Thursday, December 26, 2013

Virginia Woolf, To the River

by Bill Johnson



To the River is a short video about the creative life and death of author Virginia Woolf. It features photos from her life and a voice over by actress Lizzy Shannon. The video explores Virginia's feelings about creativity and marriage, using quotes from her life. It can be viewed at YouTube.

I wrote the script and edited the video, which is the first in a series. The next author will be Oscar Wilde, then Mark Twain.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Perceiving a Director's World View

by Bill Johnson

The Great Beauty, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is about an aging author who wrote one book when young that gave him entre into the night life of Rome. His barbed wit and interviews eventually made him an arbitrator of what made a party cool (his presence) or not cool (his absence).

Reviews call the film Felliniest because of the set up (creatively stuck main character, similar to the director in 8 1/2), and visual references to Federico Fellini films, a young girl around jaded adults and a reference to a sea monster (La Dolce Vita).

In Beauty, the opening third of the film has a surface resemblance to Fellini, but a comparison of the two directors and their work reveal a difference in the mind-set of the directors. Fellini loved people, and his films reflect that; the art of his films reflect that. Paolo is more artist as observer. He creates beautiful, lovely images, but they lack that underlying warmth.

An example of a Hollywood film described as Felliniest is Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton. Again we have the same kind of images (an adult son learns that his father's apparent boastful, fanciful lies had some basis in reality), but one character is set up to be assaulted in a kind of standard, he's standing in the way of the main character so he deserves to be beaten up, that conveys a lack of warmth for the characters in the film.

Because Fellini was a great artist and film maker, his techniques down to the composition of his scenes is often copied by others.

When I read manuscripts, particularly troubled manuscripts, I often find that the writer is creating a work to act out their inner drama, but failing to realize they are the sole audience for their work. They aren't reaching out to connect to an audience. The result is stories that have vague main characters (who, as actors, have their back turned to the audience while they perform for their creators).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Film Night at the Willamette Writers House

WW office manager Bill Johnson hosts a movie night at the Cynthia Whitcomb Writing house on Friday, December 20th, at 7 pm. He'll show and break down scene by scene the movie Memento. Bill breaks down popular films as a way to teach story structure. The evening would be a good resource for anyone entering a script in FilmLab, or writing a screenplay or novel.

Bill breaks down other movies, books, and plays at his website at http://www.storyispromise.com Bill is also the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling.

The event is free, but a $5 donation is requested.

Film Notes:

Memento offers a great example of how to introduce both a story's promise and its plot. Both are conveyed in the opening moments of the film when a character about to die tells the story's main character, "You know who were; you don't know who you are. If you want to know who you are, go look in the basement."

This introduces the main character's central issue, identity, and the main thrust of the plot, what will he find in the basement?

To get to the answers, the story moves back in time, but in terms of story structure, it moves forward toward answering those questions.

I've found that struggling writers introduce some kind of plot question, but often fail to introduce a story's promise. This failure means there's nothing that cues readers/viewers to what a story is about. This forces readers to memorize details until they have an understanding of the direction a story is going. It makes a story work, not the pleasure one gets from a film like Memento that transports its audience.

Friday, December 20, 2013

7:00 PM to 9:30 PM

Willamette Writers Writing House

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Shopping With My Girlfriend

It was a boutique, mostly women's high end clothes. Most of the men were wandering around aimlessly or following three feet behind girlfriends and wives. The women were so focused they seemed to be guided around the shop point by point by lasers, while the men had a look in their eyes that said, "Tarqet Acquisition Failure; Abort Mission, Abort!"

I found a comfortable chair to sit in and ignored the Abort Mission messages.

I don't shop. I go into a store to buy something and get out as fast as I can. Unless I'm buying JoJos. That's something that can't be rushed. Or Diet Soda. In restaurants I ask to sniff the cork to make sure I'm getting a good vintage.

Bill

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Authors Road Interviews George R.R. Martin

As we’ve traveled the country talking with writers and experts on authors, we’ve come to understand that this remarkable group is first and foremost storytellers. Since earliest times, these are the people in our cave-clans, tribes, castes and social circles who have that special gift to enrapture, instruct and inspire us with tales of myth, truth, daring and insight.

George R.R. Martin is one of the world’s modern storytellers who has for years spun his legends and kept us watching, listening, and reading. He has been telling fantastical tales since he was a child, and his genres are most often fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His mediums have included comic books, short stories, bestselling novels, and episodic as well as epic television programs and series starting with Twilight Zone and continuing to the current HBO blockbuster series, Game of Thrones. And his art has been acknowledged with bestselling worldwide sales, and numerous awards, including his selection in the 2011 Time 100, those people the magazine named as the most influential people in the world.

This last summer we had the great fortune to visit Martin at his writing studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We filmed our interview with him in an elegant room with two walls filled with dioramas of miniatures engaged in medieval war, science fiction disasters, and flights of fancy – a fitting backdrop for our talk.

We are so very pleased and proud to share with you our interview with our 38th writer, George R.R. Martin.

And more:

Recently the tables were turned on us as we were the subject of two media interviews. If you’re interested in hearing us, or reading more about us, please check out the following:

On Oregon Public Radio’s, Think Out Loud: https://soundcloud.com/thinkoutloudopb/the-authors-road-chronicling

And in a Portland Tribune newspaper, Boom: http://portlandtribune.com/bnw/21-news/202348-george-and-sallis-excellent-adventure

And last, to one and all: Thanks for your continued support and encouragement, and our fondest wishes to all for a Most Happy New Year.

George, Salli & Ella

Next Up: Bestselling author and writing professor,

Pam Houston

Thanks for . . .

. . . joining us . . .

. . . on the road!

Authors Road

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Documentaries as Illumination

by Bill Johnson

A powerful effect of a well-made documentary is its power to illuminate an unknown corner of the world. Such a documentary is Muscle Shoals, about the beginning of a small music studio in Alabama that became the recording studio and provided the musicians for a number of soul artists, including Percy Sledge singing When a Man Loves a Woman.

The founder of the FAME recording studio, Rick Hall, was a fairly young Alabama wastrel turned music producer, and the house band was, in the beginning, just about all local Alabama white boys.

I had not the slightest clue they were the musicians backing artists like Arethea Franklin, Wilson Picket, and other soul singers.

