In psychology, Multiple Personality Disorder describes a person who has more than one complete personality. Typically, only one of those personalities will be active at any given time. This is because they usually share attributes, and so only one can have that attribute at any particular moment.
Stories can also suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder if more than one character represents a single attribute. In such a case, both should not be able to appear in the story at the same time. If they do, the audience feels that the story is fragmented, or more simply put, the story has developed a split-personality.
Dramatica Narrative Theory sees a story as representing a single mind. Most writers have been taught that characters, plot, theme, and genre are people, doing things, illustrating value standards, in an overall setting and mood. In contrast, Dramatica sees characters, plot, theme, and genre as representing different “families of thought” which go on in the story mind as it grapples with a central problem.
Characters are the “drives” of the Story Mind, which often conflict as they do in real people. Plot describes the methods used by the Story Mind in an attempt to find a solution to its central problem. Theme represents the Story Mind’s conflicting value standards, which must be played out one against another to determine the best way of evaluating the problem. Genre describes the Story Mind’s overall personality.
Traditional story theory states that each character must be a complete person to be believable to an audience. But because the characters represent the independent drives of a single Story Mind, each is not really a complete person but is rather a facet of a complete mind. In fact, if you make each character complete, they will all be overlapping, and will give your story a split-personality.
It is in the story TELLING stage where characters take on the trappings of a complete person, not in the story STRUCTURE. Each character needs to be given traits and interests, which round out the character’s “presence,” making it feel like a real human being. But these trappings and traits are not part of the dramatic structure. They are just window dressing – clothes for the facets to wear so the audience can better relate to them on a personal level.
Think about the characters you have seen in successful stories. They might represent Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, or function as the Protagonist or Antagonist, for example. Each of these kinds of characters is an “archetype” because it contains a whole family of drives in one character. For example, a Protagonist may contain the drive to “pursue,” and also the drive to be a self-starter, “pro-action.” Because these drives work together in harmony, the character becomes archetypal.
The individual drives don’t have to be bundled in an archetype, however. In fact, each single drive might be assigned to a different character, creating a multitude of simple characters. Or, characters might get several drives but conflicting ones. These characters are more “complex” because their internal make-up is not completely consistent.
Regardless of how the drives (also called character “elements”) are assigned, each drive should appear in one and only one character. If not, your story may develop Multiple Personality Disorder and leave your audience unable to relate to the story as a whole.
Here are four useful techniques to add to your novelist’s bag of tricks:
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.
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.
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:
A new phrase:
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.
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.
Most of our writing tips focus on the creation of a sound story, regardless of the medium in which you are working. But since the writing of screenplays has its own unique restrictions, requirements, and opportunities, we thought it might be useful to offer a Screenwriter’s Bag of Tricks.
Like any good grab bag, this collection of tips and techniques is in no particular order. Some are geared to the beginning screenwriter, others to the expert. But regardless of your experience level, you’re likely to find a few keepers.
Use index cards to work out the scenes in your script
Index cards (3×5 or 5×7 in size) are often used by screenwriters to plan out the sequence of events in their stories. Usually, a script has many different dramatic threads. The trick is how to weave them together over the timeline of the movie. For example, you might have several key challenges for your hero to overcome. You describe each of these on a different index card. You tack them up on the wall or lay them out on the table (or floor) and stand back and look at them. You see how the action seems to flow from one to another. Perhaps it seems that the ending is a bit anti-climactic, or that the build of dramatic tension isn’t right. So, you rearrange the order of the cards until you arrive at and order that feels the best.
Then, you may realize that you actually have a gap in the action that requires the creation of another challenge. So, looking at what comes before and what comes after, you determine the kind of action that is needed, and make a new card to fill the gap.
You might also realize that you have two challenges that are too much alike, or that would happen too close to each other, so you decide to lose one, or combine two into a single one that makes it all the stronger.
Then, you may know that you want a series of arguments between the hero and a love interest. In one creative session, you may work out how many arguments you want, and what each is about. You describe each of these arguments on a different index card.
