Rhythm doesn’t only come from drums.

Ruts. They’re furrows we make and keep following. It’s natural and easy to keep going in the same direction. Trouble is, it’s also boring.

I’m currently reviewing a multi-multi-multi–character screenplay that demonstrates the common rut of consistency. The writer captures the setting quite well, has created some vivid characters. At first, it’s an interesting story with some lovely touches audiences will love. But then scene after scene follows the same formula: two people come into a room sit down and talk.

This is typical of first or second drafts, when you’re just roughing out the story. The focus is on just getting the story down.

You have the story down so it feels complete. But it isn’t a piece of art yet. Any story at this point is like a wood sculpture that’s been roughed out by an axe. Sure, it has a shape, but little nuance, dimension or detail.

In finding the furrows you follow, there lies an opportunity to vary the experience for your audience.

Slow down/speed up/slow down…

If your story is fast-paced, find a place to give your readers a deep breath. If your story has a leisurely pace, find somewhere to get their heart racing.

Go through your scenes and find the patterns. What are the characters physically doing?

Now, think about of the flow of scenes from your audience’s perspective. Ask yourself: When will my audience start become comfortable with the pace? 

Just before that comfort zone, that’s where you want to change things up. Yes, just before that. That’s how you keep your audience guessing.

If you need to up the pace, rather than having characters sitting down get them walking down the street? One is walking faster than the other. The other person is running to catch up, desperately wanting something from the other.

Or, to slow down, place your character in a reflective atmosphere. They stop by a river, they lie on their bed, they sit in a church pew or a coffee shop, they look out the window and breathe.

Taking a breath is a good opportunity for self-reflection. If your story is an action thriller, your main character has probably not been thoughtful. So, here’s the place where you can show what they’re feeling and thinking. They can piece things together and have an epiphany.

You can also poke through your scenes to see where you can use physical action rather than dialogue. If Jenny and Peter are having a power struggle in their relationship, what if rather than having them talk it out, show it physically:

Every time Peter walks into the kitchen, he moves the bowl of fruit. Jenny comes in, sees the bowl of fruit, she moves it. He moves it back. She moves it back. 

The change in pace needs to feel like a natural part of the story. As with any scene, despite the change it still needs to further the plot, develop character and create a sense a place.

Having trouble? In looking for potential scenes to change, look at the dynamics of an individual scene. Ask yourself:

What is going on between the characters? What do they want from each other? Who has the most urgency? Why do they need each other? Why don’t they both just walk off in the other direction?

In answering these questions, you’re looking for their intentions. That is, what they want from each other. By examining these, you’re looking for ways to up the conflict, because that’s what makes a scene pulse.

Conflict happens when two characters want (their intentions) different things. They may want the same thing, but may see different answers.

For example, a principal and the mother of Johnny meet to discuss his recent problem behaviour. The principal thinks Johnny’s bad behaviour is because of too much sugar. His mother thinks the discipline is too severe. They both want the same thing: Johnny to behave. They disagree on how to get there. You, the writer, see this conflict clearly, the characters in the scene do not.

Or, Ted and Tina are planning to get married. But slowly, Ted is realizing their is a problem. It takes him a while to figure it out, but one day, he asks her: Do you want to be married, or do you want to be married to me?

In other words, he realizes that they have a conflict. He wants her to be the love of his life. She wants him to be her ‘husband.’ Anybody could be that husband. He just happens to be there.

I cover the idea of roles in my other blog post, Creating Conflict: Roles and Relationships.

One point: There are no such things as negative intentions. If two characters are in a scene together, they both want something from each other.

Negative intention examples:

  • I want him to crawl up and die
  • I want him to go away
  • I want her to leave me alone

If Fred just wants Tina to go away, why doesn’t he just leave? Walk out the door? Hang up the phone? Something has to be keeping him there. It’s your job as a writer to find out what that reason is and adjust that desire until it makes the scene sing.

Write well…

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Responding to criticism

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When words of criticism come, they either have an acid burn or they’re just plain confusing. It hurts. You feel like you’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t help that some people, when giving their feedback, get angry or go into such detail it’s dizzying. 