When some members of this house band left and set up a 2nd, soon to be famous recording studio in the same small town, they were recording bands like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

I love documentaries that take me into a corner of the world unknown to me.

A few other recent examples of such documentaries include The September Issue, about the senior editor and founder of Vogue Magazine putting out what would be the largest issue of the magazine; and Buddha’s Lost Children, about a Thai kick boxer who becomes a monk committed to a path of peace. Well, mostly that until some rowdy young men think they can disrupt his group. When he’s off on a journey and a horse goes down in an accident, his group set up camp to wait until their companion the horse can travel again.

Amazing documentary.

A few other of my favorites... Kabul Beauty School, about beauticians who go to Afghanistan to teach hairdressing and the power of getting what you want in life through affirmations to some Afghan stylists who risked murder under the Taliban for working in secret to ply their trade; and The Fog of War, with Robert McNamara (the Donald Rumsfeld of his time) admitting he didn’t have a clue why the Vietnamese wanted the United States out of Viet Nam.

Instant viewing on some of the paid services make it much easier for me to check out documentaries I missed.

If you only watch Hollywood big-budget features, you’re missing some real treats.

I'm just home from watching Spinning Plates, about three restaurants, one rated #7 in the world, a buffet style restaurant that's been open for 150 years, and a struggling, new, Mexican restaurant in Arizona. The documentary takes us deep into the lives and dreams of the people who run and manage these restaurants. Another wonderful example of how a film like this can transport an audience into another world.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit http://www.storyispromise.com/prenuptial.htm

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Capsule Movie Review - Solaris

by Bill Johnson

I enjoy writing capsule movie reviews that explore principles of storytelling. The first I'm posting here is a review of the movie Solaris. The goal of these capsule reviews isn't just to review the movie, but to set out what about a particular movie created either the mechanics that helped a movie transport its audience, or some of the causes of that failure to transport.

In general, any big-budget Hollywood film that fails to find and satisfy its intended audience will have flawed mechanics.

Other, more recent capsule reviews can be found on my website.

A Capsule Review of Solaris

posted 12/12/2002

This film has gotten some weak reviews that call the storytelling slow, and a few suggestions that Clooney wasn't right for the part. My take, the story has a basic flaw in its structure. The initial set up is fine. Clooney is a therapist who clearly is unable to process through his grief about something that happened to his wife. He accepts an assignment to investigate what's happening on a space station orbiting a planet named Solaris. When Clooney arrives, he finds blood, dead people, and two survivors. One of the survivors tells Clooney he'll understand what's happening as soon as he sleeps. When he does, his dead wife shows up.

So far, strong, interesting plot, and strong story question about what Clooney will do about the return of his dead wife. But a problem in structure derails the plot. Most of the middle section of the film is flashbacks about Clooney meeting and falling in love with his seriously disturbed wife in parallel with scenes on the ship with the replica of his wife. There's no real drama or narrative tension around Clooney meeting, dating, and falling in love with his future wife, so that aspect of the story drags. There are long, long shots of Clooney trying to decide what to do about the replica of his wife. These scenes also drag because of an overuse of close ups.

This story structure problem isn't something that Clooney as an actor can overcome. Another problem, this is a film that aims to be about ideas, but there are no serious ideas explored in Clooney's relationship with his wife, or the question of why a therapist would marry someone so emotionally disturbed (serious mood swings, depression, suicidal to the degree that she kills herself). All these scenes with Clooney and his wife look great, but they don't have a deeper point. This lack of a clear sub text pulls down the film.

The plot picks up speed when Clooney and one paranoid survivor who wants to destroy the replica of Clooney's wife must make a decision about what to do. Then it comes out at the end that what the story was about wasn't just Clooney getting a cosmic second chance with his wife, but his forgiving her for his role in her suicide. The film doesn't acknowledge the anger the dead wife felt toward him that she would punish him by killing herself, or that he would have to be seriously disturbed to want to be with her, then to stay with her, or to want to be with her again after the hell she's put him through. But none of that is apparent about his character. Clooney is asked to play a character who's moral and thoughtful when what's underneath that persona is not in the film. The film ends up having a glossy surface and not much underneath.

So, the fulfillment of the story is interesting, just not developed in a clear, powerful way. Because the ending doesn't fulfill what came before, the climax of the plot doesn't generate the power it might have.

The movie does explore some ideas about the nature of reality.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit http://www.storyispromise.com/prenuptial.htm

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thoughts on Getting a Play Produced

by Bill Johnson

For the inexperienced playwright, writing a play can be straightforward. One puts in the time and energy and does it. Getting the finished play produced and performed can appear to be simple as well. Send it to a theatre and get friends on the waiting list for when the play opens Off-Broadway. Unfortunately, that's like saying if you want to learn about hiking, you need to start by climbing Mount Everest. Long before most plays ascend to the lofty heights of a chance for an Off-Broadway production, or even a chance at a production in New York at a recognized theatre, they go through a process of refinement and revision. My goal here is set out some of the steps of getting a well-written play produced.

The first step is to write a well-written play. A play that engages and rewards the attention of its readers. Unfortunately for most inexperienced playwrights, their plays fail this first test. They don't read well. Some hallmarks of a well-written play? It immediately draws its audience into the narrative issue at the heart of the story.

For example, The Iceman Cometh opens with two characters talking about the issue of pipe dreams. Larry comments on how everyone around him is living a pipe dream, while he isn't. The plays acts out Larry's realization that he, too, is living a pipe dream. The play speaks in a rich way about the way many people need to lie to themselves to get through their lives. That means the play opens with a dramatic purpose of showing what it will take to bring Larry out of denial about who he is. This is a vital point because it means that from the opening of the play, the play's audience is oriented that the story has a dramatic purpose that the plays acts out to resolution and fulfillment.

On the opening page of your play, it should be clear your story has some dramatic purpose that will be acted out by characters who feel compelled to shape the outcome of the play's core dramatic issue. That dramatic purpose should infuse the dialogue of your characters.

