Thursday, December 30, 2010

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors Workshop in January

If you want to jump start the New Year with a writing/structure intensive, I'm teaching a two-week online workshop in January.

I'll start roughly around January 1, but since some may be rougher than others this weekend (!), it will go a few days longer than two weeks. Just as useful for screenwriters.

Only $15!

Click for details and to register.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I haven’t done a movie breakdown for a long time, so here’s a great one I rediscovered recently – a perfect piece of storytelling, worth studying on all kinds of levels.

Here's a refresher on the Elements of Act One, for those who want to follow along - and the movie is available for instant viewing on Netflix, btw.

I am going to start with some general notes first – some things I suggest you look for as you’re watching this film – particularly in terms of THEME, HOPE, FEAR and STAKES.

As you’ve probably noticed, I often use examples of story elements and structure from Thomas Harris’s masterpieces Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs – to the, um, horror, of some romance writers who wouldn’t be caught dead (sorry, I’ll stop now) reading those books. But I always try to get writers to understand that they can learn just as much from stories outside their own genre, because the elements of story – and suspense – are the same no matter how many bodies are or are not falling or how many creatures are or are not lurking in the basement.

So for you darker types – don’t underestimate what you can gain by studying this film. There’s a lot to be learned about storytelling from classics in other genres.

I find serious horror in Sense And Sensibility - (and any Austen book), and it’s not a horror of romance, either. I am, however, horrified at the Netflix description of the film as “Austen’s classic tale of 19th century etiquette” – this story is more about monsters in the basement than it is about etiquette.

Actually, it is about an evil much bigger than a monster in the basement.


Screenplay by Emma Thompson
From the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Ang Lee


Just wanted to note for the filmmakers among you that the credits sequence is just titles on black, with period music underneath. This is a technique often used with period films, I think used deliberately to slow the audience down and put them squarely in another time. Music is a pure time machine from – or to - the period it was written, it works on us in a way that no visual or dialogue ever could.


I would say that the first short sequence (4 min.) is a prologue – and a hugely important one.

The film opens at the deathbed of Mr. Dashwood, the father of our not-yet-seen heroines. Mr. Dashwood has called in John, his son from a previous marriage, to whom Mr. Dashwood’s entire fortune and houses will pass under the law of primogeniture, which bars women from inheriting property and keeps both the patriarchy and the aristocracy intact by mandating that family fortunes pass undivided to the eldest son of a family, with only minimal livings carved out for any remaining male children.

If you need a refresher: Primogeniture

Before he dies, Dashwood extracts a promise from John that he will take care of the present Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, who by this law of primogeniture are only allowed to inherit 500 pounds.

John’s original intention is to give the Dashwood women an additional 3000 pounds so they can live comfortably on the interest, but in the course of a carriage ride up to Norland Park, where John and his wife will take over the Dashwood house, John’s harridan of a wife, Fanny, whittles weak-willed John’s gift down to nothing at all: “Twenty pounds here and there should be ample. What would four women need with more than 500 pounds?”

(John also voices the FEAR that Marianne will lose her bloom and end up a spinster like Elinor.)

This series of scenes is a beautiful – and outwardly funny - dramatization of greed in action, and Fanny makes a detestable villain. But more importantly, the scenes introduce the real villain of the story, and every Austen story: primogeniture – which kept the rich superrich, the poor practically or literally indentured as servants to the rich, and women enslaved to men, for centuries.

Stylistically, Jane Austen was writing comedies, but the stories are built on social outrage, and I believe it’s that canny blend that made and keeps these books classics.

One more note as you’re watching this film – pay special attention to how the storytellers use weather to create mood and emotion, and also pay attention to the set decoration: the paintings on the walls behind the character comment – often hilariously – on the story and themes.


The whole next sequence (4:30 to 26 minutes ) is extremely filmic, played at first almost as a montage, with fast cuts between extremely short scenes. We are introduced to the extremely sympathetic Dashwood women: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and 11-year old Margaret, as they are reduced to guests in their own house – in the midst of their deep grief over the loss of their father and husband. While Fanny steamrolls through the house claiming everything in it as her own, the Dashwood women scramble to find other living arrangements on their tiny inheritance.

These are great character introductions to Elinor and Marianne, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, one all “Sense” and the other all Sensibility” – ie, passion. The filmmakers deftly find comedy even in this tragic situation, eg. Elinor’s first line to Marianne as Marianne plays the world’s most doleful dirge on the pianoforte: “Would you play something else, dearest? Maman has been weeping all morning.”

I see this movie as having a dual protagonist, even though Elinor is clearly the more dominant one and the point of view character. But Austen, and Thompson in the adaptation, are using the sisters to demonstrate a theme: literally, sense and sensibility. At the beginning of the story the sisters are out of balance – Elinor is all sense, and Marianne all sensibility (passion). By the end of the story (and partly through the crucible of love), they have each gained some of what the other has, to make both of them more fully realized women.

