Characters and Gender

Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are believable to all readers?

In this article, we’ll explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that are true to their gender.

At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.

First, let’s consider that gender has four principal components:

Anatomical Sex

Sexual Preference

Gender Identity

Mental Sex

Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.

Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither (or self). Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or celibate, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a homosexual encounter at least once in their lives.

Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have passing attractions to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.

Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.

Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.

Gender Identity is not just how one feels or thinks of oneself, but also how one acts, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.

Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where a writer can explore the greatest nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.

Finally, Mental Sex describes where one falls on the scale from practical, binary, linear, logistic, goal-oriented thinking to passionate, flexible, emotional, process-oriented thinking. In fact, every human being engages in ALL of these approaches to life, just at different times and in different ways.

Now, in creating characters, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.

For example, you might have a character extremely toward male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his secret sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).  Any combination goes.

But when it comes to just Mental Sex by itself, there are four sub-categories within that area alone which tend to define the different personality types we encounter:

Conscious

Every character always has a Conscious choice to focus on the components or processes at any given moment. In other words, in a given situation, at each level of Mental Sex does a character center on the way things are or the way things are going? At each level is the character more interested in getting his or her ducks in a row or in a pond?

Memory

Memory relies on our recollections to organize our considerations in a give situation toward components or processes.  This can lead us to be more logistic or holistic by training, even if it is contrary to our conscious preference.

Subconscious

Subconscious is driven by the sum total of all our experiences, lumped together beneath the level of accessible memory.  It provides the tendencies we have to be attracted or repelled from the situations and activities we encounter in life.

Preconscious.

You might expect PRE-conscious to be in this list before Conscious, but there is a reason why it is here at the deepest level of our mental aspects.  Preconscious is a filter that stands between us and what we perceive.  It diminishes some things and enhances others.  In the extreme, it make things disappear or appear to exist when in fact they do not.

Think of Rose Colored Glasses, prejudices, or matrixing where we see animals in the clouds or faces in the patterns of floorboards, and you’ll get a feel for how the preconscious works.  Perhaps the best example is that after a time in a room we no longer hear the air conditioner or the refrigerator or the fish tank filers.  In psychology this is called a selective filter, and it is due to habituation.

But in terms of mental sex, the preconscious is even more than that.  There appears to be a difference in the wiring of the brains of men and women that is not due to experience but cast before birth.  And that leads to a difference in perspective in which men and women do not necessarily see our world the same way inherently.

In brief, each of these “levels” or “attributes” of the mind can lean toward seeing the world in more logistic or holistic terms.   And all four levels can be either one regardless of what the other three tend to be.

And so, people in the real world can be incredibly complex and in very subtle ways when it comes to the kinds of mental attributes we, as a society, tend to associate with one gender or the other.

Finally, beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles are fairly rigid and include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or order the wine, who has to pretend to be inept where and skilled where else (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll take a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a salad”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.

In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference between those qualities, which are inherent and which are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay and merely sculpt it in different ways.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Why Characters Misunderstand Each Other

This article was originally written as part of an early draft of our book on the Dramatica theory of narrative which but was never included.  It seeks to describe how characters come to misunderstand each other, and how this can lead to conflict.

I’m reprinting it here due to the really useful concepts it brings to light, but bear in mind that many of the terms have evolved since then and many of the notions have been significantly refined over the years.

Here’s the gist, and then the article:

All of our understandings of each other are based on the narratives we create to get a grip on what someone’s intent is, and what their future behavior is likely to be.  Basically, we want to know what they mean by what they say, and what they are likely to do.

But trying to  grasp someone else’s meaning is an interpretive art.  And in addition, we all have our own blinders on – our own expectations based on a history of interactions, both with the specific individual with whom we are communicating and with other people, both similar and no so much, gathered over the course of our lives.

In the article that follows, I use the word “justification” to describe how those past experiences add up to expectations, pre-judgments and even blind spots that keep us from seeing what’s really going on or even warp it to convince us things are quite different – even opposite – of what someone really intended or intended to do.

Here is the original text:

What is Justification? Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well, when someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things actually change in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.

All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how the little boy might develop a justification that could plague him in later life….

The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is eating the wife alive. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets.

Nevertheless, she cannot hold out for long, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different

This short description lays out a series of cause and effect relationships that establish a justification. With this potential we have wound up the spring of our dramatic mechanism. And now we are ready to begin our story to see how that tension unwinds.

The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know what she has done wrong. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. WE know it is because his wife served beets.

It is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the only visible common element between his parent’s arguments and his environment was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway.

Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to misconceptions, but lack of information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have enough information or not, for we cannot determine how much we do not know. It is a human trait, and one of the Subjective Characters as well, to see repetitive proximities between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship.

But why is this so important to story? Because that is why stories exist in the first place! Stories exist to show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to show us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all.

For the Pivotal Character, it will be shown that the way she believed things to be really IS the way they are in spite of evidence to the contrary. The message here is that our understanding is sometimes not limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of information in the present. “Keeping the faith” describes the feeling very well. Even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.

For the Primary Character, it will be shown that things are really different than believed and the only solution is to alter one’s beliefs. This message is that we must update our understanding in the light of new evidence or information. “Changing one’s faith” is the issue here.

In fact, that is what stories are all about: Faith. Not just having it, but also learning if it is valid or not. That is why either Character, Pivotal or Primary, must make a Leap of faith in order to succeed. At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to both Pivotal and Primary Characters. EACH must make the choice. And each will succeed or fail.

The reason it is a Leap of Faith is because we are always stuck with our limited Subjective view. We cannot know for sure if the fact that evidence is mounting that change would be a better course represents the pangs of Conscience or the tugging of Temptation. We must simply decide based on our own internal beliefs.

If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice made. Just like real life stories we hear every day of good an noble people undeservedly dying or losing it all, a Character can make the good and noble choice and fail. This is the nature of a true Dilemma: that no matter what you do, you lose. Of course, most of us read stories not to show us that there is no fairness in the impartial Universe (which we see all too much of in real life) but to convince ourselves that if we are true to the quest and hold the “proper” faith, we will be rewarded. It really all depends on what you want to do to your audience.

A story in which the Main Character is Pivotal will have dynamics that lead the audience to expect that remaining Steadfast will solve the problem and bring success. Conversely, a story in which the Main Character is Primary will have differently dynamics that lead the audience to expect that Changing will solve the problem and bring success. However, in order to make a statement about real life outside of the story, the Author may violate this expectation for propaganda or shock purposes.

For example, if, in Star Wars, Luke had made the same choice and turned off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! Suppose you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime. That might very WELL be the way you would want to end it!

The point being, that to create a feeling of “completion” in an audience, if the Main Character is Pivotal, she MUST succeed by remaining Steadfast, and a Primary Main Character MUST change.

Now, let’s take this sprawling embryonic understanding of Justification and apply it specifically to story structure.

The Dramatica Model is built on the process of noting that an inequity exists, then comparing all possible elements of Mind to Universe until the actual nature of the inequity is located, then making a Leap of Faith to change approach or remain steadfast.