Before you do anything, take a deep breath and consider this. 

When we read a work, we’re looking to be transported away. When a reviewer isn’t transported away, they look for the reason why.

In going through that process, they are essentially trying to make the work their own. If they find the character Henry not believable, they’ll try to imagine how they would make him believable. If the rhythm of the story is jerky, they’ll try to imagine how they would give it a more natural flow.

But the work isn’t theirs, it’s yours. If you give it away to anyone, you’re letting yourself down. Which is why I strongly suggest you don’t do anything right away. Nothing. Don’t even change the obvious spelling and grammatical errors. Do not touch them. 

I suggest you wait a few days. Try not to even think about the work. Slowly, as you realize you don’t need to be defensive or reactionary, the comments that strike a chord will become obvious. For things you’re unsure of, find a way to explore them rather than apply them.

If a comment regarding plot pings at you, try revising only the story synopsis. This allows you to feel through the plot change before you dig into the meat of your story and begin chopping it. 

For character notes, try writing a dialogue between you and the character about what the critic said. Yes, really; like a little play. Doing so will help you delve into what was said, make some discoveries about your character and  translate them into the larger work.

Your first question for any character that is not believable: What does your character want more than anything in the world? Perhaps you haven’t fine tuned this aspect right. 

And lastly remember, if someone displays anger in their comments, it’s not about you or your script. It’s about them. An angry person may provide useful insights, but you need to separate what’s about them from legitimate comments about your work. 

How does your character want to change the world?

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‘Should’ is a very powerful word. No other word shows us so well the ways we want to change the world.

How’s that?

It is through the word ‘should’ that we judge what is good and bad. Your boss ‘should’ consider how the employees feel. Your mother ‘should’ get herself to the doctor. Your girlfriend ‘should’ get her car in for an oil change. The bank ‘should’ have given you notice about rate changes.

All these little ‘should’s mount up. Oh, if only we were running things, the world would be a perfect place!

As we go through our days our critical eye scans the people, processes and things we come across. Just like Goldilocks, we judge each as either inferior, superior or just right. The highways are badly designed. Look at that guy driving like a maniac. Gosh, that girl is gorgeous. How can a bank teller not know how to process a foreign exchange transaction? Oh, here’s one of those new streetcars, I like how silent they are; finally our city has done something right!

The word ‘should’ is all about judgement. This should be that way, not this way. That should be this way, not that way.One thing is good and another is bad. The judgements are typically more negative than positive because these are our attempts to make the world perfect. Nudging things this way and that. It’s human nature.

How does a writer use this? To uncover what’s going on under the surface of your character’s relationship to the world.

Before you write a scene, consider what each character thinks the others ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. For example if we were to consider the relationship of a married couple, we might consider what they think others should or shouldn’t do:

Martha thinks her husband Jason should…

  • Be making more money
  • Treat her like a woman once in a while (which means telling her she’s beautiful)
  • Stop bugging her about her drinking

Jason thinks Martha should…

  • Stop drinking (she’s downing almost a bottle a night on her own, for crying out loud)
  • Show some gratitude for all he does
  • Get a job

Each of us attempts to change the world in ways that range from the blunt to subtle.

“Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“It would be nice to afford a vacation once a year, but not on what you make.”
“Are you sure you want another glass of wine tonight, dear?”
“What have you done to your hair?”

“How dare you?”
Translation: You’re acting bigger than your britches and I’m going to bring you down a notch because you have no right to be different from what I expect you to be.

One common attempt at behaviour modification is to globalize:

“All you ever want to do is sit on the couch.”
“You never listen to me.”
“You’re always so mean.”

The other character, the person who is being accused of ‘always’ or ‘never’ doing something, tends to become defensive.

Having your characters globalize is useful, because we all do this, don’t we? But it is also a writer’s trap. The back and forth of accusing and defending can turn into “tit for tat”.

“You never listen to me.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh no, I do!”

Most readers want something deeper than this. They want a distillation of the conflict, not every moment played out in minute agony. Unless, of course, that agony is true agony. (But I digress.)

If a character is judging everyone else, they are usually doing the same to themselves. So, after you’ve looked at how your character is judging everyone else, you need to apply the same brush to their thoughts about themselves.

