Category Archives: Learning
ISBN-10: 0857301179 ISBN-13: 978-0857301178
Well, it’s been while (again) since I posted so, as I have just finished Lucy’s book on writing diverse characters, I thought it was a good opportunity to get a post up on the old page.
Despite recent (slow) changes with films like Wonderwoman (2017), Get Out (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), the majority of mainstream media product is designed around white, middle-class males who are also most likely able-bodied and most definitely not gay. As Lucy opines in her introduction, this is frustrating, and inaccurate, when you consider a world where the majority of the population are not white, where up to 10% identify with the LGBT community, 51% are women and nearly 20% of people are living with a disability.
Changes are coming, but progress is slow. Writers and creatives have a responsibility to tell stories that are truthful (whether they are pure fiction, fact, fantasy or reality) and that can’t happen if the image of the white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero, male hero persists. He will always have a place, hell, who doesn’t love a good Tom Cruise actioner or a bit of Bourne? But the world is a huge, mixed-bag of people, all waiting for THEIR story to be told; and audiences want to see themselves reflected on screen or in the pages of a novel. And this is what Lucy’s book is about; thinking about diversity (whether you like that word or not – read the book, you’ll see what I (Lucy) is getting at) and how we can all write better characters and stories by thinking about the norm and how we can shake it up. It’s like the process of subverting tropes – so much of the stuff we write has been done before (white male leads) but how can we shake things up and put a fresh coat of paint on it by simply thinking more about diversity?
The book itself is split into 6 sections, with the majority of the “good stuff” in the central 4 chapters (not that the rest of it is bad or anything):
- What is Diversity?
- Heroes, Sheroes and Vile Villains: The Protagonist and Antagonist
- Secondaries, Sidekicks and Subordinates
- Peripheral Pointers
And, as you can see, the structure is all about exploring what diversity means and then looking at how that can be applied across your characters . This is not just about a token effort to make your lead diverse; it is not called a “range” of characters for the fun of it!
The advice within works equally well if you are working on a novel, or a screenplay (or any kind of writing that requires character development) and explores the current “white standard” characters that we are all very familiar with, promoting consideration of how those characters can be traded up to embrace more diversity, or, if you like, more reality, when considering the make-up of the world around us.
However, this book is not just a primer for discussing diversity, although it does a very good job at that. It is, actually, a great introduction to the art of writing in itself. It may not go into the detail of structure and concept like Vogler, Field or McKee (all men!) do, but it does provide a good grounding in what is definitely one of (if not the) most important components of a good story – Character. If you have never read a screenwriting book before, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. While understanding structure is vital, understanding your audience and how your characters affect story and create sympathy and empathy with your audience is just as important, and Lucy gives you a crash course in how to do this in her book.
Back at the start of the year I wrote post that looked at the year ahead and set myself goals and measurable targets – something that is important if you want to keep yourself on track and keep the writing working for you. Having clear goals makes it easier to manage and achieve them, rather than having vague goals to “write a screenplay,” or “finish a novel,” which don’t really provide the focus you need to manage a long-term task, especially spread out over a year.
In relation to this planning I also talked about taking part in Gary Graham’s Writer Accountability (WRAC) initiative, whereby a group of writers have signed up to a series of self-set goals for the year ahead. Regular tweets/Facebook posts by co-host Michael Hennessy keep us all on our toes and ensure we regularly review those goals/milestones and keeping ourselves on track.
Well, that’s the theory. My main goals this year revolved around a novel I started writing in 2015 for NANoWriMo, with plans to have an outline and the first quarter written by now.
I did start. I do have the outline and I do have some written… just not as much as I was supposed to have. I do have what was written for NaNoWriMo, but I am reworking it as that effort was fairly meandering. It was a good way to get lots of words down on the page quickly, but I am not sure how good it was for me to keep focus/direction when writing.
The main problem is passion. I am passionate for the concept, but I am not sure I have really figured out the right direction for the novel and I am struggling to work up the enthusiasm to write it so, for now, it is probably time to call it a day.
It probably doesn’t help that I had some great feedback on a screenplay last year and am excited about getting back to that and, in fact, have started a page-1 re-write, giving serious thought the notes I received.