At the most basic level, we have Mind and we have Universe, as indicated in the introduction to this book. An inequity is not caused solely by one or the other but by the difference between the two. So, an inequity is neither in Mind nor Universe, but between them.

However, based on their past experiences (assumed causal relationships in backstory) a given Subjective Character will choose either Mind or Universe as the place to attempt to resolve the inequity. In other words, she decides that she likes one area the way it is, and would rather change the other. As soon as this decision is made, the inequity becomes a problem because it is seen in one world or the other. i.e.: “There is a problem with my situation I have to work out.” or “I have to work out a personal problem”.

Doesn’t a Character simply see that the problem is really just an inequity between Mind and Universe? Sure, but what good does that do them? It is simply not efficient to try to change both at the same time and meet halfway. Harking back to our introductory example of Jane who wanted a $300 jacket: Suppose Jane decided to try and change her mind about wanting the jacket even while going out and getting a job to earn the money to buy it. Obviously, this would be a poor plan, almost as if she were working against herself, and in effect she would be. This is because it is a binary situation: either she has a jacket or she does not, and, either she wants a jacket or she does not. If she worked both ends at the same time, she might put in all kinds of effort and end up having the jacket not wanting it. THAT would hardly do! No, to be efficient, a Character will consciously or responsively pick one area or the other in which to attempt to solve the problem, using the other area as the measuring stick of progress.

So, if a Main Character picks the Universe in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Do-er” and it is an Action oriented story. If a Main Character picks the Mind in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Be-er” and it is a Decision oriented story. Each story has both Action and Decision, for they are how we compare Mind against Universe in looking for the inequity. But an Action story has a focus on exploring the physical side and measuring progress by the mental, where as a Decision story focuses on the mental side and measures progress by the physical.

Whether a story is Action or Decision has nothing to do with the Main Character being Pivotal or primary. As we have seen, James Bond has been both. And in the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Indy must change from his disbelief of the power of the ark and its supernatural aspects in order to succeed by avoiding the fate that befalls the Nazis – “Close your eyes, Marian; don’t look at it!”

Action or Decision simply describes the nature of the problem solving process, not whether a character should remained steadfast or change. And regardless of which focus the story has, a Pivotal Character story has dynamics indicating that remaining steadfast is the proper course. That mean that in an Action story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Universe and must maintain that approach in the face of all obstacles in order to succeed. In a Decision story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Mind, and must maintain that approach to succeed. On the other hand, a Primary Character, regardless of which world she selects to solve the problem, will discover she chose the wrong one, and must change to the other to find the solution.

A simple way of looking at this is to see that a Pivotal Character must work at finding the solution, and if diligent will find it where she is looking. She simply has to work at it. In Dramatica, when a Pivotal Character is the Main Character, we call it a Work Story (which can be either Action or Decision)

A Primary Character works just as hard as the Pivotal to find the solution, but in the end discovers that the problem simply cannot be solved in the world she chose. She must now change and give up her steadfast refusal to change her “fixed” world in order to overcome the log jam and solve the problem. Dramatica calls this a Dilemma story, since it is literally impossible to solve the problem in the manner originally decided upon.

From the Subjective view, both Pivotal and Primary work at solving the problem. Also, each is confronted with evidence suggesting that they must change. This evidence is manifested in increasingly growing obstacles they both must overcome. So what makes the audience want one character to remain steadfast and the other to change?

The Objective view.

Remember, we have two views of the Story Mind. The Subjective is the limited view in which the audience, in empathy with the Main Character, simply does not have enough information to decide whether or not to change. But then, unlike the Main Character, the audience is privy to the Objective view which clearly shows (by the climax) which would be the proper choice. To create a sense of equity in the audience, if the Main Character’s Subjective Choice is in line with the Objective View, they must succeed. But if a propaganda or shock value is intended, an author may choose to have either the proper choice fail or the improper choice succeed.

This then provides a short explanation of the driving force behind the unfolding of a story, and the function of the Subjective Characters. Taken with the earlier chapters on the Objective Characters, we now have a solid basic understanding of the essential structures and dynamics that create and govern Characters.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Dramatica

and learn more about Narrative Science

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4 Writing Tips for Novelists

1. Novels Aren’t Stories

A novel can be extremely free form. Some are simply narratives about a fictional experience. Others are a collection of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.

Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There”) wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.

Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.

The point is, don’t feel confined to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.

Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be exclusively poetry. Or, as Anne Rice often does, you can use poetry to introduce chapters or sections, or enhance a moment in a story.

You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.

For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.

So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most free of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.

2. Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.

For example, in a movie, you might say:

John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.

But in a novel you might write:

John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.

The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.

Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.

3. Keep A Daily Log Of Tidbits

One of the biggest differences between a pedestrian novel and a riveting one are the clever little quips, concepts, snippets of dialog, and fresh metaphors.

But coming up with this material on the fly is a difficult chore, and sometimes next to impossible. Fortunately, you can overcome this problem simply by keeping a daily log of interesting tidbits. Each and every day, many intriguing moments cross our paths. Some are notions we come up with on our own; others we simply observe. Since a novel takes a considerable amount of time to write, you are bound to encounter a whole grab bag of tidbits by the time you finish your first draft.

Then, for the second draft, you refer to all that material and drop it in wherever you can to liven up the narrative. You may find that it makes some characters more charismatic, or gives others, who have remained largely silent, something to say. You may discover an opportunity for a sub-plot, a thematic discourse, or the opportunity to get on your soapbox.

What I do is to keep the log at the very bottom of the document for my current novel, itself. That way, since the novel is almost always open on my computer, anything that comes along get appended to the end before it fades from memory.

Also, this allows me to work some of the material into the first draft of the novel while I’m writing it. For example, here are a few tidbits at the bottom of the novel I’m developing right now:

A line of dialog:

“Are you confused yet? No? Let me continue….”

A silly comment:

“None of the victims was seriously hurt.” Yeah – they were all hurt in a very funny way.

A character name:

Farrah Swiel

A new phrase:

Tongue pooch

A notion:

Theorem ~ Absolute Corruption Empowers Absolutely

Corollary ~ There are no good people in positions of power

I haven’t worked these into the story yet, but I will. And it will be richer for it.

4. Don’t Hold Back

Unlike screenplays, there are no budget constraints in a book. You can write, “The entire solar system exploded, planet at a time,” as easily as you can write, “a leaf fell from the tree.”

Let you imagination run wild. You can say anything, do anything, break any law, any taboo, any rule of physics. Your audience will follow you anywhere as long as you keep their interest.

So, follow your Muse wherever it leads. No idea is too big or too small. Write about the things you are most passionate about, and it will come through your words, between the lines, and right into the hearts and souls of your readers.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Of Showers and Fractal Time

As you likely know, I am the co-creator of the Dramatica theory of narrative, the Storymind theory of narrative psychology, and of the Mental Relativity theory of what can best be called narrative physics, which deals with the underlying mathematics of the Dramatica model and how they apply to our perceptions of reality, even so far as to determining what we perceive to be the laws of the physical world.

