Is all feedback useful?

Rock2

In my last post, Showing some skin, I discussed a letter I received in response to one of my plays way back in the early 90s. In this blog, I’ll point out the problems with that letter and how I might direct my younger self.

REVIEWING THE GATE KEEPERS

Us writers, we get all kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the feedback isn’t about our work, it’s about the person dishing it.

The letter I posted last week gave some positive feedback (I was drawn in) and negative feedback (and then I got lost). He kinda liked some parts of it, other parts he was just confused. But what was it he liked? There are no clues. What did he dislike? Again, no clues. Where he got lost, he gave questions (which all point to the character’s motivation and situation, so are legitimate). Yet, without specific references, half the feedback is a frustrating guessing game. He was giving his two cents and returning the script.

Of course gate keepers have the right to say pass/fail, yes/no. Many editors have learned to reject writing with the oblique phrase, “This is not for us.” Each time a writer receives feedback, one coping strategy is to recognize what type you’re receiving:

  • Star rating or Pass/fail: We want you to know we don’t want you.
  • Porridge: I kinda liked it, but I’m not going to tell you what I liked. I kinda didn’t like it, but not gonna share that either.
  • Smarty pants review: The reviewer is sooooo clever and they want you to know! The response is looooong, extremely critical, very directive. The editor is trying to turn your work into their own, because they don’t have the guts to write, so they’ll tell you how you’ve failed. It will feel like an attack. Disregard them.
  • Supportive feedback: Specific comments tied to character, plot development, style, tone, story type that help you to consider the work from a new perspective. May provide process options for you to try.
  • Am I missing any types? Add a comment.

My response to my younger self

When I conceived of this post, I thought it a great opportunity to demonstrate a typical review I provide writers. You see, I can’t post any real ones as those writers are trying for publication. They can’t have the dirty laundry of their initials drafts sitting up here on my blog, right? So this post seemed a great idea until I started writing it. Since you blog readers have not read the play, it was challenging to keep it brief and representative. So, here is my succinct version using my clinical / analytical voice.

Conflict déjà vu?

The central problem with the script is that the conflict is one-dimensional. This happens when the writer (me) walks around the story from only one or two points of view. A key symptom of this problem: The same type of conflict occurs over and over.

Here’s an over-simplified demo to make it obvious:

Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: No!
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: I gotta go to the washroom first.
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: Can you read me a story?

Note how there’s variety in John’s responses, but the mother says the same thing over and over again. In my play, the captors repeatedly ask Tamara to use the technology and she tries to convince them why she shouldn’t. Luckily, it was only 90 minutes long and I did use some creativity in how I repeated the conflict. Still… an audience wants more.

Another symptom of this problem is flat characters. I’d created one fully realized character who lives in an interesting time and community, but that was only a part of the spadework I needed to do as a writer. I also needed to consider the perspectives of the antagonist, Tamara’s family and the society as a whole.

Were I the dramaturge on this play I’d ask the writer these questions:

  • How does she really love and miss her family and former life? What made it hard to leave the world she knew?
  • What does the captor need from her? Why go to these lengths to get Tamara back? What ammunition does the captor have to tempt her? Hint: Look at your answers to questions about her family and life.
  • Is her captor who s/he seems to be? Perhaps they’re a robot who appears as a person? Or a robot with her mother’s (father’s, brother’s) mind installed on its hard drive?
  • What has happened in the world she left behind over the past year while she’s been away? Has all humanity been accidentally wiped out by robots or some artificial intelligence? Disease? Or are things the same? Select the dramatic intensity that relates to your theme.
  • What are the audience’s expectations for this story type? How do you not meet them? (I typically provide a list of requirements for each story type). How can you play with audience expectations? The play shows us a 1984 style interrogation. As a quick exercise, imagine the captor as a nurturing earth mother or as someone who looks like they’re from her tribe. Bring the character on stage in your imagination and get to know them. This will feed into the writing style you use, even if you don’t keep the character on stage.

Writing is a process. Each writer, like each actor, finds the processes that work for them. As a reviewer, I try to point out the symptoms I’m seeing and, based on my experience, give the writer a few ways to tune the work. And I always start each review with the same statement:  All feedback is an attempt of the reviewer to re-write the story in their own image. That’s good, because it means they’re engaged. Your reviewer is trying to figure out how they would relate to the story. But that’s also why a writer should never respond to feedback immediately. Go out on a rock and sit on it for a few days. Feel out what pings as true, then act on it.

