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Friday, September 28, 2012

Players vs. Characters

In an earlier discussion of what sets the Objective Characters apart from the Subjective Characters, we described how Objective Characters represent dramatic functions in a story whereas Subjective Characters represent points of view. The Progagonist is an example of an Objecitve Character whose function is to be the prime mover in the effort to achieve the story’s goal. The Main Character is an example of a Subjective Character as it represents the audicence position in a story – a point of view.

Authors frequently assign the roles of both Protagonist AND Main Character to the same player in the story, creating the stereotypical “Hero”. (Note that a Hero is a stereotype, not an archetype. The function of a Protagonist is archetypal, but combining that function into the same player as the one assigned as the audience position in the story – the Main Character – is a convention of storytelling, not a necessity of dramatic structure. This makes a Hero a stereotype, rather than an archetype.

The concept of “player” is found throughout Dramatica and differs from what we mean by “character.” Dramatica defines a character as a set of dramatic functions that must be portrayed in order to make the complete argument of a story. Several functions may be grouped together and assigned to a person, place, or thing who will represent them in the story. The group of functions defines the nature of the character. The personage representing the functions is a player.

In other words, a player is like a vessel into which a character (and therefore a set of character functions) is placed. If more than one Objective Character is placed into a single player, the player will appear to have multiple personalities. This is clearly seen in the dual characters contained in player, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, or the many personalities of Sybil.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Throughlines (and how to use them!)

Some time ago I described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:

You spin a tale, but you weave a story.
The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.

A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.

Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.

A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.

In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I coined the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.

Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.

Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.

An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.

In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.

By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.

For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.

By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.

Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.

Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.

There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.

How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.

Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.

Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.

Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Reason and Emotion Archetypes

The Reason Archetypal Character is calm, collected, and cool, perhaps even cold. It makes decisions and takes action wholly on the basis of logic. (Remember, we say wholly because we are describing an Archetypal Character. As we shall see later, Complex Characters are much more diverse and dimensional.)

The Reason character is the organized, logical type. The Emotion character who is frenetic, disorganized, and driven by feelings.

It is important to note that as in real life, Reason is not inherently better than Emotion, nor does Emotion have the edge on Reason. They just have different areas of strength and weakness which may make one more appropriate than the other in a given context.

Functionally, the Emotion Character has its heart on its sleeve; it is quick to anger, but also quick to empathize. Because it is frenetic and disorganized, however, most of its energy is uncontrolled and gets wasted by lashing out in so many directions that it ends up running in circles and getting nowhere. In contrast, the Reason Character seems to lack “humanity” and has apparently no ability to think from the heart. As a result, the Reason Character often fails to find support for its well-laid plans and ends up wasting its effort because it has unknowingly violated the personal concerns of others.

In terms of the Story Mind, Reason and Emotion describe the conflict between our purely practical conclusions and considerations of our human side. Throughout a story, the Reason and Emotion Archetypal Characters will conflict over the proper course of action and decision, illustrating the Story Mind’s deliberation between intellect and heart.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Work Stories vs. Dilemma Stories


Without a problem, a story is at rest or Neutral. All of the dramatic pieces are balanced and no potential exists. But when a problem is introduced, that equilibrium becomes unbalanced. We call that imbalance an Inequity. An inequity provides the impetus to drive the story forward and causes the Story Mind to start the problem solving process.

Work Stories and Dilemma Stories

It is important to differentiate between solvable and unsolvable problems. The solvable problem is, simply, a problem, whereas an unsolvable problem is called a Dilemma. In stories, as in life, we cannot tell at the beginning whether a problem is solvable or not because we cannot know the future. Only by going through the process of problem solving can we discover if the problem can be solved at all.

If the problem CAN be solved, though the effort may be difficult or dangerous, and in the end we DO succeed by working at it, we have a Work Story. But if the Problem CAN’T be solved, in the case of a Dilemma, once everything possible has been tried and the Problem still remains, we have a Dilemma Story.

Mind and Universe

At the most basic level, all problems are the result of inequities between Mind (ourselves) and Universe (the environment). When Mind and Universe are in balance, they are in Equity and there is neither a problem nor a story. When the Mind and Universe are out of balance, and Inequity exists between them, there is a problem and a story to be told about solving that problem.

Example: Jane wants a new leather jacket that costs $300.00. She does not have $300.00 to buy the jacket. We can see the Inequity by comparing the state of Jane’s Mind (her desire for the new jacket) to the state of the Universe (not having the jacket).

Note that the problem is not caused solely by Jane’s desire for a jacket, nor by the physical situation of not having one, but only because Mind and Universe are unbalanced. In truth, the problem is not with one or the other, but between the two.

There are two ways to remove the Inequity and resolve the problem. If we change Jane’s Mind and remove her desire for the new jacket — no more problem. If we change the Universe and supply Jane with the new jacket by either giving her the jacket or the money to buy it — no more problem. Both solutions balance the Inequity.