This is what you could call a “character cluster”, like the three-brother or three-sister structure you often see, especially in stories with a fairy tale structure like the Harry Potter books/films, and if you’re thinking about writing a dual protagonist, this is an excellent example to study.

Note also the restatement of THEME when Margaret asks Elinor why John and Fanny are coming to take over Norwood when they already have a house of their own. Elinor tells Margaret “Houses go from father to son. It's the law.” That extra emphasis on how this is the law makes it very clear what the problem is, and keeps this societal FORCE OF ANTAGONISM very present in the story.

Now, enter Edward Ferrars – Fanny’s intelligent but very reserved brother (Hugh Grant at his diffidently charming best). (The scenes become longer here.). Edward’s formal bow, and the Dashwood women’s polite curtseys in return, become a RUNNING GAG in the film (a running gag is a staple of comedy). Each time the action stops as Edward does his best at this bow, but there’s something always just a little off about the timing.

Marianne wants to hate him – especially because Fanny has kicked Margaret out of her own room to give her brother the best view in the house, but Edward has already noticed the offense and quietly moved himself to a guest room.

Edward instantly understands the pain of the Dashwoods’ circumstances, bonds with and draws out youngest daughter Margaret, and falls hard – albeit reservedly - for kindred soul Elinor. In a beautiful scene in the library, Edward and Elinor coax Margaret out from where she has been hiding under a table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile, and we see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly, beautifully matched: intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together. This is a common and I think crucial scene in any romance or romantic subplot – you could call it THE DANCE – where we see that two people are perfect for each other. So much more meaningful than “meet cute”!

And this scene gives us our great HOPE for Elinor – that she has found the great love of her live and they will make a true, encompassing marriage. (Also the PLAN)

But there’s more to this than love. In her circumstances, Elinor’s life and her family’s lives depend on her making a good marriage, because women are prohibited from earning an income. So a happy marriage to a well-off man is the dream, the best possible outcome– but the stakes couldn’t be higher, and Elinor’s situation is more than tenuous – she has not the slightest power over the outcome.

15 min. We see their feelings deepen when Edward catches Elinor crying as she listens to Marianne play their favorite song on the piano. He gives her his handkerchief (which becomes what Joseph Campbell calls a TALISMAN – a significant object to a character, like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre and Harry Potter’s – well, lots of things, but the cloak of invisibility, the Nimbus 2000, etc.).

ANTAGONISTS Fanny and Edward’s mother (offstage, but very present in the form of threat of disinheriting Edward if he makes an “unworthy marriage”) immediately go about preventing this match.

18 min. The Dashwood women receive an offer of a cottage for minimal rent from Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, but Mrs. Dashwood has seen the “attachment” forming between Elinor and Edward and tells Marianne that they will put off the move.

Edward and Elinor spend more time together and continue to fall in love; this is accomplished in an amazingly short amount of film time.

The horseback riding scene is especially interesting thematically: Elinor states plainly "We (women) have no choice of any occupation whatsoever. You will inherit your fortune, we cannot even earn ours." But we also see that Edward is constrained by the threat of complete disinheritance if he does not make a career and a marriage that his mother approves of. The scene also shows that these two can talk honestly of deep issues.

We also see another antagonist to the match: Marianne, who thinks that Edward is not passionate enough for Elinor, and that Elinor’s feelings are obviously too tepid to be love.

When Marianne asks Elinor how she feels about Edward, Elinor says that she greatly esteems him. Marianne chides her for being so dispassionate. (ELINOR’S CHARACTER ARC: Elinor is not completely honest about her feelings, which will get her into trouble down the road.)

In another scene, Marianne asks their mother: "Can he love her? To love is to burn, to be on fire." Marianne just comes right out and says what she believes, and this sets up Marianne’s CHARACTER ARC: There’s also some foreshadowing and FEAR for Marianne there when her mother replies that Marianne’s passionate role models Juliet and Heloise made “rather bad ends.”

But despite her objections, Marianne will support her sister’s wishes with her whole heart.

Meanwhile evil Fanny actively works to thwart the relationship by telling Mrs. Dashwood that that their mother has made it clear she will disinherit Edward should he marry beneath his station. (22 min)

It’s a devastating move because we are already so invested in Elinor and Edward’s love – and we hate Fanny. There are also two PLANTS here – that Edward will in fact be disinherited and that he is too much of a gentleman to ever go back on a promise – which will become very significant later.

At dinner, Mrs. Dashwood announces they will leave immediately for her cousin's estate. (NEW PLAN)

The next day Edward finds Elinor in the stable, saying goodbye to her horse, which the family cannot afford to keep. Edward says that he must speak to Elinor, which we and Elinor think will be a marriage proposal. Instead Edward tells a rambling story of his early education under the tutelage of Mr. Pratt (PLANT), and before he can get to the point, Fanny races in telling him their mother needs him immediately back at the family home. Edward obeys Fanny and the Dashwoods move from their home to a cottage on the estate of Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, without a marriage proposal from Edward to Elinor.


(I’m willing to be convinced that Sequence One is actually two sequences, but where would you break it, and why?)