Or maybe it does help. Rather than continuing to flog a dead horse that my heart really isn’t in, it is obviously better to be working on a project I have more interest in. And in all honesty, if you are not enjoying a project, don’t keep at it – you will just ruin your enjoyment of the whole process. Stick the project in a drawer (it isn’t going anywhere) and you can always come back to it next week, next month, or even next year.
Taking a break isn’t the same as giving up. Never give up, just pick your fights.
I’ve lost my focus on one project, but that doesn’t mean I have lost direction, I just need to chose the right direction for me at this time.
Now I just need to beg forgiveness from Gary and Michael for failing my goals and see if I can update them for this year to focus more on my screenplay. Surely it’s not too late… 🙂
When do you decide it is time to move on?
BUY TWISTED 50
ISBN-10: 099565381X ISBN-13: 978-0995653818
I’ve just finished the last story in the TWISTED 50: Volume One collection (Bloated, by Penegrine Shaw) which was probably not the one to be reading as I was eating lunch but, then again, most of the stories within this book are probably better enjoyed sans food!
TWISTED 50 is the first publication to arise from the CREATE 50 community and is a collection of, in their own words, ‘…deliciously dark…’ short tales of horror. And it doesn’t disappoint! There are bugs, blood, the undead, spiders, vampires, ghosts, the apocalypse, arms and limbs flying everywhere… even Thomas the Tank Engine gets a make-over in one of my favourites, Sodor and Gomorrah by N W Twyford.
The “50” gives the game away that you will find 50 short stories within the volume and, as suggested above, there is a wide-variety of twisted material. They may not all be right up your street, but you can bet your life (figuratively, not literally) that there is something for everyone and it is a fantastic book for short bursts of reading. Highly recommended!
The CREATE 50 initiative aims to provide a platform for emerging screenwriters, short story-writers, filmmakers and allied artists to get their work out and seen. There are a variety of ways to get involved and I have submitted a few stories to TWISTED Volume Two, the follow-up (unsurprisingly) to Volume One. Through the website I have been enjoying sharing feedback with other writers on a variety of stories. And that is the beauty of the initiative; for every story you submit, they ask that you kindly provide feedback to three other writers. Considering the limit for short stories is 2,000 words, this is anything but onerous and, once you start, you will find it addictive, feeding back on many more than the expected three.
I have found it to be a fantastic experience to try out a new form of writing to me (I am very new to short stories or any form of prose to be honest) and get feedback on my efforts. It has also been an eye-opener reading such a range of stories from a variety of writers, all at different levels and stages of their careers. They have all been very helpful and welcoming and I would recommend getting involved to anyone, even if you only “dabble”.
Sadly, TWISTED Volume Two is only open for submissions for another six days (at time of writing) although that is still plenty of time to have a go. Entry is stupidly cheap at just £7 a story and great value for the effectively free feedback you will receive.
The good news is that there is another project The Singularity 50 which is still open for submissions until 31st March 2017. Like TWISTED it is looking for 50 short stories but on a theme the explores the ‘journey to the moment technology takes over.’ So, if you are a budding Sci-Fi writer, why not take a look?
Judging by the activity on the website and the great-looking Volume One publication, I suspect the CREATE 50 community will be around for a long time. Even if you don’t have anything for TWISTED or SINGULARITY this time, I am sure there will be more great projects in the future and I, for one, will be keeping an eye out for how I can continue to get involved.
If you have submitted to either of these projects, let me know, I would be more than happy to have a read!
And if you have – Good Luck!
Well, there goes 2016 and good riddance for a number of reasons, including my failed attempt at reaching the goals I set myself at the start of the year. You can see what I “planned” HERE and just need to know that I didn’t make it! Not that it was all bad, I did get some rewriting done and got some great notes on a couple of screenplays, but I didn’t rewrite four.
Why? Well probably because I am easily distracted. Although I didn’t get the screenplay work done, I did get reading more as I had hoped and also, towards the end of the year, got involved with Twisted 50, Volume 2, a social approach to writing, that provides peer review on short-stories (up to 2,000 words) all with the aim of publishing the best in a final volume. Check out CREATE50 and have a go, it is open until the end of February.
