Saturday, November 22, 2014

Robert McKee: A Writer’s Method

Robert McKee: A Writer’s Method


Yesterday I finally finished “Story” by Robert McKee. It’s an excellent writing resource, one I would recommend to anyone interested in kicking their writing up a notch.

Although McKee’s book is primarily for screenwriters much of what he says is applicable to novelists as well. Why? Because what writers and screenwriters are both concerned about above anything else is creating a terrific story.

In this post, I’d like to focus on something McKee says at the end of his book about a writer’s methodology. 

McKee writes that, generally speaking, there are two ways to write a story: from the outside in and from the inside out. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Writing from the outside in.


Here’s the skeleton of this idea:

1. Person comes up with a fantastic idea.
2. Person commits the idea to paper by writing a first draft. This process can take a few weeks, months or years.
3. In subsequent drafts, person tries to fit the ideas teased out in the rough draft into some kind of structure.

I think this is what most writers do. They sit down, sketch out a few ideas, have two or three ideas that fit together in interesting ways, they have a vague-ish feeling for what is going to happen in the middle and at the end, and then they put their butt in their chair and they write.

Writing from the inside out.


Here’s the skeleton:

1. Person comes up with a fantastic idea.
2. Person fiddles with the idea (or ideas) and creates a (~10 page) step-outline; this gives them the overall structure of the story. This process can take a few weeks or a few months. (No dialogue is written during this stage.)
3. The step-outline is turned into a 60 to 90 page treatment.
4. Person writes a first draft.

The Step-Outline: Two Parts


Part One


A step-outline is a lot like an outline with one major difference that I’ll get to in a moment. Here you describe each scene in the story. What is the setting? (Indoors? Outdoors?) Which characters are in it? What goals do the characters have, and are their goals thwarted? If so, how? What are the stakes? What kind of emotional change occurs? And so on. 

An outline usually runs around 10 pages, give or take. So let’s do the math. Let’s say an 80,000 word novel has about 60 scenes in it. So at 300 words a page, 10 pages would be 3,000 words which would mean each scene description would run roughly 50 words. 

(If you’re wondering how much 50 words is, the above paragraph is roughly that length.)

Part Two


The second part of a step-outline—and this is the bit I said I’d get to—is that, for each scene ...

“[...] the writer indicates what step in the design of the story he sees this scene fulfilling—at least for the moment. Which scenes set up the Inciting Incident? Which is the Inciting Incident? First Act Climax? Perhaps a Mid-Act Climax? Second Act? Third? Fourth? Or more? He does this for Central Plot and subplots alike.”

(For more on three-act and four-act structures, see Parts of Story: A General Story Structure and A Four Act Structure.)

You might be wondering, WHY on earth go into this much detail? Here’s McKee’s answer: to destroy your work.

When I first read that I was taken aback. What? Destroy our work? Why would any sane writer (which, granted, might be a contradiction in terms) want to destroy his/her work? McKee Explains:

“Taste and experience tell him that 90 percent of everything he writes, regardless of his genius, is mediocre at best. In his patient search for quality, he must create far more material than he can use, then destroy it. He may sketch a scene a dozen different ways before finally throwing the idea of the scene out of the outline. He may destroy sequences, whole acts.”

I can imagine Lee Child shuddering. 

When I read this I wondered, Is that true? Are 90 percent of my ideas thrown out? But ... yes. I have to say that more-or-less matches what I do now. By the time I reach the final draft of a story most of the original ideas have been discarded or transformed in some way. And I think that usually works out for the best, one’s first impulse, though often good, is often not the very best that could be achieved. In any case, it’s something to think about.

Pitching


After you’ve got the step-outline done you need to work up a pitch so you can get feedback from others. (For more on writing a pitch see: The Structure of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.) And most people want to do this before they write a first draft because they may find they need to go back to the drawing board.

McKee writes:

“[The writer] wants to tell or pitch his story so he can see it unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of another human being. He wants to look in that person’s eyes and see the story happen there. So he pitches and studies the reactions: Is my friend hooked by my Inciting Incident? Listening and leaning in? Or are his eyes wandering? Am I holding him as I build and turn the progressions? And when I hit the Climax, do I get a strong reaction of the kind I want?”

You want your story to grab the person’s attention, to cause him to experience the emotions you were trying to elicit. McKee continues:

“Regardless of genre, if a story can’t work in ten minutes, how will it work in 110 minutes? It won’t get better when it gets bigger. Everything that’s wrong with it in a ten-minute pitch is ten times worse onscreen.”

Again, obviously, McKee is directing those remarks to screenwriters, but it holds for novelists as well. If we can’t hold someone’s attention through a 5 or 10 minute pitch, good luck holding their attention for the 10 or so hours it will take them to read the book!

The Treatment


After the step-outline is completed screenwriters create what’s called a treatment. While opinions differ as to how long a treatment should be, McKee holds a treatment should be about 60 to 90 double-spaced pages while others claim that 5 to 10 will usually get the job done. My guess is that what McKee calls an outline others refer to as a treatment. Whatever. As long as we know what we’re talking about the name isn’t important.

What goes into a treatment?

The idea is to expand “each scene from its one or two sentences to a paragraph or more of double-spaced, present-tense, moment by moment description.”

So, again, let’s say we’re writing an 80,000 word book and that our treatment will come out to 80 double-sided pages. That’s 24,000 words. Dividing that into 60 scenes we get 400 words. 

One thing to note is that dialogue isn’t included in a treatment. McKee writes:

“In treatment the writer indicates what characters talk about—‘he wants her to do this, but she refuses,’ for example—but never writes dialogue. Instead, he creates the subtext—the true thoughts and feelings underneath what is said and done. We may think we know what our characters are thinking and feeling, but we don’t know until we write it down.”

McKee holds that “dialogue written after in-depth preparation creates character-specific voices.” Which is a pretty big payoff.

Analysis


I think McKee is onto something. Myself, I use what McKee might view as an unholy amalgam of the two methods.