In the mirror, some of us see someone who ‘should’ get her hair done. Who ‘should’ exercise more, eat better, drink less, call her mother, and on and on. Some of us, however, suspend our judgement. We have reasons for the spare tire of flab around our middle, for our callous behaviour to a colleague or friend.

The act of exploring what characters think everyone else “should” be (doing, thinking) is to give you insight into the relationships beneath the gloss they show the world. Those insights help you to develop characters that breathe and thus write richer, more complex scenes.

And remember, it is not what a character says that reveals their character. It is what they do.

Actions always speak much louder than words.

The writer’s madness tickle trunk

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What a great many madnesses do we writers have to plague our characters! There’s depression, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, addictions, paranoias, doubts and suspicions about ourselves and others, feelings of unreality and insignificance, feelings of grandiosity and cosmic importance.

Consider those niggling terrors; the thoughts that won’t go away, no matter how hard your character tries. As individuals we fight these things in ourselves, so why don’t your characters? As a writer these are your tools, your opportunity, to make characters of depth.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How is your character not happy about herself? Is she too fat? Too thin? Too poor? Lacking in direction? Too normal? Too low in status?
  2. Who does she see as the perfect ‘me’ in the future? What is she doing (and not doing) to get there?
  3. How is she fighting off insanity? Is she obsessive about cleanliness, saving money, staying away from ‘dirty people’, disease, germs? Does she slip into a bottle of booze at night? Is she so economical that she has started to wash all of her clothes by hand as he showers (a.k.a. become eccentric)?

Brave and unique choices give you great opportunities to create interesting situations that readers can connect with.

What does your character value?

A good place to find your character’s madness is to look at how your character defines ‘sanity’? This is the same question as, “what does your character most value?” When you know what is valued, you can find what most terrifies. You don’t obsess about something that doesn’t matter to you, right? So if a character doesn’t care about germs but is obsessively cleaning, the reader will know something’s not quite right.

To make this as deep as possible, a number of exercises can help, including:

  1. Free-association: Start with one idea for something that makes your character crazy. Do a free writing exercise, associating their current fear backward in their life. Keep going until you find something that ‘pings’ at you.
  2. Research the foible to see how it manifests in others. Little nuggets can really inform your writing. For example, many germ-o-phobes do not touch public handrails or will punch elevator buttons with a tissue. For example, a germ-o-phobe might carry a set of special gloves for dangerous situations.

Making the most of insanity

How do you make the most of your character’s insanity? There’s a famous writing quote about plot structure that goes:

In the first act you put your character up a tree.
In the second, throw rocks at them.
In the third, you get them out of the tree.

To put your character up a tree, you place them in a situation where they have to face their madness. If they are clean freaks, you put them someplace dirty. If they are power hungry, place them in a situation where they have no power. It is by facing our weaknesses that your character will be forced to change and grow.

If the character can face the worst life can throw them, then so can the reader. Great writing persuades us that there is not terror so dark we cannot overcome it, even as the earth shakes beneath our feet.

How are your characters mad?

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As we humans have the capacity to imagine a different future, many of us are actually two people. Yes, really. There is the ‘me’ you see in the mirror. Perhaps that ‘me’ is a little chunky, having a bad hair day, wearing yesteryear’s styles. Then there is that ‘me’ in the future who is fit, gorgeous, well dressed, and would never stand in the middle of the kitchen eating a full carton of double chocolate ice cream at two in the morning.

Self-help books assume that we can make decisions about the things we care about and stick to them. Those books forget that each of us is a tich mad. Our self-control isn’t there when we need it, our talents never meet our expectations, our ability to design our lives is frequently a fantasy.

As Adam Phillips says in his book, Going Sane, “Madness is equated with loss of control, which is equated with doing forbidden things; sanity, on the contrary, is law-abiding, makes sense, and is equated with self-possession.” When, truly, do any of us really feel ‘self-possessed’?

We live in an age when the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. Each of us has reasons to be insecure. Self-possession is much treasured but rare asset.