And therein lies the rub… distraction. Distraction is bad enough at the best of times and I am very easily distracted; exacerbated by poor planning. Actually, CREATE50 was a ‘good’ distraction, but it still stopped me reaching the goals I had set myself. It is great saying at the start of the year that I am going to do A,B and C but, without any sort of plan as to how I am going to get there, it is all going to go wrong very quickly.
So, this year, feeling fresh and ready, I am going to plan more carefully. As Lucy Hay says in this New Year post (among other useful tips) you need to keep track of what you are doing or you will lose your way very quickly. As a lone writer without much “physical” peer support, accountability can be a problem; who is going to keep shouting at me from behind the chair to keep me writing?
So this year, I am going to set a task to write a novel. I had a go at writing a novel with NaNoWriMo in 2015 and while, at the time, I didn’t feel it was for me, the experience of CREATE50 has made me rethink that and I fancy having another go and I am going to use the Writer Accountability group set up by Gary Graham via his webpage and Twitter. Through that system you can set yourself goals for outlining and writing a project and get support through the other members of the group and via the twitter hashtag #WRAC17. I am hopeful that, being in the same boat as a load of other writers, and having specific, measurable goals in place, there will be a lot more incentive and motivation to stick with the plan and, shock horror, achieve the objectives I am setting myself for 2017.
I’m not stopping the screenplays though and I have a couple that I will continue to focus on and rewrite. Another problem in 2016 was constantly wanting to write new ideas and I started yet another screenplay without finishing the others. While I guess it is important to have a “portfolio” it is probably no good if none of them are finished. So I will try and limit the distractions by working on just two screenplays this year and banning myself from starting any new ones.
Well, you know… unless they are REALLY good ideas! 🙂
Whatever 2017 has in store for you or whatever plans you have for your writing, keep at it, don’t get disheartened and make sure your goals are measurable and achievable. Not meeting goals can be frustrating and demoralising, so start as you mean to go on and don’t set yourself up to fail!
Happy New Year and Good Luck!!
Alexandra Browne – Author!
Anyone who has spent more than a few seconds on this blog will be aware that, as well as writing, I enjoy a bit of astronomy and the occasional effort at astrophotography (very occasional considering the current trend in cloudy weather in the UK). Through a forum dedicated to astronomy you meet lots of interesting people and, in one thread, I even discovered some who shared similar non-astro interests. The forum is the Stargazers Lounge by the way, in case you fancy having a look.
Alex was one such person who also turned out to be an author and was just in the process of getting her first book self-published. “I’m not Smelly the Pirate” was the first publication from Alex in a planned series of “I’m not….” books that includes spiders and snot monsters – sure to be a hit with the kids.
So I thought it might be fun to “interview” Alex about her writing, her approach to her work and her advice for up and coming writers. While I know a children’s book is a very different entity from a Screenplay, I am sure there are plenty of similarities when it comes to the tools and tricks of the trade.
I sent Alex a series of questions and below you can find the full interview with her. I hope you find it as interesting as I did. And please do check out her book and website to explore her world!
So, Alex, can you introduce yourself?
I’m 54 years of age but never grew up! I’m a civil servant and have one child, a beautiful 17-year-old daughter called Maia. I’m a mad amateur astronomer with a passion for imaging. I hate staying up late, have poor night vision and little technical ability, which are slight set-backs in this hobby! So why take it on? It’s the most fascinating, frustrating and rewarding hobby, and I guess I’m a sucker for punishment! I love exotic animals and invertebrates and have kept praying mantids, horsehead grasshoppers, stick insects, giant Madagascan hissing cockroaches and more. Oh, and fancy rats. My menagerie is now limited to two with a giant African millipede called Georgie and a baby corn snake called Sprite. I wish I had the time, money and space for more! I have also just got into imaging microscopic subjects (I used to be a path lab technician in light and electron microscopy) especially pond life and have been blown away by the variety of creatures we never see with the naked eye.
So what drove you to writing?
I think it’s in the blood. My family all love writing. I used to tell ghost stories when I was a kid, to the younger children of the village, making up the story as I went along. The stories were often about underground tunnels and glowing red eyes! I occasionally wrote short stories, usually sci-fi or horrors, when I was young. My brother hopes to publish his own children’s stories which I will be illustrating for him.
