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.

 

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#Social Music

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“If you’re going to tell a story, come with some attitude, man.”

Writing about music isn’t easy. It’s tempting to write about the music itself. Problem is, music isn’t a thing, per se. All stories are about relationships. Music, like novels or films, are a container for those relationships. Echo chambers that capture who we are. So, to write about the power of music, one must write about relationships.

In creating Miles Ahead Don Cheadle captures where music comes from beautifully. The movie stitches together two inter-related stories. In one, we meet Miles stuck in a five-year artistic slump, an aging man in a gnarly housecoat limping around his apartment. It is a vast 1970’s palace, with a spiral staircase, a baby grand piano, a disco dance hall of a kitchen and a semi-circular lounge area waiting for an audience to watch the dancers dance. Those glittering days long gone, the space Miles limps through is littered with papers, garbage and bottles. A festering womb. Miles listens to a reel-to-reel tape as if trying to find something in the sound. As he listens, all we hear is the roar of a crowd and a sportcaster calling a boxing match.

Then in a flash we are shown his first wife, Frances Taylor, resplendent in blue in the apartment during its glory days. She stands regal by the piano, confident, and yet vulnerable. She is grace, beauty, a confection of a young woman.  She escapes up the spiral staircase, away from Miles who is stuck forward in the late ’70s, struggling to find where or how his muse disappeared.

These two stories intertwine through quick cuts and flashbacks. Cheadle fuses film techniques with theatrical over and again. Similar to BirdMan in its use of stagecraft, but where that movie never got me to care about the stakes, this movie packs emotional meat. And it is dripping.

My fave use of theatrical convention: A door that opens up into the past.

Miles is in an elevator at Columbia records. He came asking for money and was turned down. They can’t give him more money until he delivers music. The elevator walls display album covers (Davis’ Sketches of Spain next to Bob Dylan). He leans into them, listening, hearing what he once was. He pushes at the back of the elevator. The wall becomes a door opening into a club. He walks into the past, walks on stage, and he is playing at his prime.

Emotional progress doesn’t come to us through words, but through tableau, images that convey so much more in less time.

On the call to his wife Frances, he convinces her to fly home from London (where she is dancing to rave reviews). After the call, he walks into their bedroom where two women lay naked, intertwined in the sheets on the bed. Collections of polaroids unwind across the sheets, the screen: Miles and these women doing drugs, having sex, doing drugs.

Miles asks Frances to give up her career, which she does and the fights begin. We aren’t given the laundry list of reasons for their each disagreement. Not needed.

Frances and Miles fling bottles at each other. They fall, breaking furniture, both bruised and stunned. He runs away to his studio where musicians wait for him as she cries on the sofa. When she wakes up the next morning in bed, on the bed next to her, in Miles’ place, is a diamond and ruby necklace. On the bedside table are white roses, in a box a fur coat. He enters, sits behind her and pulls the necklace onto her neck, fastening the clasp and then holding her. Cheadle doesn’t tell us how she is trapped, he shows us and in doing so, we feel the noose of those diamonds.

Music is the crease in our hearts flung into the air with a gasp. It is emotion distilled into sound so it has a physical presence, a resonance, a beat.

Miles Ahead is a stunning example of how to bring the thing that is music to life, by showing us what music captures: our passions.

“Play wrong strong.”

Miles

What’s missing from your story?

Spoilers in here for Gone Girl, The Meaning of Everything and The Circle. 

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The most riveting aspect of some stories is what’s not there.

What would happen if, on the first page of a murder mystery, the author exposed the murderer, how the victim was abducted, tortured and then brutally killed?

Gone would be the experience for the audience to ponder the suspects, to learn inch-by-agonizing inch where the murderer did it, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. In other words, there wouldn’t be a mystery at all.

What keeps us reading is the missing information — the things we don’t know. Some things are hinted at but not spelled out, other things just seem odd. Little clues are planted by the writer to keep us guessing, pondering, thinking.

When we’re thinking, we’re engaged and keep turning pages. That’s why murder mysteries are so popular: our brains go click, click, click as we try to figure out who is guilty.

But missing information isn’t just for murder mysteries. All genres, including non-fiction, can benefit from keeping secrets from the audience. In The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the key contributor of entries politely turns down invitations from the editor to attend events or meet, yet submits volume after volume of beautiful work. Eventually the editor goes to this contributor’s address to thank him in person. At the address is an insane asylum.

Missing information is the striptease of storytelling. It creates tension and surprise. It turns the story in a new direction, or reveals the reason for odd behaviour.