Dialogue

Many inexperienced playwrights open a play with characters engaging in small talk to reveal who they are to an audience. This generates an impression that the play doesn't really begin until that process is complete. Open your play with an event that sets the story into motion in a way that your characters reveal themselves as they react to it and speak about it. The Iceman Cometh opens with two characters speaking about pipe dreams, and the expected visit of Hickey. Hickey will be the one who unexpectedly maneuvers everyone to examine and question their particular pipe dreams. As your characters talk about the situation they find themselves in, be careful to have characters speak to the point and respond to each other. Avoid having characters make speeches at each other. Let them voice their thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly advances the story. If your characters are speaking in paragraphs, ask yourself if they're really talking to another character or if you're using them to communicate information to your audience. As a rule of thumb, if you can't put your thumb over and cover any character's lines of dialogue, you're risking having characters run on to no particular point.

Write to the point of what characters are thinking and feeling, and have the others characters respond with what they're thinking and feeling. Stage craft Stage craft is everything that has to do with mounting a production of a play. How many sets a play requires. Suggestions on how they should be lit. How characters make entrances and exits. You can learn a great deal about stagecraft by going to plays and observing how they are staged. How light can be used to be dramatically suggestive. How a set can be suggested by a few props. How to get characters on and off a stage.

When you write your play, think about what makes the action theatrical. Avoid slipping into writing a play as if it's a television sitcom. It's not. Keep in mind that if you're writing a sitcom instead of a play, your audience can just as easily stay at home and watch sitcoms on television.

If it isn't possible for you to attend plays performed at several theatres, rent videos of filmed plays. Study how successful playwrights have used the medium of actors on a stage to bring to life their plays. Consider how you use that medium to heighten the dramatic impact of your story. When you write out what you consider to be the staging requirements of your play, keep in mind they will be re- interpreted in the light of what a theatre can both do on their stage and afford to do. But what you suggest about the staging requirements of your play on its opening pages tells your reader something about your knowledge of writing for the stage. Asking or insisting that a community or arts theatre build an elaborate set to stage your play suggests you aren't aware of the realities of mounting a play on a limited budget.

When you write stage directions for your actors, keep in mind some actors/directors will use them, others may ignore them completely, even black them out. While writing a play can be a solitary effort, mounting one requires a community working together. That also means that the other people involved in mounting a production of your play might have a different vision of how to cast and produce your play. You should think about that and how you feel about others making decisions about your play that affect it. While it's true that on a certain level, you can sign contracts that require the play be done as you've written the dialogue, how it's cast, staged and directed can also significantly affect how a play appears on the stage.

I attended a play by webmaster/playwright Charles Deemer. The use of stage craft was brilliant and interesting to watch in its own right.

Marketing Scripts

Information about theatres and their script requirement are available in The Writer's Market. The Dramatist Guild also offers a resources guide to its members. The Theatre Communication Group also offers a guide to theatres and their script requirements. Information about theatres and writing for the theatre is also available on line.

Keep in mind that you have a number of distinct markets for plays.

Large, commercial theatres that have large stages and the experience/budget to create elaborate sets. Broadway theatres and a few large regional theatres occupy this niche.

Commercial theatres that seat 150-350. They work with more modest budgets and generally look for plays with more simple staging requirements and a limited number of actors, generally 2-7. Many off-Broadway and regional theatres fit into this niche. A few cities like Seattle have several such theatres that either employ equity actors, or work with a mixed group of equity/non-equity actors.

Arts theatres These theatres often seat 75-200, and are often formed around the vision of a group of dedicated theatre professionals. They generally are open to staging new works, but must face on-going budgetary concerns. Artists Repertory Theater in Portland is an example of such a theater. They produced Holidazed, by Cynthia Whitcomb and Marc Acito.

Community theatres They often don't have the budget elaborate sets, but they can produce plays with larger numbers of actors.

Colleges Again, they can't often build elaborate sets, but they can draw on a larger pool of actors. Some colleges also offer to stage readings and produce plays of theatre majors interested in writing for the theatre.

High School Writing plays for high school students is actually one way to make something of a regular income writing plays. Every time a play is produced, the writer gets royalties. Getting plays out into the market here generally means getting a play published and offered through catalogs that offer plays for the school market.

Children's Theatre This is more of a niche market. Some theatres specialize in producing theatre for children. Other theatres produce adult work, but find having a theatre-within-a-theatre to do work aimed at children expands their outreach into their communities.

On-line Theatre This is a new form of theatre written to be produced and performed on-line. It is so new, how it will evolve will be determined by the theatre artists now exploring the medium. Web master Charles Deemer has been involved with this field.

Historical Dramas Many people are familiar with the one person performances of well-known figures like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. But there is also a market for one person shows about people well-known in a particular region or for activities that affected particular groups. If you can write such a play and find a performer, these kind of plays can tour colleges, particularly if they are historically accurate.

Historical Pageants Some states produce stage plays about historical events like the settling or founding of a state, or a dramatic time in history.

Arts Festivals Some arts festivals stage works by new writers.

Puppet Theatre There are a few companies that focus on doing work with puppets/actors. This form of theatre is produced much more often in Europe, where it is considered an adult form of theatre.

Audio Theatre This form of theatre can include plays written to be performed on radio, plays written specifically to be recorded and offered to the public on audio tapes, or plays that have been produced in theatres and then recorded on audio tape.

US Government The government puts together cultural exchange tours. These can sometimes include plays. This might mean the playwright would need to attach themselves to a theatre and do some legwork to set something up, but it can be done.

Labor Theatre/Other Some kinds of theatre are written and produced for the benefit of particular groups like labor unions or political theatre. A play about medical issues might be performed at a medical convention.

Mystery Theatre This is a form of theatre sometimes done as dinner theatre. It involves some kind of who-dunnit and is meant to be light entertainment. There are companies like Eddie May Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre that buy scripts or buy and revise scripts to fit this format.

Environmental Theatre This is a kind of theatre written to be performed in a particular environment, perhaps on a boat or traveling train.

Improvisational Theatre There is a kind of theatre now that, say, stages a wedding, and actors and audience intermingle.

Musicals There are production companies that specialize in producing musicals.

Play Publishers Play publishers like Samuel French publish plays and offer their production rights to theatres. Getting a play published often requires getting it produced first (with some exceptions). Getting published used to mean that a play was produced and reviewed in New York. That doesn't have to be the case now, particularly for plays written for schools, churches and community theatres. Most play publishers will send guidelines about what they expect in terms of submissions. Some of the larger play publishers are:

Samuel French, Inc. 45 W. 25th St. New York, NY 10010, http://www.samuelfrench.com.

