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Getting back into the swing of things…


Well, it’s been a while. I’d like to say that I have been too busy writing to post anything on this website, but that would be a lie. I have been too busy but, unfortunately, it has not been because of writing. I have managed a bit here and there and, now I have set myself some new targets for the WRAC#17 challenge, I am back on track with a rewrite of a script I got some great feedback on last year.

Writing time is at a premium still, but I have generated that “buzz” you feel when you finally get a chance to sit down and put some words down in Final Draft and a new story begins to take shape. It’s almost like starting again and I find myself thinking about some of the old “rules” and “tools” of writing that can help when you find yourself stuck on a particular writing issue, or pondering a structural conundrum. And, as I am working on a family script, what better advice to seek out than that of the legendary PIXAR.

I love PIXAR’S Rules of Storytelling and ran a series of blog posts when I first started this webpage looking at the rules developed by Emma Coates and expanded on by Stephan Vladimir Bugaj. I think the time is right for a rerun (there is always time for a rerun) and, while it might seem like a bit of a cheat, I always enjoy exploring the rules. If this means I can introduce them to a few new people, then all the better!

If you fancy exploring the PIXAR rules, pop over to the Introduction page to find out a little more about them. I’ll be tweeting the rules over the next few weeks, but you can always explore the links to the various rules if you fancy skipping ahead!

So, sit back, click some links and enjoy the wisdom of PIXAR!

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The Same… but Different

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The Same… but Different

I recently got to seeing Inside Out with the family, and we all absolutely loved it. There is definitely more than a little truth to my belief that Pixar can do no wrong. While someone in the audience behind me complained that it didn’t have the emotional punch of other Pixar efforts, and another viewer said it wasn’t as funny as others, I didn’t see any problems with it in that vein. In fact, I would suggest that it is their most “mature” feature to date. While all their films work on that kid/adult level, Inside Out, perhaps takes it a stage further, exploring more “adult” themes while addressing the issues of Riley growing up and changing as she gets older. I can’t recommend it enough.

However, that isn’t what it inspired me to write about.

What it got me thinking about, or has had me thinking about ever since it I first heard about the film, is the old UK Comicstrip the Numskulls which followed the adventures of a group of tiny men living inside a man’s head, controlling his actions.

I’m not saying that the PIXAR team were necessarily inspired by or plagiarised this comicstrip, I am simply recognising that the concept behind Inside Out is not wholly original. For example, the idea can be seen in Meet Dave and I am sure there are many other films/TV shows that also use the device. I am pretty sure one of the Men in Black films involved a tiny alien controlling a character from inside his head.

What it made me think about was some screenwriting advice that I heard early on when I started out writing.

“Give us the same, but different.”

Many may argue that there are no original ideas, and no one is going to argue that the idea of little people inside your head, controlling you is on original concept. However, what PIXAR has done is take an existing concept and give us a different take on it.

The same…. but different.

And they aren’t the only ones:

Dante’s PeakVolcano

ArmageddonDeep Impact

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are all examples of films, released at similar times, that deal with very similar themes and stories, but are delivered in different ways, focusing on different aspects of their stories. Just because Armageddon and Deep Impact have dealt with asteroids, does that mean there is no room for another story involving such a threat? No, it doesn’t, it just means you have to think harder about how you would deal with such a story.  We just need something different.

And that is what PIXAR gave us with Inside Out; a new take on an old theme – and done in such a great way as to not care if the concept has been dealt with previously – they just wanted to give us a great story. Which they did.

So, while some genres may have been done to death (literally) with  Zombies and Vampires or be getting a little tired (found-footage) there is always room for a new story covering old ground if you can do it in new and interesting ways. Chronicle did this with found-footage and Warm Bodies for zombies – they both looked for a slightly different angle, and made the most of it.

So if you are struggling for what you think is an original concept, or find that you like writing about subjects that are perennial favourites, don’t worry, there is always a way, just think outside the box and give us the same, only different!

