One of the things most important to me is the integration of art
and life. After all, if you succeed, but don't get to enjoy
your success, or destroy your health or family in the process,
where is the sense in that?
This is especially important to the writer or actress. As you
create characters, you must always be aware of the prices that
people pay to achieve their goals, the lies they sustain to keep
relationships together, the combination of joy and desperation which
flows beneath the surface of even the most confident-appearing
individuals. And where else are you to gain such knowledge except in
Life lived as a tapestry
To promote self-awareness, I suggest that you view life as a
tapestry, weaving together your work and your life into a seamless
whole. After all--if your work doesn't reflect your life
philosophies, it is a hollow, shallow thing, void of the only thing
you truly have to offer the world--yourself.
Scott McCloud in his superb book UNDERSTANDING COMICS follows the
development of a creative project through six stages (or describes
how one may be dissected or defined):
Idea/Purpose is the deepest, most central
level of the pearl. This is the core philosophy, and only by a
daily, direct inquiry with your own inwardness, a daily interaction
with others, and a daily attempt to answer the one unanswerable
question in the universe: "Who Am I?" will you clarify your own
values sufficiently to ever have anything of substance or value to
give to the world.
Left and Right brained writing
It is important to have both mind and heart engaged with your
writing process. The intellectual approach to plotting or analysis
will help you when things are going badly, or when you are beginning
your path. But the realm of the intellect operates to enable the
heart to soar. To put it another way--good writing should be like
flying, soaring above it all. That is--when it's going perfectly.
But the engine often sputters, and then we had better the hell know
how to touch the plane down, open the engine, and fix whatever is
Far too many writers simply crash and burn, because they don't
have a clear notion of both aspects. Left-brained writing is like
building a cathedral. Right-brained writing is like giving birth to
a beautiful baby. One is technical, one is organic. The two
approaches must be combined to create the deepest synergy. Artists
who have only one or the other approach are limiting their chances
Together, they let you fly.
Why do people read?
Barnes' theory of storytelling is that people read fiction, or
watch films, to adjust their emotional tension levels up, down or
sideways. To that end, they will gravitate toward fiction which
relaxes, excites, horrifies, sensualizes--or whatever else they
need. This is just a theory, but at least I have one. What's yours?
Find it, and explore it in your work and life.
My theory demands that a story contain a certain amount of
emotional charge. The nature of that charge is less important than
its quantity--that is, in terms of a work's public acceptance. Your
personal philosophy might well demand that that charge be one of
love, or anger, or fear, or courage. That is your choice. No piece
of work will appeal to everyone, everywhere, all the time. But if
there is honest emotion clearly expressed, your chance to find an
audience is greatly improved.
Why do people write?
I think that in general, people write to complete a communication
loop which was or is incomplete in some other aspect of their lives.
In other words, if they had been able to simply talk it out, they
would have. This doesn't imply a dysfunction at all, perhaps merely
a mismatch between desire to communicate and environmental
receptivity to same.
It is important to honor the part of you that originally sought
to speak up. It may be nine or ten years old, or thirteen, or older,
or younger. It is valuable to make contact with this youngster, and
find out what he/she may have to say which has, as yet, been
Hooking your reader
Hooking your reader/viewer is a fairly simple process--you
introduce a character, create empathy, and then give that character
a problem. How to create empathy? By showing how the character
is similar to the viewer/reader, or to people the viewer/reader
knows, knows of, or would like to know. More on this next week.
You can even create a prospective problem or situation without
really introducing a character. For instance, in the opening
scene of OUTBREAK, no one has really been introduced, but everyone
in the audience thought, simultaneously, "Oh, God, somebody
is in deep trouble!"
Over and Under-structure
The "Overstructure" of a story is the external event
sequence. The "Understructure" consists of the interconnected
emotions which motivate the human beings to move through your
fictional landscape. Some movies ("Ordinary People") are almost
all understructure. Few events, lots of feelings. Others ("Eraser")
are all event, and almost no emotion. One could call these two
distinctions Yang and Yin, or Male and Female, whatever you
like--I'm not into political correctness. I do, however, note
that an overdose of either isn't a pretty sight. The best films,
books, and people are a mixture of both polarities.
Where do you start?
You start with the minimum amount of scene necessary
to allow your viewer/reader to enter the story world. With a
detective story it can be very brief (an explosion of gunfire
in an alley). With a love story, chances are that you want to
take time to build up the characters before you intersect them.
