Sunday, July 27, 2014

Short Hiatus

Okay, folks, given the unplanned spring hiatus, I’m glad I was able to provide a lot more summer content than I have in recent years.  I’ve still got some good stuff ready to go, but I think I can string it together to form a big new series, so I’m going to save it for the fall.  In the meantime, I’m going to make like a Frenchman and take August off.  I’ll return after Labor Day with that series and a lot of brand-new checklists, since I’m sure you’re just as sick as I am of the same fifteen movies!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your Ending Shouldn't Make Your “Point”

The meaning of your story is created by the dilemma that drives every scene, not merely by its conclusion. You are putting your characters in a situation that reflects a powerful and ironic emotional dilemma that will resonate with your audience. Watching your characters grapple with that dilemma, scene by scene, will create the meaning of your story as you go, regardless of the eventual outcome.

The endings of some great stories have been reconsidered and reversed at the last second. Some movie have decided to flip the ending during production, because the director and writer got to know the characters better as the footage came in, and they belatedly decided that it would be more powerful to have the opposite outcome.

In the script for the great downbeat skiing drama Downhill Racer, Robert Redford has acted like a cocky jerk all season, and his coach has tried and failed to humble him. In the world championship at the end, Redford has been seeded way down in the rotation with all the weaker skiers who have to use the bad snow after the superstars are done with it. Nevertheless, he pulls out an amazing time, beating all the great skiers who were seeded far ahead of him.

Everyone had thought the competition was over, but now he has leapt out from the ranks of the obscure late competitors and into first place. Suddenly everybody swarms around him in awe, even his coach, instantly treating him like the superstar he always thought he was. It was all worth it: He proved everybody wrong. …But then everybody suddenly turns away: an even lower-ranked skier is now coming down the mountain, and he’s doing even better than Redford!

In Oakley Hall’s original novel and James Salter’s original script, this new skier does indeed beat Redford’s time, and Redford is instantly abandoned: his dream of glory lasted only a few minutes, and now it’s gone, leaving him to face the wreckage he has made of his life and relationships.

Producer-star Redford and director Michael Ritchie loved that ending, but as they shot the movie, they decided that it would actually be better to let Redford win. Is this just another case of a “Hollywood ending” being tacked on? No, it was more of a subtle tweak…

In the final movie, the same sequence of events happens, and everybody turns away to see this new skier who is beating Redford’s time…but then that skier has a horrible accident halfway down and ends up a crumpled wreck on the slopes. All of those fickle admirers instantly lose interest in the new guy and turn their adoration back towards Redford…but he can’t smile anymore. Yes, he’s a champion now, but he’s seen his future. All of the adoration is fleeting and phony, and he will always one wreck away from becoming a forgotten has-been.

Still, that’s a different ending, right? It makes a different point. The original point could be summarized as “Don’t get too cocky”, while the new point is “Cockiness can pay off, but becoming a champion is ultimately meaningless.”

I think that the new ending is clearly better …but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The total events of the story have already created the story’s meaning, regardless of how it ends.

Chinatown also changed the ending on the set to be much more powerful: In the original, the villain is killed by the heroine, who is taken off to jail, despite the efforts of our hero to explain why she had to do it. In the final version, the cops kill the heroine and the villain wins absolutely, totally devastating our hero (and the audience).

But would the movie have been rendered meaningless if they had gone with the original ending in which the villain was killed? Of course not. The ending would have had less punch, and a totally different “point” would have been made, but once again it was the total events of the story that created the meaning, not the final conclusion. The overall thematic dilemma, “Must you destroy the present in order to create the future?”, has already been driven home by every scene. By the time we get to the end, it doesn’t really matter what the “point” is, we’ve already felt the theme in our bones.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Dialect vs. Syntax in “The Slaves’ War”

I talked about dialect vs. syntax here and here, especially when dealing with poor black and poor southern characters, but I recently found another great example that directly contrasts the use of dialect and syntax (and happens to combine poor black and poor southern syntax).

Andrew Ward’s seminal history book “The Slaves’ War” is an astonishing interpolation of hundreds of slave narratives that collectively retell the story of the Civil War from their point of view. Ward is the first to admit, however, that his source material is very problematic.