Do you mind seeing multiple takes on similar concepts?

What stories, that have been told many time before, do you think could stand another retelling?

 

Pixar Rules of Story: Debrief!

A Total Gem - Inside Out Movie Review by BagoGames, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  BagoGames 

Well… That’s all Folks!

Okay, wrong animation studio, but that really is it for the Pixar Rules of Story series. It feels like a long time since we kicked it off all the way back HERE. I hope you have enjoyed working through them as much as I have. This was the second time I have worked through them in a forum setting and still found them useful to discuss and think about.

If there is one thing to say about these rules, however, it is that they are not really rules; but you knew that already didn’t you?

TOOLS, NOT RULES!

Like the Pirate Code, they are more like guidelines really. Like any supposed writing “rules” if you take them as gospel and try to write everything to fit all these rules (along with the hundreds of others you’ll find online and in writing textbooks) you’ll likely find yourself more restricted through trying to conform.

However, as a series of guides on various aspects of writing/screenwriting, I hope they have helped you figure out some problem you may have been having with a script or, perhaps, given you inspiration for a new story. Read them, examine them and use them to help you develop as a writer. Use the ones that you need to use for the story you are writing at the time. If one of your ideas doesn’t quite fit with a particular rule, forget about it, they are not a blueprint to writing the next great story, they are a guide to help you along the way. They are tools to help you think about writing.

It’s like the selection of drill bits I have at home. I have dozens of these little tools that largely have the same purpose (drill a hole), but you have to be selective and use the right one for the right job. Round pegs and square holes and all that – you get my drift!

So, go away (just for now, please make sure you come back at some time) and go and enjoy your writing, even if you never use one of these rules.

Maybe THAT should be the only rule about writing – make sure you enjoy it. Well, that and, write the best damn story you can.

Good luck and Keep Writing!

Oh… and just in case you have forgotten them all! (With thanks again to Emma Coates and Stephan Bugaj)

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Pixar Rules of Story #22: Pare it down and Build it up

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What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Rule #22 is another that is bound to other rules. While Stephen Valdimir Bugaj discusses it mainly in relation to Rule #16: Raise the Stakes, I feel it is more about the theme and heart of your story, or its essence, linking to other rules including:

Rule #22 asks us to think about what it is our story is about and pare that down to its essence, or the most economical telling of it. Once we know that, when we understand what our story is about, we can start to flesh it out and build the story onto that framework.

Stephan discusses the story pitch at this point, taking this as the starting point for fleshing your story out. Perhaps 2 to 3 short paragraphs outlining the bare bones of your tale. Obviously writing a pitch is an important skill to master as a screenwriter and we should be writing them. However, Stephan suggests that this is the most economical telling of your story. I do agree with him there – it will be difficult to get it down below those 3 paragraphs and a logline or simple theme isn’t really a telling of your story. However, to me, a logline or the pure theme does suggest the essence and a another starting point for your story.

So perhaps that is another way to look at the Rule. Starting with your theme or logline, flesh it out to the pitch and then a summary, treatment, scriptment etc etc etc. We start with the essence, as suggested by the rule, and work through various stages to build the story from that point until we get to the first draft, adding layers each time we move outwards – a bit like dipping a candle.

This may be counter to other rules that talk about starting with the ending, or letting the theme emerge, but none of these rules are mutually exclusive. They are simply alternative ways of doing the same thing – getting you to the final draft. The trick is to try them and see what works best for you.

With this rule, starting with the theme might help you, or it might be better to start with a pitch. Just try it and see what happens. I like to work out from a logline (or as close as possible – it is likely to change throughout the writing process), then move on to a three paragraph summary (one paragraph per ACT), then a broad outline and then, finally, a more detailed treatment. Sometimes it becomes a combination of treatment and scriptment as I include some dialogue and direction but it works for me – it might for you… or not, just go and have fun figuring out what DOES work for you.

So start out small, then put flesh on the bones of your story so you are good and ready when it comes to “FADE IN”

Good luck!

