Blog Archives

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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Show, don’t tell!


A common “rule” in screenwriting that most of us have heard, usually when starting out is, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s an attempt to steer us away from lengthy exposition scenes or having characters tell us, moment by moment what is going on. We are writing “moving pictures” so let’s stick to that and leave lengthy dialogue to the politicians.

However, as a “tool” it can be very useful and remind us to think carefully about the scenes, sequences and how our stories are structured. There are times when it is absolutely right that we show something visually, rather than have a character describe it. But, of course, like any other screenwriting rule, it is not always going to be the most appropriate way to write your scene. For every good example, there will be a bad example and for each of those good examples, I am sure you will be able to find another great example of a character “telling” the audience.

One of the examples explored in the Shorescripts link below is Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975). The speech is a long one, but a powerful one. The intensity and emotion of the experience is all there on screen as Robert Shaw recounts the events of the sinking and being hunted by sharks. It is a clear example of someone “telling” the audience and it works superbly. Would it have been better to “show” the audience? How would you do that? I’m not sure… a flashback? Possibly, but a flashback can be damaging to a film; a jarring interruption that takes you out of the flow of the scene. “Telling” worked in this case.

But “showing” can also work. You just have to get it right, just as with any screenwriting tool. Know when and how best to use it for the story you are telling at the time.

The reason I got to thinking about this was seeing the end of episode 1 of the new Westworld series.

Some spoilers coming up if you haven’t seen Episode 1 yet!

Towards the end of the episode there is a mass recall of “hosts” (the androids that populate the games in Westworld) because of a glitch relating to a recent update. Evan Rachel Wood’s Delores is one of those hosts and she is questioned by park staff to check her programming. During this process, Delores is asked whether she would “ever hurt a living thing.” In true Azimovian style, the hosts in Westworld are programmed not to hurt any of the guests and Delores answers unequivocally in the affirmative that, no, she would never hurt a living thing.

As the show ends, she walks out onto the veranda of her home, as she has every morning for however long she has been in her current role, past the host playing her father (newly changed from her previous glitching father), to look out over the prairie and absentmindedly swats a fly on her neck.

Boom!

Mind… blown.

How good was that?

Simple, subtle but brimming with power and coolly setting up the coming storm that we all know is coming.

Don’t get led blindly down the “Show, Don’t Tell” alley just because you think that is what you have to do. As with all our screenwriting tools, be aware of it, learn how to use it and chose your moments – and blow your audience’s mind.

 

Further Reading

Screenwriting Books (sort of) – Stephen King: On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft

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Amazon UK (as before, there are other sellers)

ISBN-10: 1444723251
ISBN-13: 978-144723250


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.”

On dedication:
…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.

On vocabulary:
…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.

On description:
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.

On ideas:
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.

On character:
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.

Character Change

Michael Corleone by cal.almonds, on Flickr
Michael Corleone” (CC BY 2.0) by  cal.almonds 


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:

(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?

What about:

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?

 

Further Reading:

 

 

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 #14 – Theme: The Heart of Your Story

Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

While Rule #3: Your theme will out was about finding your story theme and how, for some, knowing how your story ends helps you figure out your theme, Rule #14 is more about the importance of theme and how it informs the rest of your story, the characters and their actions.

Let’s forgot HOW you find your theme for now – you’ll figure out the best way for you to do that as you write, but think about why theme is important.

Theme is the central question posed by your story; its heart. It tells us what your story is all about, WHY you are telling this story. It can be anything you want, from a simple one-word theme such as “Family” or something more complex such as “There is nothing as important as family”. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the main theme can be seen as, “there is no place like home,” and Bladerunner has a theme concerned with what it means to be human, raising questions about existence.

Of course, there can be multiple themes, depending on your story. And your audience may even take away meanings that you didn’t realise were there yourself. I’m still convinced that a key theme in Looper was “motherhood” and what it means to be a mother but I’m not sure whether the writer started out with that in mind.

Your theme is then played out on the page and screen by your characters, their actions and dialogue. You want to populate your story world with characters that are invested, in some way, postive or negative, with the central theme. Their actions and words describe the theme while the theme may well dictate their arc. And, somewhere along the way, your central thematic will be answered by your characters.

Take Star Trek: Into Darkness. To me, the central theme was “friendship and loyalty” – which may be two, but I’m writing this post, so I get to take the odd liberty! And how is that shown through the actions of the characters?

Well, in no particular order:

  •         Kirk saves Spock
  •         Uhura is angry at Spock for his indifference
  •         Scotty is upset at being fired
  •         Admiral Pike looks out for Kirk (and has much respect for his father)
  •         Khan is determined to avenge his people
  •         Kirk’s reaction to Pike’s death – i.e. seeking revenge and justice for his friend
  •         Spock’s explanation for why he appears to not care about his life
  •         Kirk’s sacrifice
  •         Spock’s reaction to Kirk’s death
  •         Saving Kirk

And I am sure there are others, but the film constantly comes back to those themes of friendship and loyalty, ultimately showing us how they win out over evil – looking out for your friends and being loyal to them will help you come together to defeat superhuman clone warriors as well as mad Starfleet Admirals.

