Friday, July 18, 2014

Author's Road Interviews Cara Black



By our very nature, we are storytellers. And most of us have experienced going to someplace new and hearing a story we thought would make a great poem, short story, novel, maybe a movie. Perhaps we’d note it in our journal, re-tell it to a friend, and sometimes go that one more step and draft the story.
Our latest interviewee, bestselling mystery writer, Cara Black, went all the way. It required several years, dozens of classes and critique groups, reams of drafts, but she managed to write a novel about a mystery in her favorite city, Paris, solved by her heroine, Aimée Leduc and Aimée's friends.

Since that first novel Cara has managed each year to add a new, compelling mystery centered in different neighborhoods (arrondissements) inside The City of Light. She’s now published her fourteenth novel in the bestselling series, and she is working on mapping out her future works.

We were thrilled when she agreed to meet with us in her home overlooking San Francisco. And we were even more excited when towards the end of the interview she shared a literary surprise that spans across the series of her novels.

But have no fear, this isn’t a spoiler alert. You have to watch the interview to learn what it is.

George, Salli & Ella

Next Up: Bestselling popular science writer (and lecturer), Mary Roach

Thanks for . . .

. . . joining us . . .

. . . on the road!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering a Story's Details



In the July 2014 issue of Discovery Magazine (Hold That Thought, p 30-33), scientist Elizabeth Phelps, a past president of the Association for Psychological Science and a psychologist at New York University, is interviewed about memory. She speaks in the article that recalling memories shows activation in two parts of the brain. Recalling details about ‘physical locations and layouts’ activates the posterior parahipocampus. When we recall the feelings associated with memories, ‘we see more amygdala involvement.’

In tests, Phelps found that ‘we’re set up to capture time and place.’ That makes it easier to recall such details, an evolutionary advantage.

When I work with struggling authors, I often find a focus on those details and much less a focus on the feelings of characters. I believe the way our brain functions makes it easier for new writers to come up with those details. Such a focus risks becoming tedious, however, reducing a story to a series of descriptions of events. I call this writing style ‘watch the movie and write down the details.’

A bigger problem with this style of writing is that readers often access a story’s characters through the feelings events generate. To leave out those feelings denies readers a prime entry point into a character’s inner life and goals. This is especially true when a main character becomes a kind of automaton, recording visual details.

To help such writers, I have them write out beside each paragraph the feelings of the main character in the scene and how the events of the scene impact and change that character’s feelings. If those feelings don’t change, nothing has happened in the scene to impact the character and, generally, not the reader, either.

The subtle trap here is that those situations and places might evoke feelings in the author, which makes them symbolic to the author and meaningless to the reader, evoking nothing (except perhaps irritation).

All hugely successful stories are journeys of feeling for readers, supported by details of time and place. If you’re telling a story, take care to convey those feelings in a way your readers can share the story journey.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Friday, June 6, 2014

When a Middle Fails a Beginning and End



Maleficent, a new film starring Angelina Jolie, has a wonderful opening and a wonderful close, but the middle seriously sags. Why that happens speaks to a problem with story structure.

The film opens with Jolie as a mythical creature and a young girl who watches over and protects the Moor, where other creatures like pixies roam. Humans occupy a nearby kingdom. Each mostly keep to their realm until a young man enters the Moor to steal a jewel and is caught by Jolie. They become friends, grow up together, and she falls in love with him.

When the nearby king fails in an attack on the Moor, the young man uses Jolie's love for him to take her wings and get himself appointed king. This sets up a central question, will she get revenge? She curses the new king's daughter so that when she reaches 16, she will fall into a deep sleep that can only be woken from a kiss of true love.

In this middle section, Maleficent watches over the girl, whom she clearly and deeply loves. As the girl gets to know Maleficent, she comes to love her like a mother. But this section of the movie mostly keeps the king scheming to destroy Maleficent off-stage, and there's no real drama around seeing Maleficent care for the girl. Beautifully acted by Jolie, yes; the narrative tension necessary to sustain the movie, no.

Narrative tension is generated when a character has a clear goal accessible to a story's audience, and is blocked from achieving that goal. When an audience has internalized a character achieving that, the narrative tension is transferred to the audience. This is what makes a story compelling.

Maleficent has no narrative tension in its middle section, so the drama of the story sags.

Jolie's wonderful performance can't make up for that.

Jolie as an actress had the same problem in the movie Changeling. Great performance, no narrative tension.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When a Mystery is a Mystery



My starting point for exploring story structure was a class taught by a literary agent at the time, David Morgan, who had studied with Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!). Egri taught that a story has a premise, character+conflict=resolution. But my background in science fiction had shown me that some stories don't have human characters, or characters at all. In science fiction, some characters embody ideas, not human emotions in conflict. And in literary fiction, some stories also have characters who embody ideas (Camus' The Plague, how middle-class people deal with impending death).

I decided a premise would be a dramatic issue, movement, and the movement of that issue to fulfillment.

Later I found it easier for students to think of a story's core dramatic issue as its promise, and that a storyteller could begin a story with the introduction of its promise and moving it toward its fulfillment.

The science fiction film Under the Skin demonstrates how a story can revolve around ideas more than characters. The main character is an alien that takes on the body of a young female. She/it then goes out seducing young men into a liquid that dissolves their bodies into a slurry fed into a mostly hidden chamber. The alien has only a basic understanding of human communication.

