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?

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Is all feedback useful?

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In my last post, Showing some skin, I discussed a letter I received in response to one of my plays way back in the early 90s. In this blog, I’ll point out the problems with that letter and how I might direct my younger self.

REVIEWING THE GATE KEEPERS

Us writers, we get all kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the feedback isn’t about our work, it’s about the person dishing it.

The letter I posted last week gave some positive feedback (I was drawn in) and negative feedback (and then I got lost). He kinda liked some parts of it, other parts he was just confused. But what was it he liked? There are no clues. What did he dislike? Again, no clues. Where he got lost, he gave questions (which all point to the character’s motivation and situation, so are legitimate). Yet, without specific references, half the feedback is a frustrating guessing game. He was giving his two cents and returning the script.

Of course gate keepers have the right to say pass/fail, yes/no. Many editors have learned to reject writing with the oblique phrase, “This is not for us.” Each time a writer receives feedback, one coping strategy is to recognize what type you’re receiving:

  • Star rating or Pass/fail: We want you to know we don’t want you.
  • Porridge: I kinda liked it, but I’m not going to tell you what I liked. I kinda didn’t like it, but not gonna share that either.
  • Smarty pants review: The reviewer is sooooo clever and they want you to know! The response is looooong, extremely critical, very directive. The editor is trying to turn your work into their own, because they don’t have the guts to write, so they’ll tell you how you’ve failed. It will feel like an attack. Disregard them.
  • Supportive feedback: Specific comments tied to character, plot development, style, tone, story type that help you to consider the work from a new perspective. May provide process options for you to try.
  • Am I missing any types? Add a comment.

My response to my younger self

When I conceived of this post, I thought it a great opportunity to demonstrate a typical review I provide writers. You see, I can’t post any real ones as those writers are trying for publication. They can’t have the dirty laundry of their initials drafts sitting up here on my blog, right? So this post seemed a great idea until I started writing it. Since you blog readers have not read the play, it was challenging to keep it brief and representative. So, here is my succinct version using my clinical / analytical voice.

Conflict déjà vu?

The central problem with the script is that the conflict is one-dimensional. This happens when the writer (me) walks around the story from only one or two points of view. A key symptom of this problem: The same type of conflict occurs over and over.

Here’s an over-simplified demo to make it obvious:

Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: No!
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: I gotta go to the washroom first.
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: Can you read me a story?

Note how there’s variety in John’s responses, but the mother says the same thing over and over again. In my play, the captors repeatedly ask Tamara to use the technology and she tries to convince them why she shouldn’t. Luckily, it was only 90 minutes long and I did use some creativity in how I repeated the conflict. Still… an audience wants more.

Another symptom of this problem is flat characters. I’d created one fully realized character who lives in an interesting time and community, but that was only a part of the spadework I needed to do as a writer. I also needed to consider the perspectives of the antagonist, Tamara’s family and the society as a whole.

Were I the dramaturge on this play I’d ask the writer these questions:

  • How does she really love and miss her family and former life? What made it hard to leave the world she knew?
  • What does the captor need from her? Why go to these lengths to get Tamara back? What ammunition does the captor have to tempt her? Hint: Look at your answers to questions about her family and life.
  • Is her captor who s/he seems to be? Perhaps they’re a robot who appears as a person? Or a robot with her mother’s (father’s, brother’s) mind installed on its hard drive?
  • What has happened in the world she left behind over the past year while she’s been away? Has all humanity been accidentally wiped out by robots or some artificial intelligence? Disease? Or are things the same? Select the dramatic intensity that relates to your theme.
  • What are the audience’s expectations for this story type? How do you not meet them? (I typically provide a list of requirements for each story type). How can you play with audience expectations? The play shows us a 1984 style interrogation. As a quick exercise, imagine the captor as a nurturing earth mother or as someone who looks like they’re from her tribe. Bring the character on stage in your imagination and get to know them. This will feed into the writing style you use, even if you don’t keep the character on stage.