Pioneer Drama Service, Inc. PO BOX 4267, Englewood, CO 80155-4267, http://www.pioneerdrama.com

Other Churches occasionally do plays. Some coffee houses allow artists to stage works.

A glance at the list above should alert playwrights that some plays by their nature should be submitted to particular theatres. Sending a play with a cast of twelve and elaborate sets to an arts theatre is misguided. It risks being considered unproducible just from a glance at the cast of characters and set requirements. The same play, however, could find a welcome home in community theatres or as audio theatre.

It's Written, Now What?

You've written a play. You think it's done. Now what?

I suggest your first step is NOT to send the play out. Instead, that you gather some people together to read it out loud. This will give you a sense of how the play sounds. If you can't arrange this, I suggest you read your play out loud and record the reading, then play it back while you listen and make revisions.

In my years in theatre, I have found that the one thing that consistently separates out those who get produced from those who don't is the produced playwrights hear their works read out loud before sending them out. Hearing your play read out loud means that you can edit/revise lines that don't play well. It means your play will generally read more strongly.

After you've been through this process, is the play ready to be sent out?

Before you consider your play producible, I suggest you consider trying to arrange some kind of staged public reading. Find out if there's a performance space available for you to arrange the play to be read. Invite some friends. Perhaps send out a notice to the local paper so you can see the reaction of others to your script. If you don't know any actors, any local college with a theatre department could help you find some.

Also

speak to some of the local theatres to see if they produce staged readings. As part of a commitment to new theatre, some theatres have a regular program for producing staged readings of plays. That allows the theatre to get a sense of audience reaction to the play before the make a commitment to produce it.

The steps set out here are not written in stone. Most theatres won't require that your play have been presented as a staged reading before they'll consider it. I suggest you consider it part of the process of creating a play and making sure it reads well before you begin submitting it.

Writer's Groups

While writing plays can be a solitary craft, there are number of playwrights groups around the country. These groups can offer valuable information about which theatres in your region are interested in reading new scripts. The Dramatist's Guild in New York also offers its members contract advice and information about both national and regional theatres. The Chicago Dramatists Workshop is another large group for playwrights that has a staged reading program. They are at 1105 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622, NewPlays@aol.com.

On-line Information about plays, playwrights, playwriting, writing groups and theatres is available on line. Check out http://enavantplaywrights.yuku.com/

Classes Some colleges have theatre departments, and colleges occasionally offer students opportunities for staged readings. Classes are also a good way to meet other playwrights and theatre people in your community. Some theatres offer classes in writing for the theatre. These classes can be a wonderful opportunity to become part of a particular theatre community.

Because producing a play is a community effort, for some playwrights becoming part of that community is part of writing for theatre. Other writers prefer the more solitary writing life. While you should choose the path more comfortable for you, at least be aware that there can be more to getting a play produced than writing them and mailing them off to theatres.

Contracts Entertainment attorney Dana Singer has written "Stage Writers Handbook: A Complete Business Guide for Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Librettists." The book offers a information about the business of writing for theatre. It's published by the Theatre Communications Group, which also puts out a book about which theatres are reading scripts. Keep in mind that a contract spells out in writing the understanding of all concerned parties about what their expectations and understandings are. It can help avoid misunderstandings from different interpretations of verbal commitments. As a famous studio executive once commented, verbal contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on.

Copyright If you want to take steps to protect your play, you can copyright it with the Library of Congress at http://www.copyright.gov. The fee is $35.

You've Mailed it Off; What Now?

You can expect to wait. Sometimes for days. Sometimes for months. Sometimes for years. Some theatres assign readers to read new manuscripts and make a decision whether to pass them along for further review or simply return them. Other theatres simply have whoever's interested and has the time read new scripts. Others might have scripts reviewed by a committee. There's no single answer here as to what will happen when you submit a script.

You can also call theatres in your community to ask if they're reading scripts and their submission guidelines.

Agents Most agents are only interested in representing writers whose work they can market. If you're an unpublished playwright, you're better off focusing on getting a play produced, but some unproduced writers are able to get agents. Other writers have agents to handle books or screenplays, and their plays are handled as a matter of courtesy. Even if you have an agent, keep in mind that you are the one with the vested interest in getting your plays produced, so even with an agent it's still in your best interest to promote your work by submitting it to theatres.

Contests Some theatres now stage competitions and contests, with the winners being produced/staged. They generally have entry deadlines and guidelines. The nice thing about contests is that if you don't hear by a certain date that you've been selected to be produced, you at least know that someone has reviewed your script.

Some contests charge a reading fee to cover the costs of reviewing scripts and mounting a production of the winning script. While this isn't a good thing for playwrights, for some theatres it's the only way they can manage to stage a competition. It does mean that some competitions are actually scams intended to make money for someone. Some of the worst of these are exposed on-line. If a theatre is asking for any kind of fee, be careful.

Conclusion Writing a play and seeing it produced can be a deeply moving experience. Or deeply disappointing. Or surprising. Or illuminating. Or any number of other feelings. There's no way to know ahead of time how a performance of a play is going to turn out. About the only thing that's guaranteed is that it promises to be an interesting experience!

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit http://www.storyispromise.com/prenuptial.htm

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Narrative Tension in Ender’s Game

by Bill Johnson

A hallmark of successful novels is narrative tension. Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel (and movies) feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. When acting to gain something increases a character's pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.

In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can't refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there's also a price to pay for acting.

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what's important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.

Romeo is a great character because he won't allow even death to block him from being with Juliet.

A novel (or movie) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there's no tension around an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there's no tension generated around their actions.

The novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and the movie based on the book offers examples of a successful use of narrative tension and a failure to generate that tension.

The novel opens with a character named Ender deep in a state of narrative tension. He’s a third, in a society that ostracizes a third child, and he’s also just lost his status of wearing a monitor and being studied as a boy to be trained to help defeat an expected alien invasion.

Since Ender fears his brother is a homicidal sociopath, he’s now in deep fear for his life, and that fear is transferred to the audience.

He’s in a state of narrative tension.

The early movie scenes that introduce Ender, Peter, and his compassionate sister Valentine convey tension, but not narrative tension.