But it is also possible to start in the middle, or at the end and
work your way backwards. These are more advanced techniques,
however. I suggest you simply start at the beginning, establish your
characters, and then get them into trouble.
Scene and sequel
These are the names of two different kinds of scenes,
or different beats within the same scene. "Scene" means ACTION,
and "Sequel" means REACTION. The following concepts are extracted
from Dwight Swain's wonderful book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING
WRITER. Read it!
- Establish location, circumstance, time and viewpoint at the
beginning of every scene
- Demonstrate that your character has a goal
- Build to a curtain line
In other words, scenes are where
things happen, and "Sequels" are where people react to what has
happened, take a breath, and start over again. They are used to
collapse time, and create a sense of reality. What do I mean by
that? If you write scene after scene after scene of action, the
audience grows numb, and finally could care less, sitting back in
their seats and saying: "Gee, look at the neat special effects."
Excitement in a film is created by building up empathy and potential
audience response during the "Sequel" stage, the relaxed stage.
- To translate disaster into goal
- To telescope reality (writing in summary)
- To control tempo
Telescoping of time is of no small importance. Note this example
from STAR WARS:
Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and the gang evade Imperial attack ships
as they leave Tattoine, an exciting SCENE.
The next time we see them, they are more laid back--playing
chess, practicing with light-sabers, etc. Eventually, they reach
their destination--a planet which has been shattered by nasty old
Grand Moff Tarkin (bet you thought Darth Vader did that evil deed,
didn't you? Nope. As we know by the last film, old Darth was really
a pussycat. But I digress.). Anyway, does anyone know how much time
has passed between the escape from Tattoine and the arrival at
Alderan? Who knows? Who cares? Clearly not the audience, who rarely
notice that Luke seems to have traveled hundreds of light-years and
crammed in months of training without ever changing his socks.
The unity of SCENE and SEQUEL is called a "Motivation-Reaction
Unit", and it is an absolutely invaluable tool for the writer.
Here is how you construct one:
- Choose the effect you want the particular stimulus to have, in
terms of motivating your focal character to desired reaction and,
at the same time, guiding your reader to feel with him.
- You pick some external phenomenon--thing, person, event--that
you think will create this effect.
- You frame this stimulus so as to pinpoint the precise detail
that highlights the point you seek to make.
- You exclude whatever is extraneous or confusing.
- You heighten the effect by describing or displaying the
stimulus in terms that reflect your focal character's attitude.
You must have goals in your life, which reflect all three major
areas: Body, Mind, and Spirit. Without goals in all three areas, you
will remain blind to the hidden destroyers sabotaging your
Can't think of a goal? Then your first goal is to find a goal.
Goals must be SMART, that is:
- Meaningful to you
- As-if now (I am a successful
writer, I have an Emmy on my mantle)
- Realistic (anything anyone else has
accomplished is POSSIBLE for you, if not probable within a given
time frame. There are no unrealistic goals--just unrealistic time
limits for their accomplishment.)
- Time-bound. By when will you
accomplish these things? It is ENTIRELY reasonable to anticipate
increasing your performance by 50% a year, if you are committed to
working smarter, and not harder.
What are your character's goals? Hint: if your character's goals
dovetail with your own in some way, your emotional connection to her
will be stronger. Goals generally exist in one of seven areas:
Survival, Sex, Physical performance, Emotion, Self-Expression,
Intellectua growth, Spiritual growth. Where is your character's
goal? And how have you experienced this same urge?
You have a character with a GOAL. That goal is
almost always one of three things:
The attempt to reach the goal
leads them to a CONFLICT (Opposition)
- Possession of something
- Relief from something
- Revenge for something
Attempt to resolve the conflict leads them to a DISASTER (the
Hook). This should be the first time that the viewer's pops his/her
head up and says: "Hmmm. This is gonna get interesting!"
The character has a REACTION: (fear, anger, grief, joy,
The emotions place them on the horns of a DILEMMA (survival
versus patriotism is one used in almost all war movies). Resolution
of the dilemma leads them to making a new DECISION. Which leads them
to a new GOAL, and starts the cycle over again.
Very simple. If the movie had been executed with the usual "B"
special effects, direction and acting, JURASSIC would have been an
utterly forgettable film. However, give it the best dinosaur effects
ever ever ever, and you suddenly, and not unreasonably, have the top
box office film of all time.
It is probably easier to understand the process of structure by
analyzing Jurassic Park than something like CHINATOWN, after all.
While in your learning phase, remember to K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple,
Also: Look into the structure of the film, and answer the