What you may not know is that, though the original tenets and equations of Dramatica are still as valid today as they ever were, the extent of the theory has continued to grow as it has been applied to more and subjects and as more and more branches of the theory have been developed to a greater extent.

But today, something has happened for which there is no precedent: I have discovered a new part of the theory equal to all that has been previously documented and emanating side by side from the very top.

For those in the know, this new realm is the temporal equivalent of “one side multiplies and the other divides” from our first breakthrough regarding the equations of narrative.

With that concept framing the coming explanation, let us begin…

Originally, the “one side multiples and the other divides” came to me in a dream (yeah, right, but really).  You can read all about it here:  Dramatica – How We Did It

This new half of the theory also began with a dream.  So sue me.

I had this dream about a university where I was going to be speaking about, what else, narrative theory.  Before the talk, a professor in one of the classes asked me to help him with a problem:  He couldn’t schedule his class because the students weren’t completing their projects on time.  I thought for what seemed like about ten seconds in the dream and then gave him my advice: Use one time for the class and another for the projects.

I had no idea what this meant at the time any more than I did about “multiplies and divides” in the previous incident.  But the dream then continued.  Apparently, I had just finished the speaking presentation and afterward, the dean of the university called me to his office with a problem as well.  He complained that he couldn’t schedule the university because the professors weren’t keeping their classes on time.

Again, I thought for about ten seconds and gave him this advice: Use one time for the university and another for the classes.

And then I woke up.  And I realized this was the same kind of thing as my previous dream nearly 30 years ago.  And again, as before, I had no idea what it meant.

So I thought about it, and then I thought some more.  I was convinced this instance held the same potential as the first one – I just didn’t know what that was yet.

As before, then, I realized I need to back-burner process this until my subconscious was ready to divulge what it wanted my conscious mind to know.  But the bummer is, I didn’t ask for this knowledge – didn’t want it – wanted to just drift off into the sunset having done my work on narrative theory.  But no.  Stupid subconscious!

So this went on for a few weeks with several concepts put forth by my conscious mind to explain what this meant, yet all of them falling short of really connecting with what this dream felt like it meant.

And then this morning, in the shower, the truth of the matter struck me.  I had been thinking the past few days and old thought with a new spin.  For some years I’ve realized that there is a pace at which I can work on projects, even those that I don’t like, that is comfortable and pleasant.  And there is a pace at which the work is horrible and stressful.

Earlier this week, I told Teresa that I didn’t get out and hike or go to the movies any more because I have been putting off taking a shower until late in the day when I’m too tired to out and have fun.  But, I have always hated taking a shower.  I loathe it.  I find it the most unpleasant thing one can do on a regular basis.

But today, I made a point to take a shower earlier than normal so we could get done some essential work before the weekend.  And while in the shower, I realized that I was racing through the process because I hated it, but had never in my life taken a leisurely shower and luxuriated in it – because I HATE it – luxuriating in a shower?  Non sequitur.

But what if, said my mind to me – what if the actual reason you hate showering is because you race through it.  And what if you intentionally slowed down and took your time?  So, unable to resist a practical experiment, I slowed down.  I stood in the warm water, sensually applied the suds and – well, let’s not get grody about all this.  “Grody” – ancient vernacular – look it up.

What I found was that I could actually enjoy a shower, if taken as a pleasant clip.  And then the “one time for the big thing and one for the component smaller thing” came back to me.  And I realized that message from my subconscious was all about fractal time.  Yeah..  that’s right… fractal time.

But I had no idea what I meant by fractal time.  So I walked around the concept in my head and this is what I saw.  Dramatica theory and its offshoots and cousins are all about that point at which if you are looking at something macroscopic digitally – in other words, you can see the macroscopic components, then there is a point microscopically where the littler components are so small, you fail to see pieces because they all blend into a single unit or a single line: “one side multiples and the other divides”: one side is seen as homogeneous and the other as made of parts.

In Dramatica, the differential between those two magnifications is the essence of what defines the scope of a narrative. We call it “the size of mind constant.”  It states that single narratives can be no larger than  one in which when you look at the biggest part of the story argument you can’t look any larger without being able to hold the smallest parts of the message argument in your mind at the same time.  Or conversely, when you look at the smallest parts of the argument, the narrative can be no bigger than one in which you can also see the components of the biggest parts of the argument at the same time.

Like boxcar covering a certain number of ties on a railroad track, our minds can see a certain span from the largest to the smallest in one single glance.  We get around this limitation by moving the box car back and forth along the track.  So, we move beyond the largest components of the argument and temporarily lose sight of the smaller pieces, consigning them to memory, then move down to the details again and beyond those smaller pieces into even smaller parts of the argument and lose track of the larger components.

Back and forth we go, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, pushing the limits of what we can see about the subject until we would see so much we’d lose track of what it all meant as it turns into a structure-less glob of perspectives.

A fractal dimension in narrative is defined by a human limitation as to the biggest argument you can make in which all parties can see all the parts without any blending into homogeny.  We call such a narrative a Grand Argument Story because though you can tell smaller narratives, you can’t tell larger ones.  (Though a story might contain more than one narrative, in which case each must fit within the size of mind constant, but they can all be considered as part of the entire work that explores that subject matter – just like in real life where we all juggle many narratives simultaneously and in succession as well.

Now that’s a spatial fractal.  One definition of a fractal is “the spatial record of the results of the interaction of order and chaos.”  But what is a temporal fractal?  What would that be, I wondered, still in the shower…

Well the first thought was going back to the dream.  My original interpretation had been that one time for the big and one for the smaller had this aspect I couldn’t quite parse but I could feel that I wasn’t being told the solution was magnitudes of time but qualities of time, natures of time – as if one kind of time for the big and another kind for the small.

So I starting thinking about what kinds of time there were.  And then, up from the memory vaults, came a concept I’d put forth in 1996 or thereabouts when I was recording hours of audio speculating and extending Dramatica narrative theory into narrative psychology and narrative physics:  Objective time vs. subjective time.

I those days I had first thought these two kinds of times mean one that was the same for everyone and another kind that was unique to the individual.  You know, kinda like Einstein’s theory that the faster you go, the more time slows down for you compared to everyone else.

Of course, we really see that in the old example of the space ship going near the speed of light, but in reality, that subjective time is there always, in each of us because, after all, just by standing on a different part of the globe, we are traveling faster or slower – 1000 mph at the equator, 600 mph in the temperate zones, and near 0 mph at the poles (discounting our transit round the sun and our solar system through the galaxy and so on, ad infinitum.

But since the effects of speed on time increase logarithmicly or some such, you can’t really see them at the speeds we’re talking about here.  Still, it is intriguing to consider that the person just a few feet away from you is aging at a different rate than you are because you are not rotating around the earth at the same speed.

After a few years, however, I abandoned the concept of objective and subjective time as interesting but not particularly useful (and too experiential), and instead shifted to thinking of time as being either constant or stretchy.  Stretch time…  I really liked the sound of that.  It meant that time could be constant (within observable parameters) as we both watch the seconds go by on a clock, but could be changing for each of us, relative to one another, as we go pacing back and forth in a room opposite to each other (within measurable, or at least theoretical parameters), due to our changing speeds in rotation around the earth.