For example, as you may recall from previous posts, despite being a died in the wool fan of murder mysteries I’ve never written one. So, just a few weeks ago I cooked up an idea to write a short murder mystery (around 10,000 words) in seven (or so) parts but I wanted my sleuth to have a superpower. As a bonus, I had the first two scenes clear in my head.

So far, so good. I sat down and wrote the scenes I had in mind and then realized the story was turning into a thriller rather than a whodunit. So I drew up a detailed outline using most of the character’s I’d created in my first attempt. I broke the story into scenes and sketched out how each scene would end. Then I determined which characters would appear in which scenes and (first) what the clues would be and (second) where and how to fit them in.

Now I just have to put my butt in my chair and write. (grin)

Do you have a writing method you stick to or do you write by the seat of your pants?

Photo credit: "Look, a bird" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings



A well-written opening reflects the kind of story you’ve written. If it’s a horror then the opening should communicate this; similarly for romances, mysteries, westerns and so on. While many stories employ archetypes—in fact, I think that the very best stories always do—the level of involvement varies.

Before I discuss that, though, lets talk about the difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Archetypes vs Stereotypes


I think of a stereotype as a solid unchanging but shallow impression, with the added sense that it doesn’t truly reflect the person portrayed. That is, it doesn’t accurately represent the humanity, the deeper truth, of the situation.

An archetype, on the other hand, is something we’re connected to on the basis of shared experience. For example, I think we’ve all had the experience of hearing something that shouldn’t go bump-in-the-dark go bump-in-the-dark. 

We have all been alone in the cold dark and felt things glide silently through the darkness, coming for us. When we write a story about such things, such shared experiences, even though we might not have the writing skill of, say, Gillian Flynn, our readers are there with us. They are inside our character’s skin and it is the reader’s awareness of being in similar situations, that archetypal awareness, that connects them to that character.

Now, I can hear you asking ...

Given that definition aren’t all openings archetypal?


 I believe that all effective openings are archetypal to some degree, but that some are more so than others. For example:

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford)

Anyone who has ever been very sad (and who hasn’t?) can connect with this. In that sense, this is an archetypal opening. It would have also worked if instead of “saddest” the author had used “most horrific” or “bloodiest” or “most profane,” and so on. Choose your superlative ... though “most boring,” although archetypal, wouldn’t have the same punch.

Mythology, Urban Mythology and Archetypes


Carl Jung was one of the first to notice the archetypal nature of myth, folktales and what, today, we call urban legends. Take, for instance, one of my favorite folktales: Baba-Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Here’s how one version of that tale begins:

“A long time ago there lived a merchant and his wife; they had one child, a girl called Vasilisa. One day the mother placed a little doll in the child's hands, she said, ‘My child, I am dying. Take this doll as my blessing. Always keep it with you and never show it to anybody. If anything bad happens to you, give the doll food and ask her for guidance.’ Shortly afterwards the mother died.”

This opening got my attention. Yes, a question has been raised here (If the child feeds the doll will it give her guidance?) but I feel that the archetypal nature of the story is announced by the mother’s death. 

The death of those who raised us, who nurtured us when we were children, is (unfortunately) something that connects us all. It is something that, even though Vasilisa’s character is never really fleshed out, connects us to her and makes us care what happens to her.

Death As An Archetype


What I’m about to say doesn’t have anything to do with openings but since we’re discussing archetypes I think it’s relevant. Often at the middle or two-thirds point of a story a major character dies, or comes very near death (occasionally a character seems to die but is resuscitated).

One of the archetypes that runs through the fabric of human existence is our shared realization of life’s inevitable end. When a character dies we cannot help but be gripped by it. When a character almost dies and somehow finds a way back, we cannot help but be moved by the experience. 

Summary 


By weaving these archetypal experiences and events into our stories we increase the reader’s involvement in that story. (And, yes, of course, this involvement would be helped along by creating rounded characters.) (See: Crafting Interesting Characters; Creating Vivid Characters for NaNoWriMo; Preparing to write a story: characters.)

And that’s it for archetypal openings! Granted, much more can be said about this, but not much more can be said in under 1,000 words! If you’d like to read more about archetypes in the human experience (and you haven’t already) pick up a copy of Carl Jung’s “Man And His Symbols.” Although you may not agree with everything Jung says it is an interesting read.

This is the last, the final, post in my Six Ways To Begin A Story series (click on the link to go to the first one which contains a handy-dandy index), I hope you enjoyed it.

If you have any questions, or any suggestions for future posts, please leave a comment or contact me.

Photo credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Writing, Memory Palaces And The Power Of The Bizarre




The other day I started reading “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer. Among other things, Foer talks about the art of memory and how to create one’s own memory palace.

You might wonder what on earth mnemonics and memory palaces have to do with writing. If so, fair question. Have you ever watched “Connections” with James Burke? Burke, an historian, takes an “interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention” and shows how various “discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events” brought about “particular aspects of modern technology.”

Sound interesting? It is! If you’re any kind of a history buff try to dig up a copy of the series.[1] 

In what follows I’d like to take you on a vaguely Burkian journey to explore what connects the art of memory and the art of writing.

Memory Palaces


You’ve probably heard of a memory palace, these days it seems all the best detectives and serial killers have one: Hannibal Lecter; the latest incarnation of my favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes; Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) and I’m sure many others.

But what is a memory palace and—here’s the big question—does it work? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be a resounding “Yes!”

What Is A Memory Palace?


Improving one’s memory is an art, an art that was widely practiced in antiquity.[2] 

A memory palace can help anyone remember vast amounts of information, anything that can be put into list form.[3] For example:

- Homer’s Iliad
- Your grocery list
- All the characters in the novel you’re reading, along with their occupations and distinguishing characteristics (tags & traits).
- All the characters in all the stories you’ve written. (Perhaps you’re not like me, but I find it easy to forget minor characters.)
- The birthdays of all your friends.
- Directions. (Yes, I know, these days there’s Google Maps. But what if you’re in a—cue ominous music—dead zone.)

