Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

Thursday, December 22

The Structure of Change

The Structure of Change


The Hero’s Journey and Change


Ages ago Chuck Wendig wrote an article about story structure [1], focusing on the Monomyth. It’s one of my favorite articles on the subject. I bring it up here because of one of the many compelling points he made: each story has its own unique structure.[2]

I agree! 'Breaking' your story and seeing how it compares to a universal structure such as the monomyth can be a terrific way to help writers check whether their plot has gaps, to see if their main characters could be more fully fleshed out, and so on. But it is vitally important to take any talk of universal structure as a guide, a suggestion, and NOT as rules carved into stone.

No one writes a story because they want to manifest a universal structure, the point is for each story to incorporate a CHANGE on a fundamental level. Keep in mind that the idea of a universal structure for a story is an abstraction. It’s like saying the average resident of New York owns 1.2 dogs. The statement is meaningful but we’ll never see 1.2 dogs peeing on a fire hydrant!

Editing


I’ve found it’s often best to save thinking about story structure for the editing process. I need to first let my creative self have it’s way with the story (which, for me, means writing a Zero Draft) and then, when I sit down to transform my Zero Draft into a First Draft, I break the story and to where the plot holes are, where it’s misshapen, and so on.

I find that puzzling out a particular story’s structure is an invaluable editing tool. (Shawn Coyne talks about this in his wonderful book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.)

What do I think about when I’m actually writing a Zero Draft? I think about change. That’s what I try to keep in the front of my mind and (hopefully!) by so doing, incorporate change into the story on a fundamental level.

To sum up. In my view it is important to understand the Monomyth. Not because you’re going to incorporate all—each and every one—of its twists and turns, but because you will, inevitably, incorporate some.

Zero Draft: The Structure of Change


So what does this look like? What is the structure of change?

Most importantly—and Dwight V. Swain and Jack M. Bickham picked up on this in their (wonderful!) books on writing—the protagonist must do something. Which means the protagonist must WANT something. Which means there must be obstacles—both internal and external—that keep the protagonist from achieving what she desires. (After all, if she wanted something then immediately got it, that wouldn’t be interesting!)

In any case, from my recent perusal of scripts, especially TV scripts, most particularly screenplays from Supernatural, here is the story progression that occurs:

Teaser


In the beginning of the story the characters are introduced. The audience sees their pain points, their desires, their flaws, their strengths, and so on. But how does this happen? In TV often the first glimpse we get of the characters is in the teaser.

In the case of Supernatural, a monster attacks someone; sometimes this person is killed, sometimes they are just taken. There is usually darkness, fear and a lot of blood. The Teaser often sets the concrete goal: hunt and kill the monster that did this.

Protagonist’s larger problem


The protagonist has a problem, a thorn in the flesh, something that runs deep, something that can’t be shrugged off. Perhaps she feels responsible for the death of a loved one, perhaps she feels wronged—betrayed—by a loved one and those ill feelings are festering. Often a deep dark secret is involved with the protagonist’s problem, a secret she actively protects for whatever reason. Perhaps the secret is of something embarrassing, perhaps the secret is simply something she wants for her own. Letting go of the secret, opening up about it, is often necessary for true healing.

State the story’s thematic premise


We’ve seen, above, that the protagonist has a problem. Because of this problem he wants something. Granted, this want can be somewhat nebulous (e.g., to be loved, to get justice for the death of a loved one, and so on). This want becomes the theme of the story. For example, in the first episode of Supernatural after the pilot (Wendigo), Sam feels guilt over his girlfriend’s death. In a dream, he visits his girlfriend’s grave and says, “I should have protected you, I should have told you the truth.” He deals with his guilt by throwing himself into his search for her killer. In the process Sam becomes uncharacteristically angry when Dean wants to help folks along the way.

In “Wendigo” the theme was explicitly stated when Dean asks Sam: What are we supposed to do? What does Dad want us to do? The answer: hunt monsters.

In “Skin,” Sam wants to keep in touch with his friends from Stanford but Dean tells Sam that’s just not possible in their line of work; his friends wouldn’t be able to understand what they do or why they do it.

In each of these episodes (Wendigo and Skin), Sam’s desire (and, perhaps, Dean’s reaction to it) sets the theme. Although, again, not every story needs an explicit theme (for example, the episode “Hook Man” isn’t as strongly themed as some of the others).

Have a specific, concrete, goal


Have what the character wants be specific. To solve a specific murder, to win first prize in the pie eating contest, to demonstrate your best friend’s innocence, and so on.

Throw obstacles, internal and external, into the protagonist’s path


An example of an external problem would be: the evil critter locked Sam and Dean in a cell. If they don’t find a way out they will die. An internal obstacle might be that, because of Sam’s guilt over his girlfriend’s death, he’s vulnerable to a certain kind of monster who is attracted to people who carry around a lot of emotional baggage.

Plan 


Make it clear how your protagonist’s actions are intended to bring about achieving the concrete goal. The reader may see that what the protagonist is doing is extremely unlikely to yield the result the protagonist wants—other characters in the story may see this as well—but as long as the protagonist is convinced he will (and as long as this conviction makes sense for the character in the context of the story) it's okay.

Stakes


Make it clear how your character's plan could go right as well as how it could go completely, terribly, wrong. In other words, make the stakes clear to the reader. Spell it out. Also, raise the stakes at least twice, preferably three times. And make it clear whenever the stakes are raised. Right before the climax the stakes should be the highest in the story and it should—at least for a moment—seem completely hopeless.

Synthesis


Often the protagonist will overcome his great flaw with the help of synthesis. By this I mean the synthesis of the theme and the B Story.

The synthesis is not something that occurs in every story; it can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes a flaw is just a flaw and the protagonist fails because of it. This failure can work well in a series where another character can save his bacon, giving the protagonist time to work out his issues. In a later story you can have the protagonist finally synthesize the moral from the B Story with the theme and emerge victorious.

If you can setup a satisfying synthesis then, in my opinion, you can construct an ending your readers will love and remember.

