On my personal blog last week I wrote about the new Total Recall movie and a movie it borrowed heavily from for its look and feel: Blade Runner. By complete chance I happened to watch fifteen minutes or so of Blade Runner right after seeing the new Total Recall, and I had a lightbulb moment about storytelling. I want to dig into that a little more, so this is me thinking about it.
From my blog:
“The dialog in Total Recall is terrible. It’s on the nose, obvious, it telegraphs the plot (which it was most likely written to do) and states the obvious, but doesn’t sound like people actually talking. They’re just words to be gotten through until we get to the next car/helicopter/robot chase-fight.
Then we get to Blade Runner. I watched the scene after Deckard has given Rachel the V-K test. She leaves, and Tyrell is standing there, grinning, and Deckard says, (roughly) “She’s a replicant. She doesn’t know. How can she not know?” It’s a quiet scene of two people talking. Tyrell feeds Deckard information, until Deckard figures it out: “Memories, you’re talking about memories.” The whole thing is essentially an infodump, which you’re not supposed to do — deliver information to the audience in a chunk. Usually, this kind of thing is done poorly. But this is a great scene. So what’s the difference?
In the scene in Blade Runner, the conversation is the kind of thing that these people in this situation would actually say. Also, the scene involves more than just the words: Tyrell is showing off, playing with Deckard, and he’s absolutely gleeful at what he’s accomplished. Deckard has the look of a man who thought he’d seen it all get hit with that one more thing, who now knows that this sucky job is going to suck a lot worse than it did a minute ago. It’s not just an infodump, this is part of the story. The result is, I feel like I’m a fly on the wall. This thing is happening, and I just happen to be watching it.”
Writers often talk about a scene doing “more than one thing,” and that’s what that scene in Blade Runner does: it delivers information we need to understand the world and how replicants work, but it also reveals a lot of character: Deckard’s intelligence and cynicism, Tyrell’s hubris — both of which will impact the story later on. And it all feels so natural!
The same kind of good or bad writing happens in prose. Science fiction writers joke about “As you know, Bob. . ” dialog in which characters tell each other things they all already know, for the sake of delivering that information to the reader. When you’d probably be better off just giving that information in an expository lump. A paragraph of exposition doesn’t remind the reader that they’re reading an artificially constructed situation, and it doesn’t force characters to behave out of character. (The infodump-in-dialog scene in Blade Runner works precisely because Deckard doesn’t already know what Tyrell is telling him.)
So many little details contribute to this “fly on the wall” feeling I get from really good books and movies — or detract from it. I recently stopped reading a story in which many pieces of thought/dialog/action were unconsciously repeated. i.e. The viewpoint character expressed an emotion, then expressed the exact same emotion in a following line of dialog. Or said he was going to do something, and then repeated that intention to do something in the following exposition. It made the story seem long and tedious, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. We only need each piece of information once. I saw the scaffolding of the writing, rather than feeling the action/emotional impact of the story.
Back to quoting from my blog piece: “bad writing/storytelling. . . feels like: stock characters going through the motions, flat cutouts on a paper stage, and I never forget that I’m watching a stage, and actors on a stage, who are going through a checklist of scenes. Rather than watching people living their lives, already in progress. I think when people talk about stories “coming to life,” this is what they’re talking about. As an audience, of books or movies or anything, I’m reaching for that fly on the wall moment. I want to be there, not in the movie theater or in my chair reading a book.”
One of the big leaps in my writing ability happened when I could start seeing my stories from a reader’s perspective. I’m still constantly asking myself: what is a reader going to see in this? How are they going to experience this? Are they going to see the scaffolding that the story is built on, or are they going to be a fly on the wall?
I was on the ABC website, poking around for information about when the next new episode of Castle was going to air (must…have…Castle…fix…). The site for the show has a lot of cool extras, the coolest of which may be this: Castle’s Bucket List (opens as a PDF).