Many of the interviews he uses were conducted by poor whites employed by the WPA many years later, and many of those interviewers insisted on transcribing their interviewees in what they perceived to be “black dialect” (And some interviews that were transcribed without dialect were later rewritten by supervisors who weren’t there, on the assumption that the interviewer was “cleaning up” the subject’s words!) The result is the some of the quotes Ward uses attempt to capture the supposed dialect of the ex-slaves, and others don’t. The comparison is startling:
  • On the one hand, it makes the reader flinch to read renderings that do attempt to capture the supposed dialect, such as “We’s gwine to run sure enough”…
  • ...but several quotes that do not attempt to capture the dialect and focus more on the capturing the syntax carry tremendous power. Here’s my favorite quote from the book, about the burning of my own childhood home, Atlanta: “It was a grand sight, at least to us, though to the poor folks that saw their homes go up in smoke, it wasn’t so pretty. But I tell you, the people of the South needed some such of those as that; they needed to learn that war is a serious thing: no boys’ play at all, nor fooling.”
“Some such of those as that”! That is a majestic phrase.

As with every other aspect of writing, you want to write dialogue that gives your audience the shock of the real. You want to wake them up from their autopilot mode and force them to really listen to your story. You want to make them say “Oh! This isn’t just going to remind me of older, better stories, it’s going to reconnect me to my own life experiences! I’m going to be able to believe in the reality of this story!” The way to do this is to capture the syntax of real talk in refreshing ways.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: More Thoughts on Object Exchanges

I’ve talked a lot about the power of investing objects with meaning and then exchanging them, such as here, here, and here. In this post on Iron Man, I followed one object throughout a movie. But is this common? I data-mined the checklists to find out, and yes, it pretty much is. Let’s ask the question, Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
  • Casablanca: Yes, the letters of transit, the song (if that counts)
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, his car, her car, her manuscript, the pool, the gun, the spotlights.
  • In a Lonely Place: No, not really. The book, maybe. Briefly with the grapefruit knife, and the phone.
  • Alien: Not really. The “mother” computer “changes hands”, I guess, but it can’t actually be placed from hand to hand.
  • The Shining: Yes, the ball, the bat, etc.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, the ears, the strip of blue velvet, the party hat, etc.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Yes, the survey, the moth, the pen, the drawings, the dog,
  • Groundhog Day: Sort of. The pencil. The note he gives her about what Larry is going to say.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes, the greeting card, the surveillance photos, the boat, the tape recorder and the tapes, the oranges, the article about the boat.
  • The Bourne Identity: Sort of. The laser projector under his skin, the passports, the guns.
  • Sideways: Yes, the manuscript, the wine bottle, etc.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Yes, the helmet, the dragon’s prosthesis, etc.
  • Iron Man: Yes, the two heart devices.
  • An Education: Yes, the cello (It represents the burden of her education, David’s able to admire it and offer his car to it when he meets Jenny, making him seem less lecherous, etc.) The C.S. Lewis book, the map, the engagement ring, the letters.
  • Bridesmaids: Bill Cosby’s card, the baked goods, the shower gifts.
So, once again, common but not universal.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Ending Should Lean Towards One Side of the Thematic Dilemma

In the original post where I laid out the concept of a good vs. good dilemma, I talked about how the ending usually tips more to one side than the other. I cited example there from the first three seasons of “Lost”, but let’s expand that here by looking at our Checklists for more examples…

Your theme should take the form of an irresolvable dilemma, and so you should give both sides equal weight for as long as possible… until the climax. The trick is to come up a finale that addresses this conflict, and says something concrete about it, without definitively declaring one side to be right and the other side to be wrong.

Some would say the climax should simply re-state the thematic question in light of all that has occurred, but I would say no. I think in most cases it's important to tip slightly in the direction of one of the warring goods or bads at the end without dismissing either.