And what made you want to write for children?
It started with a book for my then toddler daughter, Maia, to teach her about astronomy. It’s called ‘Maia and the Shooting Star’ and even has a little foreword from the late and great Sir Patrick Moore, but I never published it. With the advent of self-publishing and the excellent CreateSpace from Amazon, I will revisit the book and publish it. I just loved it so much that I had to do more, and that’s when the ‘I’m Not . . .’ series of books came to mind. At first, it was a book to stop children being scared of spiders, which I love (anything with an exoskeleton!). But when I started writing it, it just didn’t work. Something was wrong. Then I realised it was too sweet and twee. That’s not me at all! And, with a now older child, I realised how much kids like poo, snot and farts and all sorts of niffy stuff! So the spider became very much a scary spider trying to convince various terrified people and animals that she isn’t, in fact, scary and all hell breaks loose. The writing then started to flow and I spent most of my time giggling. That will be my third book. The next is the very snotty ‘I’m Not Cute the Snot Monster’. ‘I’m Not Funny the Chick’ is still in its infancy and will be weird!
You’ve published the first book in your “I’m not…” series of children’s books, how does it feel to be published?
I feel so satisfied after all my hard work to see it finally in print and looking so colourful and professional! I’m also very aware of how difficult it is to be seen among the masses of self-published books, so I’m having to do some leg work to get it noticed. I got an article in my local newspaper, the Buckingham and Winslow Advertiser, on 22 June (see here). I have approached schools if they would accept my reading to the children and hopefully do book signings. Then there are book fairs etc. It’ll be initial financial outlay for hopefully some recognition.
Are there any particular authors or books that you feel have been a big influence on you?
My world view was changed by the also late and great Sir Terry Pratchett. I still hurt desperately at his loss. His Discworld series are a parody of our own world and are hilarious but also often very deep and meaningful. I read his books most nights as relaxation therapy. I read a lot of stories about dystopian worlds and magick and the paranormal. I got into these from urging by my now teenage daughter. I started with ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins and have moved on to others. I love the ‘Twilight’ sagas and ‘The Host’ by Stephanie Meyer which are very well-written. The ‘Maze Runner’ series by James Dashner and the ‘Divergent ‘ series by Veronica Roth are other favourites. I also read books by Susan Kaye Quinn, Anna Carey, Lauren Oliver, Marie Lu and Alyson Noel. I try to read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ once a year. Reading takes me deep into other worlds where anything is possible.
What would you say has been the most difficult challenge to you in your writing?
Writer’s block is a very real problem. I’ve been getting that with my latest book for young adults. It usually means the whole idea is wrong, as it was with the original Spider story, but it’s starting to move again. I have dyspraxia so have difficulty with seeing related subjects. I’ll be writing and then realise that something can’t occur due to the facts that preceded it, but I don’t always see it straight away and have to go through the whole book making corrections. It’s very hard work and can be a bit demoralising. I’ll get people to read the story when it’s done to check for inconsistencies. It’s a lot easier to write for little kids as the stories are so simple, usually. It’s the illustrations that are hard, but incredibly fun. I close my eyes and picture a scene and then start scribbling, and invariably giggling! The characters come alive and are part of my family now.
How do you balance the rest of your life around your writing?
With a full-time job I have little time to write and draw, but try to squeeze them in when I can, often during my lunch break. I colour my illustrations in Photoshop which is very time-consuming so I tend do it at weekends. Oh, for some more time!
Do you have any special routines for writing?
Close my eyes, transport myself there and start writing. Then worry about mistakes and cleaning up later. That’s it! I’m a bit of a put-my-head-down-and -charge kind of writer!
What do you do when you are stuck?
I ask my daughter! She has a brilliant and creative brain. She’s often helped me when I’ve got stuck or I’m not sure about something and she has very good ideas.
How did you find the process of self-publishing? Would you recommend it to fellow writers?