The difficulty in doing this is making it subtle. You don’t want characters just blatantly stating the theme over and over again. You do get times when characters can openly state theme (often in the earlier stages of the story) but you don’t want them doing it repeatedly – unless your protagonist is called Dorothy and is desperate to get back to Kansas.

If Kirk and Spock kept reminding us of the theme by telling each other what great friends they are, it would get a little dull. We need to see the theme emerge in the subtext, through reading between the lines of dialogue and seeing the theme in character actions. Subtext is those unspoken messages that we get from the action on screen… characters say one thing, but mean another.  Of course, subtext is probably one of the hardest things to get right and deserves a post all of its own. However, it is another skill that will get better the more you practice… so again, just get out there and write!

Ultimately you just need to be aware of your theme and understand the heart of your story, what it is actually about and what you are trying to tell your audience. And show that theme through your characters, their actions and dialogue. But do it with subtlety, so that the theme emerges naturally from the story, rather than forcing the story into your chosen theme.

How do you show your story’s heart?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #15 – Know your Characters

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

Pixar Rules of Story #13 – Passive is Poison

Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Rule #13 is a simple, but easily broken, rule that implores us not to write passive characters. While a passive character who has the world on her shoulders and just lets bad stuff happen may generate sympathy in an audience, that may not be enough to hold their interest. We have already seen in Rule #1: Characters you Admire, that an audience likes an active, “doing” character who faces challenges throughout their story and generates empathy and understanding.

Audiences want to see characters who hold opinions they can relate to and who are active in seeking their goals. Pro-actively facing choices and making decisions about obstacles that block the path to their goals, makes for a more interesting character and, hence, a more involving story.

It doesn’t matter whether they are even the right decisions – the protagonist (for example) will (should) be thwarted some times when making the wrong decision but that is okay – conflict creates drama and we want to see characters struggle because they have put themselves in danger, or turned the wrong corner! But we want to see them doing that, rather than having it done to them. Even characters in a film like CUBE who are passive at the start become progressively more active as they face up to their situation and search for a way out. They strike out, actively facing danger, which is much more exciting than if they just sat around waiting for something to happen.

As with any screenwriting “rule” we can break it once we are experts in order to to subvert expectations as there are always going to be exceptions to the rule. It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey could be argued to be a passive character for most of the story. But I, for one, am going to try and master the art of writing active characters before challenging Capra!

So, read Rule #13, then go away and develop characters who struggle towards a goal, who actively make choices within that struggle and have opinions about their predicament. Do that and you are most of the way towards developing a compelling story. However,develop characters with little direction, no challenge, who are just along for the ride and the audience will get bored.

Are you guilty of creating passive characters?

How do you ensure your characters aren’t passive?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #14 – Theme – The Heart of your Story

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 #2 – Know Your Audience

Keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

When we are writing movies, it is clear that we need to have an idea of the audience we are aiming for. Although we SHOULD be writing stuff that we enjoy writing, we also need to be writing stories that are interesting and enjoyable to audiences other than just ourselves.

With Rule#2, Stephan Bugaj takes a small step back and thinks about another audience for your spec script, not just the one enjoying the finished movie. Before we can wow the cinema audience, we need to impress the readers and industry professionals to whom we wish to sell our script.

This is where the advice about not (necessarily) doing what is fun as a writer comes into play. As writers we love words and the construction of prose. We love to write meandering, beautiful descriptions and deep and meaningful accounts of internal thoughts and emotions.

Great if you are writing a novel.

But movies are a visual medium and, as Stephan argues, we are writing the Blueprint for a finished film. He talks about the importance of writing in a filmic way to ensure the finished script provides a film-like experience. For example, using concise description, writing visually, using a filmic structure and avoiding “unfilmables” – those aspects of writing that just don’t translate to screen, such as internal thoughts and emotions.

(I’m going to come back to unfilmables in more detail soon)

This is possibly most relevant when you have Hollywood in mind and the idea of selling a script to one of the big studios. If you are writing a script that you are financing and filming yourself, you can write the script in any way you like. But if you are going for a commercial film sale, you might want to avoid writing in that “way writers enjoy” to ensure your screenplays are as filmic as they can be to give you the best shot at getting it made.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can never do any of those writerly things that we all love, but be cautious and be sparing in your use of ‘rule’ breaking… like all screenwriting ‘rules’ there is flexibility in when you chose to follow or ignore them. Ultimately “unfilmables”, in-depth description and other “writerly” things are like any screenwriting rules; okay in moderation, and knowing about them and when you can best use them, means you are perfectly placed to know how to employ them to your story’s advantage.