Let’s go back to data-mining our checklists. Each of the movies I looked at has an irreconcilable thematic dilemma, and nine of them tip toward one side in the end, but not definitively:
  • Casablanca: The cause of freedom is ultimately more important that personal happiness…but it’s a tough call and a painful decision.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Dignity is ultimately more important than success…but it’s a tough call and a fatal decision.
  • In a Lonely Place: Self-preservation is ultimately more important than love…but it’s a tough call and a painful decision.
  • The Shining: Self-preservation is ultimately more important than family loyalty…but it’s a tough call and a painful decision.
  • Donnie Brasco: Family loyalties are ultimately more important than work loyalties…but it’s a tough call and a painful decision.
  • Iron Man: Yes, societal responsibility is ultimately somewhat more important than individual achievement…but Tony still wants to be a bad-ass all the time, not a do-gooder.
  • An Education: Yes, living up to one’s responsibilities is somewhat better than a life of excitement…but we sense that she doesn’t really regret her dalliance and she still longs to be more sophisticated than her parents.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Justice is ultimately more important than loyalty to family…but it’s an impossible choice so the two must be reconciled.
  • Bridesmaids: Moving on is ultimately better than preserving old friendships…but it’s a tough call and a painful decision.
But now let’s look at the exceptions. Two of our movies end up tipping almost entirely to one side of the dilemma:
  • In Alien, Ripley concludes that personal safety is entirely better than job loyalty.
  • In Groundhog Day, Phil concludes that acceptance of one’s circumstances is pretty much entirely better than personal ambition.
  • In The Bourne Identity, conscience is proven to be clearly better than duty. They could have attempted to make this more ambiguous by pointing to important missions that won’t get fulfilled due to Bourne’s crisis of conscience, but this is one case in which ambiguity would feel like the weaker choice: We see that the “vital CIA mission” Bourne was accomplishing was the execution of a deposed dictator and former CIA asset who was going to write a tell-all memoir. In this case, the need to show an irresolvable dilemma is trumped by the need to show the way the world works. We know that the CIA always claims that their dirty tricks are justified by their vital missions, and we also know that that always turns out to be bullshit. Indeed, the hapless reboot The Bourne Legacy does have a “but what about the vital missions?” scene, and it feels cheap and phony.
Finally, three of our movies end with their moral dilemmas still totally unsettled:
  • At the end of Blue Velvet, Jeffrey has decided to restore his life to a level of naive idealistic artifice, but it is merely a mask for his yawning chasm of dark cynicism, and we sense that he’s still utterly torn between these two unpleasant choices.
  • At the end of Silence of the Lambs Neither Clarice not the audience can decide whether it was worth it to work with one monster to stop another. It all depends on how much damage Lecter does.
  • The conclusion of Sideways looks askance at both of our heroes’ philosophies (Jack’s boundless optimism vs. Miles’s clear-eyed cynicism), but refuses to privilege either one over the other. Ironically, each man achieves his own goal by reverting to type at the end and fails to influence the other one: Jack’s outrageous positive-thinking lies pays off for him, and Miles’s cynical honesty pays off for him.
So obviously, each of these can work: you can resolve the dilemma definitively, or tip to one side without resolving it, or leave it totally resolved, but the middle option is the most common and usually the best bet. You have something to say, so say it, but you don’t want to take away from the fundamental power of this irreconcilable dilemma.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How to Manage Expectations, Addendum: Establish the Nature of the Jeopardy

As I established before, establishing and maintaining your tone isn’t just a matter of letting the audience know that this will be light or grim or post-modern. It’s also a matter of establishing the general level of physical jeopardy (Marty in Back to the Future can ride his skateboard while holding onto people’s bumpers, so this isn’t a very physically dangerous world) and the nature of the jeopardy (the TV show “Leverage” foolishly sent the message that we shouldn’t take danger seriously.)

So take time to establish these things at the beginning every story. Be very careful in those opening scenes: your audience is on guard, asking themselves: “Is this going to be that kind of story or my kind of story?” Let them know the answer right away, so that you can self-select an audience that wants the sort of mood that you’re prepared to deliver.