Showing some skin

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Every novel, play or screenplay begins with an idea. A character, a moment, an issue begging to be explored. It gets you thinking, pondering, mulling… and you’re off… Sometimes you fly. Others you stumble.

Well, when I started out I stumbled. A lot.

Many of those stumbles were but a cloudy memory until a few weeks ago when I received an email from an editor in a university theatre department. She asked me a question that got me pulling out my writing archives and reflecting on where I succeeded, where I fell down, and why.

To explain, I start with a Canadian Theatre History moment:

SOUND EFFECTS: Haunting call of a loon in the distance. Rocks. Trees. Water. CN Tower.

NARRATOR: Way back in 1981, a guy named Urjo Karedo was appointed Artistic Director of Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.  At a time when most Canadian theatres were folding, Tarragon thrived under his direction.

Every night Urjo took home one of the plays sent in by a hopeful playwright. The next morning he typed the playwright a letter about their play. In these letters he asked scorching questions, pointed out embarrassing gaps and disconnected details. Over the twenty years he read and replied to 1.5 plays per day or almost 5,000 plays.

The editor contacted me because she is compiling a selection of Urjo’s letters into a book. One of the four letters Urjo wrote to me might be included. The editor had never seen the play I wrote, so she wanted some context to understand the letter.

Off I went, digging out the boxes, dusting them off and re-reading. Here is a synopsis for that play Eye am Hear. 

Set in a dystopian future where people interact solely through computers, the play features Tamara, a teenager who ran away to join a street gang that rejects technology. At the start of the play two masked men drag Tamara into a dark warehouse and chain her to the ceiling. A computer screen lights up and a keyboard on a table rolls across the room to her. “Log on, Tamara” says the screen. She refuses. Over the course of 3 days, her captors attempt to convince her that she is the victim of a cult as she struggles to differentiate the facts she knows from the convincing fictions they weave. Their story is simple: technology is the essential power. Without it, she is in fact, not even alive.

Eye am Hear was written and produced in pre-internet 1992. It attempts to answer the question, What do our technologies do to us? 

The play was produced as part of a festival about technological literacy called Words in a Heard. This festival featured several short plays, an art installation and my play Eye am Hear as the centrepiece. After the festival and some re-writes, I sent the script to Urjo hoping for a second production, or at least a response and an invitation to his playwright development unit.

What’s interesting about reading his response so many years later is that he misses one really, super-duper important piece. It’s a point that you should be able to pluck out without reading the play.

So, here’s an idea: read the letter below. Pretend you are the writer receiving it. Write your ideas about what’s missing from it in the comments below. Next week I’ll post what I would write to the younger me.

Colleen Subasic letter B21 F10

Do you know how your character really feels?

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The more I write, the more I realize that recognizing emotional granularity is a skill. Learning to differentiate emotions has a nifty benefit: It’s something you can also use in your personal life.

There are truck loads of research defining the benefits of this skill. Here’s a great New York Times article that explains it really well: Are you in Despair? That’s good.

As the article says:

According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.

A useful tool is an emotion list, such as Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel, but there are others. Refer to such lists to consider the subtleties and differences. Such small differences can make a big difference in what you write.

Anticipation or joy? Amazement or surprise?

In describing emotional states, I ask:

  • Is John merely annoyed or swept up in uncontrolled rage?
  • Is Michelle apprehensive, terrified, or someplace in between?
  • Is Catherine feeling admiration or love?

When you recognize the difference between frustration and fury, you react to situations with more skill and self-awareness. Those who haven’t developed this skill (aka, many characters), react in broader emotional strokes. It’s like they only have one note to react to all obstacles: a car horn. They may not even realize that they’re over-reacting. And gosh, it’s exhausting.

There are two levels to an emotion in a scene. First, there’s the character’s emotional reaction to the circumstances. But in addition to that, there’s the primary emotion where they live their life. Some people react to everything with anger. Others, fear. A person whose primary emotion is joy, will react to stress with one set of coping strategies. A person coloured by boredom will react to stress using other strategies.

Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel

Not all characters are lost emotionally.

Emotionally stable characters (aka, wise characters such as wizards, monks or philosophers) inhabit a place beneath the turbulent emotions of life. It is like they are sitting on the bottom of the ocean. They see the emotional waves of the surface, but they recognize them as distractions and don’t pay them any mind. They know that if they go up there, they’ll be caught up in the turbulence. Only when a wise character is the protagonist is she thrown into the waves and just like all characters, works to find her way out of them, back to the serenity of the ocean floor.