Climax


There needs to be an element of finality about this conflict. Perhaps the protagonist and antagonist have fought previously and both walked (or limped, as the case may be!) away, but that’s not possible this time. This time one of them is going down.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to you. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’ve seen the movie The Big Short (starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell) and loved it so much I wanted to read the book: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. I have it and it has been on my To Read list for ages. Perhaps that will be one of my New Year's resolutions: read The Big Short! Have you read it? If so, what did you think? Was it as good as the movie? Better?



That’s it!

Notes:


1. NSFW --> 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, by Chuck Wendig.

2. Another wonderful point Chuck Wendig made was that structure should adapt to the story, not the other way around. I agree! That’s something I don’t stress enough.

Thursday, November 27

Five Tips: A Miscellany of Writing Advice

Five Tips: A Miscellany of Writing Advice


Today I’m going to do something a bit different. I’ve finished reading Robert McKee’s “Story” but there are some odds and ends, advice that was occasionally revelatory, that I never shared. So that’s what I’m doing today. 

Many of the points that follow have to do with writing a mystery. That’s not an accident! Yes, you guessed it, I’m taking another run at writing a grizzly murder mystery. My strategy this time is to keep it short; by which I mean under 10,000 words.

I’ve reached the stage where I’ve got the story (what actually happens) more or less clear in my mind but the plot (the order in which the events in of story are presented to the reader) is still shrouded in impenetrable gloom.

Robert McKee On Writing


1. The five essential elements of a thriller.



a. A cheap surprise. For McKee, a cheap surprise is a sudden shock out of nowhere whereas a true surprise involves a revelation. 
b. A false ending. You think the story’s over and then ... one final twist!
c. The protagonist is shown to be a victim.
d. A speech made in praise of the villain.
e. A scene in which the hero is at the mercy of the villain.

In my experience, while (a), (b), (d) and (e) do often occur in thrillers, (c) does not. But perhaps I haven’t seen enough thrillers!

2. What makes one story a murder mystery and another a thriller?


McKee’s answer: Point of view! In “Story” he writes:

“CRIME. Subgenres vary chiefly by the answer to this question: From whose point of view do we regard the crime?” His answer:

Murder Mystery --> Master detective’s POV
Caper --> Master criminal’s POV
Detective --> Cop’s POV
Gangster --> Crook’s POV
Thriller/Revenge Tale --> Victim’s POV
Courtroom --> Lawyer’s POV
Newspaper --> Reporter’s POV
Espionage --> Spy’s POV
Prison Drama --> Inmate’s POV
Film Noir --> “POV of a protagonist who may be part criminal, part detective, part victim of a femme fatale.”

I don’t agree with McKee. I don’t think POV is the essential characteristic that separates, say, a prison drama from a detective story. Why? Because I think that a drama could still be a prison drama if told from, say, a guards POV and that, similarly, were a person other than a master detective to tell a story of crime and detection, it could still be a murder mystery (after all, the Sherlock Holmes stories were told from Watson’s point of view.)

But, that said, I thought this list was interesting and potentially useful. 

3. About TV: “The key to the long form is dimensionality of character.”


That’s going to take a bit of unwrapping. 

By “long form” McKee is referring to what he calls 100-hour stories (e.g., Breaking Bad). 

As for “dimensionality of character” ...

“A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character.”

For example, Walter White is incredibly gentle with some people and brutal with others. One might think that someone who treats a baby with such tenderness wouldn’t be capable of the level of brutality we saw Walter White achieve. 

So, in other words, the more contradictions you can believably weave into your character, the better. For instance, passive + aggressive, cruel + kind, arrogant + meek, brilliant + ignorant, and so on.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, often the key to showing a characters many dimensions is to pair him with other characters that will tease out these various qualities. (For more about this see: Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama as well as The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites.)

McKee’s comments here came from “The God of Story” by Alec Sokolow and Tony Camin.

4. The single most important question to ask yourself about your story: “Why am I attracted to this material?”


This is what McKee calls one of the big questions

I don’t agree with everything McKee says, though even what I don’t agree with often contains enough interest to warrant studying it. This, though, I agree with completely.

Why do you need to write this story? What need does it fill, what itch does it scratch? Are you fed up with multinational corporations raping the earth? Or perhaps you’re exasperated with (as my father called them) those darn environmentalists (he also shook his cane when a ‘young-un’ came too close to the lawn—really) trying to hogtie good, honest capitalists. Whatever your passion, whatever your outrage, whatever gets your juices flowing, transform it and connect it up to the story.   

5. The difference between English murder mysteries and American murder mysteries.


McKee said:

“In the English tradition a murder is committed and the investigation drives inward: you know, you’ve got six possible murderers. In the American Tradition, a murder is committed, we start to investigate, and it turns out to encompass all of society.”

For example, someone finds “an innocuous note saying that a professor has disappeared while hiking in the Andes, and some little bureaucrat is charged with finding out what happened, and he finds a conspiracy that runs to the White House.” (The Real McKee, New Yorker)

BTW, as an example of a mystery in the American tradition McKee mentions “The Parallax View.”

That’s not the first time someone has talked about the key difference between English and American murder mysteries—and it certainly won’t be the last!—but McKee’s formulation is both concise and clear. 

I think this is a good thing to keep in mind; at least, it’s something I try to keep in mind. English murder mysteries tend to   be narrow and deep. That is, they tend to tunnel inward into the lives of the victim and the suspects. American murder mysteries, on the other hand, tend to be wide and thin. That is, they tend to spread outward through society.

6. The protagonist’s arc


a. Balance. At the start of the story the protagonist’s life is more or less in balance.

b. The Inciting Incident. The protagonist’s life falls out of balance.

c. The Call to Adventure. This imbalance instills within the protagonist a conscious or unconscious desire to bring his life—to bring the world—back into balance.

