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.


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.


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.


 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.


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!