As with the hero’s challenges, you tack up the cards and arrange them in the best possible order, filling gaps with new cards, and deleting or combining cards until the flow is right.
Since a movie generally focuses on one dramatic situation at a time, then intercuts among several different threads as necessary, your next job is to combine both the challenge thread and the argument thread into the overall timeline of your script.
You might decide to start with the first challenge card, then go to the first argument, and alternate. Or you might start with the first argument, have a second argument, and then two challenges in a row.
There are no “rules” as to how the two threads of cards should be shuffled together. It is purely a choice of how you wish to impact your audience.
You may even find that once you have blended the two threads into a single timeline, that combination highlights the need for an additional challenge or another argument, or perhaps the removal of one or the other. You might even be able to see the need for a whole new thread that is suggested once the first two threads are combined. So you create a third set of index cards, put them in order, and then weave them into the other two.
In this manner, many screenwriters work out the basic beats and flow of their stories so they have a loose blueprint from which to write, and therefore don’t get stuck in a logistic corner, or an emotional dead end.
Break up long monologs among several characters
There are some moments in some movies in which a long monolog by a single individual works well. Any inspiring public speech, for example, or when one character holds others transfixed with a tirade or diatribe. But movies are an action medium, and most of the time a long-winded dissertation by one character while the others simply stand and react gets boring very quickly.
To avoid this, take your longer speeches and distribute the material to one or more additional characters. It is far more interesting to see what everyone has to say on the issue, than to see what one person has to say.
Think about real life situations. Aside from presentations and reports in a business situation, or structured events such as a ceremony, no one thinks well of someone who hogs the conversation. Let you characters make their point, then let someone else have a turn. Good examples of this can be found in the original Howard Hawk’s production of “The Thing,” and also in “The Big Chill,” both of which have extensive exposition and opinion, but no one says more than a few lines at a time before another chimes in with his two cents’ worth.
The exceptions, of course, is when someone gets all wrapped up in his own rhetoric, as when an individual muses, reminisces, waxes poetic, or proclaims a higher truth with fire in his eyes. People don’t mind if a good storyteller talks forever. Look at the long pontifications of the characters in “Network.” But even these are handled as special moments, and the ebb and flow of normal conversation continues in between, serving both to break up the monotony, and also to uplift the long passages by contrast.
Use “Red Herrings”
The old expression, “A Red Herring,” means something that is intentionally misleading. In screenplays, a red herring is a scene, which is set up intentionally to mislead an audience.
One example is in the movie, “The Fugitive,” with Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble. He escapes from the prison bus, gets some street clothes, and is on the run.
He waits under a bridge and when an associate that he worked with stops his car for a red light, Kimble steps out and pretends to be a homeless person trying to wash his windshield for a buck. He uses this action as a “cover” while he holds a conversation with the associate to get some information and help.
In the background, out of focus, a police car slowly approach behind the associate’s car. You don’t see it at first because you are concentrating on the conversation. The police car stops. Suddenly, it’s lights and siren comes on. The audience is sure the jig is up. Kimble turns to look at it, and the police car whips around the associate’s car and takes off for some call it received.
The initial impression was that Kimble was about to be recaptured because the cops had recognized him. The “reality” was that they were just on patrol, got a call, and sped off with sirens wailing.
Red Herrings can be used for anything from the momentary shock value as above, to making a bad guy appear to be a good guy.
To make it work, you have to do two primary things:
1. Don’t leave out essential information or the audience will feel manipulated. Tricking your audience by misleading them is fun for them. But if you fool them by leaving out information they would legitimately have expected to be told about, then you are just screwing with them.
Red herrings are best accomplished by having information that is taken in one context and then the context is changed. This way, you aren’t holding back, you are just changing the perspective.
Your audience invests its emotions in your story. You don’t want to violate them. As an example, there is an old joke about a nurse in a maternity ward who comes in to a mother’s room carrying the new baby. She trips and falls and the baby hits the floor. Then, she gets mad at it for falling, picks it up, swings it around and bashes it against the wall. The mother is in hysterics. The nurse picks up the kid and says, “April Fool – it was born dead.” Don’t do this to your audience.
