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.

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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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.

Eight prescriptions for getting naked

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Writing is about reaching into our emotional selves and being honest; ‘getting naked,’ if you will. But so many of us have integrated the ‘stiff upper lip’ lessons of the world a bit too well to get naked easily.

Hey, I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m one of those. I need tools to help me get intimate with what I’m writing.

Prescriptions I’ve used for getting naked with a scene:*

  1. Senses: What are the smells, textures. Allow these to help you put yourself in your character’s shoes.
  2. Think visual: Write about what the room looks like. Even better, look for images that communicate the feeling you are trying to create.
  3. Find auditory inspiration: Think of a song that has the feel you want to create for the scene you are writing. Put it on and dance around the room or moan with the music. Consider the lyrics.
  4. Make your characters uncomfortable: Suffering from cramps, sneezing, stomach upset, headache. When irritable we either hide or show emotions more. Allow a character to take out their pain on the world around them, or hide it and close up like a clam.
  5. Use metaphor: Consider what the scene is metaphorically about. Is it about a couple breaking up? Perhaps something physical breaks, too. Are the character hiding things from each other? Maybe the lights go out or the room is dark.
  6. Write differently: For your first draft, try writing in long hand and not on a computer. This will allow you to throw ideas out more casually. You can doodle. You can arrange words visually on the page – one character’s words in one corner, another character’s in another.
  7. 2″ picture frame: Take Anne Lammott’s advice. That is, you don’t have to write the whole thing in one go. All you need to concentrate on when you’re writing is the next 2 sentences. That is, a 2″ picture frame. One meaningful moment.
  8. Shitty first drafts: What you write down the first time is not final. This is another Anne Lammott lesson: write a shitty first draft remembering that you’re going to come back. Great advice to follow, because editing is easier (and more fun) than writing a first draft. You can feel freer knowing that you’re coming back.

Scratch and peck at what you write down until you find the kernel that feels right. You’ll feel a ping. You’ll see it and know it’s absolutely right. When you get there, hold onto it tight and run.

* I call writing chunks scenes. They may be in a book, in a play, in a screenplay, but I still call them scenes. How do you know when a scene starts and ends? You just do. It’s the beat of the thing, right?