But McKee isn’t just talking about character arcs. He says:

“The students realize that it’s their life I’m talking about: it’s out of balance, they’re struggling to put it into balance. How are they going to do it? They have conceived of that object, that something that if they could get it, would restore the balance of their life. Now, for the character, it could be that he needs to right the injustice that was done to his family; it could be to find something worth living for him to get up in the morning. Right? But for the student it’s a successful piece of writing and until they achieve a successful piece of writing their lives will be perpetually out of balance.”

I doubt that by “successful” McKee is only referring to monetary success. I think that, for some writers, a successful story would be one they were proud of having written. Or, to put it another way, a successful story, for some, could be a satisfying story. One that scratches a certain, internal, itch. One that brings—no matter how briefly—balance.

Balance


What McKee says here intrigues me. Everyone’s life, he says, is out of balance. His, mine, yours. Perhaps there wasn’t one single event, or one single cause, responsible for this imbalance but, regardless, we want to (consciously or unconsciously) achieve balance. 

If you’re a writer, or you want to be a writer, then that’s one way that (again, perhaps unconsciously) you’re striving to achieve balance. Balance in your life, balance in your world. 

Once we understand this, we also gain a greater understanding of our characters and of the quests we send them on.

Okay, maybe I read between the lines a wee bit! If you’d like to read the interview and judge for yourself, the above was from “The Real McKee: Lessons of a screenwriting guru” by Ian Parker over at the New Yorker.

That’s it! 

I’m curious. What is the most valuable advice you were ever given about writing? Please share!

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 22

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: The Outline


A step-outline is a lot like a traditional writer's outline with one major difference—and I'll get to that in a moment. In a step-outline 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 you want to write an 80,000 word novel and that this novel will have about 60 scenes in it. That means there'll be about 1333 words per scene. If we want to fit 60 scenes into 10 pages than means (assuming a page holds about 300 words) that we need to fit 6 scenes per page. At 300 words per page that means each scene's description must take NO MORE than 50 words. (To give you an idea, this paragraph has about 100 words in it.) That's not a lot of words!

Part Two: The Major Difference


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 my work? Why would any sane writer (which, granted, might be a contradiction in terms ;) want to destroy his 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.

Saturday, October 11

The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

I’m not going to recap the content of my previous two posts (it would take too long), but if you’d like to give them a quick look here are the links:


Today I’m going to look at ways of making the story world a crucible for our main characters.

How to show the reader a character’s layers


It’s simple. Or at least simple to explain yet not at all easy to do.

In my first post I talked about how to create a complex character. It is not enough just to give them desires, one must give them conflicting desires.

For example, a character could be both bold and timid. That’s one dimension. But how could we show this? One cannot be both bold and timid at the same time.

Though, as I typed the above, I realized that it’s perfectly possible to, say, both want, and not want, the last slice of cheesecake. Or the last potato chip in the bag. But, in those situations, what the character is experiencing are competing desires (in my case, the desire to lose five pounds and the desire to eat something delicious; one cannot live on rice cakes alone!).  

The sort of traits I’m talking about here are, really, dispositions. In general, one is either timid or bold, brave or cowardly, happy or sad. 

In any case, there are, I believe, three ways to show the reader a character’s contradictory trait.

1. People. Have the protagonist interact with different people. With one person they are bold and outgoing, with another they are shy and retiring.
2. Setting. Have the protagonist interact with different settings.
3. Time. Look at the protagonist at different times. (This is, I think, the most common way of exploring character.)

Let’s take a look at these one by one.

1. Pairs of Opposites: People


It would make the protagonist seem crazy to react one way one second and another way another second. Like Bill Murray in “What About Bob” when the titular character works up his courage to step onto a crowded elevator on the 40th floor but his fear, his terror, makes him turn away at the last moment. And he does this over and over and over and ... If we’re writing a character like Bob (or Mr. Monk) then, okay, but more often we demonstrate the opposites of a character—let’s call this a “character dimension”—by having them interact with different people.

So, for instance, with one character—perhaps a character who doesn’t have much money and is absent-minded (they’re always dropping things and forgetting where they left their glasses, their keys, etc.)—the protagonist is snippy and short. They’re rude. But with another character, perhaps one that is polished and who comes from a wealthy family, the protagonist goes to great lengths to be pleasant. This tells the reader much more than if we just showed him one side of the protagonist or the other.

Anyway, as many great books do, Gillian Flynn uses this technique in “Gone Girl” to create the kind of novel one can’t just read, one must consume it in great greedy gulps. It’s the kind of story I love to lose myself in, only surfacing—and, then, reluctantly—as I turn the last page. I’ll sit on the couch (or curl up like a pretzel on my bed) stunned, and wonder how long it will take her to write another.

Anyway, without giving anything away, “Gone Girl” is about two characters, Nick and Amy. Early on in the book Amy disappears and one wonders whether Nick had any part to play in that. What is Nick really like? What does he feel? One way Gillian Flynn teases out, fleshes out, Nick’s character is through his interactions with other characters, how he sees them. 

But Gillian Flynn doesn’t stop there.

We get both perspectives—Nick’s and Amy’s—from the first person. Nick is the narrator of the book but Amy talks to us through diary entries. To make matters more interesting still, Nick and Amy give us their very different perspectives on the same events. First we see things from Nick’s perspective and hear his gripes, then we peer into Amy’s diary and get her version of events.

In many ways Nick and Amy are opposites, but we don’t just see these characters through the eyes of a dispassionate narrator. We hear their own words, always aware that neither can be a hundred percent correct. We always see our lives through a filter and it’s the same with Nick and Amy. This leaves the reader to try and read between the lines and attempt to separate the truths from the lies. On top of it being a very well written book, “Gone Girl” is tremendous fun.

My point is that the more one layers in conflicting qualities, the more dimensions we create in a character, the more real, and the more interesting, they become.

2. Pairs of Opposites: Setting 


Think of a haunted house. The dark hallways, the creaking floorboards, the mysterious groans as the house settles. You turn a corner and a sticky cobweb stretches across your face and ... what’s that? Something long and thin and hard presses up against your cheek. You scream and fling it off you, not really wanting to know what it was but you can’t help it, you’re curious. You look at it. It’s long and thin, slightly curved, wrapped in silk. It looks just like a severed human finger! (Cue screaming violins.)