The task of “working to find a way out” involves showing how your character develops emotional awareness. As a character grows, they learn how to handle at least one emotion.

STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • When out in public, look at the people around you. Can you tell what they are feeling? What about them is communicating that emotion to you?
  • Ask yourself: What makes one person look angry while another content? Is it the way they walk? What they’re looking at? The furrow in their brow? How they charge forward, full steam ahead?
  • Can you tell what their primary emotion is? The one they automatically go to? What tells you that?
  • For the people who stand out to you, see if you can write a brief description of your findings.

To help you in describing emotions without even leaving your desk, take a look at this Guide to micro expressions.

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Another way to stretch and grow is to look at your own emotional ups and downs. Here’s a few simple exercises, taken from Zen Buddhist traditions, to help you develop self-awareness:

  • At times throughout your day, try to identify the emotion you’re feeling. If you can, jot them down on a list.
  • Google “emotion list” or visit Wikipedia’s entry, List of Emotions, and see if you can identify where you hang out on the scale.
  • What primary emotion do you think you communicate?
  • Try to pinpoint the emotional range of friends or family.

Would you date your bad guy?

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Writers are usually quite diligent in developing their protagonist, the settings, the concept. All great stuff.

But there’s one area where I typically need to nudge and prod. That is, in developing the bad guy.

The thing is, the bad guy is where you’ll find your story meat. In thinking through what he wants and why, you’ll discover solid plot points that can fill out the narrative. Without this thinking, the story is half formed.

So let’s take a short walk in your bad guy’s shoes and see what we find. For simplicity, I use He for antagonist, She for protagonist.

Relationship sussing

  • What does your bad guy (he) want from the protagonist (her)?
    He wants her to be his [insert roles such as: cheerleader, seducer, mother]. More on roles.
  • What is his dream ending for the near and distant future of this relationship?
    When he imagines the best, best, best, possible outcome for this story what is it? How does your protagonist get in his way? What about his long term plans?

What’s his perspective?

  • According to him, what’s going on?
    Does he think something’s wrong, if so what? If not, why not? Like, if he’s the boss who considers his employees mere minions, then treating them as slaves is natural. No problem here. Your protagonist’s job is to help him see the problem or get out from under him.
  • If he loses, what does he lose? If he wins, what does he win?
    Why does it matter? How can you make this more dramatic to increase the stakes?
  • At each point in the story, how does he change his strategies?
    Does he need to adjust his tactics as the protagonist changes hers?

What is his character?

  • How is he egotistical, self-centered or judgemental?
    This is where you will find his blind spot. If yours is a supernatural or magical antagonist, this is where to find that human blind spot she can take advantage of. Consider what he hasn’t thought through all the way. How does he see himself as “above the line” while others are “below the line”?
  • What’s his dastardly plan to destroy the world?
    Develop that plan! Consider where it’s flawed. Did he focus on one aspect of the plan over another? What are the challenges he could face in seeing it through? Does he know the weak spots and try to hide them?
  • When he was five, what did his mother love about him?
    Even a nasty villain had a mother and she probably loved him. Was he fastidious? Curious? Demanding?
  • What does he do when he’s happy?
    Look at your answers to what his mother loved about him. Showing your bad guy as happy can be fun, interesting, round him out. Didn’t you just love Richmond Valentine’s love of films and McDonald’s in Kingsman?
  • What does he do when he’s sad, angry, frustrated?
    Is he a whiner? A pouter? A slam the door kinda guy? Vengeful? Hurt? More important, how do his reactions make him change his strategies?
  • What does he care about?
    What comforts him? Movies, a nice suit, a fine wine, great food. Or is there a person or animal he would do anything for?
  • What is his bad habit?
    Smoker, drinker, nail biter? Obsessive compulsive, worrier, anxiety prone, procrastinator? Whatever you choose, this will get in his way toward achieving his plan.
  • What is he most afraid of and why?
    This is his kryptonite, use it.
  • What is he running toward/away from and why?
    If she knows what he wants / doesn’t want in life, maybe she can thwart his desired path.
  • What’s he trying to hide and why?
    Failure, shame, regrets, embarrassments? The best characters always have something they’re hiding, maybe even from themselves.

