Listening to the StoryMasters chat about the writing craft was an amazing experience. James Scott Bell, Christopher Vogler and Donald Maas shared their insights and experiences with writing screenplays and novels.
Here are my recollections of James’ presentation:
…He’s about money and power. Wanted to learn what it is that makes good fiction. Nuts and bolts techniques. Likes to make rules. He wants us to have ‘that edge’. There is a lot of competent, pretty good writing being done but…
Marian Lizzi, Penguin Editor – As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago…the most essential to avoid is the submission that is ‘skillful, competent, literate and ultimately forgettable’.
“The challenge is to write seductive believability” – Stephen J. Cannell
Writing your Novel from the Middle – James Scott Bell (A new approach …)
Midpoint – what is the scene supposed to do? It divides the story in half, but why?
“A look in the mirror” What was happening as a moment within the scene where the character literally looks in the mirror at herself – can m=be metaphorical – they are confronted with who they are – REALLY WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT – what’s happening inside that character at that mirror moment
Look in the mirror
Casablanca – Morocco, WWII – controlled by Vichy French. Moment when Rick says to Ilsa – ‘tinny piano’, ‘were there others’
The Fugitive – (Harrison Ford) when he thought the SWAT team was after him instead of the drug dealer in the same house – how can he survive? The rest of the movie is about how he manages to survive.
Lethal Weapon – Danny Glover, Mel Gibson. Murtagh just wants to survive another week until he can retire. Riggs has nothing to lose – his beloved wife has been killed and he’s suicidal. About the reclamation of Riggs’ humanity – he opened up about the long shot he took as a sniper – the only thing he was ever good at – his humanity breaks through a little bit…
Gone with the Wind – “…as from another world she remembered a conversation with her father…”…”she would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it.”
Hunger Games – about her surviving death. “I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking….This is an okay place to die, I think.”
Lee Child (a well known non-planner – a story genius) – he doesn’t want his books to be different – he wants to provide the same experience for his readers
Inner journey = Transformed + Stronger
This is what your story is really about. When you know that, it illuminates the CHARACTER PSYCHOLOGY.
When you coalesce around the mirror moment, you can figure out the state of your character before the story begins – clarify what kind of character you are writing about
What is the character’s moral flaw to be overcome? SOMETHING IN THEM THAT NOT ONLY NEGATIVELY AFFECTS THEM BUT OTHER PEOPLE. Will she continue the way she was or change?
Not every character has a moral flaw to overcome (e.g. Richard Kimble in the Fugitive). HE doesn’t have to become a new person, but a STRONGER person
Sometimes the best mirror moment happens when another character CONFRONTS the protagonist – As Good as it Gets – when Greg Kinnear confronts Jack Nicholson – “you’re an absolute whore of a human being”.
Does your character have a moral flaw? What must she do to grow out of that flaw? How will the story force her to change OR receive what’s coming to her?
Is your character ordinary? What terrible circumstances will pour out against him that force him to grow stronger?
Great Short Story – about one shattering moment that disrupts their perception of things. A slice of a character’s life. Can happen before or after. Hemingway – Hills Like White Elephants.
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Can go from positive to negative or the other way around.
- In your story, you need to have at the end a scene that PROVES the transformation – we have to see what has become of the character.
When you have a resonant ending, it knocks the readers out. When you can involve a symbol that represents the character, that can be very powerful. (Riggs hands over the bullet)
What symbol can I use for Kenora? She’s in a room alone and looks into a mirror – what is she thinking? * You don’t have to use it in your work but it’s important to have the answers!
She squinted in the cold LED glare of the track lights over the mirror. Her tan was fading and the healing scar on her forehead looked like someone had scribbled with a messy eyebrow pencil.
“Why do I keep trying so hard? I only ever wanted to be good but I keep messing up.”
She swiped the back of her hand across her eyes.” Dad lied. About my mother. About who I am. What’s wrong with me that the people I love end up betraying me?”
- What kind of character transformation could this lead to?
- Movie – Now, Voyager – Betty Davis.Transformational Journey – when characters need to take steps to change – there has to be a reason. Use an item to symbolize the change.
- Death can be psychological, e.g., how can I overcome….
For Kenora – she moves from someone who always tried to do what others expected to a woman who is strong enough and wise enough to be independent
PLOT – a great story where the character fights with death
- Physical – someone is trying to kill the protagonist (Fugitive) – has to prove innocence
- Professional – the vocation of the character or the role they play in life is in danger, e.g., Silence of the Lambs – serial killer is the sub-plot. Clarice wants to overcome her low-rent background to rise and become part of the FBIs elite behavioural unit – she becomes the one person Lector will talk to and try to solve the crime. If she fails, the killer wil strike again and her career will be over.