Do you start small and build your story up?

Oh, and that is the last rule… so there is no new rule next week, although I will revisit the series for a final time with a debrief of all the rules and what they tell us about writing.

Hope you have enjoyed the series!

Feel free to comment below and you can access the whole series from the Introduction.

Pixar Rules of Story #21: Know your Characters (part 2)

You gotta identify with your situation/characters, you can’t just write “cool”. What would make you act in that way?

Rule #20 is pretty much a bed-fellow for Rule #15: Know your Characters (part 1) which explores how we should be careful not to think in terms of “what would I do” in that situation, but what would our characters do in that situation. To be able to do that convincingly and effectively we really need to know and understand our characters inside out.

Rule #20 has the same potential pitfall in asking you, “what would you do?” when, in fact, we don’t necessarily want to know what the author would do. While there are always going to be elements of our own psyche in the characters we write, they are also (hopefully) fully-formed people in their own right, and we need to have them reacting in ways that match emotionally and psychologically.

Another step towards this (as well as knowing how they would react in any given situation) is to develop situations around them that reflect the story theme and their emotional development. Develop situations that we can see them getting into. These may be outlandish and even absurd (depending on the plot) but also perfectly acceptable if written honestly. As Rule #15 also showed us, honesty provides credibility. If we build worlds and develop characters carefully, we can throw them into any situation as long as it “fits” with that world and character.

So a Nun winning a kick-boxing competition may seem like a ridiculous idea in the first instance, but suppose the nuns need to raise money for homeless kids, and one of the nuns shows a propensity for martial arts, we can develop a world in which this wouldn’t seem that crazy… although probably a comedy world, not a serious biopic! (Unless anyone knows any differently?)

To do that convincingly, we need to know our characters, understand their world and develop situations in which they can act believeably within the world we have set-up.

The rule also goes on to dissuade us from simply writing “cool” to come up with interesting characters. We can have cool characters, but they can go wrong easily, being cool for cool’s sake, rather than being emotionally empathetic and honest characters that audiences can relate to. They just become thin characters and stereotypes that we have seen time after time.

So, along with Rule #15, rule #20 should have us thinking about the characters we develop and the worlds we build for them. If we develop emotionally honest characters and put them in honest situations, which relate to the world in which they exist, then we will be writing believable stories regardless of how outlandish the wider premise might be.

Do you identify with your characters?

Or do you find that they are strangers when you start writing them?

And if you really want to dig into characters, go and check out Go Into the Story, Scott is all about Character!

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for the last Rule #22 – Pare it down and Build it up!

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)

Pixar Rules of Story #19: Coincidentally Speaking

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Coincidence happens all the time in real-life, it is something we are aware of and deal with every day – we might get a bit excited by a coincidence, but that soon wears off as we move on to the next thrilling occurrence in our daily-lives. Rule #19 tells us what to do about coincidence in our scripts. Like any screenwriting rule and everything we are told to never do, it is really just a guide, but we do need to be careful we don’t rely on coincidence too much and end up making lazy writing choices.

This is why coincidences are dangerous in screenwriting. They might be “fun” for a few seconds, but the novelty soon wears off and, in most instances, the audience may feel cheated that an “easy out” has been used in a given situation. As we saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire, audiences want to watch people struggling to achieve their goals, fighting antagonistic forces and see them go through the ringer as they travel along their arc. If we set them up with a goal that appears to be impossible to obtain, but suddenly let them reach it through a coincidence, there is no fun, no empathy, no sympathy or tension as we don’t get to witness the struggle. If Batman was losing in the midst of climactic battle and suddenly found out he could fly like Superman, I think most of us would feel cheated – personally I would probably walk out of the cinema.