So one magnitude of time is observable (constant) and the other is beneath the level of our observation (stretchy).  That replicates the relationship of macroscopic and microscopic narrative argument components that defines the fractal nature of narrative described above in relation to the Grand Argument Story.  So THAT is what a temporal fractal is – a flow of time that appears to be constant (objective reality) and an actual flow that goes faster and slower for each individual compared to all the others (subjective reality).

Now isn’t it strange that in the case of time itself, what you can commonly observe appears to objective reality, and what you individually experience but cannot observe appears to be subjective reality, and yet, constant time is really based only on the common limits of our collective minds to perceive differences, so it is really subjective, and stretchy time is what is really going on with each of us, yet because it cannot be directly observed and is different for each individual, we see it as subjective time when it really is the objective truth.  There’s enough just in that alone to create mobius loops of our philosophy and our science.

So the reality is that time is stretchy, but we perceive it as constant.  That seems simple enough.

After a while, back in the 90s and early 2000s I can to call stretchy time relativistic time because is was both more accurate and also sounded more scientific.

While in the shower then, all this came flooding back to me and I then understood that the two kinds of time from my dream were constant time and relativistic time.  One kind (such as a class) has to be constant when the other (individual projects) has to be seen as relativistic (each student proceeding at his own pace.

Of course you see, then, that for the constant to remain a constant even if some students’ projects would exceed the class time allotted, then to end at the appointed time, each project could only be completed if the amount of detail in the project were allowed to vary to enable a more swift completion.  And this illustrated how time (deadlines) are related to space (detail) and how each affects the other.

So, my two kinds of time were actually part of the same quad that began with “one side multiples and the other divides.”  That’s the spatial part of the narrative/psychology/physics of the model.  The temporal side is “one side is absolute and the other is relative.”  Together, they complete a quad one level up from the entire Dramatica model we have created so far.  In other words, this opens up a second half of narrative consideration, equal in size to that of the original, but all about time.

Now the multiply/divide side gave us an equation that resulted in the development of four separate classes of stories/considerations – Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology.  Universe is the fixed external state of things.  Physics covers all the external processes.  Mind is about fixed states of mind.  Psychology covers internal processes (manners of thinking).

Taken collectively, these four classes describe all external or internal states or processes.  Spatially speaking, you can’t think of anything that isn’t an external or internal state or process.  Game over.  Done.

But now with time as the second half of the multiply/divide quad, what would the four top-level classes of temporal narrative be?

Inception, Duration, Flow, and Fluctuation.  In other words, when does it start, how long does it last, how fast is it going, how much does that vary?

The four classes of temporal narrative structure – the prime fractal dimension.  There it is.

Of course, I’m sure those names will change and the understanding of what they mean and how they relate to one another in a quad arrangement will alter and grow.  But for now, I am simply reporting a rather nice breakthrough in realizing there were two more components at the top to fill out the quad, and to suggest the four temporal classes that engenders.

Time for a lunch break.

Melanie Anne Phillips

 

Posted in Narrative Science | Comments Off on Of Showers and Fractal Time

Happy New Year, Writers!

I’ve been teaching creative writing now for more that twenty-five years, and here are my best tips for starting your new writing year:

First, schedule your writing time like you would a dentist’s appointment. Why?  Because as Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.”  We all hate going to the dentist, and most of the time, we also hate writing – coming up with words for the page is like pulling teeth.  But after we’ve gotten the gumption and gotten it done, the afterglow of the results ranges from satisfaction to ecstasy.

So put it down on your calendar.  And then, as soon as it is over, schedule your follow-up visit before you leave the office or you’ll never get around to it.

Next, during your writing session, don’t sit in front of a blank page trying to come up with something to say. Rather, let your mind wander to favorite memories, favorite subjects, or even to problems, worries or fears, and just write about them.  Consider it a warm-up exercise before you get your game on.

As you warm-up, you’ll find that your mind naturally begins to feel its way around the subject you intend to write about.  And at some point, you’ll come up with an idea on that topic that is so logistically important or emotionally powerful to that you find you’ve already started writing about it instead of the warm-up topics.

Third, never try to force the Muse to work on a story problem. Cut her free. By nature, she is full of boundless energy and wants to explore your creative mind with reckless abandon.  Try to shackle your Muse to the task at hand, and she’ll balk.  But if you let her run wild, even if it is WAAAAY off topic, it is like another warm-up exercise in the middle of the long routine of writing.  Every once in a while you need to come up for air, feed your head, and give  your heart some candy.  In short, don’t feel that once you start working on your actual story that you can’t diverge whenever the Muse stands at the door with her leash asking to go for a walk.

Fourth, write about what you love.  Sure, we all have dreams of writing a great novel or script, and perhaps we will, but don’t let that make you choose a less epic topic because you think it has the potential to be more noteworthy.  In fact, the odds of writing something truly meaningful go WAY down if you don’t write about what moves you personally.

But here’s the rub – this is a real pisser for me personally… The kinds of stories I like to read are not the kinds of stories I’m very good at writing. Man, that gets stuck in my craw!  I want to write sci-fi-ish action stories of great adventure, incredible discovery and amazing tales of triumph over unbelievable odds! But every time I try it is all mechanical, stilted, or (worst of all) completely lame.

Yep, I’d also like to be a pastry chef, but I’m good at making sauces. I’d like to be a chess champion, but I flub it all up, yet I can triumph in checkers or tic-fracking-tac-freaking-toe.  My private horror (don’t tell anybody): what I’m good at is this. Yes, this. Writing inspiring articles so others can write all the wonderful things I’d like to write. What manner of hell is this?

Not to worry, though.  I’ve just started a new novel, and for the first time it is something I really, really, really want to work on.  I’m actually enjoying the writing of it and can’t wait until the next session – not like a dentist’s appointment at all: more like an ice cream social.

Yep, that happens too.  But not often.  So don’t wait for it – do the other stuff I’ve mentioned and get things “wrote” in between the rare bromance with a flirty story you just can’t resist.

Well, I’ve come to terms with it. That’s why you’ll find literally HUNDREDS of articles on story structure and storytelling here and also on my writing tips web site at Storymind.com [Self Serving Plug Alert]

I eventually came to the conclusion I’d rather write what comes naturally than get perpetually stuck trying to write what I like to read. If I want that other kind of story – the one I’m no good at – I’ll read somebody else’s.  So, I’ve finally embraced the awful, yet sobering and even somehow calming notion that it is better to be a carefree pianist, bringing music into the world with little effort at all, than a continually struggling trombonist, blurting out a few stilted notes and never affecting anyone nor even finding satisfaction in my own work.

Summing up then my tips for you new writing year…

I urge you all to set up that time where you are forced (by resolution) to do nothing. And from that nothing will rise your Muse like a Kraken of Creativity, snarling out its arms to embrace every shiny, beckoning or threatening notion within its horizon, consuming it, and spewing out prose of a grand and powerful ilk upon the world, upon yourself, upon your soul.