In school, Ender faces an attack from a bully now that he's no longer monitored. Ender defends himself with that he doesn’t understand is lethal force to forestall any future attacks.

That logic gets him back into training by the military, where the military officer works to isolate and increase the tension on Ender.

At every step, his situation, his narrative tension, is made worse.

But in the movie, these scenes of struggle are introduced and resolved so quickly, they fail to generate the tension generated by the novel.

In the novel, there’s great tension as a game the military creates for Ender to play to gauge his inner mental state becomes something much deeper and mysterious than the military understands. In the movie, this is reduced to a few scenes.

As a movie, Ender’s Game reminds me of the first Harry Potter novel and movie. The novel is a chronicle of narrative tension; the movie is a kind of coffee-table edition of highlights from the book.

Understanding why the movie Ender's Game failed to find a large audience is a good lesson for understanding narrative tension.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Cascade Effect


by Bill Johnson

In a well-told story, a storyteller introduces a story’s promise in a dramatic context suggesting a need for resolution (plot) and fulfillment (story). This introduction of a story’s promise cues a story’s audience to a story’s purpose and direction. By making a story’s advance toward resolution of its promise dramatic, a story’s plot heightens a story’s fulfillment of its promise. Because that promise arises out of an issue of human need – for understanding, to gain acceptance, dealing with loss -- a story’s audience can be led to feel invested in a story’s course and outcome, to be interested in a story’s illumination of ideas.

To help writers ‘see’ the connection between story and plot, I teach people to create a story line and plot line. A story line shows the advance of a story’s promise from introduction to fulfillment. It’s what a story is about. A plot line shows the rising complications that block a story’s advance along its story line in a way that heightens the impact of a story’s resolution and fulfillment. A plot is the events of a story set in motion for dramatic effect.

When a story fails to introduce a discernible, engaging, dramatic promise, it sets in motion what I call the cascade effect. Because there’s no suggestion of a story’s promise, the story’s audience focuses more closely on characters for some suggestion of what a story is about. Since struggling storytellers often keep introducing characters to give a story a sense of forward movement, a story’s audience has to keep paying attention to new characters, hoping one of them will begin to suggest some point to a story.

When characters fail to set a story into motion, some writers will create what I call artificial events to begin a story. This might be a dramatic scene with intense action, but since the action isn’t rooted in what the story is about, these artificial scenes only increase the amount of material an increasingly confused or frustrated audience must traverse looking for meaning.

Since everything characters have to say about these artificial events is generally meaningless -- since those events have no real impact on a story’s course or outcome and could be removed or changed without affecting a story – an audience is being asked to pay attention to dialogue that serves no point. Paring down this dialogue risks scenes becoming even more obscure.

I see a three step response to such a story. The first step is for a reader to take one mental step back and wonder if the story is as pointless as it appears. If the reader continues and finds more of the same, a second step is to start skimming ahead looking for something that pulls the story together. When that doesn’t appear, a third step is to stop reading, or possibly glance to the end just to confirm the writing never quite jells.

I found a great example of what happens when a story goes down this path of obscurity from a student who recommended I break down a Mystery Science Theatre film in class, Pod People. In Mystery Science Theatre, an astronaut and two robots are forced to watch bad movies. To pass time, they heckle the films and throw in funny dialogue, just as in real life, when a film stops advancing in a purposeful, meaningful way that rewards the attention of an audience, a film’s audience is left with plenty of opportunities to either start picking out plot flaws, character inconsistencies, or thinking up funny remarks to pass time.

The opening events of Pod People include silent footage of a large alien killing someone and being hunted down by a mob and killed. This alien does not appear in what follows, so I couldn’t figure the point of this prologue.

Next a meteorite streaks against the night sky and crashes in a forest. In a cave, what appears to be radioactive raspberry jam from the meteorite glows with menace. Meanwhile two men in the woods at night are surreptitiously hunting for eggs. This introduces two characters in the film, so we have a plot action – they are doing something concrete -- but no suggestion of a story. It’s just action. there is the question of what will happen when they find the eggs in the cave.

A young boy who lives with his family in the woods brings one of the eggs home and it hatches and the hatchling grows into Trumpy, a small alien with an elephantine snout. The second egg hatches and becomes another alien that is shot with an arrow by the men in the woods. When the wounded alien comes across someone it considers hostile, it’s eyes glow like headlights and people disappear.

The good Trumpy is hidden by the boy. The little boy spends most of the film hiding good Trumpy from his parents. This creates a plot question – will he be able to keep Trumpy hidden – but not a story question. There’s also a question of whether Trumpy will turn his high-beams on the kid if the supply of peanuts dries up.

Meanwhile, a band of 60’s style teenagers is recording a song in a recording studio. Everyone in the group has a personality, and several of the teens are upset about the band’s singer being interested in a new girl. She’s invited to go camping with the group.

Everyone in the film has something to do. There’s just no collective purpose that would give the story a direction. It’s all plot, action, consequences of action that leads to new actions and consequences.

The evil Trumpy attacks the unliked girl in the woods, and the teens flee with her to the house in the woods. Meanwhile, good Trumpy has quite an appetite and the little boy must become more inventive in sneaking him food.

The radioactive raspberry jam continues to glow.

Because there’s nothing that connects the story elements other than cause and effect – there’s no story line – the only real question left is who will survive to the end of the story.

As the story continues, the teens and adults who have survived encounters with evil Trumpy finally realize another alien is in the house. They want to kill good Trumpy, but the little boy manages to help him get out of the house.

In the climax of the story, good Trumpy escapes.

What might have created a story line to go with all this plot?

The two egg hunters could have mirrored the good/evil split of the two aliens.

There could have been a message about our violence being mirrored back to us; that because the little boy is innocent of violent intent, he doesn’t create violent situations.

Even a sly sense of humor about other horror/science fiction films (Army of Darkness) could have provided a subtext for the film.

In terms of being a story, the film is a blank slate.

Putting characters into mortal danger is a fixture in many science fiction and horror films, but having a story to go with the plot makes for a more powerful film.

If you want to avoid the cascade effect, you can start a story with an understanding of what your story is about, or come to that understanding after you write a script, and rewrite your opening to reflect that. At some point, you need to convey your promise in the opening scenes to avoid the cascade effect.