Jeopardy tends to come in one or more of these forms:
  • Lethal: Do we worry that the hero will get killed or harmed? Do events have grave physical consequences?
  • Social: Are we primarily worried about the hero’s search for love and/or respect?
  • Psychological: Has the hero’s mental well-being been threatened?
  • Spiritual: Is the hero worried about the state of his or her soul?
So lets data-mine the checklists:
  • Casablanca: Lethal and social. We see a man shot dead in the street for having the letters, then we see our hero get the same letters. We quickly discover, however, that he’s less worried about his own safety and more about an old humiliation he wants to rectify.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Lethal and social. We see our hero dead right away, so we know the stakes, but he’s more focused on avoiding humiliation.
  • In a Lonely Place: Social and psychological. We begin with Dix scaring himself with his own violence in a road rage incident, then we see him accept the judgment of some kids that he’s nobody.
  • Alien: Lethal. It takes a while for the violence to begin, but everything seems very grave right away.
  • The Shining: Lethal and psychological. We hear about the previous caretaker chopping up his family and the dangers of isolation.
  • Blue Velvet: Lethal and psychological. The severed ear intimates physical danger, but we sense right away that the greater threat is the disturbed look at Jeffrey gives to that ear.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Interestingly, the stakes aren’t really lethal (we never worry much about her safety) and certainly not social (she’s not trying to make any friends), but strictly psychological (“Don’t let him into your head.”)
  • Groundhog Day: Social and spiritual. (We will soon learn, in fact, that there are no physical consequences in this world, even for death.)
  • Donnie Brasco: Despite the setting, the stakes are social and spiritual far more than lethal (Donnie’s wife isn’t worried that he’ll be killed, she’s worried that he’s changing too much)
  • The Bourne Identity: Lethal, psychological and social. He worries that he’ll be killed, that his mind is broken, and, eventually, that he’s a bad man.
  • Sideways: Strictly social for both men. Miles is depressed, but he never feels psychologically unstable, just endlessly humiliated. For Jack, physical danger will rear its head toward the end, but even when he gets beaten up, he’s primarily worried about what his fiancĂ© will make of it.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Equally lethal, social, and spiritual. If he fails at the training, he’ll be humiliated and he may lose his life, but if he succeeds, he may lose his soul.
  • Iron Man: Lethal, social, and spiritual, he’s worried about death, humiliation, and the state of his soul.
  • An Education: Entirely social. She feels like a heel at the end, but never feels her soul is in jeopardy.
  • Bridesmaids: Entirely social. Again, she gets really depressed, but only in the form of severe humiliation, she’s not really mentally disturbed.
Interestingly, it doesn’t do us any good to check these movies to see whether the physics are realistic or stylized, because they all have realistic physics, even the “genre” movies such as Alien, Bourne Identity, How to Train Your Dragon, and Iron Man. (The closest thing to an exception would be Groundhog Day, but even there, you won’t find a lot of goofy physics, just goofy metaphysics). Clearly, I have a bias for such movies!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

How to Build a Scene, Addendum: Leave the Hero and/or the Audience with a Growing Hope and/or Fear

I’ve talked about the importance of ending a scene on a question (often to be answered immediately by the circumstances of the next scene) but you should also keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

If your scene has pushed both the outer and inner journey forward, then we’ll be left with more and/or different hopes and fears going forward. By now, our initial hopes for what the hero might accomplish in this scene have either been gratified or dashed, resulting in a surge of hope or a deepening dread (and sometimes both).
  • I’m excited by the romantic potential of the person the hero has just met.
  • I’m scared by this villain-scene, and increasingly tense about what will happen when the villain collides with the hero.
  • I’m becoming confident that the hero’s plan will work.
  • I can see what the heroes can’t see, and I’m dreading the consequences of their limited perspective.
  • I’m rooting for what the hero is doing, but I’m also dreading the inevitable consequences of this action.
A scene can be very well-written, but if it comes to its own self-sufficient ending and tries to create its own meaning, rather than propelling us forward to future events, then it can still hurt the overall story.

The scene that we looked at in Iron Man has just one big problem: it doesn’t affect our hopes or fears for the rest of the story, so it creates a dangerous moment of dead momentum. The next scene could be the beginning of a new movie. In this case, the movie quickly recovers its momentum, but that break in anticipation was a big risk.