May God have mercy upon us all, for we are writers.

Now get Kraken in this new year, for God’s sake (and for your own)!

Melanie Anne Phillips

Oh – and you might want to try this too:

Posted in Creative Writing | Comments Off on Happy New Year, Writers!

10 Screenwriting Tips

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

Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain techniques emerged that became accepted as conventions of telling a story on the screen.

In this tip, I’ll outline a few of those methods often present in most successful scripts.

1. Teaser

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

2. Remember your audience.

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

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

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

4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.

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

5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”

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

6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.

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

7. Don’t preach.

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

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

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

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

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

10.There are many kinds of endings

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

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

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

Armed with these ten screenwriting tips, your next script can be richer and snappier.

May the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Have You Lost Your Tale (and become one of the “Drudge People”)?

Drudge people.  You see them every day.  On the news.  In your town.  Outside your window.  Perhaps, even in your own home.

You can easily recognize them as they have lost their tales.  With no tale, they are directionless, shuffling endlessly forward with no destination.

How did they become Drudge People?  They were not born that way, oh no!  Each and every one came into this world as we all did, with a curious mind and an inquisitive spirit.  Life seemed an endless wonder and full of opportunities to explore.  Each new discovery was a tale to tell – a eureka moment so powerful that we ran to share it with our loved ones and friends, lest it burst within us before we could release the pressure of epiphany.

And then we started school.  Suddenly, there was regimen.  Conformity was rewarded, individuality punished.  Oh, not in in such direct terms (that would be abhorrent to our democratic ideals in these United States.)  And yet, we were all gently guided away from enthusiasm and into the soft protective embrace of routine.  Layer by layer, responsibilities, obligations, social sensitivity, compromise and procrastination became our shellac and armor in what we were constantly reminded was a cold and dangerous world.

Our education ended when we were fully indoctrinated, inoculated, and insulated from any original thinking and targeted instead on whatever mindless task was placed before us.  In short, we were ready for the work place.  And it was here the alchemist’s art of turning students into automatons was refined into the science of creating a population of  robot-slaves.

In a technically savvy world, the shackles must be so subtle as to be invisible to all except the jailers – the emperor’s new closed mind.  No tangible restraints can be seen.  But for those with a keen eye and a little patience, you can identify the Drudge People in our midst.  If you suspect someone, ask yourself, “When was the last time (Person Z) bolted into my cubicle aglow with something (he or she) couldn’t wait to tell me?”  When was the last time they posted something original on Face book, other than their new high score on some life-eating game or a link to someone else’s pictures or a re-post of someone else’s thought or (most telling of all) simply clicked the “Like” button without writing anything in response?  You see, when you lose your tale you have nothing to say.  The Muse has run out of you and your creative juices have crystallized in your veins.

We become infected whenever we consume rather than create, when we opt for a virtual experience instead of an actual one, a recorded adventure as a safer substitute for the real thing.  The more we show up right on time for our daily coat of varnish, the less it becomes our shield and the more it serves as our prison.  After years of build-up, the constraints have become so thick that one may become wholly beyond redemption.

But there is hope for some of us, my friends.  If your eyes have been opened and you can now (perhaps for the first time) see the glossy membranes that are hardening around you, there is still a chance to avoid permanent incarceration.  You need to re-grow your tale.  This will not be easy.  Through atrophy, it has likely been almost wholly absorbed back into your system and re-tasked as raw material to be added to your casing.

Begin as thus: seek out original thinkers – those few individuals whose clarion voices resound out above the din of the mindless masses.  They are they outcasts, perhaps even the outlaws in our civilized society.  Listen to their call, but not too long, for it as easy to become lured by the siren song as it is to become deaf to innovation.

Take in these new voices just long enough to resonate within yourself – to build up a sympathetic vibration that begins, ever so gradually, to create cracks in your full mental jacket.  Then funnel the energy of those maverick rants into your core – recharge the cells at the base of your tale until, through the synthesis of many alternative ideas you begin to form one of your own.

All it takes is a single concept – something you’ve not thought or heard before.  Take note – this is a delicate and crucial time in the clockwork of your escape!  Do not let that concept simply fade away as you are distracted by the next mind-numbing diversion that drifts upon you from the mill of collective mundanity.  Nurture that embryonic thought, feed it with research and water it with conjecture.  Allow it to place roots in your mind, so strong that it will not be scoured from your consciousness by the next brisk breeze of life.  Grow it stout and tall until it bears fruit.  And as it expands, it will poke out through one of the cracks in your cage and you will find that your tale has begun to grow again.

But tales are not self-sustaining, they must be exercised regularly if they are to become and remain the rudder of your life course.  This can only be accomplished by putting them into action – wagging your thoughts.  And you do this just as when you were a child – you run excitedly to your loved ones and friends to tell them of your wonderful new experience or discovery.

You can do this in fiction.  You can do it in fact.  You can do it in music or pictures or words.  You will find that it quickly burns within you – an intensity of life you had either forgotten or perhaps not ever experienced.  And the more your engage it, the more brightly it shines, as do you.

And finally, when you are a self-starting engine of creativity, when life has become both raw and meaningful again, perhaps you will take a moment to cast a life line to another who is still not wholly beyond hope.  A life line such as this article I’m throwing to you.  But, for the love of God, don’t just post a link to this or simply “like” it without any original comments of your own, or you may be truly lost and doomed to remain one of the Drudge People forever….

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Is Story Structure A Myth?

A whole flock of Story Gurus (myself included) will tell you that stories have structure. Therefore, if you learn that structure you’ll improve your stories. Ostensibly, this will lead to fame, riches, a keen sense of accomplishment, and the unparalleled pleasure of the act of writing itself.

But is that true? Do stories have a structure? And even if they do, is there really any way to figure out what it is? Based solely on the number of competing theories, one might suspect that either stories don’t have structures or that even those who spend their entire lives trying to figure it out, can’t!

But there’s an alternative explanation – actually, a couple of them, and I’d like to share those with you now….

First of all, we have two questions:

1. Do stories have structures?

2. Can we ever really define what they are?

We’ll take them in turn.

Stories have structure. There, I said it. But now I have to prove it. And so I’ll say something else – not all written works are stories. And many of those other kinds of writing don’t have any structure at all. In other words, when people use the term “stories” in a casual way to mean any durn thing an author writes, well, then it is impossible to agree if stories have structure or not, ’cause some of them do and some of them don’t.

So the first thing we need to do is divide what we commonly think of as stories into two different camps. One includes all those written works that have structure and the other contains all the written works that don’t.

Now its pretty silly to say that that any written work could exist that has absolutely no structure. So I’ll go back a bit on what I said. Even a dictionary has structure, sentences have structure, and paragraphs follow the conventions of a particular gramatic form.

Every random collection of words with no intent behind them has structure. Why? As a species we see animals in clouds, mythic figures in glops of stars, and impose images on inkblots. From this we can surmise that the human mind tries to impose structure even on chaos. No matter what written work we might examine, no matter how fluid and free-form, there will be those who see a clear structure in the thing.