Subjective and Objective Views

From an outside or objective point of view, one solution is as good as another. Objectively, it doesn’t matter if Jane changes her Mind or the Universe changes its configuration so long as the inequity is removed.

However, from an inside or subjective point of view, it may matter a great deal to Jane if she has to change her Mind or the Universe around her to remove the Inequity. Therefore, the subjective point of view differs from the objective point of view in that personal biases affect the evaluation of the problem and the solution. Though objectively the solutions have equal weight, subjectively one solution may appear to be better than another.

Stories are useful to us as an audience because they provide both the Subjective view of the problem and the Objective view of the solution that we cannot see in real life. It is this Objective view that shows us important information outside our own limited perspective, providing a sense of the big picture and thereby helping us to learn how to handle similar problems in our own lives.

If the Subjective view is seen as the perspective of the soldier in the trenches, the Objective view would be the perspective of the General watching the engagement from a hill above the field of battle. When we see things Objectively, we are looking at the Characters as various people doing various things. When we are watching the story Subjectively, we actually stand in the shoes of a Character as if the story were happening to us.

A story provides both of these views interwoven throughout its unfolding. This is accomplished by having a cast of Objective Characters, and also special Subjective Characters. The Objective Characters serve as metaphors for specific methods of dealing with problems. The Subjective Characters serve as metaphors for THE specific method of dealing with problems that is crucial to the particular problem of that story.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sidekick & Skeptic Archetypes

The Sidekick and the Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the Story Mind. The Sidekick is the faithful supporter. Usually, a Sidekick is attached to the Protagonist. Sometimes, however, they may be supporters of the Antagonist such as Renfield to Dracula.

This gives a good clue to the way Dramatica sees Objective Characters: The purpose of the Sidekick is to show faithful support. That does not determine who or what it supports, but just that it must loyally support someone or something. Other dynamics of a story will determine who the Sidekick needs to be attached to in order to make the story’s argument, but from the standpoint of just describing the Archetypal Characters by themselves, the Sidekick faithfully supports.

The Sidekick is balanced by the Skeptic. Where the Sidekick has faith, the Skeptic disbelieves; where the Sidekick supports, the Skeptic opposes. The nature of the Skeptic is nicely described in the line of a song… “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” In the Story Mind, it is the function of the Skeptic to note the indicators that portend failure. In contrast, the Sidekick notes the indicators that point to success. The interactions between Sidekick and Skeptic describe the Story Mind’s consideration of the likelihood of success.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Dramatica Theory of Story Structure


Everything you are about to read is wrong. Why is it wrong? Partly due to my own preconceptions, and partly due to pure ignorance. Of course, I can’t see my own preconceptions and I know nothing about my ignorance, so to me all you are about to read is right.

Right or wrong, the concepts contained in this book will absolutely cause you to think differently about what stories are and how they work. If you find something that makes sense to you, and (better yet) works, great! If you disagree with anything put forth, you should ask yourself why you don’t agree. That one question alone may bring you to question you own conceptions and knowledge, and may even point out preconceptions and areas of ignorance as well.

Before every class in story structure I always tell my students never to buy into anything more than 97%. No matter how all-encompassing an idea appears to be, if you believe it 100%, you’ll never see a better idea that just might come along. I believe this is good advice even when looking at your own understanding, but I’m only 97% sure about that.

Fact is, there is no “one right way” to look at story structure. As Eastern philosophy would have it, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.” In other words, the moment you think you completely understand something, the one thing you can be sure of is that you’ve missed the point.
The capital “T” Truth can never be known. But we can get a sense of it. By entertaining a variety of alternative explanations, we start to see the edges of the bush all those different perspectives are beating around. Through a combination of study and intuition, we become more and more able to chart a good course and avoid obstacles along the way. And perhaps, by the end of our journey we’ll know how we should have started it in the first place.

So Dramatica is not the end-all system of story structure. But it’s pretty good! And along with all the other good attempts at explaining the elusive Muse, it just may help you glimpse the Truth.

What is Dramatica?

Dramatica is a new theory of story that offers both writers and critics a clear view of what story structure is and how it works. Dramatica is also the inspiration behind the line of story development software products that bear its name.

The central concept of the Dramatica theory is a notion called the “Story Mind.” In a nutshell, this simply means that every story has a mind of its own – its own personality; its own psychology. A story’s personality is developed by an author’s style and subject matter; its psychology is determined by the underlying dramatic structure.

This book describes all the key concepts of the theory, how to use them to analyze the structure of any story and, more importantly, how to apply them creatively in the construction of stories.
Some of the material may be challenging and certainly much of it will be new. But a little effort and determination on your part will be rewarded with a new command of the tools of authorship that will open creative avenues for all of your projects to come.