Let’s look at the scenes I chose to examine from these movies and how those scenes left audience with growing hope or dread.
  • Casablanca: We’ve already seen people get killed over these letters of transit, and now our hero has them. There is talk of a deal going down in the bar that night, which makes even our unflappable hero nervous, so we’re nervous about it, too.
  • Sunset Boulevard: We have a dread that Joe’s scheme to extract money out of Norma will probably fail as much as his other schemes, but with worse consequences. (Partially because we’ve already seen him dead in her pool!)
  • In a Lonely Place: After intercepting that phone call, we are downright terrified of what Dix will do when he catches up to Laurel (terrified for both their sakes)!
  • Alien: We have a surging hope that Ripley is finally going to kick some ass and solve the secondary mystery (What’s up with Mother/Ash?) and a fear for what will happen to Parker when he goes off alone.
  • The Shining: Yes, we’re terrified now that Jack’s really going to kill his family, now that the former caretaker has pushed him to do it.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, we’re now worried that Jeffrey is losing his soul in the process of his investigation.
  • Silence of the Lambs: We are left with a hope that Lecter’s info will advance Sterling’s career. (I’m not sure that we’re really afraid yet of what he’ll do to her. It still seems like she can outsmart him at this point.)
  • Groundhog Day: Yes, we are happy that Phil now has a confidant and hopeful that she is about to help him figure his way out this.
  • Donnie Brasco: We’re filled with a growing dread for the future, now that Donnie is alienated from Lefty and more tied to Sonny Black.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, we’re glad that Jason’s going to keep Marie safe and we’re anticipating that he’s finally going take care of the problem.
  • Sideways: Not really. Miles is stuck in a holding pattern and we don’t feel much hope for it getting better or fear of it getting worse.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene.
  • Iron Man: Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene.
  • An Education: Yes, we’re anticipating a thrilling time for our heroine but dreading the downfall even more now that we know her parents can’t protect her.
  • Bridesmaids: Yes, we’re happy to finally have a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, now that a new guy has appeared, but we’re also wary of the likelihood that she will mess it up.
So this was true in 12 of the 15 scenes we looked at. This is another big task that you should take on in almost every scene.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: More Thoughts on the Moment of Humanity

The original piece for this was here, but I keep expanding the definition, so I thought it was time for a re-write.

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on your hero’s head until he or she is ready to stand up and do something about it.

But you can’t assume that we’ll automatically bond with your hero and choose to identify with him or her just because we’re told to. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your hero, for all the reasons listed in the Laws.

We won’t go anywhere with your hero until he or she wins us over. Logically, we know that this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment that the audience forgets that this is fiction, and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms.

Funny: Usually, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, His Girl Friday, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to put-upon characters who are too scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize that this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: how can it be possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? The answer is that it takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes”: something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes. Here are two contrasting examples:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice has quickly been defined by her meekness (feeling nervous in the elevator surrounded by taller officers, meekly withdrawing from the room where they’re discussing the Buffalo Bill killings) and humbleness (saying “Yes, sir” a lot), and she’s clearly intimidated by her boss, but she has a brief moment where she can’t help but remind him that he didn’t give her the grade she clearly feels she deserved.
  • Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about throwing up gang-signs in selfies.
Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “Save the Cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience, because most of us don’t go around saving cats, so it’s hard to identify with someone who does. As a result, the best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments:
  • Hard-bitten bounty hunter Clint Eastwood has just toughed it out on a crawl across a desert with a perpetual nasty sneer on his face in the opening scene of For a Few Dollars More, but when he finally finds a little pool of water, he reluctantly lets his dog drink first. This is a clear-clut “save the cat” moment, but it works because it’s out of character. If this was a character who clearly spent his life helping dogs, we wouldn’t like him as much.
  • Likewise, Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. Again, if he had stolen the bread for the kids, that would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
  • Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s own sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally-disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary, because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in “The Hunger Games”, because she feels that she’s already hardened herself, and doesn’t want her more-innocent sister to lose her humanity as well, whether or not she survives the games.
An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You”. We now love this guy.
  • Breaking Away: As with Popeye, we love Dave because of his oddball choices. Why is this whitebread Indiana kid pretending to be Italian?
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship
  • The hero of Rushmore imagines himself to a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality. 
  • Ted on “How I Met Your Mother” describes to a girl in a bar his whole imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
A Unique-But-Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
  • William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the titular hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience was ready to go anywhere with this guy.
  • In this case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I’d see portrayed onscreen.
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this guy/gal” before they give up and tune out.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: The Character Must Feel Compelled to Let People Know About His or Her Unique Perspective, One Way or Another

This is a brand-new one, and one I never ran by you guys before putting in the book, but I synthesized various pieces I wrote before and realized I needed to add this one.
I’ve written about how heroes need to have a lot of personality, and I wrote a whole series about how each hero must be surrounded by characters that sorely lack the hero’s most valuable quality. I’ve also written about how the hero can’t just agree with everybody, and how taking good advice is never as strong as rejecting bad advice.

…But somehow, even with all of that advice, I still found myself creating characters that are too flat. I finally realized that, no matter how uniquely valuable the hero is, or how much personality her or she exuded when spoken to, it needed something more: A hero must feel compelled to insert his or her personality into everyday situations.

