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

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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.

Do you suffer from performance anxiety?

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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.

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.

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.

To begin at the beginning…

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It seems to make sense doesn’t it? You begin your story at the beginning.

Well… maybe not.

You see, those first lines are extremely important. The beginning is the doorway into the world of your story. It sets a tone, introduces the setting, characters, the flavour of the story.

So, consider this metaphor: When building a house, the door is the last architectural component put in place.

So it should be with a story.

Your first line should entice. The first 3 paragraphs are like the foyer. It’s like you’re the cinematographer of a film and you need to guide the audience’s emotional attention. Do you need a panorama, an intimate moment, or something shocking?

In speaking about a novel’s introduction, Stephen King said, “An opening line should… say: Listen. Come in here.”

door3Reading is an experience. The purpose of the first few sentences is to immerse readers in that experience. Hurl them into the cold depths of the lake. Open a door to reveal a wondrous fairyland. Whisper in their ear, so intimate and seductive. Writing is a seduction.

To do this well, ask yourself: What is the essence of the lake or land of my story? Then, distill your opening into an elegant whiskey or wine, immersive and striking, irresistible.

What you’re trying to avoid

A typical problem of many first novels, is an opening made of writing warm ups. That is, back story, setting description, or banal day-to-day details with the main character doing things like brushing their teeth. It’s like opening the door to your guests wearing sweat pants.

Back story, description or details about things such as cooking dinner are not the makings of story; they are the writer’s homework. There things you as writer need to know — the intimate details of your character’s lives — but the reader doesn’t.

Details go in only when the reader needs to know because you need to convince them of something. And even then, description, back story, details need to go into the story in a way that adds meaning or depth, interest or intrigue. Anything that feels like a checklist should be remain in government websites or your notes.

A common substantive edit suggested to writers is to cut the first 5-20 pages of a book so it starts where the true action starts. Great writers do this before they give the book to someone to read.

door1Process suggestions

Get an idea for the opening? Throw it in your first chapter document in rough form. Don’t word-smith it, copy edit or try to create poetry. Get another idea? Add it in, too! The more the merrier.

Follow Anne Lammott‘s advice and write a “sh*tty first draft.” Heck, keep your first chapter crappy well into your second or third draft.

As you develop your story, things will shift and hopefully, the layers of relationships, the uniqueness of the characters, will deepen. So when it comes time to hang the door, you can better understand what kind of doorway your story needs.

To make sure you’ve got the goods, write a few versions and put them in a drawer for a month or two so you forget them. Work on the rest of your book during that time. Then look at them again with fresh eyes.

Finding your opening

Here are a few approaches. If you can think of others, leave a comment below.

  • Start with action > A bomb blows up. Someone walks through the door. A car accident. A man becomes suddenly blind while walking down the street, as if by magic.
  • Ominous > A statement or choice of words that hints that something bad’s going to happen.
  • Apt image or metaphor > What is the primary struggle of the story? Can you find an image or metaphor that begins that exploration? For example, if the central struggle is about breaking free,  show your character trapped in a supermarket line-up.  Or if your story is a voyage and return, force the main character through some kind of passage that allows them to enter that world.
  • Toy with expectations > Have your murdering dictator show kindness to a puppy. Show your innocent heroine lying to cover up a secret she doesn’t tell us.
  • Be provocative > What provocative idea does the situation in your story explore? Begin with a question or statement that provokes interest.

A few novel novel opening lines…

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” ― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” ― Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“The day the freight train hit my father, I was eight years old and in grave contemplation of our maple tree’s crown, shielding my eyes from the sunlight speared there.” ― Kirby Gann, The Barbarian Parade

“Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.” ― Edward P. Jones, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” ― William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ― George Orwell, 1984

A writer’s spices

Show versus tell in character development

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Do you remember what it was like to look at a page in a book before you could read? Letters were mysterious and powerful squiggles. Adults had the magical ability of interpreting the squiggles into language.

Like any change, when you learn something new you also lose something. You forget what it was like to not know. Once you can find middle C on a piano or tie your shoes, it’s hard to go back.