A better approach is to see a mom yank her child by the arm in a very abusive way while walking down the street. First reaction is she is an ogre and you run to stop her. Just then, you see the truck come whipping around the corner that would’ve hit and killed the child, and you stop in your tracks realizing the mom was saving his life. You look again, and the is hugging and holding him, and she is crying because he was almost lost, and because she startled him.
Psychologists call it “Primary Attribution Error,” and you can use it to your advantage. If done properly, they will love you for it.
2. Don’t change the rules of the game just to make things happen another way or the audience will feel that you lied to them.
The audience will give you their trust. They expect that what you tell them is the truth. They build on each bit of information, trying to understand the big picture.
You can easily change context to show something in a different light, but don’t tell them one thing and then simply say, “Oh that wasn’t true, I was just messing with you.”
That is a sure way to lose their trust, and once lost, you’ll never get it back.
Don’t say it if you can show it
Movies are a visual medium. The strongest impact is created by what is seen, not what is said. Although we might marvel at well-written dialog, it is the moving shadows that capture our imagination.
Before writing a dialog scene, consider the information you are trying to convey. Consider visual alternatives that would show the audience rather then tell them. Even character development can often be more effective by seeing what the character does, rather than listening to what he or she says.
If you do need to say it, try to create a visually interesting situation in which the dialog can occur. I once had to do an interview on a big-budget industrial film with a geologist about drilling for bauxite samples 50 miles outside of Van Horn Texas in the middle of a desert.
I could have just gone to the site, set up the camera, and filmed him in front of the rig. But when he picked me up at the airstrip, he was in a dusty, beat-up pickup truck, and headed down the rough dirt road at literally 100 miles an hour.
I took out the camera and did the entire interview while bouncing around in the cab. When we arrived at the site, I simply shot a lot of silent footage of the goings on. When we cut it all together, we began with the truck interview, and then cut away to the various aspects of the job as the geologist spoke. It created a riveting three-minute sequence and pleased the client immensely.
So if you have dialog to deliver and you can’t really communicate the information in a visual way, consider changing the location or engaging your characters in some activity that will at least add a visual element.
You might have them conversing during one-on-one basketball, while doing yard work, chasing after a dog that needs a bath – whatever. And if all else fails, don’t ignore the potential of a cheap cinematic trick.
You can do a scene completely in silhouette, seen from the POV of a goldfish in a bowl, from another room as a janitor stops to listen and then continues with his cleaning.
You can even get overt. There was a television program many years ago called “Then Came Bronson,” starring Michael Parks. It was noted for trying new visual techniques. For one long dialog conversation, the director shot the two characters from the side, walking along a sidewalk across the street. He shot them silent in several locations with different backgrounds, always the same distance away, walking at the same pace. In the editing room, he cut from one location to the next so that it appeared as if the characters were continuing to walk and the background jumped from one to another behind them. The dialog was then added over the sequence as a whole.
This simple technique gave power to an otherwise uninteresting scene, added the impression that they had been talking for a long walk all over town, but got the verbal information across as concisely as possible. So look for visual opportunities to enliven dialog, and if there aren’t any, make them.
Drop exposition through arguments
Here’s a short one… A person talking is often boring. People arguing are often compelling. If you have to drop exposition, try to do it in the back and forth barbs of an argument. Let the characters use the information you need to convey as barbs in their back and forth attacks. Then your story won’t grind to a halt just because you need to tell your audience something.
Remember blowing bubbles with that solution in the little bottles and the plastic wand? The craft of writing is a bit like blowing bubbles (life is like a box of chocolates!) This holds true not only for your dramatic approach, but also for the characters in your story as well.
The study of real bubbles is actually a science which combines physics, geometry, and even calculus! And, as with most natural phenomena, the dynamics that drive them have a parallel in psychology as well. For example, the math that describes a Black Hole in space can equally be applied to describing a prejudice in the mind.