What would the normal response be to such a scenario? Like Gus on Psych the average person would scream and run away. At least, that’s what I’d do! But what would Indiana Jones do? He’d look at the finger, wonder who its previous owner was, and move on. Heroes, at least action heroes, tend not to be shaken by stuff like that. But what if, instead of a spider web, we’d dropped a snake on Indy? That would be a different matter. One of the most memorable things about Indiana Jones is his fear of snakes, something which is established early in the first film.

So there we have the opposing responses, fear vs courage—or at least calmness. And this is brought out by varying the setting.

3. Pairs of Opposites: Time


The most common way of a character exhibiting opposite traits is over time. We’re all familiar with this. The protagonist starts his journey as, say, a cringing milquetoast and, over the course of the story, gains confidence in his abilities, in himself. At the climax, he faces his fears and defeats the antagonist.

But, wait! We’re still not done. There’s one more element I’d like to discuss: how to create a supporting cast of characters that will draw out the multiple dimensions of a robust protagonist. I’ll get to that on Monday, stay tuned!

Photo credit: "cold hearted orb" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, October 9

Story World As Crucible

Story World As Crucible


Yesterday we talked about the essence of drama and the key to developing character; namely, developing a story world which will test the main character’s strengths and force him to face, and overcome, his weaknesses. (Or, if it’s a tragedy, to fail and die.)

Everything in the story universe—setting as well as characters—is chosen with the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.

It is in this sense that all story is about character. The plot is as it is because the writer believes certain goals will be best at helping reveal character, that they will be best at forcing the protagonist to reach beyond his limits. 

Caveat


This way of looking at story (we could call it story-as-crucible) makes sense to me but I want to emphasize that not all stories are about a hero realizing his/her potential to the fullest.

Story as crucible is not, I would imagine, the way most writers think about their craft/art. That said, it’s not a bad way of looking at what we’re on about when we write a dramatic story. (Note: many stories aren’t intended to be dramatic stories.)

Thinking about the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of them fit the story-as-crucible idea. The story world and the events that unfolded within it, as well as the characters that enlivened it, can all be seen as tools used to put the main character through trials designed to burn away what is inessential. 

At the end of most dramatic stories, the main character either shatters like a flawed pot or emerges, reborn, with a realistic appraisal of both themselves and their environment. The  protagonist has come into their true strength, they have recognized and, for the most part, overcome their weaknesses. Or at least learnt how to work around them. 

Even action flicks—movies self-consciously plot oriented—bring the hero to a crises point. Think of any of the Indiana Jones movies or Die Hard.

In any case, I wanted to make the point that not all authors self-consciously sit down and decide to design a story universe as a crucible for their protagonist (nor should they). But, even when the author doesn’t, I believe that this story-as-crucible idea can still aid one’s analysis.

How to create a story world as a crucible for your main character


Well, that was a rather long summary of my previous blog post! I really just wanted to set things up for two concepts I wanted to write more about.

Now that we know what we’re on about—constructing a crucible for our main character—let’s talk about how to do this. That is, how to create a story world to serve as a crucible that will test, strengthen and transform your main character.

This is where McKee really shines, he doesn’t just talk about the importance of one’s story world being a crucible for the main character he tells you how to do it.

McKee gives the reader three techniques:

1. McKee discusses how to create a fully realized main character, one with many dimensions.

2. He also talks about how to create a supporting cast of characters, one that will force your main character reveal all his quirks, weaknesses, strengths and foibles.

3. Finally, McKee goes over how to double-check that your story world is a crucible for your protagonist. 

I wrote about (1) and (3) yesterday so tomorrow I’ll dive into how to create a cast of characters designed to put your main character through his paces.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Stars and Sparks" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 7

Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama

Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama


Have  you ever watched the movie, The Game? Michael Douglas plays a person with every material advantage who is, nevertheless, precariously close to killing himself. Here’s the setup:

“Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker, but his success has come at a cost. He is estranged from both his ex-wife and his only sibling, his younger brother, Conrad (Penn). He remains haunted from having seen his father commit suicide on the latter's 48th birthday. For Nicholas' own 48th birthday, Conrad presents Nicholas with an unusual gift—a voucher for a "game" offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad promises that it will change his brother's life.” (The Game, Wikipedia)

If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, hang on just a moment longer.

Mind Worms


In “Story” Robert McKee writes that in the Middle Ages scholars had the notion of a Mind Worm. He writes:

“Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely—dreams, fears, strength, weakness. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It could then create a specific happening geared to the unique nature of that person that would trigger a one-of-a-kind adventure, a quest that would force him to use himself to the limit, to live to his deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest would reveal his humanity absolutely.”

Consumer Recreation Services, from The Game is basically the modern equivalent of the Mind Worm! (BTW, if you’ve never seen the movie, Roger Ebert’s review of “The Game” was right on target and, as his reviews always were, beautifully written.)

I’ve talked about The Game and Mind Worms to lead up to what McKee says is the essence of dramatic storytelling: fully developed characters placed in a world designed to test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, to force them not only to face themselves as they are but to push past what they thought were their limits and be reborn, a new self. Or fail and die.

That’s dramatic storytelling in a nutshell. The question is: how does one do that? Today I’d like to talk about part of the answer to that question by discussing the difference between what McKee calls characterization and True Character. Let’s dive in.

The events a character experiences must fit the character.


Characters aren’t human. They aren’t persons. They’re better! Why? Because they are intentionally designed to be clear and knowable. It is possible for me to completely understand a character. I’ve never been able to say that of a flesh-and-blood person. Just when I think I have them pegged they will do something that completely bewilders me.

Character Design: Characterization vs True Character


You’ve likely heard this part before, but let's review it since we’ll be building on it in what follows:

1. Characterization


A fictional human’s characterization will include some or all of the following:

- physical appearance
- mannerisms
- style of speech
- gestures
- gender and sexuality
- age
- intelligence
- occupation
- personality
- attitudes
- values
- where he/she lives
- how he/she lives

A character’s characterization is the sum total of the observable qualities. They are what makes that character unique.