One “recent” example of how a coincidence annoyed me personally was Star Trek

***POSSIBLE SPOILER***

Kirk is banished from the Enterprise and ejected in a pod onto a nearby planet. He crashes, is stranded, chased by bigger and bigger creatures and, just at the point he was about to be eaten, other-Spock appears from nowhere to save his life. Now, I realise they HAD to meet for the story, there is a Starfleet base on this planet (new-Spock isn’t as heartless as we think) and other-Spock explains why he was stranded on the planet, but it feels a little contrived that they were so close and Kirk, running in blind panic, would luckily happen upon other-Spock’s cave. Now, it isn’t terrible, and I can forgive it as the rest of the film is fantastic blockbuster fare but, every time I watch it, those scenes bug me ever so slightly. (Of course, I might just be thinking about it too much….)

So try to avoid getting characters out of trouble with a coincidence. The audience may not thank you.

However, using coincidence to get characters INTO trouble is a much more acceptable way to use them. The idea of “mistaken identity” is probably a classic example of this. North by North West employs this method as Cary Grant’s character is mistaken for a secret agent in a coincidence that kicks off the rest of the film. Implemented in this way, the coincidence can be used to great effect to throw your character into the “new world” and can often be used to comical effect. However, it is much more easily forgiven and accepted at the start of a story as the rest of the film will see our protagonist reacting in a proactive, decision-making way as a result of the coincidence.

Of course there are always exceptions. We saw in Rule #13: Passive is Poison that audiences also like active characters; decisive, proactive characters that get themselves into trouble. If you frame a coincidence as arising from a series of definite characters choices, you are more likely to get away with them, as a pro-active character has put themselves in that position, rather than just being saved by providence. I suspect this is a common trait with comedy and farce.

Ultimately, your finale should not be dealt with through a lazy, obvious coincidence unless the story absolutely and utterly calls for it.

So coincidence is another tool in the writing arsenal that can help our stories. But be careful how and when you use it.

Have you used coincidence to get characters out of trouble?

How did you make it work for your story?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #20 – Deconstruction

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)

Pixar Rules of Story #18: Don’t sweat the small stuff

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You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Pixar Rule #18 follows on from Rule #17: Practice! and supports many of the previous rules that encourage us to just get out there (or stay inside I guess) and write, write, write.

In the same way we talked about practicing, Rule #18 implores us to just do our best and get our work written. Don’t sweat the small stuff and fuss over the minor details when you are on your first draft and/or trying to figure out the broader story you are working on. Get the first draft done and then come back for the rewrites and then deal with the detail.

Once you have your overarching story on the page, you can revisit the details in subsequent rewrites, refining dialogue, character and subtext for example. If you spend too much time fussing over the details when you just need to get the story out, you may well flounder, delay your writing or, even worse, stall. Again, don’t worry about the quality, nothing you write is wrong, nothing is wasted, just get it down. As Stephan Vladimir Bugaj says; “be wrong, early and often.”

You need to know yourself and your writing, to be able to recognise when you are doing your best and to see when you are simply fussing. Can’t pin down a character’s physical description? Forget it, move on and come back in a rewrite – they’ll still be there, waiting – the story will not fall apart if you postpone dealing with some minor details.

To me, this is recommending a wide to narrow focus, exploring your broad story, getting that on paper and then working out the details in subsequent drafts. A lot of it will change and develop, and that is okay, we know you can cut out whatever doesn’t move the story forward – but if you try to get all that right the first time, you may come unstuck and get bogged down in detail. And, you never know, that scene on page 25 that was giving you hell? Maybe you will find the solution by writing past it, finding inspiration in later scenes as the broader story comes together.

Of course, some writers will work better if they do fuss, working out all the little details as they go along. However, if you find yourself getting stuck during early drafts, staring at the page for long periods of time trying to figure out some minor issues that don’t (at that time) serve the broader story, it might help to try this method of starting wide and narrowing down to the focus on the detail in subsequent drafts.

In short, Rule #18 is another rule that tells us to just get it written, don’t let yourself fuss over the minor details while you are still working on the broader story. Just get it on the page, then start worrying about getting it right.

Get it out, then get it right!