This is a list of 50 items, about 15 of which are crossed off. I got to thinking what a clever document this is. Not only is it an exercise in characterization, it tells stories. Some of the items we know about from the show, some we don’t but they’re so true to the character I believe them. Some items hint at stories that I can’t help but wonder about. #39, Visit every IKEA, is crossed off?!? Juggle chainsaws is crossed off? Castle can juggle chainsaws? This doesn’t surprise me, knowing Castle, but wow! Now, I doubt we’ll ever see Castle actually juggle chainsaws on the show, and that’s okay. It’s enough to believe the character has a life outside the show. The list is funny, revealing, and poignant: the last item, “Get married and make it last,” is not crossed off.
I love this, because it shows that even a simple piece of writing, like a list, can be a story, hinting at drama and conflict and possibly unreachable goals, leaving me, the reader, with a longing to know what’s going to happen to this character next. Great stuff.
Would you be able to make a bucket list for your characters? Would your character even be the kind of person to have a bucket list?
A story can’t just be about a cool idea. It has to be about the implications of the cool idea — what does it mean, who does it affect, and how? Many writers talk about how ideas are cheap — ideas are the easy part. (Though a talent for coming up with truly wacky, out-there ideas that no one has ever seen before is a treasure. A person with this talent must still find ways to express such ideas in a way that interests other people.) I think this is true. I have notebooks filled with ideas — scrawled notes, a paragraph or two of description, a character sketch that must have seemed marvelous when I wrote it down. But without a story to hang the idea on? It stays in the notebook.
How to do that? How to take that strange, funny idea, big or small — What if my dog could talk? What if everyone under the age of ten suddenly vanished? — and turn it into a story? Not just a story, but a story that other people want to read? (I’ve started telling myself that writing is easy. It’s writing things that other people want to read that’s the hard part. It’s the difference between being a hobbyist and being a professional. If I want to be a professional, I can’t forget about my audience.)
When I’m turning an idea into a story, I try to find the character: who would be most affected by this story? In the idea above — what if everyone under the age of ten vanished — the obvious choice is the mother of one of these vanished children. But what if I didn’t take the obvious route? What if I chose a father as my main character? Or the childless local police detective who’s set on the case? Oh, doesn’t that feel fraught? And that’s how the story grows. I start with a limitless number of paths leading away from the idea, and I travel down the one that rings a little crystal bell in my brain that says this is the one, this is the story I want to tell.
The story is about that childless police detective who suddenly finds herself living in a childless world. Of course she must discover what happened to the children, and as the writer I must make decisions about what happened to the children, how they return, or if they return. And there’s another crystal bell: maybe the children don’t return. The story takes place ten years later, and the mystery has never been solved. New children have been born, but there’s an entire generation — now aged ten to twenty — missing. Junior high and high schools lay silent. Colleges are faced with a decade of empty dorm rooms. What will Texas do without high school football? And so on. Maybe that’s the story: have people picked up and moved on? Is the detective still working on the case? How does she move through this world with no teenagers? Now my story isn’t about the idea, it’s about my character: what does she want? How does she grow and change? What conflict is she dealing with? How does that conflict resolve? Maybe she solves the mystery of the lost children — but it doesn’t resolve her personal conflicts the way she thought it would. Maybe she doesn’t solve the mystery, but finds an unexpected peace despite this. I’ll probably need another plot twist — someone from a federal agency she’s been working with or against, an external disaster that prompts my character to action.
At this point, I start to encounter what the story is really about: coping with loss, with an unsolved mystery, with survivor’s guilt, with failure. I need to start thinking of the scenes that will best show all this, and draw the reader into this rather horrifying world. Maybe the original story starts to change — maybe it’s only children five and younger who vanish. Maybe that would best illustrate the story I want to tell. Or maybe I should make it worse — children under fifteen. Maybe I need two main characters — one who lost a child and one who didn’t — to best illustrate themes I want to portray.
In the course of writing, I’ll circle back to the idea again and again. Both the story and the idea will evolve. By the time I’m done, the original idea that started the whole thing will most likely be invisible, because the heart of the story — my characters and how they deal with loss and a changed world — will be the real reason people want to read it.