- Psychological – it is the inner life or humanity of the character that is being tested. If they do not survive, they will not be whole, e.g., if the two lovers do not get together, they will never be fully realized as whole.
- One of these aspects will be primary. Harry Bosch wants to bring justice but the search for the killer always affects him psychologically. Also the key to comedy, but the issue is always trivial that is made into something important.Michael Connelly – Lost Light. “But it was her hands that I would remember the most. “Somehow when her lifeless body was dropped to the tile, her hands fell together. Off to the lest side….Believe me, you need something to Cary with you every time you go into a fight. Something to hold on to, an edge that drives you or pulls you…”
- The power of the psychological impact is what draws the reader in and makes the keep reading…
The Closer – …” the church of the blue religion.”
The fundamentals of Plot – if you can nail these, you will always have a novel that works.
LEAD – a character that readers bond with
- No wimps allowed – can’t be reacting all the time.
- Overcomes through strength of will – stands up to someone. Virtually always emotional. Push comes from an emotional connection.
- Plot arc – outer=obtaining. Inner=becoming – transformed, stronger
Three types of leads
- Positive lead – hero
- represents the values of the community. Fighting battles on their behalf. On the right side of things. Withstands adversity.
- Negative lead – opposed to values of the community
- Is often attractive through power
- Must have a glimpse they are redeemable
- Anti-hero – has their own moral code (two kinds – one who stays and one who goes)
- Stands up to authority
- Not willing to conform (Dirty Harry – alienated from the cop community rules)
How to bond reader and character?
What has worked before and what might work for me?
- Reader sympathizes ties the character
- Start with the protagonist in trouble in chapter 1 – reader things, I’ll give them some slack and see what they do
- Hardship – not because of their own stupidity (e.g., Forrest Gump meets his challenges with grace and humour)
- Underdog – e.g., Rocky, Rudy
- Care package – they are doing something for someone else, even if they don’t want to
- Pet the dog moment – in the middle of Act II confrontation when the trouble is mounting against the lead character and they take a moment to care about someone weaker than them, even if it means more trouble or the bad guy may get away (Mad Men – elevator scene where he tells the guy in the elevator to take off his hat)
- Determination to keep overcoming obstacles
- Competence – we like to see characters who are good at something. We want to see them be successful at some type of work – make it interesting, something you don’t see a lot of
- Wit – have the characters be interesting, Interact with an obnoxious person or an animal – Jack Nicholson with the peeing dog in as good as it gets – can be a humanizing factor
Empathy (we can relate) – she is doing something and we can understand why
When you bring originality and feelings to these moments, it works every time.
Objective – what the character needs (something to overcome).
- To get something – an answer, a killer, a loved one, revenge, etc.
- It could be to get away from something – escape plot.
KENORA – trying to get away from the past, fulfilling her destiny
Confrontation – “a plot is two dogs and one bone” – Robert Newton Peck
The Opposition Character
- Stronger than the lead/often as interesting
- forces or a team stronger than the lead character – we want to worry about the character and see them overcome and fight through – vicarious experience REDEMPTION OR JUSTICE
- Three Dimensional – what is the mirror moment for them – why are they as they are?
- Feel justified in what they are doing – often powerful and charming (James Mason in North by Northwest)
- Sympathetic – at least to the writer (Frankenstein’s monster, Wolfman)
No evil character wakes up in the morning thinking what fresh evil they can do. Imagine your antagonist is put on trial for what they are doing in the book – imagine them standing in front of a jury trying to convince the jury in the strongest possible terms – this is why I am justified in what I am doing.
- Creates cross-currents of emotion in the reader – they can understand. Deepens the experience – adds layers of tone.
Dean Koontz – the best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well
Knock Out Ending
Mickey Spillane – Mike Hammer
“Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.” Mickey Spillane.
When you leave your readers saying ‘ah’ as they finish your book, you are building a strong audience.
- Outside – Will the character defeat the opponent? Will he find the courage to fight?
- Inside – will the character make the right choice? Will she find the courage to sacrifice?
“Your best promotion is within the covers of the last book.: Donald Maas
Mythic tropes are hard-wired into us – Greek drama – Alcestis the Queen offers herself as a sacrifice for the great good of the community (Euripides). Hercules battles death and brings her back to the King – she is white and ghostly for 3 days – a resurrection trope? For the hero to overcome death, it has to cost them a wound – the ultimate is a sacrifice. What does the hero want most? After a transformation, gaining that objective would be at a tremendous moral cost.
Structure = Translation software for your imagination
A natural relationship between life an a three act play and other meaningful life events.