When the alien picks up a young man who has a horribly disfigured face, the alien clearly can't tell the difference, but it does come to take pity on the young man, who is not killed and dissolved. This act of mercy separates the alien from its human male-appearing handlers. It goes off with a man it meets at a bus stop. When the man attempts to initiate sex, the alien has no idea how a male penis and female vagina interact. She runs off, is found in some woods by a rapist, who, when he pulls off some of the alien's human covering, comes back with a can of gas and sets the alien on fire. The alien appears to die, or at least the body it's in dies.

The film seems to be a story about how the alien developing feelings of human compassion doom it.

I'm sure others who watched the film could come to other, equally valid conclusions. This is a film where things happen with no explanation.

For this kind of film to work, a film maker needs to have something to say. The director has something to say, but he's not saying it in the traditional, Hollywood style film that typically offers an accessible main character with a clearly defined issue of human need who transports the story's audience to the fulfillment of its promise. Here, the viewer must interpret what happens and what it means.

Under the Skin does, in its own way, explore the ideas it generates, about how an alien might interact with humans, unlike a film like Prometheus that generates ideas (Jesus was an alien) but doesn't explore them.

Under the Skin is beautiful shot, directed, composed, acted, and edited, so it is a pleasure to experience while it unfolds on the screen. People who like challenging films should give this a view.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Love in the Movies



When you watch a film like Sleepless in Seattle, you know Ryan and Hanks will find and love each other. Just as easily, in six months they could go through the world's ugliest divorce. There's nothing in the film that really conveys they have intimate feelings for each other. Other Hollywood films might get the main characters into bed but they end up in the same place, two actors pretending to be in love because that's what they are being paid to do.

Then along comes Only Lovers Left Alive, a new film by Jim Jarmusch. To get this out of the way, I love his films, and the way they ask me to think and experience what I see on the screen. What Lovers also conveys through its two main characters is what an intimate relationship between two loving, sexual adults looks like. Watching the film I believed these two characters love each other.

I don't often see this in films, partly I suspect because there aren't many actresses of the caliber of Tilda Swinton. The last time I recall seeing kind of intimacy was in the Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon and Franka Potente. As the two characters became close and fell in love, I could see why he would go through hell to avenge her death.

It does take time to create this kind of relationship, and good acting, and Jarmusch takes the time with two wonderful actors.

As a story, Only Lovers Left Alive is about managing the mundane in an immortal life.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Friday, May 30, 2014

When a Movie Makes Odd Choices



Notes on Godzilla

Godzilla opens with something huge escaping from an underground cavern in the Philippines, then a nuclear reactor disaster in Japan that takes the life of an American working at the plant, the wife of an engineer played by Bryan Cranston.

Jump ahead 15 years. He's become crazed trying to prove something caused the disaster, that it wasn't a problem with the reactors failing. His now adult son, in the military, doesn't believe him but is willing to join him in a trip into the closed off disaster zone, where they find zero radioactivity. They are quickly captured by the people guarding the secret of what happened, and soon Cranston is dead and a monster that eats radioactive material is unleashed.

So, we've lost what seemed to be the main character, and the monster unleashed is NOT Godzilla, and the son isn't clearly defined as a character. He helps a child find its parents, he's involved in the military mission to try and kill the now TWO monsters that are not Godzilla, and kill Godzilla, too. But he doesn't feel connected to any deeper purpose (other than reconciling briefly with his father); he's just a guy doing his job.

Along the way, many minor characters are given the kind of screen time that would have an impact if the story were more clearly defined. They are simply people responding to a crisis. I never thought I'd see a film where Juliette Binoche made zero impression.

I didn't understand why Bryan Cranston wasn't the main character who is seeking to avenge his wife's death and the humiliation of his warning about what was coming being ignored. I also didn't understand why Godzilla was reduced to the role of a minor character.

In a sense, the movie is trying to be realistic, but it's not realistic that a creature like Godzilla could exist without being noticed or registering on some kind of scientific instruments. In the recent film Battleship it was preposterous that a bunch of old sailors could quickly get an aged Battleship back to sea in fighting condition. But the movie wasn't trying to be realistic, so I just enjoyed the second run, low cost matinee show. They did it with a wink, and I was happy to slyly wink back and think 'bravo!' when the old coots saved the day.

Not so with Godzilla. Visually, the soldiers sky diving into San Francisco was cool. That was about it for me being thrilled watching the film. Monsters destroying stuff is just CGI to me now.

Odd choices all around.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Acting as a Lens into Character



I recently saw the French film Bicycling With Moliere. It's about a successful actor on a popular drama; he's recognized and pretty much adored wherever he goes. He's decided to prove his chops as an actor by performing Moliere's The Misanthrope with an actor leading a reclusive life on an island. That actor agrees to consider doing the play, but only if they switch doing the lead role during the performance, and if the successful actor will rehearse the play with him for a week.

What I found intriguing in the movie is how, as the actors switch roles in the play, the choices they make for delivering lines speaks to something deeper that animates each man. By the time the popular actor appears in the play and loses his way, it's clear from his rehearsals that he lost his way years before. The busyness of his successful life allowed him to maintain a cheerful, in control facade.

The realization for the reclusive actor is that he can't go back to living among the feral wolves, which is how he sees the people who revolve around the successful actor.

The acting in the movie is subtle and playful, but the story does take each actor to a deeper place.

Actors like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson became successful, in part, because they choose roles (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) that took their characters to a place where a facade was replaced by a deeper state of human feeling. When you come across a hugely successful film or story, you'll generally find that transformation of character. It's a journey audiences love to experience.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.