So, by observing bubbles we can more easily grasp some otherwise intangible concepts about the psychology of stories and of the characters in them.
Turning our attention to stories, let’s look at several dramatic endeavors that can benefit by applying the qualities of bubbles. Bubbles burst. Sometimes you want them too, other times you don’t. The larger a bubble gets, the more impressive it is, but the more fragile as well. Until a bubble bursts the tension along its surface (surface tension) increases. But once it has burst, all the tension is gone. So the key is to blow the bubble as large as you can without exceeding the maximum sustainable tension. To do this, you need to know when to stop blowing, seal it off, and let it float on it’s own. In addition, you need to consider how hard to blow, how fast to blow, and to master the art of pulling away the wand to allow that magic moment when a bubble with a hole in it seals itself to become a perfect sphere.
When introducing a dramatic element into your story for the first time, consider how much material to work with at a single dramatic unit. Too little material tries to blow a bubble with not enough solution. It may not even make a film across the wand, and if it does, it will snap at the first breath before a bubble can form. Too much, and it drips off the wand, slobbering all over everything else, and snapping apart as well, because the sheer weight of the stuff makes the membrane too thick to flex. So, don’t work with dramatic units too large or small. Don’t focus on details too tiny or grand movements too large. Find the range and scope of your dramatic concepts that your readers or audience can hold onto while you pump it full of promise and then let it float into their hearts and minds on its own.
How hard you blow is equally important. As you may recall, blowing too hard will simply spit the solution right out of the wand and onto your parents’ carpet. (Why you chose to blow bubbles in the house even after having been told not to is no more fathomable than why you chose to be a writer, even though you knew better!)
Blow too soft, and your solution will just wiggle and vibrate in the wand, never bowing out to become a bubble at all. Eventually the solution in the wand will simply evaporate, and you’ll have spent a lot of time blowing with no bubble to show for it. Now a master storyteller can use this effect to his or her advantage. Get the right amount of solution on the wand and then just vibrate the blazes out of it with a gentle blow, tantalizing your audience, who is going to wonder if anything will every come of it. Just when it looks like the solution has almost evaporated too much to work, you pick up the airflow and form the bubble right before their eyes. Or, you might just keep it vibrating, a red herring, and simply let it dissolve out of the wand. Better be sure of your skills, though, because you want your audience to know you blew it, not to think you blew it.
And do you recall how if you blow at one intensity you get a single bubble, and if you blow with a different push you get a string of small bubbles? In fact, you can even get a series of medium bubbles if you find that narrow mid-range.
Dramatically, you can drop a lot of little bits of information, a few mid-sized bits of information, or one big bit, all with a single blow. (Killed 7 with one blow!). These are the Multi-Appreciation-Moments (M.A.M.) in which a single dramatic movement, passage, or discourse propels more than one dramatic element into the story.
Bubbles have size. The size of a bubble, in writing as in soap (or in writing “soaps”), depends primarily on the size of your wand and the huff in your blow.
Short stories are one size wand. Mini-series are another. Haiku are still one more. Each one has a maximum size of bubble it can produce, no matter how hard you blow. But size isn’t everything. There is such a thing as the beauty of perfection. Your idea is your solution, your format is your wand; try to make sure not to blow too hard for the wand/solution ratio you are using.
Surface Tension – wonderful phrase, that! Someone should use that for a title. More wonderful still is the way it works. Stories are about structure and passion. Your solution is about water and soap. Too much water and nothing happens. Too much soap and it all glops up. When you get the right mix of structure and passion, you’ve got the right raw material for a great bubble.
What holds the surface of the bubble together is the attraction among the soap and water molecules. What keeps it from collapsing is a slightly higher pressure on the inside than on the outside. A larger bubble has more tension because there is more surface. And yet, the total surface area of a collection of smaller bubbles far exceeds that of a single bubble occupying the same space. In addition, smaller bubbles are more stable, lasting far longer.
Use big bubbles for big events of singular identity with a limited life span. Use smaller bubbles collectively as a consistent foundation of longer duration.