Let’s no be so picky. If you see structure in everything, then you already don’t think structure is a myth so my work is done here. But when most people think of structure in regard to writing, they are not talking about grammar or form. Rather, they have “formula” in mind. In other words, writers tend to equate structure with a rigid formula for telling a story – a list of requirements that must be met or the story will suffer.

So let’s go with that and refine our first question to read as follows:

1. Is there a rigid formula that must be followed to write a successful story?

No.

Wait a minute! Didn’t I just say “Stories have structure,” and now I’ve turn ’round and proclaimed , “No they don’t.”

Yes. Yes I did. And here’s why…. Stories have structure but that structure isn’t a rigid formula; it is a flexible form. That’s why its so hard to see – its never quite the same from one story to the next.

Yet, the elements remain the same: There are Characters, Plot and Theme. There are personal problems, and goals, and moralities. There are acts, and scenes and beats. We feel their necessity, we sense their consistency, yet these are just impressions. The actual nature of the structure remains elusive, seen only in glimpses in shadows, never showing itself clearly.

This is not surprising. It is like the old story of three blind men trying to describe an elephant: One feeling the trunk, “It is long and twisty like a snake”. Another, examining the leg, “It is tall and round like a tree.” The last, exploring the ear, “It is thin and flat like a rug.”

Story Gurus are each describing the same elephant in the room. Each is seeing a portion of the truth. While the descriptions seem in conflict or at least disparate, they are really just parts of the same beast.

I’m not here to promote my particular view of the critter. Rather, I figure my “truth” is also just another facet of a greater “Truth”. So in regard to the questions I posed, let me answer like this:

Yes, stories have structure. No, we’ll never see the whole of it. But the more story gurus you study, the more sides you see of what stories are, what they can be, how they work, and how to build them.

Embrace what works for you, reject what feels wrong, and strive to develop your own take on story structure, always remembering that no matter how clearly it appears to you, its probably just another piece of the puzzle.

The bottom line is that you should apply structure only in ways that enhance your productivity and your enjoyment in pursuing your craft. Anything else has no more place in your writing life than a rigid structure can be applied to every kind of story.

To that end, I created a couple of software products for writers:  StoryWeaver (for inspiration and development) and Dramatica (for structure).  Check ’em out, and help support this poor, retired, teacher of creative writing, eh?

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Do You Write Like An Actor Or A Director?

There are two ways to approach the craft of writing. The first is to step into the role of each character and write it very personally, as if you were an actor portraying a part. The second is to consider what each character must do to fulfill its purpose in the story, then orchestrate their interactions as if you were directing a movie or stage play.

Each of these methods has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Let’s explore them one at a time and then see how we can use them both to make our story at compelling as possible.

The Writer-Actor

On the plus side, the Writer-Actor exudes passion. His or her characters are alive with a personal perspective with which the reader or audience can instantly and deeply identify.

Each character is seen through the eyes of all the others, so the reader/audience feels as if they come to know the characters, not just as players in the Big Picture, but as real people who not only love and hate, but are loved and hated as well.

This creates a rich emotional fabric to a story. But the benefits of being a Writer-Actor don’t stop there. Indeed, even the narrative itself benefits from this approach. Small experiences and individual observations illuminate the environments through which the characters pass.

A Writer-Actor’s narrative is likely to be filled with sensory descriptions as to the temperature, background sounds, colors, textures, tastes, and smells that are present in each scene. In this way, not only do the characters feel real, but so does the world in which they move.

But what about the downside of such a personal approach? The greatest danger of allowing oneself to actually become a character while writing is that one loses site of the needs and structure of the overall story.

Characters tend to take on a life of their own and almost demand that they move in certain directions, even if those are in conflict with the purposes of the story at large. In addition, the benefits of some unifying overview are often lost in the cacophony of individual voices.

Having briefly explored the pros and cons of the Writer-Actor approach, let’s examine some of the benefits and drawbacks of the Writer-Director’s method.

The Writer-Director

In the plus column, the Writer-Director produces a vision. The characters take on a grand importance as pawns in a larger scheme, a greater meaning.

Each character is seen as a cog in an elegant machine, inexorably moving forward like clockwork toward a specific purpose which will ultimately be revealed. The natures of their interrelationships are discovered and defined as understandable threads in the tapestry of the tale.

In addition, characters are tied directly to plot, theme, and genre, integrating them into the story as a whole, illustrating their interdependence with the forces that shape their world and, by inference, ours as well.

But in the negative column, a Writer-Director tends to objectify characters, leading them to come across more as puppets than people. All the beats of character growth are precisely hit, yet the overall flow can feel forced and formulaic.

What’s more, the stage on which the characters strut can seem more Machiavellian than organic, and the story plods along in some sort of Calvinistic pre-destination rather than an unknown realm in which anything might happen.

If you have begun to think that perhaps neither of these approaches, by itself, is sufficient to the task of creating a passionate story that leads to a well-defined message, you are correct.

And that is the point of this exercise. By nature each of us tends to be one of these two kinds of writers. As a result, we excel in half of what readers/audiences are craving, yet fall short in the other side of their needs.

The solution, of course, is to learn to employ tools in the areas in which we do not have natural ability or inclination. That is, in fact, the concept behind learning the craft of writing. We study and exercise not to make ourselves more talented, but to supplement our effectiveness in those areas in which we are not as innately gifted.

So, the first step of the task at hand is to identify which kind of writer you are. The second step is to practice writing with the other method as well.

Here’s a handy method for finding out which kind of writer you are naturally:

1.  First, sit down to create a character from scratch. Pick a name, a gender, an age, a job or vocation and a problem or goal that is their biggest concern in their lives.

2. Based only on that limited information about that character try to put yourself in the character’s shoes. Imagine you are them, they are you.  See if you easily get a feel for them or can even make yourself feel as if this is happening to you.

3.  Now see if you can come up with a description of how the problem or goal affects their lives and what they are thinking or doing about it. Who are the other people in their lives, and how are they affected at a personal and/or emotional level by the problem and by the potential solutions?

If you found that exercise easy, perhaps even fun, then you are a Writer-Actor by nature. If you found it tedious, uninspiring, and fruitless, you’re a Writer-Director.

Now, to be sure which kind of writer you are, try the other method:

1. Start with the same bare-bones information about the character, their problem or their goal and ask yourself what you want them to do about it.

2. List some other characters you want in your story and describe how you want them to help or hinder your character.

3.  What kinds of character conflicts do you wish to explore, which characters are they between, and how are these resolved?

If this was the easier one, then you are a Writer-Director without doubt. You see, both approaches are trying to get to the same place, but they come to it from a different creative mind set. And in so doing, they miss different things along the way.

In summary then, to enhance your abilities as a writer, you need to be fluent in both the Writer-Actor and the Writer-Directory approach, using them in a complementary fashion to fully ignite the fires of passion within a solid logistic framework.

But how can you accomplish that?  How can you develop your skills in both areas?