In Gone Girl, Amy has gone missing. Her husband, Nick, tells us that he’s lying to the police, but doesn’t tell us what he is lying about. He admits to having a temper, to hating his wife, and never fully says that he’s innocent. Meanwhile, he has a disposable cell phone that keeps ringing. He doesn’t answer. He wants to throw it out. The missing information: he’s having an affair. He looks guilty because he feels guilty.

In some stories, the secret is not something hidden by a character, but the author. Again in Gone Girl, Amy’s journals are a fiction created by the character, but the reader doesn’t know this. She learned of Nick’s affair and is furious enough to doggedly plot and plan her revenge for months. She creates a journal that leaves a trail of clues that show her as the good guy and Nick as an angry, brutal husband. As we continue to read years of faked entries, we grow to like this fictional Amy, even if there are aspects that seem a little too perfect or a tad too cliche. Half way through the book her ruse is revealed and we meet the very sick puppy that Amy is. Someone capable of knifing herself so she bleeds until she’s faint, who plans on killing herself to enact her revenge.

The biggest piece of missing information a storyteller can create (methinks) is to serve us the bad guy as the good guy. When we discover the truth, it turns our world upside down. We’re forced to revisit all that has come before, click, click, click. It’s a trend I’ve noticed in a few novels of late.

In The Circle, for example, Mae is established as the protagonist, hired by a Google-like conglomerate in a low-level job. At first she struggles in her new role. But as the story progresses and she buys into the company’s mantra to the point of turning in friends, we realize that perhaps she isn’t the one we should be rooting for.

Turning your protagonist into the antagonist is a ginormous leap to take. You don’t need to go that far unless you have a good reason.

What skeletons are rattling in the closet?

Other opportunities for missing information lie in the shameful fact a character wants to keep hidden, until…. The person your character doesn’t want to face because…  An unsavoury ambition, such as Amy’s goal of seeing her husband fry… A secret from long ago never shared, such as a child who was given away… A vice they’re trying to hide, such as drugs, smoking or pornography. That uncle who drinks too much and then gets in his truck as everyone in the family looks the other way. The death (or other event) that didn’t happen exactly as now told. An object with a significance never shared. Something that didn’t happen, but was very much wanted, such as the pregnancy in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

Look for it in positive emotions as well as bad ones. A character can be hoping for something to happen in the future, such as someone to return from the past. Do remember that a key theme of many fairy tales: Be careful what you wish for.

Your job as writer is to slowly peel away the secrets, layer by layer. To give your audience a striptease that makes them wonder what’s next, what’s real, what’s not? To yearn for more. To make them think.

The question to ask yourself: How far will my character go until they are forced to reveal their secret? Then, take the character to that place, because that’s the writer’s job.

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 plot works

Sahara. Camels.

There are two ways to look at your story: Up close and  far away. Magnified and in landscape.

MAGNIFIED:  The words on the page.

LANDSCAPE:  The arc of the story and the points that get you there.

The landscape view is what plot is all about.

The mechanics of plot
A plot timeline look like this:

 beginning. middle. end.

  • He came. He saw. He conquered.
  • Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.
  • Beginning. Middle. End.

Each section has a purpose. If you’re like me and get lost in the moment to moment of your stories, understanding the purpose of each section will help you differentiate between essential scenes and fluff.

beginning  } introduction

middle } development

end } resolution.

Notice the frames which enclose these three parts? There are four of them, right?

The frame of 3=4

These ‘frames’ are your writing tools.

The parts
The five mechanical parts of a plot are:

  • Inciting Incident (ii)
  • First Climax (I)
  • Midpoint
  • Second Climax (II)
  • Third Climax (III)

You may know the term ‘climax’ under a different name: ‘Turning point’, ‘Plot point’. They’re the same thing. Use the term you feel most comfortable with.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each.

Inciting Incident (ii):
The event that incites the action of the story. The catalyst that sets the question or engine of the story, in motion.

Examples:

  1. Aunt Mary, who lives two thousand miles away, walks in your door, plops down her bags and says “I’m moving in,” and that’s when it all begins.
  2. Romeo & Juliet:  Those Montague boys crash the Capulet party.
  3. Star Wars: Princes Leia places her request with the droids.
  4. Wizard of Oz: The neighbourhood witch takes the dog away, but the dog breaks loose and comes back as a tornado wreaks havoc.
  5. Blindness:  A motorist instantly and inexplicably becomes blind and causes an accident (Saramago’s Nobel Prize winning book of 1997).