Birth, youth/adulthood/old age
Wake up/spend your day/go to bed
Act 1 – 30 minutes
Act 2 – 60 minutes
Act 3 – 30 minutes
In a novel – 20% of the way through.
Main beats – begin with an opening disturbance to the Ordinary World – doesn’t have to be big but it’s something that is out of the ordinary that portends something is changing – gets the reader interested.
Opening line – opening paragraph – at least on the opening page
Character has to move through “doorway of no return” – hooks the story and moves it in a new direction. Has to be organically related to the story. Something that pushes the character from Act I and ordinary world into Act II. The door slams and they can’t go back
Act III second door – the character moves through another door To the conclusion
Disturbance – Out of the Ordinary
“Your novel begins when you light the match, not when you lay down the wood.” In Wizard of Oz, the scene opens with her running down the road, looking over her shoulder. In Star Wars – it is the hologram asking ObiWan for help. Civil War turns Scarlett’s world upside down – can’t recreate Tara the way it was.
Doorway of No Return #1
- Turns the protagonist’s world upside down, e.g., when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the Stormtroopers
- Call to adventure
- Gains reader interest, starts the bonding process
What binds the protagonist and antagonist together? Reasons to kill the good guy – she’s a threat to his existence
Moral or professional duty – Kimble can’t walk away because he’s the good guy. Tommy Lee Jones has a professional reason to catch the fugitive.
THE SHADOW STORY – whatever is happening on the page in front of you – there is life outside that scene, other characters who are having life happen at that same moment. If you can develop that in your imagination, while brainstorming, etc. – what is the best move that all your main characters can make at that time? The bad guy will be planning something – the more detail you bring to that knowledge gives you more plot material.
Scrivener – uses Document Notes relating to the scene you’re working on. Add ideas, plot points, twists.
Doorway of no Return #2
Something has to happen to get us to the turning point before Act III – what?
- Discovery that changes perspective
By fighting through that, we get to the resolution. A clue that leads to the person behind it all – SOMETHING ABOUT MITCH – IS IT WHEN SHE BRACES PERRY THEN SPEAKS TO THE GIRLFRIEND???
1st beat – care package (shows their fundamental decency even when they face risk)
2nd beat – pet the dog (in the middle of the crisis, the character helps someone who needs help)
3rd beat – Transformation
14 Signpost Scenes
Review: Super Structure by James Scott Bell
James Scott Bell is a popular and successful author, with many novels under his belt. When he has something to say about writing, I’m generally going to listen. I recently purchased his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story by Mr. Bell and have been reading it over the last few days. This review will share what I learned from the book as well as my comments about the book itself. It’s important to note that there is much more in the book than I’m sharing here.
There are plenty of people out there, as Bell notes in his introduction, who view any mention of structure as though it implies a kind of “cheating” or “cookie cutter” approach. I disagree. A story structure like Bell proposes in this book could be misused and treated as a rigid template to which you positively must adhere. If that’s how you view it, you’re doing it wrong. A structure is nothing more than a recommendation that says “Successful stories tend to do these things in approximately this way. Consider doing these things, but ultimately do what serves your story best.”
Bell proposes a three-act structure with 14 different “signposts” that your story may pass on the way to its end. The most critical of these are:
- Act I
- Doorway of No Return #1
- Act II
- Mirror Moment
- Doorway of No Return #2
- Act III
- Final Battle
You can produce a good story with just that minimal amount of structure. To take the story to the next level, you’ll want to look at the full set of signposts:
- The Disturbance: (This usually happens early in Act I.) A change in how things are that affects the Lead character. It may be something that’s missing from the character’s life, a conflict that didn’t exist before, some kind of trouble that’s coming the Lead’s way, etc. It shakes up the status quo for the Lead.
- The Care Package: This is a relationship the Lead has with someone else, which causes the lead to show concern (through word or deed) for that person’s well-being.
- The Argument Against Transformation: This is when the Lead sees that some kind of a change is needed (e.g., quit her job) but refuses to make it.
- Trouble is Brewing: This is like a foreshadowing, or a hint of the trouble to come. It reminds the reader that something bigger and worse is headed the Lead’s way. It often comes from something the “villain” is doing (even if the villain’s not in the scene in question).
- Doorway of No Return #1: This forces the Lead to confront physical, psychological, or professional “death” of some kind. Once the Lead does something here, he or she can’t go back to the way things were before. The door slams shut.
- Kick in the Shins: (This and the following typically occur in Act II.) After the Lead passes through the Doorway of No Return #1, the character must face a real obstacle. This obstacle should leave the reader feeling that things are getting worse for the character, and that even worse things may be on the horizon.