Put your ear to the soap foam on dishwater or a hot bath, and though the mass remains largely constant, you can hear the satisfying snap, crackle, and pop of individual bubbles as they burst. Such formations can add stability to your story, even while providing an underlying level of surface tension, punctuated by hundreds of tiny eruptions. In addition, you can shape foam into all kinds of complex forms, while the shape of individual bubbles is far more limited.
While bubbles, on their own, are usually round, if you dip a bent piece of wire (such as a clothes hanger) in solution, you can create triangles, squares, and even approximations of hyper-cubes!
Although one might argue that the film from one wire side to the next does not comprise a bubble, and the enclosed area of such a shape does not either, guided by these outside influences a shaped bubble may indeed occur within the space bounded by the wires that doesn’t directly touch the wires. One shape, for example, may create a square bubble within another bubble. So, although the larger bubble is directly connected to the wires, the inner bubble is only connected to the planar surfaces of the outer bubble.
Ah, but I wax scientific. Fact is, the “set pieces” of your story are the wires dipped into your dramatic solution. An obvious heavy-handed control technique, you can also create very specific shapes by building those second-generation bubbles within bubbles, which are not formed by direct influence of your set pieces, but rather by indirect influence from being attached to those dramatics that ARE connected to the set pieces.
It’s a great point, but not for the faint of heart.
Bubbles combine. When two bubbles encounter each other, they might just bounce off like billiard balls. But if conditions are right, they join, creating a common interface between them. They are spherical except where they are joined, which becomes a flat side. More than two bubbles can combine, and when they do, all sorts of additional, symmetrical interfaces are created.
You entire story should be like a collection of bubbles, interfaced together. Each single bubble is another dramatic element or point. Over the course of your story you have blown them one by one until your story has fully taken shape. Then, on their one, one by one they begin to pop. Some of the solution is spattered away, some is absorbed by the remaining bubbles. Due to the extra solution, the remaining bubbles pop faster and faster until all the original bubbles have burst.
Let’s close by seeing how bubble science can help describe what your characters do you in your story. Suppose Sally calls on the phone complaining to Jane about a personal issue she is facing. Jane knows just what to say, but simply saying it will be rejected and not have the comforting effect she wants. In fact, Jane is smart enough to realize that she has to start out slow and easy, and over the course of the conversation blow a bubble of comfort big enough to enclose the problem.
So, with patience, Jane continues to talk to Sally, starting by enclosing a small part of the issue, then slowly expanding her support until it hold the whole thing inside. Now if Jane is too full of herself, has the habit of “beating a dead horse,” is emotionally needy herself and has to have confirmation from Sally that her problem is completely solved, or is just inexperienced, then she won’t know when to stop blowing and will continue pumping support into the conversation until the bubble gets so large it bursts.
But, if she knows what she’s doing, Jane will recognize when the bubble is big enough and then pull away the wand and stop blowing so that the sphere can form. She can do this by changing the subject, not off-topic, but to something tangential, to something touched upon in the conversation, but instead of talking about the part of that new topic that was connected to the personal problem, she now talks about other aspects of that topic that don’t involve Sally’s original issue.
Moving sideways in topic at the right time is like pulling the wand sideways from the bubble so that it can close.
Of course, Sally might be mired in her problem and stuck to the wand. But Anne may be in the room with Jane, hear that Sally is trying to come back to the original issue, and (being a good friend and student of psychology) realize another lateral move is needed. Anne would then raise her hand to get Jane’s attention (who would ask Sally to hold for a moment). Anne offers another off-topic comment based on what she has heard of the conversation. Jane passes the comment on to Sally on Anne’s behalf, and now Sally has been doubly distracted. At this point, either the bubble is free of the wand, or Sally simply won’t let go.
If the bubble is free, then it’s effect will remain within Sally long after the conversation and will work to resolve her angst. If it is not free, the air will just whoosh right back out of the wand and the bubble will deflate as if it never was, and Sally can go on moping about her problem.