Pod People isn't the only film I've broken down in a class where no one could figure out a point for the story. When big budget Hollywood films fail to find an audience, some variation of the Cascade Effect is at play, I've played up to 25 minutes of opening scenes, and no one could say, 'This is a story about X.'

Watching bad films and understanding why they failed is one path to understanding how to write a good movie script.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Movies and Optimism Bias

by Bill Johnson
I love history. As I grew older, I began to wonder, what gave an explorer like Marco Polo the confidence, in the year 1271, to go off on a journey that would cover 15,000 miles, at a time when most people rarely traveled more than 20 miles from home?

One answer is optimism bias. This means that, compared to others, we tend to be more optimistic about our chances to succeed or survive in some adventure. This is one reason why people smoke in spite of risk of lung cancer. Individual smokers accept that others will die of lung cancer, but they don’t think they will.

I believe this bias is transferred to movie characters when we are drawn in to feel invested or enmeshed in what happens to a film’s main character. For example, in one of the Bourne films with Matt Damon, he survives a car chase in a tiny car in Moscow. I drove a Ford Festiva (tiny car, 40 mpg). Any one event in that chase would have ended the car Matt Damon was in, but I wanted to believe he and the car would survive, so I accepted what happened.

A problem I come across in scripts is when people insist their stories be realistic. I once tried to help a writer with a main character who was sickly and weak from a traumatic event. The author refused to have his main character be more active and heroic at the beginning of the story because it wouldn’t be realistic. It wasn’t interesting, either. His main character was too weak to drive the action of the story.

A movie viewer wants a main character to be larger than life so they can experience a larger than life adventure through them.

If you’re writing a screenplay or novel, it’s your job to create a main character who will take a viewer or reader to places they want to go. Keep in mind that in life, many people feel stuck. A larger than life story character who refuses to be bound can be a real pleasure to journey with.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Getting to Feelings at The World’s End

by Bill Johnson




The World’s End is a comedy about a middle-aged man who knows his life hit its peak on the night he graduated from high school and, with his four mates, failed in an epic pub crawl.



When we meet the main character, we learn that this is his central issue in life. When we meet his mates as adults, we learn something about their issues. By the end of the film, we’re allowed to access each character’s dramatic truth – what drives them – and the deeper state of feelings the story’s plot takes them to.



For films aimed at any kind of general audience, this is the prime goal, to make the story a journey of feeling. In popular stories, viewers and readers get to access deeper, and more pure, states of feeling than many people experience in real life.



Films that fail to provide that journey of feeling often fail to find a large audience.
If you fail at that, your story fails.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Storytelling and the Superconscious Mind


by Bill Johnson
In broad terms, yoga separates the mind into three aspects: the conscious, the subconscious, and the superconscious.

• The conscious mind is concerned with the senses and evaluating relationships.
• The subconscious mind stores memories and issues about the self.
• The superconscious mind, above the other two, offers a dispassionate awareness concerned with understanding.

When I first started developing the concepts of telling a story, I worked through how the mechanics of storytelling and how a story 'moves' or transports an audience. I used the basic principals I came up with to write A Story is a Promise. This book was intended to guide the reader to fulfill readers expectations when they open the cover of the book.

I wrote my second book, Deep Characterization, about what happens when someone creates stories to process personal feelings or issues.

The Spirit of Storytelling addresses how a writer can allow story characters to have internal lives that do not revolve around the author's issues or relationships.

Because the conscious mind is concerned with a person's standing in life, stories exploring or illuminating relationships draw readers in. This is one reason why so many stories revolve around births, deaths, marriages, leaving home; they are a time of change for relationships.

If an author is fully concerned with his/her own issues and relationships, the author is likely to create stories with main characters symbolic of the author’s issues. These story characters act to transport the author, not readers.

The subconscious stores memories. Because the subconscious is a storehouse of information about life, it's easy for some writers to “watch the mental story movie” and write down the details. The downside to this writing process is that long term memories are compacted and the feelings associated with them minimized.

The superconscious mind is above the subconscious. It is about understanding, about expanding conscious awareness, about understanding the daily self as a way to evolve to higher states of understanding. It's not about getting even, it's about becoming aware.

Getting to the superconscious mind means a storyteller is getting to a place where characters are not tethered to the authors needs and issues, whether conscious (based on the relationships from our daily lives) or subconscious (symbolic characters and core issues from our buried mental landscape).

If you are successful writing contemporary or genre fiction using the fuel from your life and relationships, or some subconscious motor, you might not need to concern yourself with a connection to the superconscious mind. But if your storytelling is lifeless and your characters fail to compel, then I encourage you to go deeply into yourself and find a route to a deeper understanding of your character’s inner lives.

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A longer version of this essay, which includes techniques to reach that deeper state, is available in my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon Kindle. 
To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

The full length version of this essay is currently available only on the Amazon Kindle version of the book.

(If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on Tweeter or Facebook.)


#yoga
#meditation
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Sunday, August 11, 2013

When Story Worlds Collide, Notes on Elysium

by Bill Johnson

Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is an example of what is called World Building in science fiction stories. The world he creates is a polluted earth over-populated with the poor who live in slums and are managed by robotic police and administrators. In the sky hangs Elysium, a rotating space station where the super wealthy live in comfort. A few heavily guarded factory managers travel between earth and Elysium.

The beginning of the film sets out the conditions on Earth through an introduction to Max and Frey, young orphans. Max promises Frey that someday he will take her to Elysium.

In screenwriting terms, that's a set up for each character, and viewers will expect a payoff for each set up.

But most of the first third of the film is the world building that sets out life on Earth and life on Elysium, with the occasional shuttle of poor people desperately trying to reach Elysium for medical treatment. A security administrator finds herself given a final warning about her job when she deal harshly with the latest illegal attempt to reach Elysium. Because of her methods, she's forced to fire an operative on Earth who recently shot down two of three illegal shuttles.

Those are more set ups for how their situations will be resolved.

Max is hurt and runs into Frey, who is now a nurse with no interest in a poor laborer. She also has a sick daughter who will die unless she gets the advanced medical treatment available only on Elysium.

But so far there's no introduction of a story that will be acted out through Max, there's just the world building and the character introductions and set ups.