If, like me, you’re just interested in memorizing all the characters in the books you read—and maybe your shopping list—then after an initial effort (setting up your memory palace and practicing to get a knack for it) you’ll be set. You might not be able to memorize a shuffled deck of playing cards but memorizing your shopping list in a matter of seconds will be within your grasp.

Actually, forgetting the darn thing will be the issue!

Building A Memory Palace


One technique that’s commonly used to build memory palaces is called the method of loci.

Here’s the essence, the basis, of how it’s done: you memorize the layout of a building that is significant to you. It could be the place you grew up in, it could be the place where you now live, it could even be the shops on a street or the route you use to walk to work. 

You then pick out significant places, or loci. In a house significant loci might be the mailbox, the front door, the welcome mat, the lamp, a rug, a closet, the dining table, the kitchen table, a door, and so on. Or, if you’ve chosen something like your walk to work, it could be your neighbors car (he always parks under the maple tree), the start of a path, driveways, the trees (shrubs, flowerbeds, etc.) in your neighbors yards.

Now, here’s the key bit:

“When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally 'walks' through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items.” (Method of loci)

For example, the author of “Moonwalking with Einstein” describes constructing his first memory palace. The building he chose was the house he grew up in. He then selected various places within the house (the driveway, the front door, the piano, the lamp in the entryway, the dining table, and so on) to anchor vivid images which were associated with what he desired to remember. 

For instance, since he wanted to remember pickled garlic he put a large jar of pickled garlic in the driveway. When he did this he used all his senses. He pictured a large jar of pickled garlic, the green and white label, the bloated white fleshy roots. He imaged the pungent smell, he felt the weight of the jar in his hands, and so on. In other words, he tried to engage as many of the five senses as he could. (Perhaps he even imagined the dull ringing of his knuckles on the glass)

One of the other items on the list was six bottles of wine. To make these more memorable he pictured them animated, each with its own personality. The different wines were arguing with each other over which was the best. 

And so on.

Over the years I’ve used this technique to memorize where I’d parked my car, but I never approached it in any systematic way and have never tried to keep more than two or three things in extended memory. Lately I’ve wondered why that was. After all, wouldn’t it be great to remember all the characters in the books I read, what they look like and the role they played in the plot? That would be fabulous! 

So I’ve committed made it my goal to, not master the skill, but develop it to the point where I don’t have to write a shopping list, I can keep the items in my mind. (Yes, well, we’ll see. But you have to admit it would be wonderful!)

What Memory Palaces Have To Do With Writing


Here’s where I try and cash out all this talk about memory palaces and explain how the heck this could help one as a writer. (I’ve just started to think about this so what follows may be a bit rough around the edges.)

For those of us interested in selling our stories so we can do this crazy thing full time, one of the questions which concerns us and which I’ve talked about lately in my series on openings is: How can we grab, and keep, a readers attention?

In the past I’ve given several, related, answers. I’ve talked about the importance of suspense and how to create it, I’ve talked about narrative drive, dramatic irony and the virtues of raising a question in a readers mind and delaying the answer. (I’ve put links to a few of those articles, below) But I’ve always had the feeling that I’ve been dancing around something, something (arguably) central to who we are as humans.


At several points in “Moonwalking with Einstein” the author makes the point that the more outlandish the images one uses that, all things being equal, the easier they will be to remember. He writes:

“The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are pretty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember a long time.””

The author continues:

“The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I was learning, is the ability to create these sorts of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten.”

Writing And Memorability


The hero of Lee Child’s books, Jack Reacher, is certainly memorable. The man is 6'5" tall with a 50-inch chest, and weighs between 220 and 250 pounds. (Wikipedia

Stephen King’s breakthrough book, Carrie (his first published, though not the first he’d written) opens with a girl having her menstrual period for the first time in the communal showers at her high school. The other girls respond by berating her and throwing tampons at her. 

At the climax of the story Carrie and Tommy (the only boy who ever cared about her) are drenched with buckets of pigs blood as they stand on stage in front of the entire school. One of the buckets hits Tommy on the head and kills him. Then Carrie goes on a rampage through town using her telekinetic abilities with all the finesse of Godzilla.

I love King’s work but one thing you can certainly say about Carrie is that it’s memorable.

Or take another novel, one not obviously a horror. In “Sophie’s Choice” Sophie Zawistowski tells Stingo that when her and her two children were taken to a Nazi concentration camp she was forced to choose which of her children would live and which would die. It was a horrid choice, an obscene choice, but one that was certainly memorable.

This got me thinking. Many of the stories I like the most—even stories like Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” or “Light in August”—have one thing in common: they are about events that are eminently memorable.

Honestly, I’ve only just started to think about this, about the extent that memorability of events should be up there with suspense (narrative drive, etc), at least when it comes to tempting readers to keep turning pages. 

And what is it, exactly, that makes an event memorable? I’m going to come back to this in a future post but, for now, memorability seems connected to various things we’ve already heard a lot about:

- Descriptions of things, events or characters that involve the five senses.
- Events, things or characters that are shocking or unusual. That are remarkable.
- Events, things or characters that are prohibited or forbidden.

That’s it for today! 

Do you use a technique to aid in memorization? Have you ever used a memory palace? If so, please tell us what kind of information you found it easiest to memorize. Did you find that outlandish pictures/images aided in memorization?

Notes:


1. Connections was followed by The Day the Universe Changed, Connections 2, Connections 3 and, most recently, Re-Connections.

2. To read more about this see “The Art of Memory” by Frances A. Yates.

3. “A recent world speed record for memorizing a deck of cards was 21.19 seconds, held by Simon Reinhard of Germany.” (Memory Sport)

Photo credit: This image came from "Psychological Hacks" over at imgur and was posted by (I love this handle -->) NotThe1. I encourage you to head over and read the article, it's a good summary of how to get started using your own memory palace.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Humor

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Humor


Humorous Openings


I think that comedy and drama go hand in hand and, clearly, I’m not the only one.

(BTW, this post is part of a series on story openings. Here’s the first post: Six Ways To Begin A Story. At the bottom of that post there’s an index to all the other posts.)