Some of my favorite feedback from readers involves them telling me how much something in one of my stories upset them, or made them cry, or made them happy, or excited, or whatever. “Why did you kill so-and-so? I loved that character! You made me so sad!” I hear that and think, “Awesome! You were supposed to feel sad. That means I did my job and the story is a success!” If I kill a beloved character and you don’t feel sad, something has gone horribly wrong, don’t you think?
As I write, I’m constantly asking myself: What experience do I want my readers to have when they read this? Do I want readers to be pleased? Outraged? Frightened? Grossed out? Turned on? Joyous? Depressed? I have the ability to impact people with my words. I want them to be affected by my words — otherwise, what’s the point? If I expect people to enjoy and remember my work, my work must make them feel something.
Another way of putting it: When I’m evaluating something I’ve written, I asked myself, How are readers going to react to this? Is that the reaction I want them to have?
I don’t have a formal checklist, but everything that goes into a scene and a story should be designed to affect the reader’s experience. The vocabulary, the tone, the pacing, the characters’ behavior. When I write horror, I ramp up the tension. If I want the reader to be scared, I try to be as gross and shocking as I can. I want the reader to be afraid that I might actually kill important characters. In a romance, I need the reader to be worried that the two main characters won’t get together. This means I have to make sure the reader a) likes the two main characters and wants them to get together, b) the obstacles to the relationship are believable so that the reader is truly anxious. And so on.
It’s about the building blocks. You have to ask yourself, how am I going to sell this romance to the reader? How am I going to get the reader to cheer when the bad guy is defeated? If I want the reader to cry when something happens, how am I going to build to the scene to earn that sympathy? This is where studying other people’s writing can help. Think about books that have made you laugh, or cry, or made you experience some visceral emotional reaction. How can you replicate that in your own work?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White was the first book that ever made me cry, when I was about seven, and I’ll never forget it. The tragedy of the situation wasn’t just Charlotte’s death, but the entire weight of the friendship between her and Wilbur that had been building through the whole book. The story spent hundreds of pages earning my tears.
In writing, then, you have two things you have to figure out: What reaction do you want your readers to have, and then how do you honestly earn that reaction?
I loved the movie, and I’ve been loving hearing people talk about it. Everyone has a favorite moment or three, and what’s fascinating to me is that the favorite moments are almost all quiet character moments. Or a small action that reveals character. The film is chock full of them. When Dr. Erskine asks, “Do you want to kill Nazis?” and Steve says, “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies.” When Steve throws himself on the grenade at boot camp. When everyone keeps telling pre-super serum Steve that he can’t fight, he isn’t strong enough, and he’ll die if he goes to fight, and they’re full of pity and compassion. The trick with the flagpole. The conversation Erskine and Steve have the night before the procedure, when Erskine explains that he wanted a test subject who would understand the value of strength, and compassion (that’s my own personal favorite scene). Then that heartbreaking, terrible, poignant moment right before the credits roll. A single line of dialog, so full of emotion.
These are the moments people remember. These are what can make a story great. The whole movie could have been so cliché and ridiculous, but it was played with so much heart and honesty. They — the filmmakers, actors — kept it simple and to the point. Show the audience who Steve Rogers is, so they’ll cheer for the Captain later. We won’t remember the action sequences, we’ll remember the character. At least, that’s how it should be.
It’s making me think about my own work. What are the strong character moments? Are they the right ones? Are they memorable or redundant? Does the dialog pop as strongly as it could? Have I simplified? Am I showing the essence of the scene, or am I cluttering it up with extraneous details?
Another thing I loved about the movie: I thought I knew where the story would end. I knew the Captain America story enough to make a guess: he’d be found in the ice, frozen but alive. I thought we’d end there, roll credits. But the film went a scene further, to show Steve waking up in a fake hospital room. And again, there’s a character moment that shows us exactly who he is — he’s got brains, he’s going to use them, and he’s going to fight as hard as he has to to figure things out. I love that his super strength is a tool, and not his identity. Then we get the scene I didn’t know I wanted: Steve Rogers realizing he’s traveled 70 years into the future, and that his whole world has changed. It was gorgeous, and I wasn’t expecting it.
