’t done. You have to catch the reader’s attention and you may only have 30 or 10 or maybe a single page in which to do so.

At the 2013 Austin Film Festival in October, producer Lindsay Doran presided over a session called The First Ten Pages, which examined the opening pages of five scripts from people who had submitted to the screenplay competition. Below are some of her general thoughts on telltale trouble spots.

1. Boring title: From the cover itself, the title should grab the reader’s attention. Ideally, it will trigger a question in the reader’s mind or play with the reader’s imagination. Can you imply action or hint at something interesting inside. Don’t be vague or boring.

2. Story doesn’t begin: So often, the writer spends the first ten pages simply setting up the real world and its cast of characters that he or she forgets to actually start the action of the story. Without starting the story, you risk boring the reader.

3. Not actually a comedy: Presumably, she is talking here about comedy scripts that aren’t comedic. Funny is subjective, but is the movie actually a comedy or light drama, which Doran described as a bad place to be. If the writer is heading in that direction, perhaps it is better to write a drama that incorporates humour as a form of relief or due to specific characters.

4. Unlikeable main character: Not to say that the protagonist has to be a good person, but that the reader has no reason to root for him or her. Show us the human side of the protagonist that helps to explain why he or she is redeemable or needs the reader’s support.

5. Too many characters: One script Doran reviewed introduced 7 characters on the first page alone, which aside from being a lot to take in, left the readers with little sense of who the protagonist in the story was. As well, it was difficult to determine how these multiple characters related. Even with an ensemble piece, it is possible to introduce the characters more slowly, perhaps only introducing one subplot at a time.

6. Obstacles without stakes: While it is important to present the protagonist with challenges, the rising conflict, for the reader to engage in the story, those challenges must have important implications to the future of the protagonist. Delaying the protagonist from making it to the office is one thing, but make sure the reader understands why it is so important for the protagonist to make it to the office and what happens if the character doesn’t.

7. Confusing: Doran suggests there is a fine line between intriguing and confusing. If the reader finds him or herself lost while coursing through the opening 10 pages, he or she is unlikely to press further into the story.

8. Transparent exposition: On the flip side, make sure that any important bit of information is woven within the fabric of the narrative and/or dialogue and not simply plopped on the page. Clumsy, transparent exposition lifts the reader out of the story simply because it doesn’t flow and almost seems like a side thought.

9. Comedy based on a superficial world: Again, assuming a comedy, does the writer really understand the world she describes or is she simply aiming for cheap, cliché laughs at a well known environment and archetype? The Devil Wears Prada is a good example of a movie that went deep inside the fashion industry and avoided the superficial jokes about models, designers and photographers.

10. The three most terrifying words in the history of the American screenplay: Here Doran was being a bit playful, but wanted to make the point that it is difficult to get people to read a screenplay about a mature woman from outside the United States. Any one of those protagonist features is hard enough to promote, but to have all three is screenplay suicide, according to Doran.

Learning curve

learning-curve

Before I start, let me state unequivocally that if you are writing or thinking of writing, I congratulate you and hope it goes well.

Now, despite that enthusiasm, I have to express my dismay at the number of people who don’t seem to want to improve their writing.

Over the last two years, I have read thousands of pages—outlines, scenes, plays, chapters—and have been amazed to watch so many people get so much better at their craft. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen plenty for whom their only draft is their final draft.

Perhaps it is ego that suggests me and my fellow readers have nothing to contribute to their work. That all of our comments fall well short of their prodigious talents and would only weaken the work. But if that’s the case, why ask for our input in the first place? If the work is that good, why do you need our validation, our applause?

For most, if not all cases, I think it is more likely fear and laziness. The belief that if the piece isn’t perfect on the first pass, it never will be. What these people seem to fail to realize—or perhaps recognize all too well—is that a learning curve isn’t just some gentle bend in the road. Rather, it is a steep daunting hill, and to climb that hill, they must invest energy.

If you ask me for my input, my thoughts, my impressions, I will give them to you freely with the understanding that they are just my opinions. You don’t have to follow them. This is your work, to be executed your way. I am only offering alternative views.

At the same time, if you continually ask for my thoughts (or someone else’s) but make no effort to change—in any directions—then these efforts have been wasted.

Perhaps the writer was correct and the work was perfect out of the gate. Congratulations. It would be the first time I would ever have been witness to such an event.

I have no pretenses about my own work—or I don’t think I do. My work will never be perfect, but it can always be better than it was yesterday, and almost as good as it will be tomorrow. And the more and more varied input I get, the closer I get to the top of that learning curve.

At least until the next project begins.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, because I never learn.)

Writer’s terror

penpaper_blankpage

Writers don’t get blocked. They get scared.

They get scared of looking stupid. Of having nothing to say.

They get scared of being found a fraud. Of the blank page.

They get scared of choosing the wrong word. Of being unable to complete a piece.

They get scared of having to explain themselves.

But whereas the fear is real, the reasons are not, and the only way to proceed,

Is to ignore the fear, ignore the world, and write.

Write without a care.

Write without a plan.

Write with total abandon.

For much as the only true cure for suffocation is to breathe,

The only real cure for writer’s block is to write.

Every word written is another gasp of oxygen.

Every line completed is another lung full of air.

You may struggle…you will struggle…but even your struggling

Is a sign you are still alive, that you have not yet given up.

(Image is property of its owner and is used here without permission because I wasn’t blocked from doing so.)

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.)