These days even non-writers know who Vince Gilligan is. Breaking Bad has zoomed past popular to become a cultural phenomenon. And it’s obvious why. The show is well written, well acted, well produced. There’s something, though, I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about. I came across it the other day when I listened to the Breaking Bad insider podcast. Gilligan said that every scene had to have two things: a goal and something humorous. Gilligan believes that comedy and drama are two muscles in the same arm. (see: Vince Gilligan and the Dark Comedy of ‘Breaking Bad’)

Which brings us to the question ...

What’s funny?


What’s funny varies from person to person. One person will love puns while another can’t stand them, one person laughs at things another would find insulting. And so on. But, really, this isn’t all that different from prose writing. One person loves science fiction, another hates it. One person likes fantasy, another rolls their eyes at it. And so on.

Still, people can learn to be funnier. 

In what follows I’m going to look at five openings that made me chuckle then I’m going to try and take them apart and ask: WHY were these funny? What is it about them that made me grin?

Examples of humorous opening lines


The examples below are from the article 30 Funniest Opening Lines of Books.

1. “I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.” (Breaking Up by William H. Manville)

2. “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson)

3. “For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple. I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.” (Seven Up by Janet Evanovich)

4. “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean)

5. “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’” (The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul by Douglas Adams)

So, again, my question is: What characteristic, what property, what aspect of these openings makes them funny?

The Principles of Humor


This section heading is somewhat tongue in cheek since I don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules to being funny. There is no algorithm that will produce the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld. The principles that follow are merely starting points, gestures toward something one must find within themselves.

1. Repetition


Repetition sets up a joke by creating an expectation. When this expectation is subverted we often smile (or laugh or howl or whatever) if it’s done cleverly. There are various kinds of repetition.

a. The Rule of Three


“Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the setup) and then misdirecting the reader (with the punch line). One simple way of doing this is to pair two like ideas in a list and then add a third, incongruent, idea. [...] Here’s an example of a sentence using the Rule of Three: Losing weight is simple: Eat less, exercise more and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.” (How to Write Better Using Humor)

Here’s another example, this time from Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett:

“Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.” 

Here the first two items in the list are wars and plagues. Nasty stuff. Not the sort of thing people laugh about. Then: sudden audits. We’re not talking about the same level of soul-sucking horror, but ... Anyone who’s had to do their taxes gets the joke.

b. Expressions


I said, above, that certain kinds of comedy rely on misdirection. This works especially well with phrases your readers have heard/read many times and are, perhaps, slightly bored of. Cliches. As Leigh Anne Jasheway mentions, if one writes, “You can lead a horse to water …” readers can’t help but anticipate reading “… but you can’t make him drink.” When that expectation is subverted the reader is ever so slightly confused, but there’s something pleasant about looking at something old in a new way. We’re a curious species. 

Leigh Anne Jasheway uses the title of Sarah Snell Cooke’s Credit Union Times article as an example: “You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Can’t Make Him THINK.” She writes:

“Don’t limit yourself to old idioms: Cliché jokes can work with any widely known catchphrase, title, lyric or piece of literature (say, Dr. Seuss). Lyla Blake Ward’s book How to Succeed at Aging Without Really Dying, for example, is titled with a play on the well-known musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. You also don’t need to confine your creativity to just replacing a word or two.” (How to Write Better Using Humor)

A final example because I love his writing: The title to Terry Pratchett’s book “The Fifth Elephant.”

2. Comparisons


In Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor Alex Shvartsman writes that the comparison joke is a writer’s best friend. His example: 

The Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.

That’s good. As Alex Shvartsman points out, your audience has to know a bit about both the Game of Thrones and Twitter for this joke to work, but if they do, it’s funny. 

3. The Absurd and Hyperbole


Woody Allen in his article, Money Can Buy Happiness—As If, writes:

“The final tragedy was Milo Vorpich. When Merrill Lynch went under, Vorpich put everything he owned into his mattress. All deposits and withdrawals were made from his Sealy Posturepedic.”

That made me smile. The image of a banker making deposits and withdrawals from ... not just a mattress, but a specific kind of mattress, a Sealy Posturepedic. It’s absurd. The two ideas the joke is based on (keeping money in a mattress and someone making deposits and withdrawals from a bank account) are perfectly normal, but put them together and the result is pleasantly absurd.

The openings classified:


I promised I would talk about which principles were involved in the examples I chose, so lets go through them. I’ll look at three things: a. repetition, b. comparison, c. the absurd.

1. (“I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.”) 


a. Repetition. The first part of the sentence sets up an expectation. How do men usually feel about their wives leaving them? One imagines they’d be sad. Manville subverts this expectation. There’s no repetition here, but, still, the first part of the sentence is strong enough to set up a clear expectation.

b. There is a comparison. How other men feel vs how the narrator feels.

c. The absurd. Yes, I think this qualifies. Not many men would help their wives pack ... well, unless their idea of helping was to throw her things out the window!

2. (“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”) 


The principles involved, here, seem essentially identical to (1). Again, there’s no repetition as such, but whatever I expected to read after the first sentence, it wasn’t “Somebody had to.”) Also, there seems to be an implicit comparison, the people who come from Des Moines (if we are to believe the author, a set of one) and everyone else. I’m not sure, though, if suggesting that no one other than the author has left the town qualifies as absurd. 

3. (“For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple. I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.”)


I’m beginning to see a pattern here! It seems that what all the sentences I chose as examples share is: they subverted my expectations in a way I thought was clever.

That’s it! If you have an example of a humorous opening you especially liked, please share it.

My series on story openings is nearly done, only one is left: archetypes. I’ll try and get to that on Monday. Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "Laughing Up A Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings




The Character Opening


The character story opening is my favorite kind of opening, though it’s arguably the trickiest to pull off. 

At the moment I’m on a Gillian Flynn reading jag. Her books, all but the first, start out with strong, shocking, character descriptions. 

Here’s the first few lines of her second book, Dark Places:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.”