Phew! That’s a lot of questions. Some will apply, others won’t. After one pass go through them again and fine tune your answers.

What’s the tree?

A simplified synopsis of story structure goes like this:

  • Get your character up a tree.
  • Throw rocks at her.
  • Get your character out of the tree.

So, by looking at your antagonist you’re asking yourself, “What kind of tree am I putting her in?” The answers will give you ideas for the rocks you throw at your protagonist and how to get her out of that tree.

There’s another bonus to looking at your story from your antagonist’s perspective; you’ll see your protagonist as the bad guy. Like looking at her in the mirror, you’ll see her flaws more keenly. Be sure to burnish those flaws, they’ll make your protagonist more relatable, more believable, more real.

Back to the antag for one last note: He has to be at all three climaxes in your story. If he’s not, you’ve got the wrong antagonist. See my primer on plot structure for more.

What’s the difference between a series of a events and a story?

You’re writing away, trying to create a roller coaster of a story and you think you’ve got it. Brilliant, funny things happen! Great characters! Stimulating dialogue! Thrills! Chills! Oh my! 

Then you read it and… it doesn’t feel like a story.

Why?

One possible answer: You haven’t found your story engine.

As audience members, we all know when the rumble of a story begins. It’s the point where you sit back, reach for the popcorn and settle in for the ride. But what does a writer do to engage us?

The engine that drives a story is a question the audience holds in their mind as they watch. It’s what keeps them there until they get the answer (the end). The events fall into place like dominoes, one after another, leading naturally to conflicts. Those conflicts explore an aspect of the original question.

Gosh it all sounds so academic doesn’t it? And it’s not. Okay then. Let’s try some examples.

By the end of the story, will the main character…

  • Destroy the evil force that threatens the land?
  • Claw their way out of poverty and be discovered for the wunderkind they are?
  • Win the prize?
  • Find love / get married / divorced / have a baby?
  • Arrive at their destination without killing someone?
  • Get back to where they belong?
  • Learn what it means to…?

In murder mystery, it’s when a body is found and the question becomes whodunnit? It’s like the point in the roller coaster ride when something grabs onto the bottom of the cars and you’re pulled up the first hill with a jerk. There’s no getting off now. You’re in for the ride. Hang on and enjoy it.

Now, one nit to point out: This question I’m talking about is not one the character is asking. It’s the question the audience is asking. They may be the same thing, but they may not.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz asks if she can fly over the rainbow to a perfect place where there are no evil neighbours who steal dogs. The audience question could be, Is there really a perfect world somewhere?

Your job is to find out what question your story poses for your audience. One questions that can help you is to ask, Well, what’s at stake here? If your character loses, what do they lose? If they’re not losing much, there isn’t much of a story, so go back to the drawing board.

How the heck does this help?

Once you have a question, consider if it’s a question you’re interested in exploring. If you were to see that question on the back cover of a book, would you buy it? Refine until you would.

To do that consider:

  • What other questions arise from your original question?
  • What actions does that lead to?

In The Bourne Identity, Jason is found in the ocean with a bullet in his back and no memory. He finds himself in beautiful European landscapes chased by people determined to kill him. As he tries to find out who he is, he discovers innate knowledge and terrifying skills.

So for this story I’d say the question is How do you know if you’re good or evil? Leading to more questions. Does a good guy…

  • Run from the authorities?
  • Have a stash of passports, cash and guns?
  • Kill people quickly and quietly with nothing but a pen?

Am I a monster or a well trained angel? What a terrifying question to ask yourself.

The questions will lead you to situations that show off the questions you’re asking. Which leads to another point…

Don’t ask Who? or What? ask How?

The question in genre fiction is inherent. In a romance, will s/he get the man/woman? Yes. In an overcoming the monster story, is the world saved? Yes. In a mystery, will the detective find the killer? It’s the butler.

In such stories, the ending isn’t in question. The question is the how.

  • Romance: How will she be convinced that he’s the one? How will she win him over?
  • Overcoming the monster: How will she kill that thing?
  • Mystery: How does the detective figure it out?

I argue that all story questions are how questions. Some stories can start with mystery shrouding the action. What is going on? But there is a point when we figure out where the story is heading. We can see the roller coaster rising and falling ahead. But we haven’t ridden the thing yet.

In Sol Stein’s book The Childkeeper, there is an early discussion with a real estate agent that ends like this:

"Could you come up Sunday, say at two?"