2. True Character


As we’ve seen, characterization is about the outer, the observable. True Character is about what is inside.

- Is the character loyal or disloyal?
- Are they honest or dishonest?
- Loving or cruel?
- Courageous or cowardly?
- Generous or selfish?
- Willful or weak?

True Character is expressed through choice necessitated by dilemma


McKee writes:

“How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.”

The key to True Character is desire


What does the character want? McKee writes:

“A character comes to life the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire—not only the conscious, but in a complex role, the unconscious as well.”

Which suggests a number of questions:

- What does the character want/desire?
- When do they want it? Now? Soon? Later?
- What is their overall desire, their chief desire?
- Does the character know he/she wants this?

What we mean by a “three-dimensional” character


But having a single, unitary, desire isn’t enough. McKee points out that truly great characters have one particular trait in common: they have contradictory desires.

Kinds of contradiction


This fundamental contradiction can take a couple of forms.

1. Contradiction deep within the character.


The character has contradictory desires. For example, Macbeth was torn between ambition and guilt.

2. Contradiction between characterization and True Character.


Another common kind of contradiction is that between the characterization—the character’s observable qualities, those that make her unique—and her True Character.

For example, a effusively complementary, gorgeous beauty queen might be seething with bitterness and anger.

That’s it! In my next post I’m going to pick up on Robert McKee’s contention that the entire story world is formed—or should be formed—as a kind of fiery forge or crucible to push the character to, and then past, his limits. That’s the heart of drama.
Photo Credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, October 3

Story Composition: Variety Within Unity

Story Composition: Variety Within Unity



I’m slowly worming (bookworming!) my way through Robert McKee’s epic book on life and writing, “Story,” and have come to what I think is one of the most valuable concepts he’s covered, as well as one of the most difficult: composition.

When I see that word, “composition,” I think of all the dreary elementary school writing assignments I had to endure. But this is different.

Story Composition


When we compose an essay or a diary entry—or a story—we make decisions about how to order and link events.

Composition is about “selecting what to include, to exclude, to put before and after.”

This sort of patient ordering is something I’m especially bad at. On my first draft, possible alternate story lines like to bubble up in my thoughts like mushrooms after a rain. But that just leads to chaos (at least, it has with me!). I must impose an organizing principle, I must be selective.

McKee lists various principles that can help with this selection process:

- Unity and Variety
- Pacing
- Rhythm and Tempo
- Social and Personal Progression
- Symbolic and Ironic Ascension
- The Principle of Transition

Don’t worry! I’m only covering one of these today.

Unity and Variety


Let’s tackle unity first.


A story must be unified. As in Highlander, “There can be only one.” Yes, we can weave in numerous sub-threads, but there should be one overarching plot/arc/story thread.

What is this story thread? It follows a very simple organizing principle:

“Because of the Inciting Incident the Climax had to happen.

In every story there’s an Inciting Incident. That incident changes the protagonist’s Ordinary World in such a way that, ultimately, it is impossible for him to go on with his life as normal.

McKee uses the movie “Jaws” as an example:

“Because the shark killed a swimmer, the sheriff had to destroy the shark.”

I would say that, in “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark”:

Because the Nazi’s were in search of the ark, Indiana Jones had to get to it first and bring it home.

McKee continues:

“We should sense a causal link between Inciting Incident and Story Climax. The Inciting Incident is the story’s most profound cause, and, therefore, the final effect, the Story Climax, should seem inevitable. The cement that binds them is the spine, the protagonist’s deep desire to restore the balance of life.”

Now, I’m not saying that this is true—or should be true—for every single story. As McKee points out, there are different kinds of stories. But it is interesting how many stories this applies to. Take, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s most recent book, “Stone Mattress” as an example.

Margaret Atwood wields her pen like a scalpel, honing her words, her meaning, to a sharp edge as she slices into her characters, revealing their still-beating hearts, their souls.

But I digress. One of the stories from “Stone Mattress”—The Freeze-Dried Groom—follows, or embodies, the principle McKee mentions. In this story, Sam, the protagonist, is a scoundrel who we meet the morning his wife finally wises up and gives him the boot. 

That event, that severing of ties, is the Inciting Incident and sends Sam hurtling toward, not only the end of the story but, we feel, the end of his life. Or at least that’s how it unfolded in my imagination. Atwood hides the climax of her story; it occurs after the last word. She invites the reader—literally as well as figuratively—to spin out the story for themselves. It’s the perfect lead-in to a fan-fiction contest.

I mention Atwood’s story because it demonstrates an important aspect of this principle of unity: The writer’s challenge is to finish the story in such a way that whatever ending is chosen, it will seem inevitable—and come as a surprise.

That’s tricky to pull off, but the stories that do often go on to become reader/viewer favorites. For example, the end of Empire Strikes Back, when Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father. It came as a surprise but, afterward, when I thought about it, it seemed to fit perfectly. It seemed obvious. Inevitable.

Variety


McKee writes:

“Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible.”

Action/adventure stories are often also love stories—or contain within them this thread.

Yesterday I watched “22 Jump Street.” It was a comedy about two police officers who respond to the death of a girl by arresting a drug dealer, but it was also a bromance, a romance, and an action adventure.

McKee ends this section by writing:

“[...] we don’t want to hit the same note over and over, so that every scene sounds like every other. Instead, we seek the tragic in the comic, the political in the personal, the personal driving the political, the extraordinary behind the unusual, the trivial in the exalted.”

At some later date I’ll come back to a few of McKee’s other points, but that’s enough for today. Here’s my takeaway: Within unity, variety. 

Good writing! Have a terrific and productive weekend. 

By the way, I have been sending out writing prompts on my Google+ feed. If you would like to join in the fun, please do.