I was told about CreateSpace by a publisher friend, Peter Kavanagh, who writes the lovely ‘Art Myatt’ children’s stories. I was very relieved and excited as I would have had to have spent £500 for a publishing company. CreateSpace is brilliant and pretty easy to use. They have the whole service set up very well, with lots of advice to hand. I would most certainly recommend them. You have to do your own self-promotion, though, and that takes time. But it’s fun.
So what’s next? You have your “I’m not…” series, but do you have any plans for other stories? Maybe for older children? Adults?
I am also writing a spooky novel for older children, ‘The Dreams of Lucy Lee’, which is proving very difficult and is on hold for the time being, until something occurs to me! I hope to get [The Dreams of Lucy Lee] finished as it’s preying on my mind! I hate leaving things unfinished. I hope the ‘I’m Not . . .’ series will continue until I run out of ideas. Suggestions welcome!
Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting out again now? What would you tell your younger self, just starting out with the advantage of hindsight?
Plan, plan, plan. It’s hard with a Specific Learning Difficulty but I would have told myself to keep trying. Get the main points of the start, main story and ending sorted out on paper, then fill in. It can be done with practice and I would have tried that when younger if I’d had a helping hand from a professional. Every school should have a writers’ club!
What advice would you give to any aspiring writers out there, especially those that might be wanting to write, but don’t think they can do it?
Write about a subject you love and know well. Don’t write about something because you feel you should or that others tell you should, and hate it. I produced a music book, ‘Diatonic Liaisons’, for the diatonic accordion, as I used to write special notation when teaching a friend and he suggested I write it. It’s been very successful but took about ten years to write and I hated every minute of it! But, to contradict myself, I’m glad it’s done. I would recommend writer’s groups. I’ve never been to one as would feel rather intimidated! But I should have done from the outset. I may well yet. Also, read lots of stories in the genre you’re working on and see how the successful ones are written, but don’t lose sight of your own style. See how long books are as in number of words/pages, although that’s just a guide as yours will be as long as it needs to be, just not too long or too short (except short stories which are a different kettle of fish and really fun!). Do get advice and send drafts to friends and family to ensure you’re on the right track and to correct spelling and grammar. Don’t be hurt by criticism. This is an essential part of your development as a writer. Test your limits and have fun. Be brave! It’s a wonderful journey and opens whole worlds, real and imagined. Oh, did I say plan, plan, plan?! And good luck to you all!
So, I hope you enjoyed learning about Alex and her writing and maybe even found a little inspiration?
Big thanks to Alex and good luck to her with her writing – and astronomy – clear skies and all that!
At the start of the year I set myself some goals with a promise to check-in and give an update on my progress towards them from time to time. Well, here we are, just over half way through the year… so how am I doing? (Apart from being a little late with the check-in.)
Surprisingly, not too bad.
My original goal was to rewrite 4 screenplays this year and get them ready for competitions and submissions. I’ve completed a rewrite on one screenplay and received some professional feedback which has been very helpful in focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of both my writing and that particular work; lessons that can be applied to my other works in progress.
I have also managed to rewrite my second screenplay, although this one I am still working on, thinking about the advice I received from the first one. I hope to have that finished in the next few weeks.
At this rate, I suspect I will definitely be able to rewrite 3 scripts this year, not quite the 4 I originally planned, but a 75% hit rate is still pretty good… isn’t it?
Part of the reason for this slight “lag” is that I have tried my hand at some short screenplay writing, something that I have avoided previously because I just didn’t think it was for me. However, one of the suggestions from the professional feedback was to think about writing shorts as a way to develop my skills in honing story. With a much more restrictive page and word count, the brevity and succinctness of screenplay writing is heightened. My description in screenplays can still be a tad verbose so any practice that will help me manage that habit has got to be good news.
So, in amongst the re-writing I have been working on a couple of short-scripts as well. I have 3 in various stages now and an idea for another that I am keen to get writing.
I guess 4 shorts equal 1 screenplay, don’t they?
So I am not that far off target after all?
Adapt or Die.
We can set ourselves goals and targets to drive us on to deliver the goods but it may not always be best for us to blindly follow those targets set months or years before. Ideas come and go and stories fall in and out of our favour. To be successful, we need to follow-through and complete stories, we don’t want to be drifting from one protect to another without completing them. However, sometimes, we have to move on or change course once in a while to try something new and shake things up a bit. Set goals and targets and work towards them, but don’t be afraid to step outside of those self-imposed boundaries… as long as you keep writing!