Another way to put this is that the hero must have an active personality, not a passive personality. It’s not enough to stand out from the crowd simply as a counterexample. Most heroes should feel compelled to point out the flaws of those around them, either loudly or quietly (and sometimes just in muttered asides).

Let’s data-mine, shall we? In each of the 15 movies we’ve looked at, does the hero feel compelled to let others know that they lack his or her most valuable quality?

In 8 of the movies, the answer is a resounding yes. The heroes of Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, and In a Lonely Place have a razor-sharp rapier wit, Jack in The Shining is a snapping, snarling beast, and the heroes of Groundhog Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Iron Man are all sarcastic in a blunt-but-witty way.

But those are all men, so what about the women? All four female heroes were less vocal about their disagreements than those eight men. Are the women compelled to let others know how their perspective?
  • Alien: Sort of. She’s very hesitant to speak up at first, to the degree that we don’t even guess she’s the ultimate hero. She lets herself be steamrolled over when she tries to maintain quarantine, for instance…but she gradually becomes more and more assertive as she grows into her hero role.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Yes, but very respectfully. She’s very deferential to her mentor Crawford, but she cannot resist correcting him about his recollection of the grade he gave her. He then recalls that she confronted him in that class about the Bureau’s record on civil rights. These moments happen just when we’ve just begun to worry that she’ll be too meek to invest our hopes in. We let out a little “Whew!” because we’ve been reassured that this hero is at least a little vocally assertive, which is all we really need.
  • An Education: Yes, in a snide-mumbled-aside kind of way.
  • Bridesmaids: Yes, in a petulant-mumbled-aside kind of way.
Obviously there are heroines that we didn’t look at here that are just as loudly willful as men, such as Vasquez in Aliens, or the title character in Juno, but it’s notable that heroines, as a rule, tend to be quieter.
But hey, that still leaves three additional male heroes from our checklist roadtests that aren’t really inclined to speak up for themselves:
  • Jeffrey in Blue Velvet is even more polite and softspoken than the ladies listed above. He certainly has qualities that those around him lack, but he’s in no hurry to let them know that out loud. His roiling internal contradictions become clear to us through his shocking actions, not because he speaks up to share his unique point of view.
  • The title character in Donnie Brasco also lacks a forceful personality. This is in fact the secret of his success: his ability to blend into the background. He mostly keeps his own counsel until directly confronted.
  • The hero of The Bourne Identity is reluctant to speak up, but quick to act, so he’s assertive in his own way.
So verbal assertiveness isn’t universal but it’s very common, and it’s a huge part of sympathy. If your hero lacks it, then you need to be aware that this is somewhat unusual, and that must therefore be a key part of the character’s personality. But as a general rule, let your heroes crack wise, whether loudly or quietly.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Differentiating the Many Types of Irony

When stories seem meaningless, it is usually because they lack irony. When stories are especially powerful, you can be certain the author has packed it full of many different types of irony. Learning to recognize and control irony in your story is the most important skill a writer can have.

I previously attempted to list the many different types of irony a writer can use here, but I’ve offered up many more since that, so here’s a new list, in the order of the seven skills that organize the checklist:
  1. Your story will be more meaningful if you present a fundamentally Ironic Concept (which will sometimes be encapsulated by an Ironic Title.)
  2. There are three big ways to have ironic characterization: A character’s past will be more meaningful if it features an Ironic Backstory, their present should feature both An Ironic Contrast Between Each Character’s Exterior and Interior, and A Great Flaw That’s the Ironic Flip Side of a Great Strength.
  3. One’s overall structure should not necessarily be ironic, because you want your structure to resonate in a straightforward way, but the theory of structure that I’ve put forward does center around a great irony: Though the hero might initially perceive this challenge as an unwelcome crisis, it will often prove to be A Crisis That Ironically Provides Just the Opportunity that the Hero Needs, directly or indirectly, to address his or her longstanding social problem and/or internal flaw.
  4. Each scene will be more meaningful if the hero encounters a turn of events that upsets some pre-established Ironic Presumptions. Likewise, the conclusion of each scene will be more meaningful if the characters’ actions result in an Ironic Scene Outcome, in which the events of the scene ironically flip the original intention.
  5. There are several types of ironic dialogue: On the one hand, there’s Intentionally Ironic Dialogue, such as sarcasm. On the other hand, there’s unintentionally ironic dialogue, such as when there’s An Ironic Contrast Between Word and Deed or An Ironic Contrast Between What the Character Says (or Does) and What We Know.
  6. The one type of irony that most stories shouldn’t have is an Ironic Tone, although it can be a useful tool for certain very specific types of stories.
  7. Finally, we’ll look at three more ironies that every story should have: The story’s Ironic Thematic Dilemma, in which the movie’s overall dilemma comes down to a choice of good vs. good (or bad vs. bad) as well as several Smaller Ironic Dilemmas along the way, in which your characters must consistently choose between goods, or between evils throughout your story. This will culminates in an Ironic Final Outcome, separate from the ironic concept and the thematic dilemma.
If you can control your audience’s expectations, then you can upset them, and that’s how meaning is created.