The Story Mind

As mentioned above, the Story Mind concept is at the heart of Dramatica, and everything else about the theory grows out of that. If you don’t buy into it, at least a little, then you’re not going to find much use for the rest of this book. So let’s take look into the Story Mind right off the bat to see if it is worth your while to keep reading…

Simply put, the Story Mind means that we can think of a story as if it were a person. The storytelling style and the subject matter determine the story’s personality, and the underlying dramatic structure determines its psychology.

Now the personality of a story is a touchy-feely thing, while the psychology is a nuts-and-bolts mechanical thing. Let’s consider the personality part first, and then turn our attention to the psychology.

Like anyone you meet, a story has a personality. And what makes up a personality? Well, everything from the subject matter a person talks about to their attitude toward life. Similarly, a story might be about the Old West or Outer Space, and its attitude could be somber, sneaky, lively, hilarious, or any combination of other human qualities.

Is this a useful perspective? Can be. Many writers get so wrapped up in the details of a story that they lose track of the overview. For example, you might spend all kinds of time working out the specifics of each character’s personality yet have your story take a direction that is completely out of character for its personality. But if you step back every once and a while and think of the story as a single person, you can really get a sense of whether or not it is acting in character.

Imagine that you have invited your story to dinner. You have a pleasant conversation with it over the meal. Of course, it is more like a monologue because your story does all the talking – just as it will to your audience or reader.

Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavor (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties.

You want to ask yourself if it’s story makes sense. If not, you need to work on the logic of your story. Does it feel right, as if the Story Mind is telling you everything, or does it seem like it is holding something back? If so, your story has holes that need filling. And does your story hold your interest for two hours or more while it delivers it’s monologue? If not, it’s going to bore it’s captive audience in the theater, or the reader of its report (your book), and you need to send it back to finishing school for another draft.

Again, authors get so wrapped up in the details that they lose the big picture. But by thinking of your story as a person, you can get a sense of the overall attraction, believability, and humanity of your story before you foist it off on an unsuspecting public.

There’s much more we’ll have to say about the personality of the Story Mind and how to leverage it to your advantage. But, our purpose right now is just to see if this book might be of use to you. So, let’s examine the other side of the Story Mind concept – the story’s psychology as represented in its structure.

The Dramatica theory is primarily concerned with the structure of a story. Everything in that structure represents an aspect of the human mind, almost as if the processes of the mind had been made tangible and projected out externally for the audience to observe.

Do you remember the model kit of the “Visible Man?” It was a 12″ human figure made out of clear plastic so you could see the skeleton and all the organs on the inside. Well that is how the Story Mind works. it takes the processes of the human mind, and turns them into characters, plot, theme, and genre, so we can study them in detail. In this way, an author can provide understanding to an audience of the best way to deal with problems. And, of course, all of this is wrapped up and disguised in the particular subject matter, style, and techniques of the storyteller.

Now this makes it sound as if the real meat of a story, the real people, places, events, and topics, are just window dressing to distract the audience from the serious business of the structure. But that’s not what we’re saying here. In fact, structure and storytelling work side by side, hand in hand, to create an audience/reader experience that transcends the power of either by itself.

Therefore, structure and storytelling are neither completely dependent upon each other, nor are they wholly independent. One structure might be told in a myriad of ways, like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, any given group of characters dealing with a particular realm of subject matter might be wrapped around any number of different structures, like weekly television series.
But let’s get back to the nature of the structure itself and to the elements that make up the Story Mind. If characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible, what are they?

Characters represent the conflicting drives of our own minds. For example, in our own minds, our reason and our emotions are often at war with one another. Sometimes what makes the most sense doesn’t feel right at all. And conversely, what feels so right might not make any sense at all. Then again, there are times when both agree and what makes the most sense also feels right on.

Reason and Emotion then, become two archetypal characters in the Story Mind that illustrate that inner conflict that rages within ourselves. And in the structure of stories, just as in our minds, sometimes these two basic attributes conflict, and other times they concur.

Theme, on the other hand, illustrates our troubled value standards. We are all plagued with uncertainties regarding the right attitude to take, the best qualities to emulate, and whether our principles should remain fixed and constant or should bend in context to particular circumstances.
Plot compares the relative value of the methods we might employ within our minds in our attempt to press on through these conflicting points of view on the way toward a mental consensus.

And genre explores the overall attitude of the Story Mind – the points of view we take as we watch the parade of our own thoughts unfold, and the psychological foundation upon which our personality is built.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Structure vs. Passion

No one reads a book or goes to a movie to enjoy a good structure. No author writes because he is driven to create a sound structure. Audiences and authors come to opposite sides of a story because of their passions – the author driven to express his, and the audience hoping to ignite its own.

As an audience, what draws us to a story in the first place is our attraction to the subject matter and the style. We might love a taut mystery, a fulfilling romance, or a chilling horror story. We might be intrigued by the potential applications of a new discovery of science, the exploration of newly unearthed ancient city, or the life of a celebrity.