When writing your spec scripts, do you write for the “audience” who can influence your chances of a sale, or do you just write to please yourself?

Where do audience considerations come into your writing process (if at all)?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #3 – Your theme will out

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

And, if you missed it, check out Rule #1 – Characters you Admire

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

Pixar Rules of Story #1 – Characters you Admire

You admire a character for trying more than for their successes

Pixar’s first rule explores what it is about a character that makes us want to spend a couple of hours in their company; and it isn’t as simple as making them likeable. I “like” the lady who helps my kids cross the road to school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to spend the day with her. Blake Snyder talks about “Saving the Cat” – giving your characters (usually the protag) something to do that is positive, to illicit sympathy from the audience. You can do that, there is nothing wrong with it, but is “likeable” the same as “interesting” – does it make us “admire” those characters?

For me empathy is what this rule suggests we should be shooting for. Why should we want to spend time with these characters? Likeability only takes us so far – we need to empathise with the character and their plight. We need some sort of emotional connection with them and their situation – something that makes them interesting.

And that is where “trying” comes into it. A character doesn’t have to succeed to be interesting, but they have to try, and we want to watch them struggle and strive against something. We all struggle in everyday life to different degrees and for different reasons and this gives us the ability to be empathetic to characters we see on screen. When they struggle, we see ourselves and our own lives reflected in their struggle. We “understand” what they are going through. Depending on the character, we may even want them to succeed.

George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, is plenty likeable. However, if he had achieved everything he wanted without a struggle, one of the greatest films ever made would have been, quite possibly, one of the most boring. George fights throughout the movie to get away from Bedford Falls, to follow his dreams and escape. But he is thwarted at every turn and his struggle just gets harder and harder throughout the film to the point of ultimate despair; and we are right there with him. We know what he is going through and we understand his plight. When he is at his lowest ebb, we empathise completely with him, we share his frustration and despair vicariously. We fully understand why he might make that awful decision.

This doesn’t just have to work for the Protagonist either, it can apply to any character to a greater or lesser extent. Because we are talking about empathy and understanding we can find Nemesis or “evil” characters interesting because we can still find empathy in, and connection to, their struggle. We may not like them, but we can understand them.

General Zod in Man of Steel proves this point. He is a shouty, knee-jerk kind of soldier, but he is simply trying to save his planet and his people. He may do bad things but he is struggling against extinction. So, while we might not agree with his actions, we can understand them and empathise with his desire to survive. If there was nothing to empathise with, would we give a damn whether he succeeded or failed? Because he has a reason to act the way he does (rather than just because he is angry) we find ourselves interested – we have a stake in the story.

So ultimately, we are aiming NOT (necessarily) for likeable characters, but interesting characters that are going to be great to spend some time with.

Obviously there are always going to be exceptions to the rule, and Stephan discusses this further in his eBook. If you haven’t read it yet, have a look at Rule#1 and see what you make of the discussion and issues at hand.

How do you ensure your characters are interesting?

Who are the empathetic “evil” characters you love?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #2 – Know your Audience

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

Related Discussions

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

Starting Out

raise-child

My first post!

And what else to start with, but starting out?

So you want to be a writer, but what do you have to do to be a writer? What does it take to shake off the shackles of the day job and proudly announce that you are a writer?

When I was starting out and I first opened an account on Twitter, I did what many new writers do; claimed to be an aspiring writer. You might also have said you were a “writer learning their trade” or perhaps “…their craft”. You might even have said “trainee” screenwriter.

I was very quickly told, by more than one friend, that I should drop the “aspiring”. If I am writing, then I am a writer. You do not have to be successful or published or repped to be a writer, you just have to write. If we refer to ourselves as “trainee” or “aspiring” we are also putting ourselves down. Self-deprecation can be an appealing trait in certain circumstances but, if we are trying to build a career for ourselves, we want to convey as professional an outlook as we can.

You want to be a writer? Then just call yourself a writer.

And write.

Well, and maybe read a little too.

One of the first bits of learning I did as a writer came through the Go Into the Story blog and refers to four simple numbers:

1,2,7,14

which are simple instructions to:

  • Read 1 screenplay a week
  • Watch 2 Movies
  • Write 7 pages
  • Research for 14 hours

Now, I am not saying you have to do exactly that (and we will come back to screenwriting rules and writing time in later posts) but it is a great reminder of the very basics of what you need to do to be a writer.

Read scripts, watch films, write pages.

So don’t get hung up on qualifications or experience, knowledge of the movies, or understanding all the screenwriting rules, you can learn a lot of that stuff on the go. Just draw on your love of movies and get writing.

Do that and you are a writer!

Do you feel able to call yourself a writer?

What do you think makes you a writer?

Fiona Faith Ross

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