- The Mirror Moment: There are two kinds of these. The first is the Lead wondering “What have I become? What do I have to do to change?” The second kind is the Lead thinking “I can’t possibly win. I’m going to die.” This moment tells you the core of your story.
- Pet the Dog: In the middle of trouble, the Lead takes time out to help someone or something weaker. This moment shows that the lead has a heart and listens to it. Ideally, taking this moment exposes the Lead to more danger or handicaps the Lead in some way.
- Doorway of No Return #2: The Lead passes through another metaphorical doorway that makes the final battle inevitable. This is a major crisis or setback for the Lead. It may lead to some kind of discovery or clue that’s useful later. If so, the Lead should get this information if they’ve done something to obtain it.
- Mounting Forces: (This tends to happen at the start of Act III.) The villain sees the final battle coming and begins gathering resources and strength to fight it. This should make the situation look worse for the Lead.
- Lights Out: At this point, all seems lost for the Lead. The Lead believes that winning is probably impossible.
- The Q Factor: Named after the James Bond character, this is when something setup in Act I comes back to help the character out (like the gadgets Q gave Bond before he left on the mission). It might be an inspiration (“you can do it”), an instruction given earlier (“remember that his vision is weaker on the left”), or something the Lead has that has been forgotten. When the character has to make that leap – the emotional push – could be an object like the camellias, ObiWan’s voice saying ‘remember the Force’. Set up emotional connection in the first act to pay off here.
- Final Battle: This may occur within the Lead’s mind and heart, outside (a fight or physical struggle), or both. It’s what the story has been leading up to. If the Mirror Moment is a “What do I have to do?” type, the Final Battle is the Lead actually doing that thing. If the Mirror Moment is a “I can’t win” type, the Final Battle is probably physical.
- Transformation: Here we see that the Lead has changed or grown stronger as a result of the events of the novel, and is no longer the same person.
Bell provides much more detail about these signpost events, including examples from popular books and movies, in the book. I’m not going to do that here. The examples he provides are detailed enough that you can use them without being familiar with the works involved, although there is a very good chance you’ll be familiar with some of them (if not all). Bell also explains for each signpost above why it works, how plotters and pantsers can use the signpost, and ways to brainstorm ideas for these.
Apart from the structure advice, the biggest take-away for me from the book was Bell’s suggestion that you will want to brainstorm lists of possibilities for many of the signposts above. Often, the ideas that pop into our head first are the least original and most cliched. The more ideas we come up with, the more likely we’ll hit on something original that really helps the story. For example, you might brainstorm all the possible Q Factors that might help the Lead out during the Lights Out moment. The more you come up with, the more likely you’ll hit on something that surprises the reader. You’ll also want to brainstorm possible opening lines and possible ending scenes for the same reason.
- EARLY IN ACT I, KENORA SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT HERSELF THAT WILL BE DIFFERENT THAN WHAT SHE KNOWS AT THE END
Is there something that causes a secondary character to change?
The Q Factor – that emotional push that helps the character make the right choice (could be the talisman – the thing that enables the hero to move on;; could be that the use of the talisman comes with great cost)
An emotional jolt – based on an Act I setup – paying off before the final battle.
# relates to theme. When you master the game, you will be able to assemble your tools, apply your talent and engage your readers – FIRST must be fundamentally sound and know what you’re doing !
Clayton Meeker Hamilton – Project Gutenberg
They have to jump off the page:
- Unpredictable (create happy surprises – totally surprises the reader) Add a scene that is unexpected – how can they behave?
- Burning – what do they dream of that consumes them? Turn yearning- something from the past that haunts them in the present (the ghost) into motivation
- Wounded – something hidden in the past that affects current behaviour
- Complex – what are the reasons the character acts in a certain way; list why the character should not do that – what argument is she having with herself – makes them infinitely more interesting.
- Resourceful – forced to do something based on the skill set they have (McGyver) Could be something surprising
- Gutsy – has tools, can’t use them but doesn’t give up
- Noble – elevates the story because we, as a community seeking to survive in this dark world, honour noble deeds – they are what save us. Taking the case no one lose wants, standing up to the villain…
Vogler’s Rule: if one of more organs of your body are not secreting fluids, the story is no good.
Inner conflict – ‘I don’t care’ BUT analyzes what is going on that is not ordinary or expected to determine what is real and what is contrived.
Bell’s Corollary to Vogler’s Rule – you must have a fluid fight inside your character (something in them – a sense of justice that leads a character to the ‘right thing to do.
Get deeper into your character:
- THE CLOSET SEARCH – imagine there’s something in your character’s closet that she does not want anyone else to see. WHAT IS IT?