Dark Places is (or so it seems to me, I’m about 25% of the way through) a mystery wrapped in a horror story. But not supernatural horror, not the kind one can laugh off after leaving the theater. This is about something that feels real, the sort of thing we hear about on the news and are enraged by, or crushed by, for a few hours or days until the ebb and flow of our daily lives draws us back and makes us forget the evil that lurks beneath the skin. 

Gillian Flynn smashes off a chunk of that evil and forms her all-too-human characters with it.

But perhaps horror isn’t your cup of tea. (It would make a nasty cuppa, black and bitter and deadly.)

His jaw was long and bony ...


Here’s one of my favorite first paragraphs:

“Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

Yes, this is also a descriptive opening, but it gives us a peek (if I may put it like this) into the protagonist’s soul. It gives us a broad hint at exactly how difficult Sam would be to manipulate and how far he might take things. 

Why Do These Openings Work?


I want to write a longer post on why certain openings are effective but, here, I’d say that both openings surprise (perhaps even shock) the reader. Also, both openings have an intimate tone. And both these protagonists are, let’s face it, strange.

Most importantly, though, each opening raises questions.

In Dark Places the question is one of nature vs nurture. One asks: Why does the protagonist (Libby Day) have a meanness inside her? Is she correct, is it a matter of who she is, a matter of her blood? Is it the case that there’s something wrong with her and it doesn’t matter what she does, it’s always going to be there? Or perhaps something, something horrible, happened in her past, something that changed her, that warped her. Something that, perhaps, can be at least partially undone. And if so, what was it?

This is a terrific opener for the book because those questions form the core, the irregularly beating heart, of the story. They never go away, they just become more and more urgent. 

Character openings are infrequent


There are good reasons to not start a story off by looking into the soul of the main character. Many folks need their curiosity peeked first, they need to know a bit about the underlying story before they can be interested in a particular character.

The power of plot vs the power of characterization


I don’t believe there is any tension between characterization and plot; one can’t have strong characters without plot because plot flows naturally from the conflicts between strong characters. That said, I do think a story can be suspenseful in the absence of strong characterization. 

Don’t believe me? Read Stephen King’s retelling of “The Hook” (found in Danse Macabre), an urban myth that has a strong plot (that has narrative drive, suspense, etc.) but hardly any characterization. I wanted to reproduce it here but it was too long. If you do, imagine you and your friends are leaning forward into the warmth of a dying fire while one of you tells the tale. 

(Here is a link to The Hook over at Wikipedia; it’s not as good as Stephen King’s retelling but it will give you an idea what the story is if you’ve never heard it before.)

Here’s King’s comment:

“The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit. [...] No, the story of The Hook exists for one reason and one reason alone: to scare the shit out of little kids after the sun goes down.” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre)

And I think Stephen King would agree that the same could be said for most urban myths.

Why does The Hook work? Call it whatever you want, dramatic tension, narrative drive or suspense. 

My point (yes, there is one!) is that we often need whatever it is that the story of The Hook possesses, we need it at the beginning of the story to seduce readers into caring about the characters, to get the story rolling. 

Summary


I’m not putting this forward as a rule (there are no rules in writing) and as we’ve seen, some authors are brilliant at character introductions, so I would never try and discourage someone from starting their story off this way. It’s just, depending on the story and the style of the writer, more difficult to grab readers from the very first sentence.

Often writers reach for something shocking or contradictory or, failing that, something that frustrates our expectations and makes us think, something that gets us turning pages, something that gets us to care about the characters. Because, ultimately, it’s all about the characters.

So. That’s my take on why most openings are plot oriented rather than character oriented. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at humorous openings and try to pin down what makes something funny.

Photo credit: "Chihuahua" by kenichi nobusue under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Writing And The Three Secrets of Magic

Writing And The Three Secrets of Magic



I’m going to take a break from my series on story openings (I’ll come back to that on Wednesday) to look at what Ferdinando Buscema calls the three secrets of magic. I want to look at how these principles might help you as a writer.

Before I do that, though, let me tell you why this subject interests me. When we write—at least, when we write fiction—we create. We create entire worlds and populate them with continents and people and cultures and social norms and ... well, everything.

In doing so—the purpose of all this creation—is to create a reality for our readers. Yes, sure, it’s a reality you can’t hold in your hand or react with in any sort of physical way, but it does, still, have a certain sort of shadowy (or not so shadowy) existence. 

Since Ferdinando Buscema’s three secrets of magic are about how imagination can create reality, I thought they might be interesting to writers.

Ready? Here they are:

Ferdinando Buscema’s Three Secrets of Knowledge


1. “Reality is not always what it seems to be.”


I would agree with that. Gestalt psychology teaches us that what we see depends as much upon our mind as it does our eyes. Take, for example, the rabbit-duck illusion.


When one first sees this image one sees either a rabbit or a duck (or, if you’re like me, a mass of nonsensical squiggles). After a while though, if one looks at it long enough and concentrates upon the lines of the drawing, one can often come to see the lines as forming both a rabbit and a duck. 

At this point you might be wondering: Who cares? The point is that our mind, our expectations, influence what we see as much (or perhaps more than) what is ‘out there.’ And that’s ... well, mind-blowing!

Ferdinando Buscema writes:

“[For all of] history men questioned [...] the nature of reality. Is reality only what we can see with our own eyes and touch with our hands? Or is there more than meets the eye? Maybe there are things that exist even if we don’t perceive them directly. Over the ages, mankind created many narratives, different stories to explore the concept of reality. Be it Plato’s Myth of the Cave, or the Veil of Maya of Eastern philosophies, or modern cinema renderings of The Matrix or The Truman Show, these different narratives point their finger towards the same conclusion: our perceptions are limited and any model of reality we design is a pale representation of what’s “out there”. Explicitly, the function of art and the role of the artist is to interpret reality through his own point of view, showing novel slices of reality that others might not get through their limited eyes. In the words of Paul Klee ‘Art does not reproduce what is visible, it makes things visible.’”

2. “Imagination creates reality.”


When I first read this I was skeptical. For me reality—external reality—is filled with kickables (like this table I’m writing on) that are made of atoms which combine to make molecules, and so on. 