I keep playing the before and after of that moment out in my mind, and I think that’s the sign of a great scene. It’s so powerful and true to the story, it implies whole stretches of action around it. But I think the filmmakers showed us only exactly what we needed. They got in late and got out early, cut out everything that wasn’t necessary. So while I’m to the point where I could watch these characters eating pancakes and be happy just spending time with them, the film did the right thing — first by going a scene further than I expected, then getting out quickly.
So a couple of lessons here: show the scene that may be hard to pull off, that your audience isn’t expecting. But do it quickly, and don’t show any more than you need to.
This is a summary article I did for the Novelists Inc Newsletter after last Years conference. I’m reprinting it here because I was asked to do a post about Conflict, and this is better than me trying to explain it myself.
In order to write create great characters and write compelling stories, we need to understand the psychology of our characters. It’s easy to think Goal, Motivation, Conflict, but in reality we know that creating memorable characters is not so easy. With that in mind I stepped into the conference room at the Tradewinds Island Grand and prepared for Dr. D.P. Lyles workshop The Psychology of Character Motivation-Understanding the Whys of Character Thought, Action and Dialogue.
Admittedly, I was worried that taking a workshop from a Dr. on the psychology of character motivation might be a bit too, oh I don’t know… school-ish for me. You know what I mean? I’ve never been one to read textbooks and I don’t have much love for big ten-dollar words. I like it when things are explained to me in a simple straightforward way. Dr. Lyle did even better than that – he used examples that made things crystal clear.
I’m going to jump right in with the recap here and start with his slide show. It looked a little like this….
Tough Guy ——————————————————– Whiner
Team Guy ——————————————————– Rebel
Artist ——————————————————– Dreamer
Smarty ——————————————————– Dummy
Blooming Rose ——————————————————– Wallflower
Grinder ——————————————————– Lazy Dog
Goody ——————————————————– Baddy
Believer ——————————————————– Doubter
For the workshop he used the character and story line of Silence of the Lambs for an example.
First we went over each line asking which side of the board Hannibal was on at the start of the book. Then again at the end of the book. Then we did Clarice, start and end of the book. Sometimes the character fell in the middle, but often it was closer to one side than the other.
See an example of the Clarice chart below.
Tough Guy —————————————-S————— Whiner
Team Guy –S—————————————————– Rebel
Artist ———————————————–S——– Dreamer
Smarty —————————————————S—- Dummy
Blooming Rose —————————————————-S— Wallflower
Grinder ———————————————S———- Lazy Dog
Goody —S—————————————————- Baddy
Believer –S—————————————————– Doubter
Now keep in mind I can’t remember exactly where Dr. Lyle put them, so these are my remembered interpretation.
Basically, at the start of SOTL Clarice was a rookie FBI agent who followed all the rules, did her job, and didn’t think much for herself or stand out from the crowd in any real way. But as the story changed, so did she. She learned, and grew and changed until at the end of the story she ignored procedure, and her own safety by going into the basement after Buffalo Bill (bad guy serial killer) to rescue the girl. At the end, her chart was drastically different than it was at the beginning. Everything changed. Clarice, and her belief system, were changed forever by the choices she’d made during the story.
Hannibal, however, changed very little throughout the story. The one thing that did change was essential though. That change was that at the beginning of the story Hannibal was simply the bad guy. Sure the way he killed was disgusting, and what he did (eating the victims) was gross, and we all knew he was evil, but that was pretty much the same at the end of the story. The change in him was brought on by Clarice. The change was that he grew to admire and care about her, and that added dimension not only made him human, it made him even more terrifying.
What we need to learn from these examples is that characters are people. People we create who grow and change as the story moves forward. And change is essential. Our characters come from our imagination, we give them names, jobs, desires and foibles. They have good traits and bad, they are not flat, or one dimensional – at least we don’t want them to be! We want them to be three-dimensional. In order to accomplish that they have to grow and change, the same way we do.
“Let them live. Let them breathe,” Dr.Lyle says when talking about character. “Then pressure them into changing.”