- THROWING THE CHAIR – she’s sitting in a room with a nice bay window when she throws thee chair through the window. What would make her do that? When you find out, use that.
- BEST DAY, WORST DAY – what would your character say?
- TATTOO ON THE ARM – what would Kenora tattoo on her forearm for the world to see (Instead of where it is now, have it under her watch band) Something in Latin?
Know that about your characters:
Jail time – imagine Kenora is sentenced unjustly to a long term in jail
What would she think about
What childhood memory would she reflect on?
- What does he yearn for
- Why doe she think he deserves it
- Closing argument
Hitchcock – a great story is life, with the dull parts cut out
- No conflict
- No internal pressure
- Happy people in happy land
FEAR – a continuum of emotion
- Worry – a low grade fear — could be outright terror or anything along that line. Raises the stakes of that scene – readers feel it an are interested.
- Can break down in two ways – fear of the unknown; fear of the known
What are her fears? Being found out – Cinderella syndrome. Fear of failure. Fear of disappointing….
You can play with structure, but there are basics that have been proven to work
Objective: Does your POV character have something to overcome – last chance/death struggle if they don’t succeed. What do they want to achieve?
Obstacles – confrontation element (not Happy People in Happy Land). Stuff has to happen.
Outcome – Bad news! in general the scene will end in a bad way for the character or end in a good way. If they get their objective, it has to lead to something else that causes more problems. Good news….BUT>>> more trouble
- Can’t just keep layering on the challenges – they have to make sense
S.U.E.S – something unexpected in every scene
By adding layers you get into character-driven fiction. If pace is too fast the reader will not get to know how the character is being affected – can’t have continuous fast action.
Almost like slow motion – stop and focus in –
- what is the character thinking?
- Backflash – a short remembrance of something from the past, something that happened before. Can be reference to something that happened already, a brief glimpse of backstory that will bee explained at greater length later – helps to take the moment being experienced and adding fullness to it
- Flashback is a full scene from the past
- WHEN YOU’RE CONSIDERING THE NEXT SCENE – what is the best move for them to make? What might be an obstacle? Is the outcome good or bad? Setbacks? What is the character’s reaction to what just happened?
- Makes the next scene organic – it will relate to what’s happened in the story
How to Write Dialogue
Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript.
Definition – a compression and extension of action. It’s physical – what are they saying? Why? Using dialogue to get their way. Can be a preventive measure – everything is said for a purpose
- It has an agenda – you’re cleverly feeding the reader information (AYKB)
- It flows from scene to scene – has to be organic
- Conflict (two overtly opposed agendas); Tension (something impeding the natural flow of communication between characters – can be fear. Eating scenes – see Kill Zone blog. Food can be a matter of tension. Server can be an interruption. [how to show an interruption – put an EMPHASIS dash in the middle of the dialogue.
- Just right in tone for the character – don’t try to make it do more than the scene demands unless that’s how the dialogue suits the character
- Vocabulary – is it natural or are they pretending, putting on ‘airs’?
Expressions – how does a particular group use – lawyers, police, etc. Use specific languages
Syntax – if English is not their first language, the arrangement of words can show
- Compressed – good to have dialogue tight, unless there is a reason for someone to speak in a lot of words
- Sub-text – when the dialogue contains things that relate top something below the surface
Why does protagonist resist changing?
Minor characters can add spice to scenes – they are unpredictable
Iceberg: the scene itself
Character web – relationships we don’t know about yet. What form the past ties them together.
TOOLS FOR TALK
Orchestration – creating a cast of characters that has the potential to be in conflict with one another. Distinct, quirky and unique character sets that allow them to be in conflict at any time with another character [The Office] Let the characters and the situation carry the dialogue as it’s should be
Transactional analysis – we tend to play roles with each other and tend to repeat scripts: parent (seat of authority, boss, punisher, imposes his will); child (most emotional, least rational, will use tantrums to get their way), adult (balance or rational and objective). Great way to start aa scene is to think about the ROLE they inhabit in each scene/what role do they THINK they have. Change up the roles, do reversals – look for interesting possibilities
Change the dynamics of a scene by having characters change tactics. Have the use different language for conflicts.
Curve the language – sometimes you’ll write a line that’s flat but you want it to stand out. Give it a twist. When you write dialogue, let it flow the first time around – it’s easy to write if you let your characters improvise when you draft. Be economical – cut out extraneous words – makes it crisp, move faster.
THE SINGLE GREATEST SECRET FOR WRITING UNFORGETTABLE FICTION—JOY
– how to plan a scene and carry it off
– use character flaws to build interest
Apply your tools and carry it off