Since I originally wrote this post over a year ago I have worked on a number of drafts (of screenplays, not this post) and really find that this method works for me. From what I can gather, a lot of other writers seem to work this way. The “vomit draft” as it is sometimes called seems to be a popular way to write for many. It may not work for you but, if you haven’t tried it, let us know how you got on. If you tried it, and didn’t like it, what was it that didn’t work for you?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #19 – Coincidentally Speaking

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

Pixar Rules of Story #17: Practice!

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No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

As we approach the end of the list of Pixar Rules, we can see how many of them overlap and intertwine, supporting each other in the advice and guidance they are giving us.

Rule #17 is one that is probably linked to all of them because it has quite a broad message to get across. To me, Rule #17 is about practice. As writers, we should all be writing. As much as we can. Whenever we can. Practice, practice, practice.

It doesn’t matter if what we write is for a particular script, or a scene we are working on, a poem, a treatment, a letter or complete and utter gobbledegook – when we are writing, we are practicing.

As the rule states, “no work is ever wasted”. When we write there will always be misfires, stuff that just doesn’t work, no matter what we do with it. That is part of practicing. Write it, learn from it, use it, or park it – and then move on.

When I taught myself to juggle I did it through practice… doing the same thing over and over again, until I mastered it and stopped getting it wrong. Same for teaching myself to walk on stilts; keep getting up after you fall off. Practice, practice, practice. (Summers were veeeery long when I was a kid and at least I have a calling to the circus if I never make it as a writer.)

So, I don’t want to say a lot about Rule #17 as I think it is self-explanatory – keep writing, keep practicing, use what works, park what doesn’t but don’t get hung up on “bad stuff”, just learn from it an move on to the next bit of writing..

Practice, practice, practice!

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #18 – Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

Pixar Rules of Story # 16: Raise the Stakes!

What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Today, Rule #16 asks us to think about the stakes of the story. More specifically, what is at stake for our protagonist – what do they stand to lose if they fail at their quest? We saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire that it is the obstacles to achieving their goals, and the struggle they go through to beat them, that endear us to characters in stories. By throwing bigger and bigger obstacles at them, and making it harder and harder for them to achieve their goals we, as writers, can generate greater and greater sympathy and empathy for our characters and, most importantly, ensure our viewers are fully invested in the story.

This is the same regardless of whether or not we are supposed to love or loathe a protagonist, throwing obstacles at them and making them struggle will generate empathy in the audience. We don’t have to like a character to understand them.

And it is not just physical obstacles. The struggle the protagonist faces will also come from within via their internal needs and be wrapped up in their external WANTS. This is important, as it allows us to bombard our protagonist from all sides with a variety of obstacles, making for more interesting and complex characters. And reinforces the need to develop convincing, well formed characters as we learnt in Rule #15: Know you Characters.

And this is where coming up with a worthy Nemesis  is vital. The biggest and best obstacle to a protagonist is a worthy nemesis who is in direct opposition to the protagonist. You don’t just want someone making life difficult for your protagonist, but someone who is actively seeking to stop them achieving their goals as they too are fighting to reach their own, and where the only way to do that is to stop the protagonist achieving theirs.

To ensure the nemesis is an effective obstacle, it helps to make them stronger and give them the advantage over your protagonist. Make the protagonist work damn hard to win out. Don’t make it too easy and make sure success, or failure, is held back until the very last moment. The audience will get bored if it is clear the protagonist will prevail from the moment the nemesis appears. But throw them into a conflict in which they start well, but then get knocked back, rise again and get kicked down to the very depths of despair – the “all is lost” moment – and the audience will be in the palm of your hand.