It’s this tendency to forget what we didn’t know that can get in the way of creating. You write “Uncle Fred has a warm smile” on the page,  but your imagination imbues those words with so much more.

A visual artist works on her skill of stripping away what she thinks she is drawing so she can draw what is actually there. The writer has the same challenge. Nowhere is this clearer than when developing a character based on someone known.

How warm is that smile?

You may write, “Uncle Fred has a warm smile.” You fill that warm smile with your memory, which is a selective beast. What your audience sees is like a movie where several frames are missing.

William Stanley

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If you decide to use Uncle Fred in your story, you need to look at him again, to see his spirit, not your memory of his spirit.

The spirit is revealed through actions — doing. This is where showing versus telling will be your guide…

…how Uncle Fred sweeps into the room touching everyone as he goes, leaning in so close the yummy musk he wears brushes my nostrils. I can hear his warm smile in his voice, it makes me want to lean in for a hug. After making the rounds he swirls into a chair, flicking his jacket flaps back as he sticks out his chest, ready to perform as master of ceremonies. His eyes jump from one person to the next and when the glance touches me it’s a gentle caress. He speaks with a voice that rings deep and yet tender like a Buddhist meditation bell, so resonant and full every person in the room is calmed to silence by it.

I went a little overboard in that paragraph to demonstrate, but the point was to use all the detail types…

  • Visual detail
  • Sensual detail
  • Smell
  • Movement
  • Music
  • Rhythm

These are a writer’s spices. For special scenes, the ones where you want cinematic detail, throw them all in and see how they work. But a fine meal can be ruined by overwhelming flavours. As writer, your job is to create a balanced experience — a balanced meal.

Choosing when to show — and how much — and when to tell is one of the fine lines a writer traverses. But you know what, it’s not really up to you.

Your story will tell you when. If you listen.

Listen well.

Look. Smell. Feel. Move. Sound. Beat.

What they don’t want

In playing a scene, an actor will ask herself, “what do I want?” That is, what does her character want from the other person in this scene?

Do I want this man to be my seducer? My victim? My best pal? What do I want to hear the other people in the scene say and why? Am I looking for flattery or confirmation? What are my goals?

Do I want to get married? Do I want the job? Do I want to see him suffer?

What a character wants helps the actor to determine the tactics they’ll use to get what they want. Are they flirty, firm or fidgety? Forceful, flowery or fretful?

It sounds all very manipulative, doesn’t it? And yes, it is. But come on, you do it, too. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ll be a bit more pouty than you need to be when declaring a case, or a bit more effervescent when faced with someone you fancy.

From a writing/acting perspective, thinking about a character’s wants helps you inject action into the scene. If a character has a goal, they aren’t going to sit there picking at their cuticles waiting for their life to change. They will do something. Actions betray their true desires, words don’t.

But what your characters don’t want can be just as, if not more, important to figuring out long-term motivations. I’d argue that their hopes for the future are bound up more with what they don’t want than what they do want.

Look to your own future. You don’t know what it holds. You can imagine, yes, but you don’t know for sure if the goal you’re striving for will satisfy you. You think you do. But at the same time, one thing you do know is, you don’t want to be…

  • a cubicle worker for the rest of your life
  • drunk every night like your mother
  • alone in the world
  • (insert your own or your character’s fear here)

In some ways, it is as though we head into the future running backwards, terrified of becoming one of those train wrecks we see spinning into the background as we hurl ourselves through time.

Just as in life, your characters are struggling to release themselves from something. So, in trying to figure out what they want from the future, try to consider what they are trying not to be, just as much as what they hope to be.

Stories are the means we use to “get away,” or escape. They are filled with characters trying to release themselves from a fate, a situation, a struggle.

A tragedy is a story where the hero discovers that what she thought she wanted comes at a price higher than she was willing to pay. She may think she wants to be queen, to discover the criminal who killed her father, or that she wants her son to demonstrate his love. She can taste what this satisfaction will be like with absolute certainty. She looks forward to it, fights for it at every turn. Consider, if you will, Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear.

Modern stories tend to morality tales where the hero always wins. They ‘win’ the throne, put the criminal behind bars, and the son buys her a mansion in the country. It is as though we need the happy ending because of… what?

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