How are we going to get out of this?

Dragon Smaug by Tim Kane“The best stories don’t come from good vs bad, but good vs good.” – Tolstoy

If you’re a plot geek like me, this quote is both interesting and instructive. It’s been pinging at me lately, because I think it holds an interesting nugget about the challenges of our times. And it speaks to so many things; Terrorism, Trump, Brexit, Egypt, Palestine, weight gain and tweets.

In stories that are good vs good the conflicts are more internal. Everyone is both a good and a bad guy in a way. It’s about how each of us has our reasons for doing what we do. These are the hard stories to write, because they’re about moving targets we all deal with every day. At their best, they are metaphorical or philosophical.

Plot lines that involve bad vs good feature a clear black hat vs white hat. Detective vs murderer. Superhero vs Dark Menace. FBI vs Terrifying Terrorists (or choose from a broad assortment of racial delineations).

I’m starting to wonder if the predominance of such clearly delineated conflicts has impacted how we all think. That perhaps, by scarfing down simplistic stories, our brains no longer recognize that moral lines are usually complicated and confusing. We yearn for simplicity in a complicated world, so we reach for what’s easy. There are bad people. Here are good people. There’s no in-between. Period. End of sentence.

Life is about change. Stories help us to rehearse for the emotional aspects of life’s challenges. At their best, they show us how to look beneath the easy surface answers. To recognize that a bully bullies because he was bullied himself. How one blow leads to so many more. How we are all human, we all need food and shelter and love and acceptance. That really, there is no “us vs them”. And when there is an “us vs them” (aka duality) we end up in dangerous places. And I think we’re in one of those places now.

In these conflicts, the black hat-wearing dame has a huge ego. She wants to rule or destroy the world and take all of the riches and keep them to herself. She is the dragon hiding in the mountain, sitting on her pile of gold.

But ya know what? The white hat is just as egotistical as his black hat wearing sister. Because although he doesn’t want to destroy the world or rule the world, or keep all of its riches to himself, he is adamantly certain of where to draw the line between good and evil.

It’s all about judgement: Above the line, below the line. Good enough, not good enough. In this climate, negotiation isn’t possible, because that would involve giving in to evil. Life is about competition not collaboration. Rules apply to everyone else, not me. In fact, they’re for dupes and need to be broken. The other side is always entirely wrong. Lock them up, they’re crazy.

Plus, because everyone is delineated as entirely good or entirely evil, none of us are allowed to make a mistake. One false slip and you’ve “gone to the dark side.” You’re garbage. Go away and hide.

A desire for simplicity, for clarity, has got us here. But it’s a mental habit that has obvious down sides. So, how can we get out?

The only answer I’ve found is to look for what is common between us. To find ways to stop thinking in judgemental ways.

What do you think? Do the stories we tell have an influence on our society? Has the predominance of stories featuring good vs evil as opposed to good vs good made us expect the same in real life?  Share below.

FYI: Comments involving partisan politics will not be published. This blog isn’t about that. We need some safe zones, right?

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

Clarity and precision

0_hor_treerootsA story is about emotion, not facts

It’s easy for a great idea to turn into a spaghetti junction of ideas. Tendrils of stories branch out and multiply. Characters take over. What you thought might be a simple story because a muddy, mix. 

One way I combat this as a substantive editor, is for each story tendril, I ask this question:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

It may be gorgeous writing. It may even be fascinating. And yet, if it doesn’t develop the progress of the story, it distracts the reader. Distracted readers don’t turn pages, they put the book down.

Your goal is to place your reader into the emotional world of the character. The words you choose need to serve that function.

Take a look at this example and try to determine the primary mood the author is trying to set:

“…not unlike my closet, is in various degrees of disassembly and disarray. Post-it notes frame my computer screen, and tumbling stacks of paper cascade over one another and on top of pens, pencils, and stock photography, all of which neck their way close to my keyboard, which sits atop the only free space on my desk. Josie delicately displaces two tote bags that are clogged with freebies from potential clients from the chair opposite my desk and sits.”

This list of visual details scream “I’m overwhelmed!” But in the story, the scene is about the main character landing a major contract for an advertising campaign. Do you see victory in any of those details? I didn’t. 

Now, in this example, look at the precision and variety of senses tapped, how they develop the relationship:

“As we turn the corner, the local bakery is getting its powdered sugar delivered, funneled into the cellar by the barrelful as if it were cement, and we can see nothing but the shadows of the deliverymen in the white, sweet cloud. The street is billowing, and Nick pulls me close and smiles that smile again, and he takes a single lock of my hair between two fingers and runs them all the way to the end, tugging twice, like he’s ringing a bell. His eyelashes are trimmed with powder, and before he leans in, he brushes the sugar from my lips so he can taste me.”