Photo credit: "quiet" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, September 4

Subplots And The Great Swampy Middle

Subplots And The Great Swampy Middle


Today I’d like to talk about something that puzzled me no end when I first began writing: subplots. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s book, “Story” and what follows draws liberally from his insights.

The Shifting Sands of Terminology


Subplots, main subplots, main plots, central plots, minor arcs, major arcs, and so on. As I’ve read about writing over the years each of these terms has been pressed into service to describe the interwoven threads of a story.

The idea that I came away with—and it’s not at all a bad way of looking at it—is that a novel length story isn’t composed of just one plot but many. One of these plots will form the spine of the story and the other plots, the subplots, are woven around the spine, strengthening it, giving it depth and complexity. 

The plot that forms the spine of the story, let’s call this the central plot, this plot line involves the main character’s pursuit of her goal, the obstacles she has to overcome, the cost of winning/failing as well as the final outcome.

But not all stories have subplots. There are good stories—heck, great stories!—that don’t have subplots. “The Fugitive” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for example. 

So, what’s the deal? Do we need subplots? If so, why? What do they do? What’s their function in a story?

Subplots are a tool—one of them—that will help get a writer through the Great Swampy Middle of Despair.


Everyone who has struggled through a first draft is intimately acquainted with what Jim Butcher calls The Great Swampy Middle (GSM). Let me, first, talk about what the GSM is and why it exists, then I’ll discuss how subplots are a solution to this problem.

Why the Great Swampy Middle Exists


I’ve often written about the three act structure and in those posts tend to make it seem as though the following is how a story is divided up into three acts.

Act One: The first 25% of the story.
Act Two: The middle 50% of the story.
Act Three: The last 25% of the story.

But as was the case in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the third act can be—and often is—much shorter than the first one. McKay writes in “Story”:

“In the ideal last act we want to give the audience a sense of acceleration, a swiftly rising action to Climax. If the writer tries to stretch out the last act, the pace of acceleration is almost certain to slow in mid-movement. So last acts are generally brief, twenty minutes or less.”

As McKee says, in reality a story often breaks down as follows:

Act One: The first 25% of the story.
Act Two: The middle 60% of the story.
Act Three: The last 15% of the story.

Act Two bulges out from between acts one and two like a grotesque muffin top. With sixty percent of the action of the story unfolding in the second act it’s easy to get bogged down here. And that gives birth to the Great Swampy Middle of Despair.

Subplots are one of the tools we can use to firm up this flabby middle part.

How To Defeat The Great Swampy Middle


Robert McKee in “Story” writes that there are two things that will help us get through the GSM. They are:

1. Use subplots.


McKay writes that “Subplots have their own act structure, although usually brief.” As an example, McKay weaves three subplots into a hypothetical central plot with each subplot peeking at a different time.

Let’s break this down.

a. Subplots increase the number of major scenes.


By weaving subplots around the central plot we can have an interesting reversal every chapter or so. Although not every subplot will have four major scenes—an Inciting Incident and three Act Climaxes—there will be enough so that an interesting event happens regularly enough to keep a readers attention.

b. Subplots give a story depth by giving it layers of complexity.


For example, think of “A Midsummer Nights Dream.” All the love stories end happily but some end “sweetly, some farcically, some sublimely.”

c. One of the subplots (often the most developed subplot) can contrast the theme of the main plot, giving the story a depth and interest it would otherwise lack.


For example, the central idea or theme of a story could be about True Love, what it is and how it affects those in its merciless grip. The main plot could revolve around the protagonist and his search for, and finding of, true love. As a counterpoint to this, one could have a subplot about two people who think they’re in love but who really aren’t. They say and do all the right things but, in the end, when their love is tested it fails. They cannot—will not—sacrifice everything for the other. 

Then we see the aftermath. What one couple gains and the other looses. This gives the theme a depth it would have lacked had only one aspect of the central idea been explored.

d. Each complication in a subplot affects the central plot.


In “The Matrix” Cypher betrays Morpheus to The Agents. This was a victory for Cypher; it got him closer to his goal of once again being submerged in The Matrix. This same event was, obviously, a major blow to Neo. So here we see how a major scene in a subplot creates conflict/tension in the main plot and, as a result, drives the story forward.

2. Increase the number of acts.


The second way to defeat the Great Swampy Middle of Despair is to increase the number of acts. You will have noticed that many stories—especially action-packed stories—don’t have subplots. They don’t need them. The audience wants a fast paced story and with a major reversal coming every few minutes that’s what they’re going to get. 

The movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral” had five acts and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had—hold onto your hat—seven! Which, as McKee points out, means there was “a major reversal every fifteen or twenty minutes.”

The downside of this is obvious: the pace can be exhausting! Both for the writer(s) and the audience. Each reversal, each climax, must outdo the one before. And that’s difficult to do. It’s easy to resort to cliches or to dangle the hero off the edge of a cliff one too many times and stretch the audiences/readers suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. 

Sameness—even when it’s a stunning explosion-filled end-of-act climax—gets old fast.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Now go write something just for the sheer pleasure of it. (grin)

Talk to you tomorrow. Cheers!

Photo credit: "fields of gold" by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

Wednesday, August 20

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap


As many of you know, I’m reading Robert McKee’s, Story. It seems like each page—certainly each chapterhe looks at an old concept in a new way, one that reveals fresh and previously unsuspected dimensions of the writer’s craft. Today, I want to talk about a concept McKee introduces, one related to but distinct from try-fail cycles: the gap. 

Try-Fail Cycles and The Gap


Try-fail cycles


We’re all familiar with try-fail cycles. The protagonist wants something. He tries to get it. A complication is thrown in his way. He circumvents the complication and forges ahead seeking the object of his desire. Another complication gets in his way. And so on until the end of the scene when the character either achieves his object of desire or is denied it. 

You see the pattern: desire, action, result. The protagonist desires something, tries to get it several times, fails each time because of a complication he didn’t foresee and then, finally, either achieves his desire or fails to do so.

The Gap


I think the gap is a part of many, if not most, try-fail cycles. Here’s how McKee explains it in Story:

“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective point of view the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected.