"Of course."

"You'll bring the children?"

"Yes."

Stickney was pleased. Children were part of his strategy.

As audience, we’re asking, What is he planning? But the tension created by that question can only last so long. Eventually we have to learn what he’s planning. Once we know, the questions becomes how.

In a murder mystery the body is found and we ask who did it, how they did it, what’s their motivation? But the overarching question is, How will the detective figure it out? 

The roller coaster is an excellent metaphor for a story’s plot. It is a ride that is constructed to give your audience an experience. You, as writer, decide what that experience will be. And if, at any time, the roller coaster stalls (when the question goes missing), your riders will jump off. You need to design those highs, spin them upside down and turn them around. That’s where the thrill is.

The biggest highs and dives of the coaster are confrontations with the antagonist. The question you select opens doors of conflict possibilities. Which means, you need to get in bed with your bad guy.

But that’s for next time…


TRY THIS:

  • As you read or watch other works, try to figure out the question they pose.
  • Fun alternative theories for The Wizard of Oz.

Goals

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

Goals = actions

Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.

To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.

Some examples:

  • I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
  • I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
  • I want my cheerleader (role)  to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
  • I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).

This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.

The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.

Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:

Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.

Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.

Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.

Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.

Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.

Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.

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Watch for negative goals

Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:

  • To get away from…
  • Want nothing do with…
  • To want the other person to crawl up and die…

Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?

They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).

There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.

One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:

The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" 
is not about three sisters who didn't make 
it to Moscow; it's about three sisters 
who fight like hell to get there.

Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

Roles

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

wet beach sand banner

Roles

Relationships have labels like friend, wife, mother, sister. But since labels are factual, they tell us nothing about the health of the relationship. Is a marriage amazingly romantic or painfully toxic? The plain old label married doesn’t tell us.

To clarify, we need to look at what’s going on at an emotional level. That is, what they want from each other, expect from one another, and whether these wants and expectations are satisfied. Roles provide a short hand for doing that.

Roles come out of stories and our culture. They are icons as lofty as knight in shining armour or ordinary as helpdesk customer service rep.

If I want my boyfriend to be my knight in shining armour, I want him to come to my rescue. If he wants me to be his princess, he wants me to be a girly girl who sits there looking pretty and swoons at his manliness. This relationship has a chance of working out because what we want from each other is complimentary. But it isn’t very interesting, is it?

But if I want him to be my cheerleader and root for my legal career while he wants me to be his doting mother, who packs his lunch for him every day and tucks him in at night, we might have problems.

Finding a single, strong role allows the actor or writer to clarify what the character wants and expects from the other person.

In preparing a scene, an actor will complete the phrase: “I want Johnny to be my….”

  • Seducer
  • Play mate
  • Mentor
  • Love of my life
  • Equal…

The more descriptive and specific the role, the more useful it is in figuring out the relationship for that situation. Which brings me to another point.

As situations change, so do our wants and expectations.

At home in the kitchen I want my boyfriend to be my sous chef. When I have an appointment I expect him to be my chauffeur. Out at dinner I want him to be my entertainer.

Each character in a scene wants something from every other character in that scene, which can get complicated if taken too far. If I’m working on a scene with more than two people, I’ll focus on the important relationships and only consider the others if I have to. My aim is to understand the relationship I’m writing about, not to fill out a bureaucratic form, right?

When you’ve got some options figured out, you’re ready to put them into a scene to see how the sparks fly. That’s where goals come in.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

What are stories for?

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Why bother writing one? 

Some ponderings…

Rehearsal

You and your friends walk out of the movie and one of you says, “Now, if that happened to me, I’d….!” Or  “I just don’t buy how that helicopter could come out of nowhere. Wasn’t that weird?” You all nod, agreeing that it didn’t make any sense at all. 

Experiencing a story, thinking about it, is kinda like a “rehearsal” isn’t it? I place myself in the hero’s situation, sometimes agreeing with his actions, others considering how I would handle it differently. In that way, the story acts as a rehearsal for the little dramas in my own life. 

Stories offer a safe place to consider what is fair or unfair, true or not true and how we would face the same challenge. 

As writer, my job is to make sure my hero faces a worthy challenge.

Emotions

Buddhists believe an emotion must be fully experienced, processed, before it leaves us. 