What works so well in this example is that every detail is used for a good emotional reason. We experience the wonder of the sugar cloud, the physical closeness, the brushing of lips, the implied first kiss.

The movie screen of the mind picks up on the double sweetness of the icing sugar cloud. The physical detail of pulling the lock of hair places us in their close embrace. The visual of his eyelashes references a moment earlier, where she could see him as a boy, which adds depth in terms of time. A return to the physical, with the very intimate brushing of her lips so he can taste her. We aren’t told they kiss, it’s implied.

The prior example gives us a lot of detail, too. But the emotional space it creates for us is not nearly as precise, as visceral. We may be in that cubicle, but it speaks of anxiety not victory.

When writing, there are topics that you need to get down, to figure out, explore. Through the draft process, these pieces get distilled to their essence. Others are moved out when they are identified as your writer’s “homework.” That is, the stuff you needed to explore, but isn’t needed for the story’s narrative arc.

So, when I ask myself:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

I’m looking for how that section places the reader in the emotional skin of the characters.

Making friends with monsters

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Who likes conflict? It’s so darned uncomfortable. Full of raised voices, tears, harsh words, exasperation, confusion. Who hasn’t tip toed past a door to avoid such nastiness?

Thing is, the very thing we all try to avoid every day is the meat of story telling.

When a writer is struggling with conflict it manifests in the work in one of these ways:

  1. No conflict – high realism style. Characters talk, scenes are described, but nothing happens.
  2. No conflict – perfect-world style. The perfect character jumps from one victory to the next. Readers yawn in disbelief.
  3. Too much conflict – the sky is falling. The sky is falling! Repeatedly. But the falling sky never has an impact on the world in a way that you’d expect.
  4. Too much conflict – it’s not my fault. The main character is a victim who has no responsibility for anything in the story because they never do anything, other than sniffled and moan and whine.

I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, for the purpose of highlighting.

The most common form of this I see in manuscripts is 1) as it masks quite well as “stream of consciousness” writing. But a story without the shaping afforded by conflict is not a story; it’s a bunch of meandering words on a page.

So, how can you make conflict your friend and make your protagonists suffer the way people want them to in stories?

At a story-wide level, start by looking for the monsters under your very own bed.

In Going Sane, Adam Phillips wonders if creating art involves packaging things we find difficult to face in a form that is somehow reassuring. Taking monsters and making them something we can face.

When a writer is successful, stories allow the audience to practice facing conflicts in real life, making them more manageable somehow. Phillips summarizes the famous essayist Charles Lamb on this, which I’ll quote here:

“The sane genius transforms everything that might disturb us, “the wildest dreams,” into something that is familiar and reassuring. It is his artfulness that makes us feel at home; it is the weak writer who makes us feel estranged, or baffled, or lost.”

How can you use this? 

For the story you are writing now ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am frightened of and need to face?

Poke around in the idea of your story and look for the things that terrify you. Or those things that make you feel shameful. Perhaps you are trying to figure out a past relationship, or to figure out how to handle some aspect of your personality.

Your purpose isn’t to look at the struggle and become its victim. It’s to put on some galoshes and walk through the swamp of terror so you can figure out what facing this challenge means for getting through life. In other words, how can you find your way through the swamp as a hero who grows and changes?

What if your story is a tragedy? Then your tragic hero will put on galoshes, but some fatal flaw will have them make bad decisions with each step. In Woody Allen’s recent movie Blue Jasmine, for example, Jasmine is thrown into the gaping abyss and because she fails to admit she has any responsibility for where she is and what has happened to people around her, she keeps falling and falling and falling. A riveting and terrifying descent.

Once you understand the monster you are struggling with, you have the tools to figure out the plot points of your story. But that’s another post.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Rhythm. Energy. It’s in everything we do. As an artist, part of your job is to create energy. To shift the mood of your audience from wherever they are in their real lives to where you want them to be. And it better be someplace special, or who will want to stick around?

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Ai Weiwei

Visual artists do this with colour and shape and ideas and how these components flow together. They take the familiar and turn it upside down or backwards so we can see it in a new light. For example, Ai Weiwei creating what looks like an ancient ceramic urn bearing the Coca-Cola logo.

When a rock star steps onto the stage, their job is to create energy. Their tools include instrumentation, poetic phrases, dance and encouragement. If they do their job well, we wind up singing across the abyss in bliss with them.

Writers create worlds with words. By careful selection, sentence length, point of view of the writing and characters, we create a swirl of a journey.