As an author what brings us to write a story may be a clever concept for an action sequence, a bit of dialog, a notion for a character, a setting, time period, a favorite topic, or a clever twist of plot. Or, we might have a deep-seated need to express a childhood experience, work out an irrational fear, or make a public statement about a social injustice.

No matter what our attraction as audience or author, it is our passions that trigger our imaginations. But passion rides on structure, and if the structure is flawed or even broken, then the passionate expression from author to audience will fall.

When structure is done properly, it is invisible, serving only as the carrier wave that delivers the passion to the audience. But when structure is flawed, it adds static to the flow of emotion, breaking up and possibly scrambling the passion so badly that the audience gets nothing of what the author was sending.

Yet, the attempt to ensure a sound structure is an intellectual pursuit. Questions such as “Who is my Protagonist?” “Where should my story begin?” “What happens in Act Two?” or “What is my message?” force an author to turn away from his passion and embrace logistics instead.

As a result, an author often becomes mired in the nuts and bolts of storytelling, staring at a blank page not because of a lack of inspiration, but because he can’t figure out how to make his passion make sense. Worse, the re-writing process is often grueling and frustrating, forcing the author to accept unwanted changes in the flow of emotion for the sake of logic. So what is an author to do? Is there any way out of this dilemma?

Indeed there is. With the Dramatica you’ll discover a new way of working with stories – a method that allows an author to retain his passion even while serving the demands of structure. This system can be used both before you write to know exactly where things will be going and also after you write to find and refine the structure already hidden in your passion.

You won’t be asked to discard any techniques or approaches you are currently using. Rather, you’ll simply be adding to what you already know, to what you are already doing; extending your understanding of how stories really work and how to write them. So embark on an expedition into the uncharted frontiers of story structure. The risks are low, the potential rewards are great, and all you need to carry with you are your own passions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Audience Reach

Screenwriting 101

Screenplays are blueprints for movies. As such, they are not art, but instructions for creating art. Therefore, there are two things every great screenplay must have: A good story, and a clear and understandable description of how it should be told.

Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain dramatic conventions became accepted that put requirements and restrictions on screen stories that don’t apply to novels.

In this tip, I’ll outline a few of the key dramatic elements usually present in most successful scripts.

1. Teaser

Though not absolutely required, it is usually desirable to start your script with a teaser scene. This can be an intense emotional experience, a thrilling bit of action, or an offbeat introduction to a strange world. It might advance the plot, set the theme, and establish the time and location, introduce characters, or just serve as a roller coaster ride to get the audience involved.

2. Remember your audience.

Your audience is the cast, crew, and all the agents, readers, development executives or producers who may become involved in the purchase or production of your script. Your audience is NOT the people sitting in the theater. Like the old game of “telephone,” your purpose is not to tell a story but to tell other how to tell the story. And your purpose is not to impress movie go-ers, but to impress those who decide if your project will get the green light for production.

3. Don’t be overly literary in your scene description.

Many production personnel frown on anything but straight-forward prose. The purpose of a screenplay is to tell people how to tell a story, not to tell it yourself. Still and all, successful screenwriters often violate this rule because they can get away with it. And, if you are planning on directing the movie yourself, you may want to capture your intended mood. On the other hand, you don’t want those considering your project to be bored, or find your words too dry. So, the concept is to be as efficient as possible in conveying both the information in your story and the feeling of what it will be like on the screen.

4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.

Genres are guidelines, not rules. List your favorite genres; list your favorite elements in each genre. Then, gather together all the elements you might like to include in your script. Pepper them throughout your screenplay so that your genre develops, rather than being set at the beginning and then stagnating.

5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”

Break up all long speeches into back and forth conversation. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but in general, conversation is far more interesting both in sound and in how it can be presented visually.

6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.

Have you ever seen one character tell another, “He’s at Dollar-Mart, you know, that big national chain store?” If it were so big and national, the other character would already know this information! One of the best ways to drop exposition is in an argument. You can then exaggerate and bring out information a character might already be expected to know by using it as a weapon. And for simple exposition, try billboards, newspapers, answering machines, photos on mantles, two people talking about a third, and any other technique that doesn’t hit the audience over the head or smack of cliché.

7. Don’t preach.

You should have a message, but don’t present it as a one-sided statement. Rather, show both sides. If you are interested in passing judgment on Greed, also show Generosity. Never put them both in the same scene side by side, but make sure the audience gets to see how well each side does on its own in at least once scene each per act. In the end, the audience will sum up all the instances in which they saw how each side performed, and will draw their own conclusions (that you have craftily led them to).