Though I do absolutely believe that, for example, one’s reactions to another person, what one imagines they’ve said, or their imagined motivations, can decide what will follow. It could be a fight. It could be a reconciliation. It could be complete indifference depending upon the mindset of each individual. 

In that sense, I believe how we perceive the world, how we imagine it to be, can create reality. Which is one reason it’s often a good rule of thumb to assume the best (but still prepare for the worst).

Ferdinando Buscema writes:

“I believe that every artist, of every school and at any time, agrees with this. [Our imaginations] [...] shape reality and navigate through the multiplicity of planes. In the wonderful words of musician Peter Gabriel, “All of the buildings and all of the cars, were once just a dream in somebody’s head.” In other words, all that surrounds us, before manifesting in the material and objective reality, was born in the form of an idea, an intuition, a thought or a vision in someone’s mind. And so, believing in magic – which sounds like an outdated superstition – means believing in the supreme power of the imagination to shape reality. As neurosciences has validated, to a great extent, we are and we become what we think.”

Just the other day as I was reading about Amazon’s latest gadget, the Echo, it struck me how many things we have in todays society that wouldn’t be there except for someone’s idea, someone’s imagination. For me, the Echo is very much like the communicator on Star Trek. Yes, Amazon Echo is much bigger—one can’t pin it on one’s shirt—but its mind is the cloud; the device itself is just a fancy speaker. 

That’s just one example. When I first saw the iPad I thought: that’s Picard’s tablet!

In this sense (and likely many others) what we think, what we imagine, most definitely shapes reality. (Or perhaps we could say that it shapes our future reality.)

3. “Reality is made of words.”


This is the statement I had the most trouble with. My table is not made up of words, it’s made up of atoms which form molecules, and so on. But I think I was being too literal. Here’s what Ferdinando Buscema has to say about it:

“Magic is the art of the word that enchants and has concrete effects upon the world. The words that we speak shape our reality more deeply than we generally acknowledge. [...]  Nowadays, along with the traditionally known languages, we have witnessed the emergence of a new breed of codes whose effects on reality are absolutely concrete. I’m talking about computer programming languages. These nomad codes are the new esoteric languages, which are totally obscure and mysterious to whoever is not initiated into the technology. [...]

“Be it words or computer codes, reality is ultimately made of symbols. We navigate in a forest of symbols, which are abstract entities, whose effects upon reality are absolutely concrete, as anyone who is working in branding or advertising knows very well.”

Certainly I think this is true for one’s perceptions of reality, or perhaps (to put it another way) one’s internal reality. (Which would seem to imply that one can separate the observer from the observed, but I’m okay with that.)

Keri Smith and her book, “The Imaginary World of ___.”


I read about Ferdinando Buscema’s three secrets of magic in Keri Smith’s wonderful book, Keri Smith’s wonderful book, “The Imaginary World of ___,” which, in a way, is all about change and the art of creation.

Creation and Change


Change is good, right? Certainly if you’re writing a story you want things to happen. Without change there’s no movement, without movement, there’s stasis. And that’s just dullsville.

How do we instigate change? Change in ourselves, change in the world? To paraphrase Keri Smith:

One instigates change by imagining something different.

It doesn’t matter what is imagined, as long as it’s something new.

Viewed this way we can see that being a writer is the most profoundly powerful and exciting profession possible.

Think about it. If Keri Smith and Ferdinando Buscema are correct about imagination creating reality then we would have the power “to transform society and culture at large with our words and ideas.”

As Keri notes, if we really got behind this idea we would be be modern alchemists. She writes: “Just by documenting our ideas, we can begin the process of change.”

What are you waiting for?

Note: At the end of my last post I promised my next one would be about how to use the Tarot to get ideas for writing a scene. I’m still going to write that post! Probably next week, either Wednesday or Friday. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "... itty-bitty living space." by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Puzzle Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Puzzle Openings


On the 31st I began a series on Story Openings and claimed—boldly—that there were six. Well, more or less six; I suppose it depends on how one looks at it. Today I’d like to examine what I’m calling the Puzzle opening. (Here is the first post in this series: Six Ways to Begin a Story.)

Puzzle Openings


 I think of a puzzle opening as any kind of opening which isn’t primarily a description or that doesn’t primarily communicate conflict but which has been constructed to disorient and intrigue the reader.[1]

This can be done in a number of ways. For instance, by mentioning something impossible (or very unlikely) so the reader wonders, “What’s going on here, how can that be?” and reads on.

Example 1: 1984


It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)

When I first read this sentence the mention of the clocks striking thirteen immediately got my attention. I was curious. What? Striking thirteen? It’s not an expression I had heard before.

“Thirteenth stroke of the clock or "thirteen strikes of the clock" is a phrase, saying, and proverb to indicate that the previous events or "strokes to the clock" must be called into question.” (Thirteenth Stroke of the Clock, Wikipedia.org)

cliffnotes.com elaborates:

“The thirteenth stroke here doesn't refer to military time but to an old saying. References to a thirteenth stroke of the clock indicate that some event or discovery calls into question everything previously believed. Put another way, the thirteenth stroke of the clock calls into question not only the credibility of itself but of the previous twelve.

“But notice in this opening line that it isn't just one clock malfunctioning, but the clocks. Presumably all of them. In this world, the clocks striking thirteen is not an aberration, but a normal way of life.

“In this way, Orwell subtly alerts the reader that statements of truth in this fictional society should be called into question.”

Here’s another opening I think of as a puzzle opening ...

Example 2: City of Glass


“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” (City of Glass by Paul Auster)

Here the protagonist gets a call from a stranger, a call that was intended for someone else. But this event sets the events of the book in motion. The question: How could a wrong number do this? Did he know the caller? Did the caller not believe him when he denied being who the caller believed he was? What was the call about? And so on.

Or (and this is my favorite) ...

Example 3: Peter Pan


“All children, except one, grow up.” (Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)

The question raised: Why doesn’t this child grow up? What is special about him? I found the idea fascinating and tragic. (Tragic because, at the time, there was nothing I wanted more than to grow up. Oh how things change. ;)

Of course there’s a certain amount of overlap. To me the first line of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is more about conflict than it is a puzzle but it also contains a puzzle: How on earth did this happen? Though, of course, the story is more about what happens than why it happened or even what kind of critter Gregor Samsa became.