Now, you might think this is all very complex, but it is this kind of bubble interaction that makes characters seem fluid rather than built of bricks. But do real people act like that? Sure they do. In fact, the very dramatic scenario I just described happened to me two days ago. That’s how I got the idea for this writing tip.
I was “Jane,” and with “Anne’s” perceptive interjection, I was able to assuage Sally’s angst, free the bubble, and Sally has been quite happy for the last 48 hours.
Real life psychology, character psychology, story psychology… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Screenplays are blueprints for movies. As such, they are not art, but instructions for creating art. Therefore, there are two things every great screenplay must have: A good story, and a clear and understandable description of how it should be told.
Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain dramatic conventions became accepted that put requirements and restrictions on screen stories that don’t apply to novels.
In this tip, I’ll outline a few of the key dramatic elements usually present in most successful scripts.
Though not absolutely required, it is usually desirable to start your script with a teaser scene. This can be an intense emotional experience, a thrilling bit of action, or an offbeat introduction to a strange world. It might advance the plot, set the theme, and establish the time and location, introduce characters, or just serve as a roller coaster ride to get the audience involved.
2. Remember your audience.
Your audience is the cast, crew, and all the agents, readers, development executives or producers who may become involved in the purchase or production of your script. Your audience is NOT the people sitting in the theater. Like the old game of “telephone,” your purpose is not to tell a story but to tell other how to tell the story. And your purpose is not to impress movie go-ers, but to impress those who decide if your project will get the green light for production.
3. Don’t be overly literary in your scene description.
Many production personnel frown on anything but straight-forward prose. The purpose of a screenplay is to tell people how to tell a story, not to tell it yourself. Still and all, successful screenwriters often violate this rule because they can get away with it. And, if you are planning on directing the movie yourself, you may want to capture your intended mood. On the other hand, you don’t want those considering your project to be bored, or find your words too dry. So, the concept is to be as efficient as possible in conveying both the information in your story and the feeling of what it will be like on the screen.
4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.
Genres are guidelines, not rules. List your favorite genres; list your favorite elements in each genre. Then, gather together all the elements you might like to include in your script. Pepper them throughout your screenplay so that your genre develops, rather than being set at the beginning and then stagnating.
5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”
Break up all long speeches into back and forth conversation. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but in general, conversation is far more interesting both in sound and in how it can be presented visually.
6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.
Have you ever seen one character tell another, “He’s at Dollar-Mart, you know, that big national chain store?” If it were so big and national, the other character would already know this information! One of the best ways to drop exposition is in an argument. You can then exaggerate and bring out information a character might already be expected to know by using it as a weapon. And for simple exposition, try billboards, newspapers, answering machines, photos on mantles, two people talking about a third, and any other technique that doesn’t hit the audience over the head or smack of cliché.
7. Don’t preach.
You should have a message, but don’t present it as a one-sided statement. Rather, show both sides. If you are interested in passing judgment on Greed, also show Generosity. Never put them both in the same scene side by side, but make sure the audience gets to see how well each side does on its own in at least once scene each per act. In the end, the audience will sum up all the instances in which they saw how each side performed, and will draw their own conclusions (that you have craftily led them to).
8. Give your Main Character a personal issue as well as a goal to accomplish.
A story with nothing more than a logistic quest, while perhaps thrilling, is heartless. Your Main Character should grapple with an issue that pressures him or her to consider changing their mind, attitude, or nature in some way, large or small. And don’t just present the personal problem and then resolve it at the end. Unless you argue it (usually through another character who is philosophically or morally opposed to the Main Character’s view) the ultimate change or growth of your Main Character will seem tacked on and contrived.
9. Characters don’t have to change to grow.
They can stick to their guns and grow in their resolve. There are two types of characters, those who change their natures (or minds) in regard to some issue, and those who stick it out and hold on to their views. The obstacles in a story drive a character to the point of change, but whether or not he or she will change is the issue, after all. Sometimes they should change and don’t. Other times they shouldn’t and do. Each of these presents a different message, and is less overused than the character who should change and does, or shouldn’t and doesn’t.