I was planning another check-in around October time, so let’s get back to writing and come back in a few months and see how I’m getting on.
Did you set yourself any goals for 2016?
If you did, how are you getting on with them?
Amazon UK (as before, there are other sellers)
It has been a while since I wrote anything about the screenwriting books that I have enjoyed. Partly because I went for a period without reading any and partly because I had other things to write about. However, I felt the need to return to this semi-regular series of posts having read Stephen King’s “On Writing” this weekend, a book I have been meaning to read for a long time, but only just got around to doing so.
Before we go any further, you may well have noticed the “sort of” that I added to the title. This isn’t a screenwriting book per se, but it is a book aimed at writers; which we all are or hope to be. So, while King’s references and examples are largely taken from novels, a lot of the advice rings true, reflects and reiterates that which is offered by screenwriters.
I “grew up” (not literally) with Stephen King, first reading Christine and Carrie and was instantly drawn to his style of writing. It may not be “the most artful” style in the world but, most importantly, it drew this (soon to be Constant) reader into his world, filling my imagination in ways other books just didn’t. This style is repeated here. We may be in the world of memoir/text-book (?) as opposed to novel, but the words on the page feel familiar and inviting to anyone who has ever read King; it is certainly nowhere near as “stuffy” as some other writing texts I have read.
The first third of the book is reserved for a whirlwind tour through King’s childhood and development as a writer, while the rest of the book is dedicated to his views on what writing is and how it all works. He also explores the tools at your disposal as a writer and how they can help you do the best you possibly can. It is not presented as the be-all-and-end-all for writing or as a one-stop solution to writing a bestseller (as you may find in other works) but it is a review of King’s techniques and experiences, what works for him. His output from this system obviously speaks for itself!
Again, I don’t want this to become a review or detailed critique of the book, but I just wanted to highlight some of the gems I found inside that resonated with me. This is a fairly random selection – I didn’t to spoil everything!
So here goes…
Stephen King on writing:
On lessons learned from early writing:
…the realisation that stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
As Scott Myers can often be heard saying, “The only way out is through.”
…it’s writing damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
…use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful; and
…omit needless words, in action.
The second of these is vital advice… and advice I need to take as I can tend to be a little verbose at times.
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. the trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.
For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.
and I particularly liked:
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question…
King talks about how he develops ideas and stories, not necessarily focusing on PLOT, but exploring situations and how whole stories can explode from a simple situational set-up.
I think the best stories always end up being about people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
On the Protagonist:
…no one is the ‘bad guy’ or the ‘best friend’ or the ‘whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.
This is a great way to look at characters and to help you understand their motivations. The Antagonist Perspective
On what to write:
Try any goddam thing you like , no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it.
Really, just get it down!
On finishing the first draft:
My advice is that you take a couple of days off – go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle – and then go off an work on something else. How long you let your book rest …. is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of 6 weeks.
So, yeah, let it ferment for a while…
And that’s just a few, there are plenty more and the book is, for want of a better word, riddled with great insight on the process of writing – and we haven’t even touched on grammar or dialogue!
What struck me as particularly interesting was the similarities to many other sources of inspiration, especially the Pixar Rules I have talked about in the past. I’m not going to list all the similarities, but if you have a look through those rules, you will spot them yourselves. The fact that so many of these “rules” (yeah, I know, ‘tools not rules’) apply equally to King’s works of Horror novels and Pixar’s family-oriented cinema output speaks volumes to the importance of story regardless of what medium you use to convey it. King reiterates this throughout the book – the story is king (no pun intended) – so utilising the tools that he offers up means you are, at least, going to be heading in the right direction when you start writing your masterpiece, whether a short-story, novel, play, TV Series or screenplay.
Finally, I also found the book to be a massive inspiration to get writing again myself and try out some new ideas. It can be difficult to maintain the momentum sometimes, with everything that life can throw at you but, as King says, if you don’t get on and write you will never be a writer.