In film there’s a rule that the inciting incident has to appear in the first twelve minutes. For thrillers it comes in the first scene: a bomb explodes, secret documents are stolen, someone is murdered…

Until the inciting incident happens the audience doesn’t know what the story is about.

Climax: A general definition
The good guy and the bad guy (protagonist versus antagonist) have a stand-off. The result: win, lose draw. 

As a result something happens. The story spins in a new direction. 

First Climax: a decision
In the first climax, the main character has her first run in with the antagonist. She makes a decision that commits her to the story until the end.

  • Star Wars: Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he decides to join the rebel forces.
  • The Crying Game: Fergus can’t kill the British Soldier and lets him go.
  • Romeo & Juliet: They’re getting married!
  • You decide that Aunt Mary can have the spare room for as long as she needs.

The decision is not announced, it’s shown through action. The decision your character makes and the actions that follow reveal something about their character.

When Luke discovers his dead uncle and aunt he could have crawled into a bar and ordered a beer, or he could take action. Because he decided to join the rebel forces, it reveals something about his character. If he chose the bar route it would have revealed something else.

With the decision the character is committing themselves to the story. The only way out of their commitment is to go through the rest of the story.

With Luke, he’s leaving his planet and is  on a ship travelling across the galaxy. Try and get out of that easily.

The first climax occurs one third of the way into your story. In a feature film it’s about 30 minutes in. Next time you watch a movie, see if you can find this point.

Another characteristic of this climax, it sets up the action for the second act.

In the case of Aunt Mary, suddenly she’s moving in. A truck shows up at your door with all of her furniture, she’s doing yoga in the living room and serving wine to your children at dinner. In other words, she’s turned your world upside down. Mayhem ensues.

The second act

From the first climax to the second is the hardest part to write. If the first act is getting your character up a tree, the second act is throwing rocks at them. By “rocks” I mean the little complications that are forcing them to get what they want. Relationships are developing and changing in little steps.

In an overcoming the monster story, this is when our hero is travelling to meet the monster, learning as she goes.

In a romance, this is the back and forth of wanting and not wanting, dating and misinterpreted actions.

All of the steps lead to the…

The midpoint: I hadn’t thought of that!

A sideways barrel roll of the roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the midpoint. The antagonist is not present, but something happens that skews the story in some way. The midpoint provides a change in pace and often causes your main character to look at their situation from a new perspective.

In many story types, new information shows up or old information resurfaces and it changes everything.

In a murder mystery, perhaps a small fact leads the detective to think in a different way. In a voyage and return story our heroes race toward what they think is the doorway out, but it’s a dead end. In a romance, the girl is about to give up on the relationship when she learns something (old or new) about the guy, and it turns her attitude around. Or a character is reminded of a past event, and it changes everything.

Midpoints are sometimes non-events pretending to be events. In a quest story, the adventurers survive a waterfall. In a horror story, a rumbling in a closet turns out to be a kitten.

There is only one thing story geeks can agree on regarding midpoints: They happen in the middle.

Second climax: deep doo-doo
At the second climax your main character battles the antagonist and either loses or the result is a draw. Why? Because if they win the story is over.

Stories are, in essence, about transformation. Your character has to change by the end. It is in the second climax where they try to win but can’t because they haven’t quite changed enough.

As a result of this battle, they realize that they need to change their approach the situation. Through this shift, they grow and change. 

In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobe dies, our heroes escape the Death Star, but just barely. Romeo is misinformed, told that Juliet is dead and he returns from Padua.

Third climax
The hero fights the final battle and wins or loses. If it’s a comedy or morality tale, the hero wins. If it’s a tragedy, they lose.

For all stories, the third climax unravels the story. Luke destroys the Death Star, Romeo dies; You start taking Aunty Mary’s yoga classes.

A correction
I need to make a correction to the graphs I used above.

plot

The purple line is a timeline. The green boxes show the placement of the inciting incident and climaxes. The black line is the action. Note how the action falls slightly after a climax before you enter the next section of the story. Roller coaster!

Also note the proportional differences between beginning – middle – end. In a movie, the beginning (first act) is 30 minutes; the middle (second act) 40 minutes; the end (third act) is not over 20 minutes. This is formula. But a very flexible formula.

Next time you go to a movie, time it. See if you can figure out the different plot points. Doing this with each story you encounter will help you to find these story components in your own work.

How to use this knowledge
Figuring out plot points takes practice, especially with your own work. And even harder if your struggle isn’t good guy v. bad guy. Don’t sweat it. This is a tool. It gives you a different way to look at your story. The more you use the tool the more useful it will become.

"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself." - Truman Capote

"It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them." - T.S. Eliot

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.