Writing is a process. Each writer, like each actor, finds the processes that work for them. As a reviewer, I try to point out the symptoms I’m seeing and, based on my experience, give the writer a few ways to tune the work. And I always start each review with the same statement:  All feedback is an attempt of the reviewer to re-write the story in their own image. That’s good, because it means they’re engaged. Your reviewer is trying to figure out how they would relate to the story. But that’s also why a writer should never respond to feedback immediately. Go out on a rock and sit on it for a few days. Feel out what pings as true, then act on it.

Would you date your bad guy?

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Writers are usually quite diligent in developing their protagonist, the settings, the concept. All great stuff.

But there’s one area where I typically need to nudge and prod. That is, in developing the bad guy.

The thing is, the bad guy is where you’ll find your story meat. In thinking through what he wants and why, you’ll discover solid plot points that can fill out the narrative. Without this thinking, the story is half formed.

So let’s take a short walk in your bad guy’s shoes and see what we find. For simplicity, I use He for antagonist, She for protagonist.

Relationship sussing

  • What does your bad guy (he) want from the protagonist (her)?
    He wants her to be his [insert roles such as: cheerleader, seducer, mother]. More on roles.
  • What is his dream ending for the near and distant future of this relationship?
    When he imagines the best, best, best, possible outcome for this story what is it? How does your protagonist get in his way? What about his long term plans?

What’s his perspective?

  • According to him, what’s going on?
    Does he think something’s wrong, if so what? If not, why not? Like, if he’s the boss who considers his employees mere minions, then treating them as slaves is natural. No problem here. Your protagonist’s job is to help him see the problem or get out from under him.
  • If he loses, what does he lose? If he wins, what does he win?
    Why does it matter? How can you make this more dramatic to increase the stakes?
  • At each point in the story, how does he change his strategies?
    Does he need to adjust his tactics as the protagonist changes hers?

What is his character?

  • How is he egotistical, self-centered or judgemental?
    This is where you will find his blind spot. If yours is a supernatural or magical antagonist, this is where to find that human blind spot she can take advantage of. Consider what he hasn’t thought through all the way. How does he see himself as “above the line” while others are “below the line”?
  • What’s his dastardly plan to destroy the world?
    Develop that plan! Consider where it’s flawed. Did he focus on one aspect of the plan over another? What are the challenges he could face in seeing it through? Does he know the weak spots and try to hide them?
  • When he was five, what did his mother love about him?
    Even a nasty villain had a mother and she probably loved him. Was he fastidious? Curious? Demanding?
  • What does he do when he’s happy?
    Look at your answers to what his mother loved about him. Showing your bad guy as happy can be fun, interesting, round him out. Didn’t you just love Richmond Valentine’s love of films and McDonald’s in Kingsman?
  • What does he do when he’s sad, angry, frustrated?
    Is he a whiner? A pouter? A slam the door kinda guy? Vengeful? Hurt? More important, how do his reactions make him change his strategies?
  • What does he care about?
    What comforts him? Movies, a nice suit, a fine wine, great food. Or is there a person or animal he would do anything for?
  • What is his bad habit?
    Smoker, drinker, nail biter? Obsessive compulsive, worrier, anxiety prone, procrastinator? Whatever you choose, this will get in his way toward achieving his plan.
  • What is he most afraid of and why?
    This is his kryptonite, use it.
  • What is he running toward/away from and why?
    If she knows what he wants / doesn’t want in life, maybe she can thwart his desired path.
  • What’s he trying to hide and why?
    Failure, shame, regrets, embarrassments? The best characters always have something they’re hiding, maybe even from themselves.

Phew! That’s a lot of questions. Some will apply, others won’t. After one pass go through them again and fine tune your answers.

What’s the tree?

A simplified synopsis of story structure goes like this:

  • Get your character up a tree.
  • Throw rocks at her.
  • Get your character out of the tree.

So, by looking at your antagonist you’re asking yourself, “What kind of tree am I putting her in?” The answers will give you ideas for the rocks you throw at your protagonist and how to get her out of that tree.

There’s another bonus to looking at your story from your antagonist’s perspective; you’ll see your protagonist as the bad guy. Like looking at her in the mirror, you’ll see her flaws more keenly. Be sure to burnish those flaws, they’ll make your protagonist more relatable, more believable, more real.

Back to the antag for one last note: He has to be at all three climaxes in your story. If he’s not, you’ve got the wrong antagonist. See my primer on plot structure for more.

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.