8. Give your Main Character a personal issue as well as a goal to accomplish.

A story with nothing more than a logistic quest, while perhaps thrilling, is heartless. Your Main Character should grapple with an issue that pressures him or her to consider changing their mind, attitude, or nature in some way, large or small. And don’t just present the personal problem and then resolve it at the end. Unless you argue it (usually through another character who is philosophically or morally opposed to the Main Character’s view) the ultimate change or growth of your Main Character will seem tacked on and contrived.

9. Characters don’t have to change to grow.

They can stick to their guns and grow in their resolve. There are two types of characters, those who change their natures (or minds) in regard to some issue, and those who stick it out and hold on to their views. The obstacles in a story drive a character to the point of change, but whether or not he or she will change is the issue, after all. Sometimes they should change and don’t. Other times they shouldn’t and do. Each of these presents a different message, and is less overused than the character who should change and does, or shouldn’t and doesn’t.

10.There are many kinds of endings

A character might change and resolve their personal angst, yet fail in their quest as a result. Was it worth it? Depends on the degree of angst and the size of the failure. Another character might not resolve their angst; yet by refusing to change accomplish the goal. And even if they do accomplish the goal, it might have been a misguided thing to do, and is actually quite bad that they were successful. The character might not have been aware that the goal was a bad thing, or they might fail to achieve a good thing.

In addition, goals might be partially achieved or only small failures, and a character might resolve only part of their angst, or just slightly increase it.

The flavor of the movie will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end, and offer you a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blowing the Story Bubble

Remember blowing bubbles with that solution in the little bottles and the plastic wand? The craft of writing is a bit like blowing bubbles (life is like a box of chocolates!) This holds true not only for your dramatic approach, but also for the characters in your story as well.

The study of real bubbles is actually a science which combines physics, geometry, and even calculus! And, as with most natural phenomena, the dynamics that drive them have a parallel in psychology as well. For example, the math that describes a Black Hole in space can equally be applied to describing a prejudice in the mind.

So, by observing bubbles we can more easily grasp some otherwise intangible concepts about the psychology of stories and of the characters in them.

Turning our attention to stories, let’s look at several dramatic endeavors that can benefit by applying the qualities of bubbles. Bubbles burst. Sometimes you want them too, other times you don’t. The larger a bubble gets, the more impressive it is, but the more fragile as well. Until a bubble bursts the tension along its surface (surface tension) increases. But once it has burst, all the tension is gone. So the key is to blow the bubble as large as you can without exceeding the maximum sustainable tension. To do this, you need to know when to stop blowing, seal it off, and let it float on it’s own. In addition, you need to consider how hard to blow, how fast to blow, and to master the art of pulling away the wand to allow that magic moment when a bubble with a hole in it seals itself to become a perfect sphere.

When introducing a dramatic element into your story for the first time, consider how much material to work with at a single dramatic unit. Too little material tries to blow a bubble with not enough solution. It may not even make a film across the wand, and if it does, it will snap at the first breath before a bubble can form. Too much, and it drips off the wand, slobbering all over everything else, and snapping apart as well, because the sheer weight of the stuff makes the membrane too thick to flex. So, don’t work with dramatic units too large or small. Don’t focus on details too tiny or grand movements too large. Find the range and scope of your dramatic concepts that your readers or audience can hold onto while you pump it full of promise and then let it float into their hearts and minds on its own.

How hard you blow is equally important. As you may recall, blowing too hard will simply spit the solution right out of the wand and onto your parents’ carpet. (Why you chose to blow bubbles in the house even after having been told not to is no more fathomable than why you chose to be a writer, even though you knew better!)

Blow too soft, and your solution will just wiggle and vibrate in the wand, never bowing out to become a bubble at all. Eventually the solution in the wand will simply evaporate, and you’ll have spent a lot of time blowing with no bubble to show for it. Now a master storyteller can use this effect to his or her advantage. Get the right amount of solution on the wand and then just vibrate the blazes out of it with a gentle blow, tantalizing your audience, who is going to wonder if anything will every come of it. Just when it looks like the solution has almost evaporated too much to work, you pick up the airflow and form the bubble right before their eyes. Or, you might just keep it vibrating, a red herring, and simply let it dissolve out of the wand. Better be sure of your skills, though, because you want your audience to know you blew it, not to think you blew it.

And do you recall how if you blow at one intensity you get a single bubble, and if you blow with a different push you get a string of small bubbles? In fact, you can even get a series of medium bubbles if you find that narrow mid-range.

Dramatically, you can drop a lot of little bits of information, a few mid-sized bits of information, or one big bit, all with a single blow. (Killed 7 with one blow!). These are the Multi-Appreciation-Moments (M.A.M.) in which a single dramatic movement, passage, or discourse propels more than one dramatic element into the story.

Bubbles have size. The size of a bubble, in writing as in soap (or in writing “soaps”), depends primarily on the size of your wand and the huff in your blow.