Here are two methods to get you going. Well call this strategy, “Hats and Charts,” and again, we’ll explore them one at a time:

Hats (for developing Writer-Actor skills)

A surprising number of authors actually wear different hats while writing different characters. I’m not speaking metaphorically here, they actually wear physical hats. This helps them imagine themselves as a given character, such as a cop or a chef.

Not surprisingly, the extension of this is to wear costumes – the clothing you expect your character might brandish. It can be as simple as a scarf, the way you comb your hair, your make-up, perfume or cologne, or all the way to a full wardrobe.

It is really not as silly as it sounds. Do you not feel differently depending upon the kind of clothing you wear on a given day? Does not a uniform influence the way a person thinks? It is not any less true that a writer’s work will very depending upon what he or she is wearing while creating.

Try music that a character might play, put on a television show or movie your character might watch. Tack pictures your character might have in their home to a cork board in your line of sight as you write. Perhaps add pictures that seem like the realm in which they move – a desert island, a ship, the dark dungeons below the Vatican.

All of these ideas grow from the “Hats” concept. You can and should give some time to thinking about other similar ways of making yourself feel like your character feels.

Charts (for developing Writer-Director skills)

To become a better Writer-Director, you need a completely different plan – “Charts”. The idea here is to objectify your characters – to see them as components in the store, elements with which you will build the tale.

You can begin my making a chart of each character and listing as many details about them as you can. For example, where did each character go to school? What hobbies does each have? What are their religious affiliations, if any? To what political party do they belong? How strongly do they subscribe to the philosophies in these groups? What are their physical abilities/disabilities? What are their hair colors, skin texture, skin color, weight?

Create a time-line graph for each characters’ emotional journey through the story. Use different colors for different moods or feelings and plot the intensity of those emotions. By examining these passions analytically, it helps you see patterns and uncover skipped or missed beats in the flow.

Using index cards and colored yarn show all the relationships among your characters including familial, professional, historical, philosophical, and so on.

Try writing a description of each character as if you were a private detective hired to follow them for a day. You have no personal interest in the character, but your job is to document everything they do (and even how they act) in as much detail as possible.

Each of these exercises helps you step out of a character’s shoes and see them in a functional manner, both as themselves and also how they interact with others.

Hats and Charts together:

As you have no doubt surmised, the perspectives of the Writer-Actor and Writer-Director are so divergent that it is virtually impossible to do both at the same time. In the writing process, therefore, you should use them in succession.

Begin with the approach to which you are naturally inclined for this will provide you with the greatest raw inspiration. When you have finished a section or your Muse comes up for air, use the opportunity (which would otherwise be wasted down-time) to apply the exercises from your secondary approach to the material you have just written.

By revisiting the material while it is still fresh in your creative spirit, but from an alternate point of view, you can reprocess the material and fill in the gaps left by your initial creative burst.

Once you have finished the complete story, go back and run it through both approaches again to ensure that not only do the individual scenes sing like a Spring bird, but that the entire work unfolds smoothly, like the passage of a fine season.

In the end, if you take the time to learn, practice and employ both methods of developing characters, your stories will be far more powerful, well rounded, and well received.

Just a reminder, you’ll find both of these approaches are integrated into my StoryWeaver Story Development Software that takes you step by step from concept to completed novel or screenplay through a path of more than 200 interactive Story Cards.

Click here to learn more or to try it risk free for 90 days!

Melanie Anne Phillips

 

Posted in Creative Writing, Story Development | Comments Off on Do You Write Like An Actor Or A Director?

Is Your Story Coming Apart At The Themes?

Even when a story has memorable characters, a riveting plot and a fully developed genre, it may still be coming apart at the themes.  In this article, we’ll find out how to recognize this problem, and what to do about it.

Theme is perhaps the most powerful, yet least understood element of story structure. It is powerful because theme is an emotional argument: It speaks directly to the heart of the reader or audience. It is least understood because of its intangible nature, working behind the scenes, and between the lines.

When mis-used, theme can become a ham-handed moral statement in black and white, alienating the reader/audience with its dogmatic pontifications. When properly used, theme can add richness, nuance, and meaning to a story that would otherwise be no more than a series of events.

In this article, we’ll separate the elements of theme by their dramatic functions so we can understand the parts. Then we’ll learn how to combine them together into a strong message that is greater than the sum of the parts.

What do we really mean by the word, “theme?” In fact, “theme” has two meanings. The first meaning is not unlike that of a teacher telling a class to write a theme paper. We’ve all received assignments in school requiring us to express our thoughts about “how we spent our summer vacation,” or “the impact of industrialization on 19th century cultural morality,” or “death.” Each of these “themes” is a topic, nothing more, and nothing less. It functions to describe the subject matter that will be explored in the work, be it a paper, novel, stage play, teleplay, or movie.

Every story needs a thematic topic to help hold the overall content of the story together, to act as a unifying element through which the plot unfolds and the characters grow. In fact, you might look at the thematic topic as the growth medium in which the story develops. Although an interesting area to explore, the real focus of this article is on the other element of theme.

This second aspect of theme is the message or premise of your story. A premise is a moral statement about the value of or troubles caused by an element of human character. For example, some common premises include, “Greed leads to Self-Destruction,” and “True love overcomes all obstacles.”

A story without a premise seems pointless, but a story with an overstated message comes off as preachy. While a premise is a good way to understand what a story is trying to prove, it provides precious little help on how to go about proving it. Let’s begin by examining the components of “premise” and then laying out a sure-fire method for developing an emotional argument that will lead your reader or audience to the moral conclusions of your story without hitting them over the head.

All premises grow from character. Usually, the premise revolves around the Main Character. In fact, we might define the Main Character as the one who grapples with the story’s moral dilemma.

A Main Character’s moral dilemma may be a huge issue, such as the ultimate change in Scrooge when he leaves behind his greedy ways and becomes a generous, giving person. Or, the dilemma may be small, as when Luke Skywalker finally gains enough faith in himself to turn off the targeting computer and trust his own instincts in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV). Either way, if the premise isn’t there at all, the Main Character will seem more like some guy dealing with issues, than an example in human development from whom we can learn.

Traditionally, premises such as these are stated in the form, “This leads to That.” In the examples above, the premises would be “Greed leads to Self Destruction,” and “Trusting in Oneself leads to Success.” The Point of each premise is the human quality being explored: “Greed” in the case of Scrooge and “Self Trust” with Luke.

We can easily see these premises in A Christmas Carol and Star Wars, but what if you were simply given either of them and told to write a story around them? Premises are great for boiling a story’s message down to its essence, but are not at all useful for figuring out how to develop a message in the first place.

So how do we create a theme in a way that will guide us in how to develop it in our story, and also sway our audience without being overbearing? First, we must add something to the traditional “This leads to That” form of the premise. Beside having a thematic Point like “Greed” we’re going to add a Counterpoint – the opposite of the point – in this case, “Generosity.”

Arguing to your audience that Greed is Bad creates a one-sided argument. But arguing the relative merits of Greed vs. Generosity provides both sides of the argument and lets your audience decide for itself. Crafting such an argument will lead your reader or audience to your conclusions without forcing it upon them. Therefore, you will be more likely to convince them rather than having them reject your premise as a matter of principle, making themselves impervious to your message rather than swallowing it whole.