That’s it! We’ve covered descriptive openings, conflict filled openings, puzzle openings. In the not too distant future I’ll cover archetypal openings, character driven openings and humorous openings. I think, though, that in my next post I’ll explore the tarot and how writers can use it to get inspiration for a scene.

Notes:

1. I want to stress that when I say an opening is of a certain kind, say a descriptive opening, I don’t mean to imply it doesn’t, for example, contain elements of conflict.

photo credit: "SuperFolie" by Joan Sorolla under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reimagining Fairytales

Reimagining Fairytales


I’ve always been in love with the idea of re-imagining one of the fairytales I adored as a child, telling it again in a way that preserved what made me love it in the first place but bringing it into the present day. I think that might be why I took to urban fantasy like a fish to water.

Various Ways To Transform A Story

I mentioned, above, bringing a fairytale into the present—that is, changing the setting—but there are other ways to transform a story. A writing site I discovered recently (writeonsisters.com) published a terrific article: 6 Tips for Re-Imagining a Classic Story. What follows was inspired by that article.

Make a list of tropes used in the story.

If you’re not sure what tropes were used, or you’re not completely sure what a trope is, tvtropes.org is your friend. It has every trope in existence and helpful souls have already broken many tales, both modern and classical, into their constituent tropes. (See, for example, their analysis of the tropes in Snow White—if you’re looking for the Disney version, go here.)

Now play with the story by adding new tropes or by removing existing ones.

Change one of the key elements of the story.

I’ve already mentioned changing the setting and reimagining the story in the modern era, but one could also change the plot. For example, we could re-visit the story of Little Red Riding Hood but at some time before or after her encounter with the wolf.

Or—something which would be all kinds of fun and so, as one would expect, has been done quite a bit—we could re-imagine the plot and, say, change the ending.

Another option still is to tinker with the characters themselves and make, for instance, Little Red the villain of the piece.

Examples of successful re-imaginings. 

You’re likely familiar with one amazingly successful attempt to reimagine a classic tale: BBC’s version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (Sherlock). But there are many other shows in this vein, Sleepy Hollow for instance. There are others, many others, but these two I love and look forward to new episodes with an almost religious fervor.

By the way, I took a peek at a review of “Dust City” by Robert Paul Weston and came across this line: “When your dad is the wolf who killed Little Red Riding Hood, life is no fairytale.” That line makes me want to read the book.

Have you ever re-imagined a classic tale? How’d it go? If you’d like to share your experience, or if you have any tips to share, please leave a comment.

Photo credit: "Where's William Shatner? Star Wars VI" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

Conflict: What Is It Good For?



It seems to me that there are six general ways to open a story. The first way, as I discussed last week, is with description. The second way to open a story is with conflict.

Conflict


We are told this over and over again: every story needs some conflict. Many times, when we think about conflict we think about violent action. For example:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” (The Gunslinger by Stephen King)

No bullets were fired but one feels it wouldn’t go well for the the man in black were the gunslinger to catch him.

Another example:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (The Trial by Franz Kafka)

Being arrested when one has not done anything truly wrong is not good. We have an immediate sense of the stakes: life and death. Also, though, one wonders: If he didn’t do anything truly wrong, then what was the charge? Why was he arrested?

Or even:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. (Murphy by Samuel Beckett)

There is no violence here, not even implied violence. But there is conflict. This sentence seems to imply that the protagonist lives a boring life in a boring world and longs for something that will interest him or give him pleasure. The question: Will he find it?

The Purpose of Conflict


Why does a story need conflict? Or, to put it another way, what does conflict do for a story, why does it keep folks turning pages? I think it’s because conflict raises questions in a reader’s mind. It makes us curious

Conflict, by its very nature, implies a goal and so asks a question: will the goal be attained? If I walked into a room and two people were at fisticuffs I would wonder: 

- Why are they fighting? (motivation)
- What are they fighting for? (goal)

The reason for the upset could be as mundane as one fellow spilled his drink on the other. In this case the goal might be the satisfaction of having exacted payment for the infraction.

Not the most exciting stuff, granted, but—just thinking about it now—I can’t think of any conflict that wouldn’t bring questions along with it. (Perhaps you can, though. If so, please leave a comment!)

Conflict raises questions and questions create narrative drive.


Asking questions is what writers want readers to do. Why? Because it generates narrative drive.

As Lee Child says, if a person is presented with a question they’ll tend to stick around until it’s answered. We can’t help ourselves! It’s the way we’re wired. (Okay, maybe not you, but most people.)

For example, let’s say that before a commercial break we’re asked who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. We might not care who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, but chances are more people will stick around because the question was asked than if it hadn’t been. (BTW, the recipient was Doris Lessing.)

Here’s how Child put it:

"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued." (Lee Child at Thrillerfest 2012)

That’s it for conflict! Next time we’ll look at puzzle openings. (Or should I say, “Will we look at puzzle openings next time? Who knows! Stay tuned.)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Six Ways To Begin A Story



Openings are frustrating. At least for me. So much is riding on them. Often, if you don’t catch your reader’s interest with the first sentence their eye will wander.

It seems to me there are 6 general kinds of openings. I’m sure you could make a case for their being 5 or 7 or some other number, but I’m going to hold firm—for now at least—with 6.

Let’s start with ...

Setting


Some stories open by describing the story world. For example:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That is the first line of, that’s right, “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. This sentence is about where and who, there isn’t even a trace, a smidgeon, of conflict. 

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

That’s the first line from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Again, no visible conflict.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You likely recognize that sentence, it’s the first sentence from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Paul Clifford.” This sentence is famous, or infamous, for being the epidomy of what one does not want to do when it comes to descriptive openings. I think the sentence begins all right (but then and again I’m a fan of dark and story nights) but then it meanders somewhat drunkenly toward the whimsically unconnected. 

So, having seen the good and the bad, why might we want to open with description? Two reasons.