Short stories are one size wand. Mini-series are another. Haiku are still one more. Each one has a maximum size of bubble it can produce, no matter how hard you blow. But size isn’t everything. There is such a thing as the beauty of perfection. Your idea is your solution, your format is your wand; try to make sure not to blow too hard for the wand/solution ratio you are using.

Surface Tension – wonderful phrase, that! Someone should use that for a title. More wonderful still is the way it works. Stories are about structure and passion. Your solution is about water and soap. Too much water and nothing happens. Too much soap and it all glops up. When you get the right mix of structure and passion, you’ve got the right raw material for a great bubble.

What holds the surface of the bubble together is the attraction among the soap and water molecules. What keeps it from collapsing is a slightly higher pressure on the inside than on the outside. A larger bubble has more tension because there is more surface. And yet, the total surface area of a collection of smaller bubbles far exceeds that of a single bubble occupying the same space. In addition, smaller bubbles are more stable, lasting far longer.

Use big bubbles for big events of singular identity with a limited life span. Use smaller bubbles collectively as a consistent foundation of longer duration.

Put your ear to the soap foam on dishwater or a hot bath, and though the mass remains largely constant, you can hear the satisfying snap, crackle, and pop of individual bubbles as they burst. Such formations can add stability to your story, even while providing an underlying level of surface tension, punctuated by hundreds of tiny eruptions. In addition, you can shape foam into all kinds of complex forms, while the shape of individual bubbles is far more limited.

While bubbles, on their own, are usually round, if you dip a bent piece of wire (such as a clothes hanger) in solution, you can create triangles, squares, and even approximations of hyper-cubes!
Although one might argue that the film from one wire side to the next does not comprise a bubble, and the enclosed area of such a shape does not either, guided by these outside influences a shaped bubble may indeed occur within the space bounded by the wires that doesn’t directly touch the wires. One shape, for example, may create a square bubble within another bubble. So, although the larger bubble is directly connected to the wires, the inner bubble is only connected to the planar surfaces of the outer bubble.

Ah, but I wax scientific. Fact is, the “set pieces” of your story are the wires dipped into your dramatic solution. An obvious heavy-handed control technique, you can also create very specific shapes by building those second-generation bubbles within bubbles, which are not formed by direct influence of your set pieces, but rather by indirect influence from being attached to those dramatics that ARE connected to the set pieces.

It’s a great point, but not for the faint of heart.

Bubbles combine. When two bubbles encounter each other, they might just bounce off like billiard balls. But if conditions are right, they join, creating a common interface between them. They are spherical except where they are joined, which becomes a flat side. More than two bubbles can combine, and when they do, all sorts of additional, symmetrical interfaces are created.

You entire story should be like a collection of bubbles, interfaced together. Each single bubble is another dramatic element or point. Over the course of your story you have blown them one by one until your story has fully taken shape. Then, on their one, one by one they begin to pop. Some of the solution is spattered away, some is absorbed by the remaining bubbles. Due to the extra solution, the remaining bubbles pop faster and faster until all the original bubbles have burst.

Let’s close by seeing how bubble science can help describe what your characters do you in your story. Suppose Sally calls on the phone complaining to Jane about a personal issue she is facing. Jane knows just what to say, but simply saying it will be rejected and not have the comforting effect she wants. In fact, Jane is smart enough to realize that she has to start out slow and easy, and over the course of the conversation blow a bubble of comfort big enough to enclose the problem.

So, with patience, Jane continues to talk to Sally, starting by enclosing a small part of the issue, then slowly expanding her support until it hold the whole thing inside. Now if Jane is too full of herself, has the habit of “beating a dead horse,” is emotionally needy herself and has to have confirmation from Sally that her problem is completely solved, or is just inexperienced, then she won’t know when to stop blowing and will continue pumping support into the conversation until the bubble gets so large it bursts.

But, if she knows what she’s doing, Jane will recognize when the bubble is big enough and then pull away the wand and stop blowing so that the sphere can form. She can do this by changing the subject, not off-topic, but to something tangential, to something touched upon in the conversation, but instead of talking about the part of that new topic that was connected to the personal problem, she now talks about other aspects of that topic that don’t involve Sally’s original issue.

Moving sideways in topic at the right time is like pulling the wand sideways from the bubble so that it can close.

Of course, Sally might be mired in her problem and stuck to the wand. But Anne may be in the room with Jane, hear that Sally is trying to come back to the original issue, and (being a good friend and student of psychology) realize another lateral move is needed. Anne would then raise her hand to get Jane’s attention (who would ask Sally to hold for a moment). Anne offers another off-topic comment based on what she has heard of the conversation. Jane passes the comment on to Sally on Anne’s behalf, and now Sally has been doubly distracted. At this point, either the bubble is free of the wand, or Sally simply won’t let go.

If the bubble is free, then it’s effect will remain within Sally long after the conversation and will work to resolve her angst. If it is not free, the air will just whoosh right back out of the wand and the bubble will deflate as if it never was, and Sally can go on moping about her problem.