To create such an argument, follow these steps:

1. Determine what you want your story’s message to be

We all have human qualities we admire and others we despise. Some might be as large as putting oneself first no matter how much damage it does to others. Some might be as small as someone who borrows things and never gets around to returning them. Regardless, your message at this stage will simply take the form, “Human Quality X is Bad,” or “Human Quality Y is Good.”

If you are going to create a message that is passionate, look to what truly irks you, or truly inspires you, and select that human quality to give to your Main Character. Then, you’ll find it far easier to come up with specific examples of that quality to include in your story, and you will write about it with vigor.This is your chance to get up on the soapbox. Don’t waste it on some grand classic human trait that really means nothing to you personally. Pick something you really care about and sound off by showing how that trait ennobles or undermines your Main Character.

As a last resort, look to your characters and plot and let them suggest your thematic point. See what kinds of situations are going to arise in your story; what kinds of obstacles will be faced. Think of the human qualities that would make the effort to achieve the story’s goal the most difficult, exacerbate the obstacles, and gum up the works. Give that trait to your Main Character, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see it take on a life of its own.

Of course, you may already know your message before you even get started. You may, in fact, have as your primary purpose in creating the story the intent to make a point about a particular human quality.

No matter how you come up with your message, once you have it, move on to step 2.

2. Determine your Counterpoint.

As described earlier, the Counterpoint is the opposite of the Point. So, if your story’s message is “Being Closed-Minded is Bad,” then your Point is “Being Closed Minded,” and your Counterpoint is “Being Open Minded.”Similarly, if your message is “Borrowing things from others and not returning them is Bad,” then your counter point is “Borrowing things from other and returning them.”

Note that we didn’t include the value judgment part of the message (i.e. “Good” or “Bad”) as part of the point or counterpoint. The idea is to let the audience arrive at that conclusion for themselves. The point and counterpoint simply show both sides of the argument. Our next step will be to work out how we are going to lead the audience to come to the conclusion we want them to have.

3. Show how well the Point does vs. the Counterpoint.

The idea here is to see each of the two human qualities (point and counterpoint) in action in your story to illustrate how well each one fares. To this end, come up with as many illustrations as you can of each.

For example, in A Christmas Carol, we see scrooge deny an extension on a loan, refuse to allow Cratchet a piece of coal, decline to make a donation to the poor. Each of these moments fully illustrates the impact of the thematic point of “Greed.” Similarly, in the same story, we see Feziwhig spending his money for a Christmas Party for his employees, Scrooge’s nephew inviting him to dinner, and Cratchet giving of his time to Tiny Tim. Generosity is seen in action as well.

Each instance of Greed propagates ill feelings. Each instance of Generosity propagates positive feelings. As the illustrations layer upon one another over the course of the story, the emotional argument is made that Greed is not a positive trait, whereas Generosity is.

4. Avoid comparing the Point and Counterpoint directly.

Perhaps the greatest mistake in making a thematic argument is to directly compare the relative value of the point and counterpoint. If this is done, it takes all decision away from the audience and puts it right in the hands of the author.

The effect is to have the author repeatedly saying, “Generosity is better than Greed… Generosity is better than Greed,” like a sound loop.

A better way is to show Greed at work in its own scenes, and Generosity at work in completely different scenes. In this manner, the audience is left to drawn its own conclusions. And while showing Greed as always wholly bad and Generosity as always wholly good may create a rather melodramatic message, at least the audience won’t feel as if you’ve crammed it down its throat!

5. Shade the degree that Point and Counterpoint are Good or Bad.

Because you are going to include multiple instances or illustrations of the goodness or badness or your point and counter point, you don’t have to try to prove your message completely in each individual scene.

Rather, let the point be really bad sometimes, and just a little negative others. In this manner, Greed may start out a just appearing to be irritating, but by the end of the story may affect life and death issues. Or, Greed may be as having devastating effects, but ultimately only be a minor thorn in people’s sides. And, of course, you may choose to jump around, showing some examples of major problems with Greed and others that see it in not so dark a light. Similarly, not every illustration of your Counterpoint has to carry the same weight.

In the end, the audience will subconsciously average together all of the illustrations of the point, and also average together all the illustrations of the counterpoint, and arrive at a relative value of one to the other.

For example, if you create an arbitrary scale of +5 down to -5 to assign a value of being REALLY Good (+5) or REALLY Bad (-5), Greed might start out at -2 in one scene, be -4 in other, and -1 in a third. The statement here is that Greed is always bad, but not totally AWFUL, just bad.

Then, you do the same with the counterpoint. Generosity starts out as a +4, then shows up as a +1, and finally ends up as a +3. This makes the statement that Generosity is Good. Not the end-all of the Greatest Good, but pretty darn good!

At the end of such a story, instead of making the blanket statement that Greed is Bad and Generosity is Good, you are simply stating that Generosity is better than Greed. That is a lot easier for an audience to accept, since human qualities in real life are seldom all good or all bad.

But there is more you can do with this. What if Generosity is mostly good, but occasionally has negative effects? Suppose you show several scenes illustrating the impact of Generosity, but in one of them, someone is going to share his meal, but in the process, drops the plate, the food is ruined, and no one gets to eat. Well, in that particular case, Greed would have at least fed one of them! So, you might rate that scene on your arbitrary scale as a -2 for Generosity.

Similarly, Greed might actually be shown as slightly Good in a scene. But at the end of the day, all of the instances of Greed still add up to a negative. For example, scene one of Greed might be a -4, scene two a +2 and scene three a -5. Add them together and Greed comes out to be a -7 overall. And that is how the audience will see it as well.

This approach gives us the opportunity to do some really intriguing things in our thematic argument. What if both Greed and Generosity were shown to be bad, overall? By adding up the numbers of the arbitrary scale, you could argue that every time Greed is used, it causes problems, but ever time Generosity is used, it also causes problems. But in the end, Greed is a -12 and Generosity is only a -3, proving that Generosity, in this case, is the lesser of two evils.

Or what if they both added up Good in the end? Then your message might be that Generosity is the greater of two goods! But they could also end up equally bad, or equally good (Greed at -3 and Generosity at -3, for example). This would be a message that in this story’s particular situations, being Greedy or Generous doesn’t really matter, either way; you’ll make the situation worse.

In fact, both might end up with a rating of zero, making the statement that neither Greed nor Generosity has any real impact on the situation, in the end.

Now, you have the opportunity to create dilemmas for your Main Character that are far more realistic and far less moralistic. And by having both point and counterpoint spend some time in the Good column and some time in the Bad column over the course of your story, you are able to mirror the real life values of our human qualities and their impact on those around us.

Well, that about wraps it up except for this:

The approach to theme you just read about is part of my StoryWeaver Story Development Software.  I designed it to take you through all aspects of building your story from concept to completion, step by step.  You can try it risk-free for 90 days, and if it isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll get a full refund, no questions asked.

Click here for details or to purchase…

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Theme | Comments Off on Is Your Story Coming Apart At The Themes?