When done well, the audience is so caught up, the medium disappears. We’re not looking at an urn, we’re turning our thoughts to how advertising has taken over the world. We’re not at a concert, we’re Walking on the Milky Way. We’re not sitting on the couch reading, we’re fighting dragons in Middle Earth.

We become invested in a two-way, collaborative process, where we are as actively involved in creating meaning for ourselves as the artist was in creating the work. The reward is a pleasure that is most intimate, as if our souls are rewritten and joined together through participation. We feel ourselves open up and see the world afresh.

The act of creation is indeed magical, isn’t it? To start with nothing more than a thought and wind it up into an energy that people recognize. It’s an amazing power; to make people feel something; to bring them into a world of our own making. Nothing is more powerful than that. I call it, “making like a god,” because artists create something out of nothing more than thoughts.

But how does a writer get there?

In creative writing workshops a piece of writing is put on the table and participants dissect what they like/don’t like, believe/don’t believe about it. This teaches writers to dissect their work, not build on it. I’ve got a problem with that.

One of my favourite books on writing is called “How Not to Write a Play,” by Walter Kerr. A key theme of this book:  “the critic dissects, the artist unifies,” and it couldn’t be more apt for would-be writers. Kerr speaks of writing by touch, of how to explore your ideas while keeping your analytical brain at bay until it’s needed.

I find this idea really interesting, particularly in light of recent brain research (Watch the BBC’s The Creative Brain How Insight Works). Apparently, when jazz musicians are improvising, they turn off portions of the pre-frontal lobe of their brain — the bit that controls planning and strategizing. It is also the part that makes us self-conscious, forcing us to control our behaviour.

To shut off the analytical brain and write by touch, you need to find a process that allows you to let your imagination drift without judgement. As many writers put it, it is very much like an archeological dig, where you are trying to uncover ancient gems inside you. As W.H. Auden put it:

“A poet writes ‘The chestnut’s comfortable root’ and then changes this to ‘The chestnut’s customary root.’ In this alteration there is no question of replacing one emotion by another, or of strengthening an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but waiting to be identified like a telephone number one cannot remember. ‘8357. No, that’s not it. 8557. 8457, no, it’s on the tip of my tongue, wait a minute, I’ve got it, 8657. That’s it'”

Auden uses ’emotion,’ I prefer ‘energy’ — because it implies something physical as opposed to internal. Emotion sucks you in, while movement is emotion realized.

Some Tools

To prompt uncovering, I suggest turning to the tools of the method actor.  Here’s a few:

  • Artist’s journal: Big ideas usually start with small and specific images. As you come across examples that demonstrate the texture and timber of life, jot them down. The vacant smile of the sales clerk. The mother’s glance to her daughter, full of love. The flash of anger on the bus driver’s face. The young girl playing lazily in the sand on the beach. The body tension of someone caught in a lie. All of it fodder for characters, moments, exchanges.
  • Music: Do you write while listening to music? Make sure it’s helping you, not standing in your way. Lyrics can  impose language and rhythms into your writing, even if you’re not aware of it. So, choose well. On the other hand, music can help you find energy.  Writing a death scene? Maybe a requiem mass will help. A happy scene? Put on a boppy song that makes you want to move. How can you capture that energy and put it on the page?
  • Play dress up: Find a piece of clothing that puts you in the role you are writing. Look at yourself in the mirror. Feel the texture of the fabric. Smell. How can you use that clothing? Is it getting in the way but the character insists on wearing it?
  • Play act: If you’re in costume, you might as well take it all the way. Imagine yourself in the scene, as if you’re playing to a camera. Play all of the characters, one at a time or all at the same time. Move as they would need to move. Imagine the room where they are. What are the smells? What moments of poignancy do you find? What are the moods of the other people? What actions communicate their moods?
  • Breathe: Breathe? Yes, breathe. As all actors and singers know, the breath impacts emotion. So, let’s say you’re writing a scene about a car chase. Breathing fast and low can help you to get closer to where the character’s emotional world would be. How about a sensuous sex scene? Breathe deep and slowly now as my fingers play with the hairs at the nape of your neck.

Oh, excuse me. Ahem. (straightens her clothing)

  • Pictures: Look for images that get across the mood you want to create. Paste them on the wall or carry them in a folder and flip through them.
  • Write: Create a diary of what life is like for your character for a few normal, boring days. What is bothering them, making them feel insecure? What are their joys? Or write a monologue about an important time from their history that has impacted their character. Perhaps it was a terrifying encounter with a snake or the most joyful moment of their life so far.
  • Read it aloud: When you’re finished writing something, stand up and read it aloud. Feel the rhythms of the dialogue, the flows of description. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Are you caught up, or are you bored? Make notes as you go, revise, print, stand up and do it again.
  • Research: All of what I’ve talked about here could be termed ‘research.’ But to be a bit more academic, you might want to read a book on a topic, or at least Google it. Walk the street where you imagine a scene taking place. Note the cracks in the sidewalk, the sounds, the smells.