I’ve used the example of The Man of Steel before, but think it gives a good example of how you can pit your protagonist against a variety of obstacles to raise the stakes.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS

Clark Kent is on Earth and an outcast. He wants to find himself but, as a young man, he has obstacles thrown in his way that prevent him being himself and discovering who he really is. Obstacles that are so strong, with very high stakes – his adoptive father’s life. As he gets older, and he is starting to figure this stuff out, the bigger obstacle of General Zod appears. A Nemesis in direct opposition to the protagonist. Clark wants to be welcome in his new life, his adoptive planet, the life he knows. Whereas Zod wants to take that away and create a new Krypton in the ashes of the Earth – the life he knows. And it isn’t easy for Superman to prevail. He may have super powers, but so does Zod, and so do the soldiers that come with him. Soldiers who are trained to defend their planet, species and way of life. Superman is out-numbered, and out-gunned and we fear for his ability to prevail. Even though we know he is going to, the obstacles and stakes that are raised – i.e. losing his friends, planet and life – mean we are invested in the story and empathise with Clark.

Of course, this works the other way as well. The protagonist doesn’t have to prevail, but the work they put in to the struggle and the obstacles they face will mean the audience still feels empathy for them and the emotional wallop of a failure can be just as powerful as the euphoria of a victory.

So, what is it that your protagonist is striving for? Put something at stake, something important, and then throw everything you can at them to make sure the struggle is as hard as it can be and that the audience identify and empathise with them. Take the audience to the edge of despair with your protagonist and then let them share in the agony or the ecstasy of the denouement.

Conflict creates Drama.

It’s a lot more fun to watch.

And a lot more fun to write.

Have fun!

How do you make your characters struggle and raise the stakes?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #17 – Practice!

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)

Pixar Rules of Story #15 – Know your Characters (part 1)

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If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

At first glance, Rule #15 may appear to be asking the question, “what would you do in this situation?” But it goes a bit further than that. The audience doesn’t really want to know what YOU would do in a given situation, they want to know what your character would do. You have to put your own world-view aside and get into the mind of your character to understand and instinctively know what THEY would do in a given situation.

To do this you have to know your character, their needs and wants, their outlook on the world you are creating and their relationship with the theme of the story. All of those things will influence the way they react when faced with a question, threat, antagonist or decision.

Some people may do this by writing extensive biographies from birth to just before the story starts, so that they know every little bit of their character’s psyche and how they will react. Others may use questionnaires or interviews with their characters to get to know them. Ultimately, you need to use the tools that work for you to get to know your characters inside out, so they come alive on paper and make the right decisions at the appropriate point in the story.

We want to know what your protagonist will do when on her knees and facing the barrel of a gun, NOT what you would do. You know yourself really well, so spend some time with your characters.

Other Pixar Rules have implored us to experiment – to try something other than the obvious and to not always go with the first thing we think of and the same goes for deciding how your character reacts. Their behaviour can appear bizarre or outlandish, as long as it fits with what the audience has come to expect of them and the world in which the story takes place. This is where the bit about honesty comes in. Be honest with your characters and your audience and they will accept everything you throw at them. Build the world you want your character to live in, make it believable and credible within its own rules. You can then make any decisions you want, sending your characters in any direction, as long as the world is built carefully and with honesty. If you do this well, the audience will willingly suspend disbelief.

Sci-Fi worlds in films like Star Trek, Pacific Rim and Looper are carefully set up by the writer so we are not surprised by the actions of the characters that inhabit them – as long as they are made within the confines of that story world. The writers are honest with their worlds and characters so we have no problem believing them.

If Superman solved his latest dilemma by suddenly travelling through time when this had not been previously set-up through his character development or the world building around him, it is unlikely we would buy it as an honest solution. But if the writer knows his character and goes into that situation understanding what Superman can and would do, we get an honest, acceptable and believable outcome that doesn’t take us out of the story – regardless of how outlandish or fanciful that action might be.

So, in short, build convincing worlds and understand your characters inside out. That way, when your character faces a decision, you know exactly what they would and could do in that situation and will be able to give the audience an honest, credible reaction that they will accept without question regardless of how outlandish it might be in the “real world”.

More proof that stories are characters driven.

How do you get to know your characters?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #16 – Raise the Stakes!

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

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