And yet expressing emotions can get us into hot water. Too much and you’re weird. Too little and you’re cold. But when caught up in a story and the girl dies, somehow it’s okay to cry. When the dog comes home, it’s okay to cheer. 

As writer, my job then is to focus those emotional situations so the audience can feel them too.

Ask why

Stories give us clues as to what is acceptable and unacceptable in our culture. They push boundaries by asking, “why is this so?” or “why is that not so?” By exploring these questions and encouraging the audience to empathize with the point of view of the protagonist, stories introduce us to new ways of existing we could never imagine on our own.

As a writer, I’m bringing the audience into a new world. I need to create a clear, full world so the boundaries I’m exploring are honest and true.

metaphors, symbols, myths

The best stories have layers. They will use metaphors, symbols and myths, to allow the viewer to consider how aspects of the story interconnect with other parts of the human experience. Layering a work, distilling it to its essence, can’t happen in the first draft. It takes careful consideration and reflection. 

Develop empathy

In the tiniest of nutshells, all stories teach pretty much the same thing: Don’t be a self-centered, egotistical maniac and show some empathy, won’t ya?

How do they do that? Well, bad guys are usually self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic, greedy doinks. They are mean to the people around them. They don’t care.

The more sophisticated the story, the more the writer explores why the antagonist acts in evil ways. In literary fiction, even the antagonist is a protagonist, because we can understand why they do the things they do. We understand how the world damaged them. 

dealing with Change

At the end of every story the hero is changed. He is more mature. She has been to hell and back and is more powerful than ever. They have faced the antagonist and won or lost and the world is a different place now. 

As audience, by engaging in the story, we are changed too. 

Life is full of change and it’s the hardest thing to deal with. A birth, a death, a win or loss. Stories help us to learn how to manage those changes throughout life. Stories may not contain the answers, but good ones will ask the right questions.

Writing is power

Telling a story gives you the power to frame events and interpret them. Framing an event, whether real or fictional, is a kind of power. You decide what to emphasize and minimize, the importance of each detail, the opinions of the characters. You decide what it all means in the grand scheme of things. It is a power to be taken seriously.

 

Do you suffer from performance anxiety?

typewriter keyboard

Shh! Don’t tell our computer overlords you’re reading this.


Many actors will hand write their lines to learn them. The physical act of setting pen to paper, forming each word and punctuation mark, uses both sides of the brain allowing actors to tap a deeper, more thoughtful place. The words burn visually, physically into their memory. If you’ve ever sat in an exam and remembered the answer to a question because you also recall the doodle on that same page of your notebook, you’ve done the same thing.

Just reading the lines over wouldn’t reach so deeply. Tapping them out on a keyboard wouldn’t either.

Actors use other tools: Creating specific visuals for each sentence, connecting the words they speak with physical actions or developing a rhythm to the words that becomes like a song they sing.

Notice how not one of these methods involves a computer? Actors recognize that their craft is an organic, fluid process. Just because we can do so many things on the computer, doesn’t mean we should do everything there.

Each stage of the writing process requires a different kind of fluidity, just like acting. The idea is to match the method that works for you to each writing task.

I’m so old, my first play was written on a type writer. (Yes, ouch). I felt so bohemian, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the typewriter between my legs, tap, tap, tapping away for over a year. For a review / edit session I’d take the pieces of paper and go through them. When edits were needed I’d physically cut and tape bits of paper together, labelling pages 4A, 4B, etc. If I wanted another draft, the entire thing had to be re-typed from beginning to end. A pain in the buttinsky, sure (in more ways than one). But typing up each draft also gave me another perspective on the story I was building, which proved useful.

When I shifted to computer I noticed how writing a first draft felt different.

The screen was more like a stage than a blank page. I’d type a few words and my inner editor would jump all over them, slashing at ideas. It was like I was trying to set everything in concrete from paragraph one. My first drafts were studies in performance anxiety, because I’d edit the line until it was perfect. When I had something of a draft, I’d print out the whole expecting genius and find a scrambled mess. Oh, each sentence was lovingly crafted. But each was an island.

I learned that a first draft works better if I allow myself to sketch, to throw ideas around and let them live. To write by hand, doodle, circle, arrows and shapes.

Each writer is different, of course. For some the computer screen doesn’t induce anxiety, it’s a pool to throw words into and swim. I guess each of us needs to find the method to match stage and style.

How do you interface with your words and drafts? Leave a comment.

If interested, take a look at Colleen’s draft prescriptions.