Now, you might think this is all very complex, but it is this kind of bubble interaction that makes characters seem fluid rather than built of bricks. But do real people act like that? Sure they do. In fact, the very dramatic scenario I just described happened to me two days ago. That’s how I got the idea for this writing tip.

I was “Jane,” and with “Anne’s” perceptive interjection, I was able to assuage Sally’s angst, free the bubble, and Sally has been quite happy for the last 48 hours.

Real life psychology, character psychology, story psychology… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Your Story’s Title

What’s in a name? Having at least a working title will help you start your story, even if you ultimately change the title.

The title of your story may or may not have dramatic significance. In some cases, the meaning of the title may become apparent only during the course or even at the end of a story. There have even been stories in which the final understanding of the message is only achieved when the title becomes the last piece in the puzzle.


Imagine all the other titles Star Wars might have had. In fact, it was originally titled Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode One of the Star Wars, then Adventures of Luke Starkiller, then The Journal Of The Whills. You can immediately feel the impact of a change in title on your impression of the story.

Consider the value of other example titles such as The Verdict; (which refers to the story’s climax), Alien; (refers to the subject matter), and The Silence of the Lambs ;(refers to the Main Character’s personal problems).

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Use Index Cards

Use index cards to work out the scenes in your script

Index cards (3×5 or 5×7 in size) are often used by screenwriters to plan out the sequence of events in their stories. Usually, a script has many different dramatic threads. The trick is how to weave them together over the timeline of the movie. For example, you might have several key challenges for your hero to overcome. You describe each of these on a different index card. You tack them up on the wall or lay them out on the table (or floor) and stand back and look at them. You see how the action seems to flow from one to another. Perhaps it seems that the ending is a bit anti-climactic, or that the build of dramatic tension isn’t right. So, you rearrange the order of the cards until you arrive at and order that feels the best.

Then, you may realize that you actually have a gap in the action that requires the creation of another challenge. So, looking at what comes before and what comes after, you determine the kind of action that is needed, and make a new card to fill the gap.

You might also realize that you have two challenges that are too much alike, or that would happen too close to each other, so you decide to lose one, or combine two into a single one that makes it all the stronger.

Then, you may know that you want a series of arguments between the hero and a love interest. In one creative session, you may work out how many arguments you want, and what each is about. You describe each of these arguments on a different index card.

As with the hero’s challenges, you tack up the cards and arrange them in the best possible order, filling gaps with new cards, and deleting or combining cards until the flow is right.

Since a movie generally focuses on one dramatic situation at a time, then intercuts among several different threads as necessary, your next job is to combine both the challenge thread and the argument thread into the overall timeline of your script.

You might decide to start with the first challenge card, then go to the first argument, and alternate. Or you might start with the first argument, have a second argument, and then two challenges in a row.

There are no “rules” as to how the two threads of cards should be shuffled together. It is purely a choice of how you wish to impact your audience.

You may even find that once you have blended the two threads into a single timeline, that combination highlights the need for an additional challenge or another argument, or perhaps the removal of one or the other. You might even be able to see the need for a whole new thread that is suggested once the first two threads are combined. So you create a third set of index cards, put them in order, and then weave them into the other two.

In this manner, many screenwriters work out the basic beats and flow of their stories so they have a loose blueprint from which to write, and therefore don’t get stuck in a logistic corner, or an emotional dead end.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Break Up Monologues

Break up long monologs among several characters

There are some moments in some movies in which a long monolog by a single individual works well. Any inspiring public speech, for example, or when one character holds others transfixed with a tirade or diatribe. But movies are an action medium, and most of the time a long-winded dissertation by one character while the others simply stand and react gets boring very quickly.

To avoid this, take your longer speeches and distribute the material to one or more additional characters. It is far more interesting to see what everyone has to say on the issue, than to see what one person has to say.

Think about real life situations. Aside from presentations and reports in a business situation, or structured events such as a ceremony, no one thinks well of someone who hogs the conversation. Let you characters make their point, then let someone else have a turn. Good examples of this can be found in the original Howard Hawk’s production of “The Thing,” and also in “The Big Chill,” both of which have extensive exposition and opinion, but no one says more than a few lines at a time before another chimes in with his two cents’ worth.

The exceptions, of course, is when someone gets all wrapped up in his own rhetoric, as when an individual muses, reminisces, waxes poetic, or proclaims a higher truth with fire in his eyes. People don’t mind if a good storyteller talks forever. Look at the long pontifications of the characters in “Network.” But even these are handled as special moments, and the ebb and flow of normal conversation continues in between, serving both to break up the monotony, and also to uplift the long passages by contrast.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Red Herrings

The old expression, “A Red Herring,” means something that is intentionally misleading. In screenplays, a red herring is a scene, which is set up intentionally to mislead an audience.