“This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen between his sense of probability and true necessity.”

An Example of The Gap at Work: The Matrix


Mckee uses the script from Chinatown to illustrate the gap, and it is a terrific example, but I’m not going to use it. Why? Because McKee used it in his book of course it’s a great example! Of course it works! Instead, I’m going to look at one of my favorite movies, The Matrix.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Matrix where Trinity is sitting in a room with police officers encircling her, their guns drawn, ready to shoot. Remember it? That’s the scene I want to talk about.

There aren’t a lot of try-fail cycles in this scene. Police officers try to arrest Trinity (as their lieutenant described her, “one little girl,”) and she kills them. Further, she kills them by doing things like running along walls and using visually stunning martial arts moves. (Later on she discovers that agents—beings who can kill her—are after her, but that’s later in the sequence.)

There are three perspectives we can view this scene from: Trinity, the police officers and the audience.

The expectation of the POLICE:
The police officers assume that, though this particular situation may be a little strange, they can handle it. After all, it’s only “one little girl.” 

The reality the POLICE find:
The police find a young woman who has a fondness for black plastic, one who is a killing machine.

The expectation of the police and the reality they find are way off. There’s a huge gap. That’s part of what makes this scene interesting.

The expectation of TRINITY:
Trinity is suspicious that her line was tapped but she believes Cypher when he says it’s clean. She expects to receive the call that will allow her to escape the Matrix.

The reality TRINITY finds:
Not only doesn’t the call come, but police officers surround her, guns drawn. She’s not worried about the police, she knows she can handle them, but now she knows the line was tapped. How is that possible? What does it mean?

The expectation of the VIEWER:
The first time I watched The Matrix this scene was an eye-popper. I suspected Trinity was much more lethal than she seemed, but I had no idea what form that would take. 

The reality:
The entire scene was extreme. First, it is not very often that one of the good guys kills police officers. That was shocking. Second, the way she killed them ... I don’t think anyone had seen anything like it before. The combination of martial arts moves and special effects was cinematic eye candy.

In the end, what matters is the reaction of the audience, but the reactions of the characters feed into this. As we watch, we process the reaction of the police officers. We understand the gap between what they expected and what they found. We also understand the gap between what Trinity expected and what she found. This all goes into our reaction, it adds depth to it.

Summary


One of the things I like about McKee’s way of looking at scene building—his notion of the gap—is that it emphasizes the inner world of the character. It focuses the writer’s mind, as well as the readers/viewers, on the character’s thoughts and expectations. In so doing, it emphasizes that this inner world is going to be at variance with the world of the story. After all, if everything was exactly as our characters imagined there would be no story; at least, not an interesting one.



Photo credit: "trinity river, fort worth, texas" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, August 13

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character



I’m reading “Story,” by Robert McKee and kicking myself for not doing this long ago. I’ve reached the part where McKee talks about the difference between character and characterization and says some eye-poppingly interesting things. Useful things.

If you haven’t read “Story,” get your hands on a copy. If you don’t want to shell out 40 dollars for a hardcover, take the book out from the library. You may end up disagreeing with what McKee says--and that’s fine, different strokes and all that--but it can help you grasp the essence of what makes a story absorbing: character and structure working together.

What Is Character? Characterization vs Character


McKee writes:

Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes–all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. [...] This singular assemblage of traits is characterization ... but it is not character.” 

McKee goes on:

“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

True character has to do with whether someone is loving or cruel, generous or selfish, strong or weak, and so on. In life as in art “The only way to know” whether someone is generous or selfish, kind or cruel, and so on, is to “witness him make choices under pressure [...]. As he chooses, he is.”

Yes!! That. What he said. I’ve felt this myself but hadn’t put it into words. Of course Dwight V. Swain, Jack Bickham and Jim Butcher have said much the same thing but for some reason when I read McKee’s “Story” the light went on. 

McKee goes on:

“Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.”

Exactly! And these choices are made in sequels.

The importance of structure–and the reason why structure and character are two sides of the same coin–is that character can only be revealed over time through the choices a character makes. It is the unfolding of these choices we call structure.

For example ...

Character Arc


1. Beginning of story: Characterization


At the beginning of a story, in the setup, characters are described; characterized. Readers are told what the character’s gender is, approximately how old they are, and so on.

2. First choice: The Character’s deep nature is revealed through their choices.


I re-watched The Matrix yesterday. At the beginning of the movie Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) makes a number of choices. 

- He chooses to follow the white rabbit to a nightclub even though he knows he has to work the next day. 
- At work, he has a choice whether to trust Morpheus and do something dangerous or play it safe. 
- At the end of Act One he has to choose whether to take the blue pill and forget all about The Matrix or take the red pill and learn the truth, even though learning the truth will cost him everything.

Notice how these choices build on each other, becoming more difficult (the stakes increase) and, correspondingly, more revealing of Thomas Anderson’s deep nature.

3. Conflict between characterization and deep nature.


Here the writer shows that the character’s deep nature is at odds with his characterization.

McKee calls James Bond a lounge lizard. Bond wears expensive clothes and lurks around nice hotel lobbies chatting up and bedding beautiful, rich women. That’s all part of his characterization. But his character is quite different. The average lounge lizard wouldn’t risk his life to defend his country--he wouldn’t know where to begin.

McKee writes:

“[The character’s] deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. We sense that he is not what he appears to be.”

4. The character’s choices become more difficult.


After a character’s inner nature, their deep nature, has been exposed they must be driven to make even more difficult choices.

5. End of story: The character--who they are at the deepest level--has been profoundly and permanently changed.


By the end of the story the character’s choices have “profoundly changed the humanity of the character.” 

McKee sums it up like this:

“Whether our instincts work through character or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place.

“For this reason the phrase ‘character-driven story’ is redundant. All stories are ‘character-driven.’ Event design and character design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.”

That’s it for today! 