Next time, we’ll look at a brand-new checklist question…

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Irony in Dialogue, Part 3: Ironic Contrast Between Word and Deed

This post and the last one break up and expand on this old post in order to make it clear where each concept lands on the upcoming list of ironies.
Last time, we talked about dramatic irony, a form of unintentionally ironic dialogue in which there is a contrast between what one character says and what we (and possibly other characters) know. Another type of unintentionally ironic dialogue is an Ironic Contrast Between Word and Deed.

If you want to reveal emotional baggage, then find an active and ironic way to do so, instead of having your characters reveal their own baggage to others. Characters should never speak perceptively about their own feelings, especially to people they don’t trust. In real life, we don’t us really understand our own feelings anyway, and even when we think we understand them, we will almost always lie about them if asked.
  • “Do you like that boy?” “No!”
  • “Are you still in love with your ex-wife?” “No!”
  • “Do you feel appreciated by your grown children?” “Of course I do, what a silly question!”
Yes, you want to reveal your characters’ complex emotions, but the one thing you’re not allowed to do is to have them explain those complex emotions to their friends (or, for that matter, their enemies!) Your characters shouldn’t do that because we don’t do that in real life.

So how do we reveal our feelings? When our mouths lie about our feelings, our bodies and our actions betray us. Make your characters reveal emotion through behavior. It’s unlikely that a character would baldly state, “I want to stay a kid forever.” Instead, have the character ask, “Why won’t you treat me like a grown-up?” while wearing Spider-Man pajamas, or cutting the crusts off his sandwich, or sticking her gum under the table.

Unity of word and action is unironic. If word and action match, then you, as author, aren’t showing any powers of observation. The audience need not even pay attention to the visuals you’re creating, because the character is simply telling us what’s going on. If the audience is simply told to believe what your characters say, then there’s no way to interact with your story.

Your audience wants to play sleuth. They want to make their own observations about your characters, instead of being forced to listen to and accept the characters’ observations about themselves. Stories thrive on tension, both external and internal, but the most important source of all should be the tension between what people say and what they mean.

Next time, I’ll attempt an overview all of the ironies I’ve covered on this blog…

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Irony in Dialogue, Part 2: Dramatic Irony (aka, A Gap Between What They Say and What We Know)

Yesterday, we looked at the limited usefulness of intentionally ironic dialogue. There are, however, a few types of unintentional ironic dialogue that are more useful for writers.

The first is An Ironic Contrast Between What the Character Says (or Does) and What We Know. (This is sometimes referred to as “dramatic irony”, but I find that term overly imprecise, given how many types of irony we’re throwing around.)

Sometimes this happens because we know something that no character onscreen does. The first episode of the fifth season of “24” had a very funny line when the first lady tried to reassure her husband by saying “We just have to make it through today and we’ll be fine.” Longtime “24” fans knew that a lot of crises could fit into one day.

Or it can be even more ironic if we know share the knowledge with one scene partner, but not the others.
Look at the first three seasons of “Lost”. In each episode, we saw a character’s painful memories flood over them through a series of flashbacks, which were ironically juxtaposed against a painful dilemma that that same character now had to face on the island. But only we knew how those emotions affected their ultimate decisions, because they never shared their conflicted feelings with their fellow islanders.

Crucially, the irony was never made explicit. Hurley never sat down with Jack and said, “You know what happened today reminded me of something that happened several years ago, and I think that now I have a better understanding of what this all means, if you’ll hear me out…” We saw how his past experiences influenced with his current actions, and the episode was more meaningful for us because those actions ironically contrasted with the current events, but Hurley wasn’t necessarily able to process the meaning of that irony himself…and if he did, he kept it to himself.

Next time, we’ll look at one final type of unintentionally ironic dialogue...