One example is in the movie, “The Fugitive,” with Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble. He escapes from the prison bus, gets some street clothes, and is on the run.

He waits under a bridge and when an associate that he worked with stops his car for a red light, Kimble steps out and pretends to be a homeless person trying to wash his windshield for a buck. He uses this action as a “cover” while he holds a conversation with the associate to get some information and help.

In the background, out of focus, a police car slowly approach behind the associate’s car. You don’t see it at first because you are concentrating on the conversation. The police car stops. Suddenly, it’s lights and siren comes on. The audience is sure the jig is up. Kimble turns to look at it, and the police car whips around the associate’s car and takes off for some call it received.

The initial impression was that Kimble was about to be recaptured because the cops had recognized him. The “reality” was that they were just on patrol, got a call, and sped off with sirens wailing.

Red Herrings can be used for anything from the momentary shock value as above, to making a bad guy appear to be a good guy.

To make it work, you have to do two primary things:

1. Don’t leave out essential information or the audience will feel manipulated. Tricking your audience by misleading them is fun for them. But if you fool them by leaving out information they would legitimately have expected to be told about, then you are just screwing with them.

Red herrings are best accomplished by having information that is taken in one context and then the context is changed. This way, you aren’t holding back, you are just changing the perspective.

Your audience invests its emotions in your story. You don’t want to violate them. As an example, there is an old joke about a nurse in a maternity ward who comes in to a mother’s room carrying the new baby. She trips and falls and the baby hits the floor. Then, she gets mad at it for falling, picks it up, swings it around and bashes it against the wall. The mother is in hysterics. The nurse picks up the kid and says, “April Fool – it was born dead.” Don’t do this to your audience.

A better approach is to see a mom yank her child by the arm in a very abusive way while walking down the street. First reaction is she is an ogre and you run to stop her. Just then, you see the truck come whipping around the corner that would’ve hit and killed the child, and you stop in your tracks realizing the mom was saving his life. You look again, and the is hugging and holding him, and she is crying because he was almost lost, and because she startled him. Psychologists call it “Primary Attribution Error,” and you can use it to your advantage. If done properly, they will love you for it.

2. Don’t change the rules of the game just to make things happen another way or the audience will feel that you lied to them.

The audience will give you their trust. They expect that what you tell them is the truth. They build on each bit of information, trying to understand the big picture.

You can easily change context to show something in a different light, but don’t tell them one thing and then simply say, “Oh that wasn’t true, I was just messing with you.”

That is a sure way to lose their trust, and once lost, you’ll never get it back.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Don’t Say It!

Don’t say it if you can show it!

Movies are a visual medium. The strongest impact is created by what is seen, not what is said. Although we might marvel at well-written dialog, it is the moving shadows that capture our imagination.

Before writing a dialog scene, consider the information you are trying to convey. Consider visual alternatives that would show the audience rather then tell them. Even character development can often be more effective by seeing what the character does, rather than listening to what he or she says.

If you do need to say it, try to create a visually interesting situation in which the dialog can occur. I once had to do an interview on a big-budget industrial film with a geologist about drilling for bauxite samples 50 miles outside of Van Horn Texas in the middle of a desert.

I could have just gone to the site, set up the camera, and filmed him in front of the rig. But when he picked me up at the airstrip, he was in a dusty, beat-up pickup truck, and headed down the rough dirt road at literally 100 miles an hour.

I took out the camera and did the entire interview while bouncing around in the cab. When we arrived at the site, I simply shot a lot of silent footage of the goings on. When we cut it all together, we began with the truck interview, and then cut away to the various aspects of the job as the geologist spoke. It created a riveting three-minute sequence and pleased the client immensely.

So if you have dialog to deliver and you can’t really communicate the information in a visual way, consider changing the location or engaging your characters in some activity that will at least add a visual element.

You might have them conversing during one-on-one basketball, while doing yard work, chasing after a dog that needs a bath – whatever. And if all else fails, don’t ignore the potential of a cheap cinematic trick.

You can do a scene completely in silhouette, seen from the POV of a goldfish in a bowl, from another room as a janitor stops to listen and then continues with his cleaning.

You can even get overt. There was a television program many years ago called “Then Came Bronson,” starring Michael Parks. It was noted for trying new visual techniques. For one long dialog conversation, the director shot the two characters from the side, walking along a sidewalk across the street. He shot them silent in several locations with different backgrounds, always the same distance away, walking at the same pace. In the editing room, he cut from one location to the next so that it appeared as if the characters were continuing to walk and the background jumped from one to another behind them. The dialog was then added over the sequence as a whole.

This simple technique gave power to an otherwise uninteresting scene, added the impression that they had been talking for a long walk all over town, but got the verbal information across as concisely as possible. So look for visual opportunities to enliven dialog, and if there aren’t any, make them.