What in screenwriting is called an inciting incident doesn't come until later into the film, when Max suffers a lethal dose of radiation and will die in five days unless he can reach Elysium. The plot of the film now has a clear purpose, and a reason for Max to take Frey and her daughter to Elysium, but there's still not a strong sense of a promise for the story. Yes, there's the central idea about the super wealthy moving to a vast gated community (i.e., a space station), but an idea isn't a story.

L.A. Confidential had some wonderful world building for LA in the 50's, and many characters, but it also had a central story about illusion, reality, and identity.

The the climax of Elysium comes, and I understand how it connects to the pieces of the story, I just didn't feel a powerful fulfillment of a story's promise (Max's promise to Frey early in the film to take her to Elysium revolves more around plot than story).

I suspect that because District 9 did so well, the people who put up the money and arranged distribution for Elysium felt they'd get the same payoff, but District 9 had a more central main character on a more clearly defined story journey than Max.

World building is great when done well, and character set ups have a place, but they don't take the place of a well-told story.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Problem of Mixed Tones in Stories

by Bill Johnson
A common problem in a first script is an intensional mix of tones. A story can go from being dramatic, to comedic, to slap stick, back to dramatic for a climax.

These shifts in tone can lead a reader to be confused about the intent of a story.

This movie Hysteria demonstrates the problems of trying to cover a lot of terrain with a shifting mix of tones. The first set up is a young doctor in 19th century London who discovers his promotion of the new ideas of germs and washing hands between patients keeps getting him fired by older doctors. He then gets a job with a doctor who uses orgasms to treat the common malady of upper-middle class women, hysteria (which was considered to be a condition aflicting women until 1950).

His employer has a chaste young daughter he's openly shopping to the young doctor, and a fire-brand, force of nature oldest daughter who torments her father with her ideas of poor people being human beings deserving of compassion, education, and medical care.

The film covers the slow, sedate courtship of the young doctor and the young woman, interrupted by occasional outbursts when the older daughter passed through pleading for money or support.

The question, who will he end up with?

But his immediate problem is he's wearing out his hand servicing women in the clinic, some of whom take hours of stimulation to climax and get relief from their symptoms (which mostly seem to be passing the time in the long wait for treatment).

Meanwhile, the young doctor's wealthy benefactor invents what becomes the first electric vibrator, creating a huge demand for the young doctor's services. At this point, the film shifts to being a droll British sex comedy.

The film shifts back to a realistic tone to deal with the young doctor realizing he's in love with young fury, not young chaste.

The problem is, he's barely spent any time with young fury, so the relationship feels abrupt, and has a different tone from the realism about medical proceedures, then the comedic tone, then the serious tone about women's rights and the treatment of the poor. The film has a good heart. It allows the young daughter to have the realization that a better life for her won't involve being the wife of the young doctor.

Shifts in tone can be one of the most common and vexing problem in some scripts. The shift in tone helps create the effect of a climax at the same time it undercuts the impact.

The recent film R.I.P.D. goes from being not quite funny to not quite dramatic at its climax, so I wouldn't use it as an example of mixed tones. It's more like a song that only has one note played over and over until the end of the film, when it plays another note.

Personally, I found the one note Jeff Bridges hit amusing, but your mileage may vary.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Does Your Story Have a Character with a Propelled Heart?

by Bill Johnson

In yoga, when a worldly person decides to do what is necessary to gain spiritual understanding, he or she is said to have a propelled heart.


This makes the aspirant different from worldly people reacting to events or their own thoughts but not necessarily getting off their particular track in life. It's about making a clear-minded decision about what path to take it in life.

Movies please us because unlike life, they suggest a worldly person can develop a propelled heart and create a different, better life.

The Interns offers an example of a propelled heart.

Yes, this is a formula film. Once you know a character's arc, you know where they'll end up in the film. And up front, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are always Owen and Vince to me, no matter what characters they play.

In the film, Owen and Vince are glib, gregarious salesman. Not great salesman, but good enough to mostly get by, until they lose their jobs and can't find any comparable sales jobs or other jobs that would promise to pay them a comparable amount. Desperate, they maneuver their way into becoming interns for Google with the potential of a job if they are part of a winning team of interns.

Owen meets a female executive. He's attracted to her and makes a decision that he needs to change his life and become something more than a glib salesman. So he makes an effort to do what is necessary to win a team competition to become a Google intern.

He has a propelled heart.

It's not much, its obvious, but it works and makes for a better, more fulfilling film. A film that has a heart.

Vince Vaughn's character takes action in ways that advance the plot, but his actions aren't rooted in anything deeper than that. He is in service to the plot, which is fine to the degree that his actions match up with the formula of the story.

Again, this is a formula film, and such films often have a transparent structure and simple, defined characters arcs, but having a character with a propelled heart helps such a story resonate with an audience.

Does your script have a character with a propelled heart?

Looking at your life as a story, do you have a propelled heart?

If not, you can experience it at the movies.


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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Does Your Main Character Want to be Your Main Character?

by Bill Johnson

The recent documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom features back up singers who never make it across that twenty feet on the stage to become stars. The personalities of the singers offer insight into the kind of characters who are found in novels, both successful and not.

The main thrust of Twenty Feet from Stardom is that a number of highly talented singers never achieved stardom in their own right, singers like Tata Vega and Darlene Love, who sang hits songs for Phil Spector that did not credit her (the group singing the songs, The Crystals, lip-synced the songs).

All the singers are talented, but watching the documentary it took a while to get a feel for them and what they wanted out of life. I found three types.

Singers who were happy to be back up singers.

Singers who were ambivalent about doing what was required to try and be a star.

And singers like Darlene Love who keep trying to make it as a recognized star/vocalist. When she finally escaped Phil Spector and was signed to a contract with a different recording company, they sold her contract back to Phil Spector.

But she kept trying, and of all the singers, I felt the most empathy for her. When she was knocked down, she got back up. When she was knocked down again, she got back up.

She had no ambivalence about what she wanted.

Taking in her story, I felt great empathy for her as a person. I wanted to know more about her. I’d like to meet her.

The singers who were ambivalent about being a star I found interesting but not compelling.

The singers who were happy to be back up singers I found interesting in a historical context.

I have the same reaction to ambivalent characters in novel. The more they come across as life-like and not larger than life, the less I care about what happens to them.