Add to this that we understand how time works and that one day,we’ll be dead, even if we pretend this isn’t so. This impending death hits us in the face at times and makes us a little crazy. Somehow, each of us has to find a way to cope.

When the ground shakes we scurry into religion, work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, art, popular culture, the news of the day, the rules and regulations that make the world work, environmentalism, politics and more. These things ‘busy’ us and keep us entertained as time passes. We convince ourselves sometimes that if we are good enough and wise enough that we will live past our death. We will leave the world a better place. We will have left a legacy.

What does this mean for you as a writer?

When sitting down to write, the natural tendency is to create characters out of our hopes. The future ‘me’s of your imagination. That is, characters who are better than ourselves. Trouble is, there is nothing for a reader to explore in this imagined perfection.

Why wouldn’t someone else want to explore your ideal world? Well, readers don’t go into a story to learn about you, the writer. They go into a story to learn about themselves.

The good characters of dream writing always do what they’re supposed to, are never surprised by themselves and never have a moment of indecision. These ‘good’ characters come off as featureless, bland and fake. Readers have highly attuned radar for spotting fakery. “Who could be that good?” they ask themselves as they drop your book.

Plus, if a character is totally good, why do they need to change? If there’s one thing I see in manuscript after manuscript, it’s characters who are ‘perfect’ and thus, have nowhere to grow. Without a place to grow, there’s no story.

The great characters of literature are far from perfect. Can you recall one “good” character who has memorable lines?

Just like you, great characters are struggling with their sanity. Like us, they may pretend not to be struggling, but they are. Think of King Lear, Hamlet, Withnail, Dexter.

What does Hamlet sees when he looks in the mirror? The reason hell tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” is because he has such a low view of himself (and all men). He is full of loathsome, sinful, ambitious and revengeful thoughts, and Ophelia would be better off in a nunnery than marrying any man. See full speech, below.

Readers connect with characters that are struggling because they see themselves. They are looking at a mirror, not a mirage. And when they follow a character who is struggling, it helps them to figure out the challenges they are facing in their own lives.

Hamlet: 

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
 breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
 but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
 were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
 proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
 my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
 imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
 in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
 between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.

Prepare to write like an actor

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When an actor prepares to play a role, she doesn’t only memorize her lines and reach into her schtick bag for an accent and wig. Creating a layered character requires getting under the skin of her character. To do this she might:

  1. Learn as much as possible about the time the story is set. What it looked like, smelled like. The kinds of jargon people used.
  2. Imagine the character’s personal history. Who were her parents and what kind of relationship did they have? Who were her friends and why were they her friends? What does she do when she’s alone?
  3. Write journals about scenes not in the play or movie to learn more about the character. Take an important moment and write a stream-of-consciousness monologue that follows her thoughts moment by moment.
  4. Find a piece of music that communicates the character’s rhythm. The music becomes the character’s theme that the actor plays on her iPod in preparation for playing a scene.
  5. Work on the character’s movement patterns. Work from the breath and find how the character holds herself, speaks and tosses the hair out of her eyes.
  6. Study not just the lines, but what lies under them

The actor may fill a notebook to brimming with notes and scratching and doodles. She may create an altar where she gathers images that relate to her character. Every dialogue exchange may have alternate meanings that she works through over and over.

The idea of this work is not to put on the character, but to live the character. To be the character. To feel inside the skin of the character.

This preparation work becomes like the tea bag, the actor the teapot full of water. The richer and more varied the tea, the more layered the performance.

If this work is done well, when the actor steps on the stage the audience sees a lot more than a person reading a bunch of lines. They feel the presence of a fully realized character. They feel it in vocal intonations, how the actor moves, the gleam in their eye. Even a raised eye brow at the right moment can speak volumes.

Because it really is like making a tea, the prep work doesn’t last in the actor for long. Like any tea, it gets cold and old and eventually evaporates into the air. It can be brought back, but it’s not like snapping fingers. The steeping process needs to begin again.

I have come to believe that writing works in a similar way. When you are truly writing the character, the words come from a special place. When your readers take in the words on the page, there’s something else that comes through. Your readers can sense the tilt of the head, the look in the eye, feel the breath moving in and out.