Photo credit: Untitled by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

Tuesday, March 4

Narrators, Their Knowledge And Awareness



Today I'm going to pick up where I left off Thursday (see: Point Of View: Elements) and talk about a narrator's knowledge (restricted vs unrestricted) as well as what I've been calling transparency/awareness. 

But first ...

Why is this important? Why should we care about the narrator and his/her/it capabilities?

The short answer is, because it's fun! It's fun to employ narrators who depart from the omnipresent third person limited viewpoint where the narrator has restricted knowledge (that is, only knows what the viewpoint character does). Stephen King's sprawling, immersive novel, Under The Dome uses a narrator with an omniscient voice. As I discussed last time, at one point the narrator floats through town acting as a virtual tour guide and addresses the reader directly. Brilliant! I laughed out loud. 

Joe Hill, in his book NOS4A2, uses a narrator who--while using third person limited--has an omniscient voice. That is, the narrator knows all about the viewpoint character, knows things about the viewpoint character that character doesn't know. The narrator even knows what will happen to that character in the future. But that's it. Other character's minds and futures are closed to him/her/it.

Having written a bit about why a writer might care about dusty sounding phrases like "narrative voice" let's continue looking at the various abilities a narrator can have. (Note: I'm only addressing third-person narratives in this post.)

3. Restricted vs Unrestricted Knowledge


This refers to the extent, the scope, of the narrators knowledge. Does he/she/it know only about the viewpoint character's present and past or does he/she/it also know:

- what the viewpoint character doesn't
- about the viewpoint character's future. 

Restricted knowledge: 


The narrator is restricted to knowing only what the viewpoint character (or all the characters if using an omniscient perspective) does at that point in time. Therefore, the narrator doesn't know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Unrestricted knowledge: 


The narrator's knowledge is not restricted. He/she/it knows things the viewpoint character is ignorant of, things about themselves. Also, the narrator can know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a continuum. On one end of the continuum the narrator has restricted knowledge of the character and only knows what the character does at that moment.

On the other end of the continuum the narrator has unrestricted knowledge of the character; he/she/it knows everything about them, past, present and future. The narrator knows things the character has forgotten as well as things about herself she was never aware of.

For example, Joe Hill in NOS4A2 writes:

"Her Raleigh Tuff Burner had been her birthday gift in May and was also, quite simply, her favorite birthday gift of all time ... then and forever. Even at thirty, if her own son asked her the nicest thing she had ever been given, she would think immediately of the Day-Glo blue Raleigh Tuff Burner with banana yellow rims and fat tires."

We aren't told that her son will ask that question. No. The narrator's knowledge is more extensive than that. The narrator knows that if he asked that question then that would be her answer. That is, the narrator's knowledge of the viewpoint character extends to counterfactual situations (/other possible worlds). At least, that's how I read it.

"The square of brightness at the far end of the bridge expanded and intensified. As she approached, she was conscious of an almost brutal heat emanating from the exit. She inexplicably smelled suntan lotion and onion rings. It did not cross her mind to wonder why there was no gate here at the other end of the bridge either." (Joe Hill, NOS4A2)

I thought that was a nice example of the narrator knowing something about the viewpoint character that the viewpoint character did not. For me, it gave the novel an extra dimension, it seemed to expand the universe of possibilities. It, in an odd sort of way, made the story world seem more real. 

Third Person Limited vs Third Person Omniscient


What POV was that last bit of writing told from? It seems to me it's third person, limited, even though the narrator seems to have full knowledge (/unrestricted knowledge) of the viewpoint character. 

You might wonder why I put such emphasis on this, I used to have the idea that if a narrator was omniscient concerning the viewpoint character--if they had, say, total knowledge of their thoughts and their future actions--that the viewpoint had to be third person, omniscient. 

4. Transparency/Awareness: Representational vs Presentational 


As I discussed Monday, transparency has to do with the narrator's relationship with the audience.

Representational: The narrator never addresses the reader.

Presentational: The narrator addresses the reader and may also express personal opinions.

A presentational narrator will make it clear he/she/it is speaking, not to characters in the story world, but to readers in the real world. A thoroughly presentational narrator knows he/she/it is the narrator of a work of fiction and that someone is reading it.

That said, even in a presentational narrative the narrator will, at times, fade into invisibility making the text seem representational. However, if a narrative is truly representational, the same will not be true. A representational narrative will not have any presentational moments. 

As Orson Scott Card writes in Character & Viewpoint, it is jarring if, in the middle of the story, the narrator suddenly starts addressing the reader. Which is not to say it should never be done, it would just be tricky to pull it off without jarring the reader. 

By the way, all the narrative examples in this post are representational. See my post on Monday for an example of presentational prose.

The Narrator's Presence In A Story


Think of a window. A freshly cleaned window is--as many birds have discovered--practically invisible. It is so clear one gazes through to the other side without noticing it. 

If a window is a little dirty, one notices the window but barely. Most of one's attention is still focused on what is on the other side.

On the other hand, if the window is very dirty then one notices the window almost as much as what is on the other side.

A transparent window --> An invisible narrator
An invisible narrator  --> No personality of their own

An opaque window --> A visible narrator
A visible narrator --> A personality of their own

What is the difference between a visible and invisible narrator? Well, clearly, the least visible narrator is going to be one that tells a story from the third-person, limited, where their knowledge is restricted to what the character knows. Also, they will never turn to the reader and indicate they know what's going on, that they are a narrator in a story you are being entertained by. In this case, the narrator seems non-existent and one focuses solely on the viewpoint character and experiences the story world through the viewpoint character's senses.

On the other hand, the most visible narrator--or one of them--would be one who turns to the audience and announces that the gig is up. They know they're telling a story to an audience--to you. But that's not the only way to become aware of a narrator. Whenever the narrator tells you, the reader, about something the viewpoint character doesn't know the narrator becomes visible. That is, such things encourage a reader to focus on the narrator and not just the viewpoint character. 

Summary


As you can tell, I'm currently fascinated with narrators, the kind of abilities they can have, and how storytellers can use them to weave a story.


Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Good writing!

Photo credit: "Intrigued" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.