 Method madness

Tools like these help actors get under the skin of their characters. To really ‘be’ their characters. To find the energy for the moment at hand. The closer you can get yourself in that energy, the more likely you’ll re-create it on the page. Little details you find in your energy search can become powerful metaphors, or rhythms that can affect how your audience feels. They make your work more real, on an emotional level. And that’s what it’s all about.

Now, this is not to say that using your analytical brain isn’t an important part of the process. But at the wrong point, it can kill creative energy rather than build on it.

Always remember, you are creating a ride of energy for your audience. Don’t pick. Make like a god and create something powerful out of nothing but words.

Do you have an energy search tool that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment.

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In the grand theme of things

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If a story is merely a collection of events told in sequential order we’d all be novelists and screen writers. But that just ain’t so.

A well told story captures our collective imagination, wins our hearts, changes minds and introduces us to characters we fall in love with or fear (and all those emotions in between).

As writers, isn’t that what we strive for? But how do we get ‘there’?

Hold that question and bear with me for a moment. I promise not to growl or maul you.

When a reader opens a novel to that first page, they are looking for something to connect with. That is, they want to see something of themselves reflected the pages.

If they wanted to meet a someone who waxes poetical about themselves for hours on end, they’d go to a party, a bar, or join some kind of group. Who among us hasn’t listened to a friend’s opera about… the latest boyfriend who dumped them, the reason they’re not a superstar, how well ‘designed’ their life is, the trivia of their days or pets.

But walking into the arms of a story is something we do for ourselves, not the good of humanity.

You or your character may have an interesting life, but that alone will not feed your readers. They need sustenance. Something in it for them. (Because enjoying a story really is a selfish activity, isn’t it?).

So, how does the writer get ‘there’? Through that writing tool known as ‘universal theme.’

The universal theme is the thing that everyone can connect to. The glue that holds your story together, because everyone can see themselves reflected there. It’s what your story is ‘about’ under the surface of events. It’s what takes all of those events and gives them meaning.

A writer doesn’t just select a theme and write about it (unless it’s really obvious, like in action thrillers or murder mysteries). It comes out of that digging you do as you first begin writing. It is like an uncovering process, searching for that special nugget of glue that will hold your story together. Once found, it serves as a tool to make decisions about what stays and what goes. What to emphasize, what to gloss over.

The place to look for your theme is in the struggle of the main character.

What’s your struggle?

A story about a woman fretting over ending her marriage may be struggling with:

  • How much of a life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the family?
  • What exactly is abusive behaviour? Where is the line drawn between abuse and character traits

A person who loses all of their family in a car crash may struggle with:

  • How do we learn to live with what we can never come to terms with?

Someone lying in a hospital waiting to die might struggle with:

  • What does it mean to live?
  • What does it mean to live a life that matters?
  • What is a ‘good death’?

A man who meets the love of his life online, and after years of messaging, talking and netsex finally meets her to discover she is truly ugly (and not at all like her photos). He might be struggling with:

  • What is beauty, really?

Notice how the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ are not in there (e.g., is my husband an abuser?). This is important, because by stating the struggle in universal terms, you take the question out of the character’s corner. Your character’s struggle must be experienced looking out, not in.

A universal theme is one that is timeless and all people can relate to. It is about the challenge of being stuck in a body and  having to relate to people and the world around us. In other words, being human. That is why it’s ‘universal.’ The more universal your theme, the broader the reach of your work. It means the difference between words strung together and the work of an artist.

A theme is a frame (or a filter, or a lense) that allows you to look at an individual scene and ask yourself, “How is this interaction an exploration of my theme?” If the scene has no relation to the theme, either you need to revise it or out it goes.

A theme also handily keeps your characters out of self pity or self loathing. It gives them a way to look out at the world, not at their navals. The point is to find the meaning of the struggle, not to indulge in it.

Now, keep in mind that your character may not be conscious of the universality of their struggle. In fact, that can be part of the story! Say, when a person’s obsessions or drug of choice is ruining their life or the lives of those around them.

The first theme you uncover may not be the one that works for your story. It can take some trial and error to figure it out. But when you do find it you’ll know it. It’ll ping at you. Suddenly, your work and all of the individual scenes will make sense. You’ll know what is detritus and where to look for gold. You know what else? It will also give your story a great chance of reaching into your reader’s hearts and taking them on a thrilling ride.