Why should we pressure them into change? Because people don’t change unless they have to. Pressure makes things move and people change.
Not to mention pressure creates tension, and tension makes for great storytelling. So, how do we create this pressure?
Dr. Lyle’s answer is “No win creates pressure.”
This is where we get into what the conflict zone is. Dr. Lyle says that when in the zone “characters have to chose A or B, and that choice will change them forever.” We as the authors build tension and pressure by showing what the character wins and what they lose with choice A. Then show the same with choice B. and by doing that we show that there is a win for the character in both options, and a loss for the character in both options as well. This is what makes the choice so difficult, and builds the pressure. That pressure can be stretched over months, or flash in seconds.
Again, Dr. Lyle gives us an example of it broken down into something simple so we can grasp the concept, and adapt it to our own stories.
His example is that of a woman with three children, at home, and the house gets on fire. She manages to get two of her three children out of the house before it becomes clear that she might not succeed if she goes in after the third.
This becomes the conflict zone with choice A or B.
Go in after the third child
WIN if she saves the child
LOSE if they both die and the 2 outside are orphaned.
Stay with the 2 outside.
WIN, she still has 2 children, and they have a mother.
LOSE: she loses the third child.
Both choices have a win and a lose side to it. So which does she chose?
“We are all trapped by who we are,” says Dr.Lyle. Meaning this is the type of pressure and conflict that changes your character. No matter what choice she makes, she will never be the same person she was. These are the types of conflicts we need to think about. We need to understand who our characters at the core, not just on the surface, in order to put them under pressure and create the changes in them that come with great characters and major storytelling. Once you’ve put your character into the conflict zone, and you’ve made it clear what the win/lose options of both choices are, you need to decide what choice you can you use best in your story.
There was also a bit of talk about how different it is when you’re writing a series. Series characters don’t need to, and really shouldn’t change so massively in each book. If you’re writing as series you can’t have them change so drastically in each story because then you risk losing your readers. Readers follow a series because they like the character. They want to see the character challenged physically and intellectually, they want to see his belief system challenged, but they love the characters the way they are, and don’t really want to see them change fundamentally in each story.
The final message of the workshop is that often we get too caught up in the writing. We need to take a step back, breath, and think. List all the options your character has, then make the right choice for the story-which is not always the right choice for the characters well being. Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons, and vice versa, and we need to think of our characters as people or there’s a chance they might become flat and one-dimensional.
This workshop was the second of the day for Dr. Lyle, and when it was over I was lucky enough to get a few minutes alone with him and my video camera for an on the spot interview. Take a peek.
This is a snippet from an interview with Luc Besson, writer and director of a LOT of great, cool movies, everything from Taken, The Transporter, and (one of my all time favorites) The Fifth Element. The question was, “Where do you get your ideas?”
You need to have all your senses open. You need to keep yourself in life, real life… . Most of the rich people I’ve met are boring. I have so much more fun with my boulanger [baker]. When I go at 6am for my croissants, the guy’s so passionate about his croissants. “Oh, you must try this one, because this morning I changed the butter!” The guy’s passionate.
Watching old people in the park, talking about their lives. That’s where it comes, from food and talking. I sat on the plane over here with a guy who studied cancerous molecules. He talked for eight hours about it, and I was amazed – the science, and how they separate the molecules, you know? That’s where it comes from. It’s fed from all these people who come from life.
I lvoe what he says about the boulanger (which is my new favorite word because “bread” is my other favorite word. I’ve read this before: a character has to be passionate about something. If they’re meh about their life and their problems, why should I be anything other than meh about them?
For proof of how passion for something (something not even directly related to the plot) can take a character to the next level of realism, see Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. (Ironically, also passionate about baking.)
Real people are passionate. Taking that to your character makes them human, and makes them likable and relatable. In books, we don’t want to waste anything, so what the character is passionate about often either leads them into trouble, or gets them out of it, or both. But even if their passion is just their ‘quirk’ (all characters needs quirks, like Sherlock Holmes plays the violin) it’s that enthusiasm for something in this life that crystalizes them in the readers mind, and makes them memorable.