When I ask about ambivalent main characters in a novel, I'm often informed by the author that they created a diffuse main character to be life-life by design.

The danger of creating an ambivalent main character is that the author creates a character who is a mouth piece for the author’s ruminations, which is just as exciting as it sounds.

Ambivalent main characters in genre novels are generally the death of those novels. They tend to stand aside ruminating about what’s happening while the minor characters act with passion to shape an outcome.

If you’re an author being consistently told that too much of the action of your story is happening off stage, have you picked the right main character?

If you’re being told that your main character ruminates too much in place of taking action, are they the right person to be your main character?

Writing a good novel is tough. Writing a good novel with a weak main character is generally a fool’s errand.

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 To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Pitfalls of Writing from a Dark Heart

by Bill Johnson

A difficulty in writing a first novel is for the writer to recognize the difference between creating a story meant to transport an audience and a story meant to process the feelings and issues of the writer.

Most people in this world are egocentric, which makes it easy to accumulate grievances and dark, angry feelings. In yoga, this is referred to as the eight meannesses of the Dark Heart. The eight meannesses are hatred, shame, fear, grief, condemnation, race prejudice, pride of pedigree, and a narrow sense of respectability.
 
When I read some manuscripts, I can say with certainty who the author hates, what they are ashamed of, what they fear, what they grieve, what they condemn, what races they hate, what lineage they feel pride about belonging to, and what they consider respectable. What the story is about, why I should care about what happens to the main character, the goal of the main character, or even that the story has some kind of point, not so much.
 
The typical signs that a writer is generating a manuscript from a dark heart is that the main character will be diffuse (because they are a vehicle for the author) and the minor characters will be the most lively people, because they will typically be fueled by the writer’s anger, need to condemn and to punish, etc.
 
Another sign, the most vivid, compelling writing will revolve around characters in the manuscript being tortured and murdered because they are symbolic to the author of the people who anger them, who they hate, who they fear, who they condemn for not acknowledging them.
 
I understand the need to write stories generated by my dark heart, but I’ve also learned to recognize them for what they are. When I finish them and recognize what I’ve created, I move on to writing a story meant for an audience.
 
If you’re getting the same feedback from skilled, perceptive readers about your main character not working and your minor characters taking over your manuscript, stop and think about the basics of telling a story: does something happen to set your story in motion? Is what your main character wants accessible to your audience, and important? Are you giving your audience a reason to care about what happens next to your main character?
 
Writing a novel is a tough gig. Trying to write a good manuscript weighed down by a dark heart can cloud your judgement.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. 



 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Author's Road Interviews Tom McGuane

Tom McGuane



Writer #34
 
      Most of us have a favorite cowboy movie, one of the greats like Rio Bravo, Shane, perhaps one of the versions of True Grit or the ever amusing, Three Amigos. And of course endless arguments have been waged at high noon in many a saloon over which was best.

      But for me, two favorites stand tall above all others. To me, all other westerns wore a black hat when the 1976 classic, Missouri Breaks hit the screens. Directed by Arthur Penn and starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando with a herd of other famous actors, this strange tale about horse thieves and land barons ended all debate for me about what Western was best.



      And a few years later, over the horizon loped along the classic,  Tom Horn, (“I ain't never ete a bug that big before….”) one of Steve McQueen’s last movies.



      And both were written (Tom Horn was co-written) by a real-life Montana cowboy, Tom McGuane. He's a master storyteller and writer who is a Wallace Stegner Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, leaden with arm-loads of other literary awards -- and he's in both the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame.



      Come on you scribblers and cowboy wanna-bes, top that!
      So it was most exciting and a great honor when McGuane invited us to visit him at his ranch in the wilds of Montana, and to sit in his writing studio to chat with him about his life as a reader and a writer of novels, short stories, and of course screenplays.



      And it with great pride that we share with you the results of that chat, and the insights and remembrances that he shared with us on that warm summer day.



      George & Salli

 
Our next interview: Jean Auel
 
Thanks for . . . 
. . . joining us . . .
  . . . on the road!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Revelation, Story, and Plot in a Script for a Short Film

by Bill Johnson


I teach that a story creates movement and the movement transports an audience. This dynamic holds whether the story is a novel, screenplay, play, short story, or short script.
The language used to talk about stories often conveys movement: story arc, hero’s journey, plot points.

Stories that fail to establish they are moving toward some point appear, well, pointless. The longer a story goes without establishing a clear sense of purpose, the more likely readers will feel a story is not going anywhere.

But, in a short film script (under ten pages), there’s an almost exception to this basic rule. A well-written short script can build to a single, powerful revelation that doesn’t depend so much on character arc or journey or plot or meaning, but on quickly building to that final, intriquing twist.

An example of a story with a great twist is An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, written by Ambrose Bierce.  The short story is set during the Civil War. A young man is to be hung, but the rope breaks and he escapes. Just as he reaches home and his young wife, he hears a snap and we realize he imagined that escape, and his life just ended with his being hung.

Even if you haven’t read this story, you’ve seen this revelation used in movies (Jacob’s Ladder, The Jacket, The Sixth Sense).

These kind of stories are also called O’Henry’s, named after an author who wrote short stories with an artful twist.

But I said this is an ‘almost’ exception. Almost because these stories need to be well-written to work (stumbling over awkward, obscure language can detail the quick movement to the twist). The bigger exception is, what happens when stories with twist endings are competing against a story with structure?

I write ten minute plays. Years ago, I wrote a ten minute play called The Baggage Handler, about a couple checking in their baggage for their next lives together. It was a play that asked audiences to put themselves into that situation.

When the play was done as part of a festival in New York, I went back to attend. Since this was just a few years after 911, just about all the other plays had the same twist/revelation, that the characters involved were dealing with the aftermath of 911. My play had a revelation, but also characters with clearly defined goals and a plot. My play won the festival because the other plays with the same revelation divided the votes.

Bringing this back to FilmLab, several scripts were written to build to a single clever revelation. Those stories competed against each other.

If you’re going to write a short script, are you hitting the basics? Does your script have a beginning, middle, and end, start on page one, has a main character who wants something? Minor characters who each have a purpose that impacts what the main character wants and also defines them? A landscape that interacts with the characters?

Being clever is great, but creating a short script with a great twist AND a powerful story, that’s a winning combination.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.