It has even reminded me how much I used to enjoy being a Constant Reader, so I am going back to fill the gaps in King’s works and, perhaps, re-read a few old favourites. With a Dark Tower film on the way, I feel the need to revisit Roland and his Ka-Tet.
I guess this has (sort of) turned into a review, but I do feel that “On Writing” is one of the best books on writing I have read. For its friendly, welcoming style, to the no nonsense advice from King, it is a book I would recommend to any fellow writer without hesitation.
While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:
— Shouty Writing Tips (@Bang2write) 27 June 2016
(the full post is available HERE)
What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.
Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:
“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:
“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).
“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).
Which is exactly right – change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.
Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.
However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.
So what’s going on here?
Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.
Don’t believe me?
to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.
Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!
This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.
So that gives us something to aim for.
How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?
Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?
- Characters you Admire
- Know your Audience
- Conflict and Emotional Arc
- Know your Characters – part 1
- Know your Characters – part 2
I was watching an episode of Gogglebox (don’t judge me) on UK Channel 4 recently and had the opportunity to watch other people watching JAWS (1975), one of my all-time favourites. I was probably around 10 years old when I first saw JAWS and remember being terrified by it – especially old Ben Gardner and his damned head. I remember playing “JAWS” at school and taking turns in playing Quint; there was an old log in the playground that sloped down to the ground and we used to pretend that was the stern of the ORCA, sinking slowly into the water. (Who needs violent computer games when you can eat your mates off the back of an old log?)
In short, a film like JAWS, for someone of my generation, left a lasting impression; one that has persisted 30 years later, and still finds the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention when John Williams’ score looms up at the start of the film.
What I saw on Gogglebox was a group of people laughing at Bruce and what they described as “rubbish” effects. Now this may be due to the environment – being filmed while watching the TV is probably not the most intimate of settings to watch and appreciate a classic – or, perhaps, because they had all seen it many times before and were not really paying attention.
But it got me thinking.
Now, I’m the first to admit that Bruce can look a little ropey in some shots but, for me, that is not what the film is all about. It’s about the anticipation of the shark, the fear of the unknown; what IS under the water? Jaws works so well because the reveal of the shark is left so late into the film – if we had seen him during the opening credits, the latter parts of the film would have had a much less shocking or powerful effect on this 10 year old – Spielberg knew what he was doing by withholding stuff from his audience. A lot of this withholding was, of course, down to the problems they had with Bruce and the technology driving him. The physical effects required for Jaw were probably a lot more demanding than the CGI required for Deep Blue Sea (1999).
What I began to wonder is whether a younger generation of film-goers (hark at me, miserable old man) are spoiled by the advances we have made in technology over the last couple of decades? Spielberg himself opened CGI up to the masses with Jurassic Park (1993), and fan-favourites likes The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) really piled on the “wow” factor of what could be done in films with this new “technology.”
I’m not complaining, I love a good effect but, when everything is photorealistic in a film, does it mean that viewers of a certain age can’t appreciate the skill involved in the physical aspects of film-making? Is Bruce, in Jaws, the 21st Century equivalent of me watching an Iguana with a plastic horn fighting Doug McClure? (Which, I hasten to add, I loved.)
It is great to see newer films being made by teams keen to reintroduce more real, physical effects; for example Mad Mad: Fury Road and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I realise these films still involve a lot of CGI work (it’s almost unavoidable in a modern “blockbuster”) but you can’t beat good old fashioned effects work. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with the kids a few weeks back and it really is a joy to watch all those physical effects being shown onscreen, bringing back memories of watching “The Making of Documentaries” on TV on a Saturday afternoon, a long time before the advent of DVD extras.
It is, perhaps, just too easy to destroy worlds inside a computer now than it has ever been – well, maybe not “easy” but the restrictions are so much less than they have ever been, meaning the sky is the limit; which had me thinking whether this has had an affect on the types of stories that people write and the way they write them. 30 years ago, a film like The Avengers (2012) couldn’t be made or, at least, not on the same scale. The effects required would have put even the most dedicated film-maker off. This made me wonder whether writers in the past felt restricted in the stories they could tell or whether it made them more creative in finding ways to skirt the technological limitations of the times and bring their visions to the screen?