10.There are many kinds of endings
A character might change and resolve their personal angst, yet fail in their quest as a result. Was it worth it? Depends on the degree of angst and the size of the failure. Another character might not resolve their angst; yet by refusing to change accomplish the goal. And even if they do accomplish the goal, it might have been a misguided thing to do, and is actually quite bad that they were successful. The character might not have been aware that the goal was a bad thing, or they might fail to achieve a good thing.
In addition, goals might be partially achieved or only small failures, and a character might resolve only part of their angst, or just slightly increase it.
The flavor of the movie will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end, and offer you a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.
Some time ago I wrote an article that described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:
You spin a tale, but you weave a story.
The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.
A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.
Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.
A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.
In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.
You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I used the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.
Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.
Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.
Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.
Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.
An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.
In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.
By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.
For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.
By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.
Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.
Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.
There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.
How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.
Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.
Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.
Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.
All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit. Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.
What’s more, you have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience, and they expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.
One of the best ways to pump that kind of energy and detail in your story is think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.
Here’s how it might go. Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.
Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.
While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.
Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.
Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centered, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school (a re-write), for he is not ready to entertain an audience.
Your story is a person. It is your child. You gave birth to it, you nurtured it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.
When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself. If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.
Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole.
We all know that writing is not just about assembling words, but also about assembling ideas. When we actually sit down to write, we may have our ideas all worked out in advance or we may have no idea what we want to say – just a desire to say something.
Some of us must labor on projects that we hate, but which have been assigned to us. Others may simply be in love with the notion of being a writer, but haven’t a thing to say. Regardless of why we are writing, we all share the desire to create an expression that has meaning to our audience.
And just who is that audience? It might be only ourselves. Often I have written material as a means of getting something off my chest, out of my thoughts, or perhaps just to get a grip on nebulous feelings or issues by forcing myself to put them into concrete terms.
Some of what I write this way has actually turned out to be salable as essays on personal growth or insights into meaningful emotional experiences. But, most of what I have written for my audience of one remains with me. Perhaps it is too personal to share, or just too personal to have meaning to anyone else.
When I write for myself, it is seldom a story. More often than not, it isn’t even a tale. Rather, it is a snippet of my real experiences, or a flight of fancy, such as the words “red ground rover.” What does this mean? I have no idea. But I do know how it feels to me.
In fact, popping out a few nonsense but passionate words is a trick I often use to get a story going. I’ll write something like the above almost randomly. Then I’ll ask myself, “Is the ground red with some one or something roving over it, or the whole thing a nick name for a bird dog or a mail carrier in the outback?
Blurting out something that has no conscious intent behind it can be a useful trick in overcoming writer’s block. It seems that writer’s block most often occurs when we are intentionally trying to determine what we want to talk about. But, when we just put something forth and then try to figure out what it might mean, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves.
If you like, take a moment and try it. Just jot down a few nonsense words to create a phrase. Then, consider what they might mean. Rather than attempting to create, you are now in analysis mode, the inverse emotional state of trying to produce something out of nothing. You’ll probably be surprised at how many interpretations of your phrase readily come to mind.
Imagine, then, if you were to take one of those interpretations and build on it. In my example, let me pick the first interpretation – that “red ground rover” means someone or some thing that roves over red ground. Well, let’s see…. Mars is red, and the Martian Rover at one time examined the planet. Looks like I’m starting a science fiction story.
But what to do next? How about another nonsense phrase: “minion onion manner house.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s tie it in to the first phrase. Suppose there is some underling (minion) who is hunting for wild onions on Mars (onions being so suited to the nutrients in the soil that they grow wild in isolated patches). The underling works at the Manner House of a wealthy Martian frontier settler, but is known as Red Ground Rover because of his free-time onion prospecting activities.
Now, these phrases weren’t planned as examples for this book. To be fair, I just blurted them out as I suggest you do. Just as we see pictures in ink blots, animals in the clouds, and mythic figures in the constellations, we impose our desire for patterns even on the meaningless. And in so doing, we often find unexpected inspiration.