A. The setting, the world, is why we’re interested in the story.


As Orson Scott Card mentions in his book “Characters & Viewpoint,” some stories are primarily about a milieu while others are primarily about characters, ideas or events. In Milieu stories we’re interested in the world at least as much—perhaps more—than we are the characters. Or, rather, the world is a character and it’s the one we’re the most interested in.

What we’re really interested in is the cultures of that world, the alien biologies, the customs, the inventions, the magic, and so on.

I’ve already mentioned the first line of “The Hobbit” (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”) That’s information about the world, and it’s interesting information. My response as a child was, “What! Hobbits live in holes in the ground?! How cool is that. And what on earth is a hobbit?” Right from the beginning I was eager to learn about this universe.

Here’s another way of creeping up on the point I’ve been trying to make: If exploring the world is the whole point of the story, then it’s perfectly appropriate to alert people to this from the first sentence.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Gibson’s “Neuromancer” was a milieu story—I think it might be more of an idea story—but whatever the case (punny, punny)—the world that Gibson created was certainly creative and different and utterly captivating.

B. To establish a particular mood.


Charlie Jane Anders, author of the article, “How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story,” writes:

“This [scene-setting] can be a workmanlike "Smith yawned and looked around his space capsule" thing. Or it can be a gorgeous literary flourish, that sets the mood and creates a strong image in the reader's mind at the start of the story.”

An example: The beginning of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I wrote about this recently (On Breaking The Rules) because it breaks one of the canards of writing: Don’t begin a story with a character waking up. But Flynn does! And—as millions of satisfied readers will attest—it works beautifully.

Why? Because those opening paragraphs set the mood of the book. They anchor us within Nick’s psyche. Because they set the stage for what is to come. (And, last but certainly not least, because they were beautiful and powerful.)

That’s it for today! As I mentioned, this post is part of a planned series. Future posts will cover other sorts of openings.

Update: Here are links to the posts in this series:

1. Description (this post)
2. Conflict: What Is It Good For?
3. Puzzle Openings
4. Archetypal Openings
5. Character Driven Openings
6. Humorous Openings

Photo credit: "aussicht vom wilseder berg (169,2m)" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On Using Symbols In Your Story

On Using Symbols In Your Story


What Is An Image System?


Before I talk about what an Image System is let’s look at an example of one in use. 

In Pierre Boileau’s novel Celle Qui N’etait Pau (later made into the movie Les Diabolique), Christina—the main character—is married to a sadist, Michel. Christina is rich, Michel is not. Michel has recently taken a mistress (Nicole) but instead of the wife and mistress hating each other they find solace in sharing their misery. Together they come up with a solution: kill Michel. They drown him and hide his body in a never-used swimming pool. 

But there’s a problem: the body disappears. Some time later Michel is seen at various windows and his image appears in the background of a recently taken picture.

The women are near hysterics. What is happening? Did they fail to kill Michel and he is doing this to try and drive them mad? Did someone else find the body and they are behind this? But why? To what purpose?

In the end, Nicole cannot take it any more and moves out, leaving the wife alone in a large empty building. Her heart, never strong, is stressed to the limit and when she sees—or believes she sees—her husband’s dead body floating in her bathtub she suffers a fatal heart attack. Seeing this, the husband hops out of the bath and Nicole pops out of the cabinet she’d been hiding in. They embrace. The end.

Water was the image, the symbol, used in this movie. In his analysis McKee writes:

“The opening titles of Les Diabolique look as if they’re over an abstract painting of grays and blacks. But suddenly, as titles end, a truck tire splashes from bottom to top of the screen and we realize we’ve been looking at the top angle view of a mud puddle. The camera comes up on a rainy landscape. From this first moment on, Image System “water” is continually and subliminally repeated. It’s always drizzly and foggy. condensation on windows runs in little drops to the sills. At dinner they eat fish. Characters drink wine and tea while Christina sips her heart medicine. When the teachers discuss summer vacation, they talk of going to the South of France to “take the waters.” Swimming pool, bathtubs... it’s one of the dampest films ever made.” 

External vs Internal Image Systems


There are, roughly, two kinds of image systems: external and internal. External images/symbols get their meaning from the outside and use them, unaltered. Internal images, on the other hand, get their meaning from the story itself. McKee writes:

“Internal Imagery takes a category that outside the film may or may not have a symbolic meaning attached but brings it into the film to give it an entirely new meaning appropriate to this film and this film alone.”

How To Pick An Image System


Stephen King, in On Writing, writes:

“I most often see chances to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done. [...] Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story.”

For example:

“When I read Carrie over prior to starting the second draft, I noticed there was blood at all three crucial points of the story: beginning (Carrie’s paranormal ability is apparently brought on by her first menstrual period), climax (the prank which sets Carrie off at the prom involves a bucket of pig’s blood [...]), and end (Sue Snell, the girl who tries to help Carrie, discovers she is not pregnant as she had half-hoped and half-feared when she gets her own period).”

“[...] the significance of all that blood was hard to miss once I started reading over my beer- and tea-splattered first-draft manuscript. So I started to play with the idea, image, and emotional connotations of blood, trying to think of as many associations as I could. There were lots, most of them pretty heavy. Blood is strongly linked to the idea of sacrifice; for young women it’s associated with reaching physical maturity and the ability to bear children; in the Christian religion [...] it’s symbolic of both sin and salvation. Finally, it is associated with the handing down of family traits and talents. We are said to look like this or behave like that because “it’s in our blood.””

A Warning


Whatever kind of symbolism used it must not be obvious. Symbols work on the unconscious mind in something like the same way music does. McKee writes:

“The use of symbolism follows the same principle as scoring a film. Sound doesn’t need cognition, so music can deeply affect us when we’re unconscious of it. In the same way, symbols touch us and move us—as long as we don’t recognize them as symbolic. Awareness of a symbol turns it into a neutral, intellectual curiosity, powerless and virtually meaningless.”

That’s it! What symbols have you used in your work?

Photo credit: "snow patrol:make this go on forever" by Lali Masriera under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.