Today, we can pretty much write whatever we want knowing that, if necessary, we can show it on screen. I am not sure there are any restrictions now other than budgets and our imaginations.
What do you think?
- Are we spoiled by CGI these days?
- Has it made story-telling easier… or harder?
- Do you write without boundaries because of this?
Please feel free to comment below!
For a last couple of months I have been enjoying the ITV Series Marcella starring Anna Friel and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, Marston Bloom, Mark Greig and Ben Harris. Hailed as a “Scandi-esque” drama, it promised an intriguing look into the world of tortured soul Marcella, returning to work as a detective after having some sort of break down relating to the loss of a child. She also suffers from blackouts during which she struggles to remember her actions.
So far so good.
The series finished this week after 8 episodes and while, on the whole, it was a well made (if sometimes confusing) drama, the season finale left the internet in uproar over the amount of unanswered questions in an obviously sequel-baiting ending. I am not one to get too upset when I don’t have everything explained to me; my favourite film is 2001, for Heaven’s sake and I am a big fan of Lost! However, what Lost did do for its audience (or at least for me, YMMV), is provide all the clues for its audience to piece together the jigsaw. Although the answers in Lost were not all neatly spelled out by the end of the finale, I believe there was enough information in there to help you piece together answers to any remaining question you might have.
Marcella didn’t quite do that for me and left me feeling a little flat. The internet (on the whole) seemed to be feeling entirely cheated.
Characters were introduced, did important stuff, and then disappeared. Mysteries were posed early on in the season and we never even came close to an answer. I am sure that, if Marcella makes it to a second season, we will get some answers to these questions, but I can understand why people would be angry and threatening not to continue watching if it does. (I’m ready to give it a go!)
For example, the series started with Marcella in a bath, confused and covered in blood and mud. That raised a big question that the audience were really going to want answered by the end of the series. We get a hint of how it may have come to pass, but there is nothing to tell us why it happened and what caused it. The first, and biggest, mystery of the series is left unanswered.
This got me thinking about how much we should tell our audiences to keep them interested in our stories and what we should disclose? Of course this will all depend on the story you are trying to tell. Different approaches give us a different take on withholding information. On one extreme you might have Lost, which did its best to keep us in the dark on as much as it could and, on the other, an episode of Columbo, for example, where we know who the killer is before the detective has even got out of bed. However, Lost, for me, was as much about the characters as it was the Island and information about the characters was drip fed to us from episode to episode, season to season, so we were having questions answered, even if we didn’t realise it. Even if we do know who the killer is, there is still mystery in each episode of Columbo because we don’t necessarily know why or exactly how, and we enjoy finding out at the same time as Columbo. In both cases there is a balance of knowledge and ignorance; enough knowledge to keep us happy but enough ignorance to keep us intrigued and to continue watching.
There needs to be a balance.
Judging by the reaction on the internet (which is probably a bad thing to do) I think a lot of people would have stopped watching Marcella if it had gone on for a few more episodes, because the ignorance as to what was going on was overpowering the knowledge we were being given; there were not enough answers to keep everyone happy. Mystery is really important in a story, we don’t want to know exactly who, how, why, where, when and what within the first few minutes of a film, but we do want answers and a skillful writer will manage the way key information is revealed throughout their story to keep the audience happy, but also intrigued. Drip feed me, but don’t keep me completely in the dark.
J.J. Abrams talks about the joy of mystery in this TED Talk from a few years back and discusses his Mystery Box and the intrigue generated by not knowing what is inside. One example he uses is Star Wars and how the plot involves numerous Mystery Boxes throughout the story, posing a question to the audience, which gets answered, but also replaced by another mystery box – a constant process of question and answer that keeps the audience hooked.
This is something I am consciously trying to take into account more when writing; thinking carefully about how I feed information to my audience and, perhaps more crucially, when I feed it to them. Get the balance right, give them enough to keep them invested in the story, but don’t leave them bored ten minutes in, with nothing to keep them guessing what might be in your Mystery Box. If we can do this, then I suspect we will more easily be able to hook our audience and keep them dangling on the line until the bitter (or happy) end even if we don’t answer all their questions.
How do you decide what to withhold and when to reveal?