Even if none of our ideas are suited to what we are attempting to write, we have successfully dislodged our minds from the vicious cycle of trying to figure out what to say. And, returning to the specific task of our story, we are often surprised to find that writer’s block has vanished while we were distracted.
Now you may have noticed that in the example we just explored, there are elements of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre. The Genre appears to be a variety of Science fiction. The Theme would seem to revolve around the class system on a frontier Mars and the implications of interjecting one natural ecosystem willy nilly into another. The plot involves an individual out to better his lot by working outside the system, and whatever difficulties that may create for him. And, we have at least two characters already suggested – the Red Ground Rover explicitly and the Lord or Lady of the Manner House implicitly (plus whatever servants or staff they may employ.)
This is a good illustration of the fact that when we seek to impose patterns on our world (real or imagined) we actually project the image of our mind’s operating system on what we consider. Characters form themselves as avatars of our motivations. Theme intrudes as representations of our values. Plot outlines the problem solving mechanisms we employ. And Genre describes the overall experience, from setting to style.
We cannot help but project these aspects of ourselves on our work. The key to inspiration is to develop the ability to see the patterns that we have subliminally put there. Almost as important is knowing when to be spontaneous and when to analyze the results, looking for the beginnings of a structure.
If you are a structuralist writer, you’d probably prefer to have the whole story worked out either on paper (or at least in your head) before you ever sat down to write. If you are an inspirationist writer, you probably wouldn’t have a clue what you were going to write when you began. You’d sit down, bop around your material and eventually find your story somewhere in the process, as you wrote. The final story would be worked out through multiple drafts. Most writer’s fall somewhere in between these two extremes. An idea pops into our head for a clever bit of action, an interesting line of dialog, or a topic we’d like to explore. Maybe it comes from something we are experiencing, have experienced, see on television, read in the newspaper, or perhaps it just pops up into our conscious mind unbidden.
Almost immediately a number of other associated ideas often come to mind. If there are enough of them, a writer begins to think, “story.” We then ponder the ideas with purpose, seeing where they will lead and what else we might dig up and add to the mix.
Eventually we have gathered enough material to satisfy our own personal assessment that we actually have the beginnings of a story and are ready to begin serious work on it. Then, structuralists set about working out the details and inspirationists set about finding the details as they go along.
Yet there is a problem for both kinds of writers. What holds all these ideas together is a common subject matter. But just because they all deal with the same issues does not mean they all belong in the same store.
It is common for authors to become frustrated trying to make all the pieces fit, when in fact it may be impossible for them to all fit. Perhaps several different combinations can be worked out that gather most of the material into the semblance of a structure. But odds are there will be a significant amount of the material that gets left out no matter how you try to include it. Even if each potential structure leaves out a different part and incorporates material left out in another potential structure, there is no single structure that includes all.
Like trying to pick up chicken fat on a plate with the flat side of a fork, we chase a structure all around our subject matter until we run ourselves ragged. Then we stare at the paper or the screen, realizing we’ve tried every combination we can think of and nothing works. It is this dilemma we call writer’s block.
It is much easier when we realize that stories are not life; they are about life. In the real world, we group our experiences together by subject matter, not by the underlying structure that describes it. For example, we are more likely to see the issues regarding the disciplining of our children as being lumped into one category of consideration whereas getting chewed out by our boss is another.
In truth, if our child tells a lie, it is not necessarily the same issue at all as when he or she doesn’t do the assigned homework. But, not doing homework may have a much closer structural connection to our getting in trouble with our boss because we failed to file all of the expense reports he requested.
We can avoid writer’s block. We can recognize that the material we create at the beginning of our efforts is not the story itself, but merely the inspiration for the story. Then we can stop chasing our mental tails and pick the structure that is most acceptable rather than cease writing until we can find the impossible structure that would pull in all the material.
Based on this understanding, it is not hard to see that we come to Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre not on a structural basis but on a subject matter basis as well. And, there is nothing wrong with that. As was said in the beginning of this book, we don’t write because of the desire for a perfect structure. We write because we are passionate about our subject matter. Yet sooner or later, the structure needs to be there to support our passions.