SEQUENCE TWO: (27 min. to 45 min.)

This sequence sets up Marianne’s story, as the first sequence set up Elinor’s.

The Dashwoods arrive at Barton Cottage, their new, much smaller home (but I’d still take it any day!) with gorgeous shots of the countryside. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD and INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD)

They are heartily welcomed by the crass, noisy, but warm-hearted Sir John and his mother-in-law, wealthy Mrs. Jennings. (ALLIES, and Mrs. Jennings is also the MENTOR). There’s a great moment when Margaret says later that she likes Mrs. Jennings because “She talks about things. We never talk about things.”

They settle into their new life: Elinor struggles to make ends meet for the family and secretly pines for Edward (though she tells her mother that it’s more sensible to be practical about the barriers to Edward marrying a woman without a dowry).

Fiery Marianne catches the eye of Sir John’s good friend, the county’s most eligible bachelor, wealthy and cultured Colonel Brandon (a completely dreamy Alan Rickman). Marianne scorns Brandon’s attentions, thinking him too old (he’s 35 in the book). Brandon is a perfect gentleman (and like Edward, very charming and attentive to young Margaret). Elinor likes him, but is not immediately won over. She asks Mrs. Jennings about Brandon and Mrs. Jennings tells Elinor that Brandon has a tragic past: He fell in love with his father's young ward; and the family broke up the lovers by sending Brandon away to the military and turning the girl out of the house. She was “passed from man to man” and when Brandon returned from the West Indies he searched for her and found her dying in a poorhouse.

This is our FEAR for Marianne – and it’s a big one. In Austen’s time “ruin” for women meant prostitution: poverty, syphilis – the worst possible life.

Mrs. Jennings’ unsubtle matchmaking serves to turn Marianne away from Brandon. Instead she falls hard for the young, handsome and dashing Willoughby, whom she meets in a stormy romantic scene on a moor right out of Wuthering Heights (SETPIECE). Willoughby also seems very well-fixed financially (set to inherit a nearby estate) and outspokenly shares Marianne’s passion for poetry and music. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret are instantly charmed; Marianne is openly adoring. Elinor, though, has doubts….

There’s hope but also fear here – I felt Willoughby was a bit over the top in a way that might backfire badly – might even lead to her “ruin”. Plus – this guy over Alan Rickman? I think not. Still, what I love about this casting and characterization is that he seems a good match for Marianne – it’s a legitimate romantic dilemma, and keeps us in SUSPENSE about which is the right man for her.

CLIMAX OF ACT ONE - (45 minutes into a 2 hour, 15 minute film)

- Alex


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Monday, December 06, 2010

The Essence of Character

I never know if you guys are keeping up with Murderati, but I so loved Stephen Jay Schwartz’s post on character from a few days ago I wanted to continue the discussion here, from a slightly different angle.

What I want to talk about is his description of Henry, the moving man. In just a few paragraphs – tiny black marks on paper, or bits on a screen – Steve put a REAL PERSON into our heads. An unforgettable person.

That’s great writing. But I don’t think you can break it down into the words he used and what order he used them in. It’s not a technical skill so much as – well, as another Steve says in On Writing – it’s telepathy. Stephen was struck to his core by a unique human being and so moved by the experience that he used his own being to communicate that profound encounter to us - whole - so that we could have that encounter with Henry, too…


How awesome is that?

That is the real magic of writing.

And that doesn’t have a lot to do with details, really. It has to do with ESSENCE.

Note what SJS DIDN’T put into his characterization of Henry. He didn’t say what he was wearing (didn’t need to - we’ve all seen how men dress to move furniture). He didn’t say if he was married, with or without children, gay, straight. He didn’t give us his long and involved back story, what kind of cereal he likes, what team he roots for, what side of the bed he sleeps on, what his astrological sign is. There weren’t even any descriptions of killer tattoos.

I’ve seen character bio forms that have writers list all of those things and more, and they always make me uneasy. It’s too much information. A character comes through not because of a mountain of detail, but because of those one or two unmissable things that define him or her – in this case, Henry’s infinite patience and presence in a frustrating, mundane situation (and the contrast of that personal serenity in the body of a bruiser.).

Steve’s portrayal of Henry doesn’t have much to do with the words he used, either, with technical skill. Oh, we need technical skill all right, but mainly so that we don’t get in our own way while we’re writing. We learn all those things, the words, the pace, the grammar rules and how to break them, iambic pentameter (yes, we all use it if we’re writing in English…) – but that’s just a pianist’s scales, or a dancer’s barre work. We do those things so that we have a finely tuned instrument that is always ready on a moment’s notice to communicate the pure ESSENCE of a character (or love scene, or fight, whatever we’re needing to communicate in our story.)

I think I’m going on about this because – well, of course it’s what I do, but also I’ve been thinking about the essence of character because I went on a Reacher binge recently and caught up on a few of the older books I hadn’t read yet. And then I wanted more, and I started up rereading the ones I’ve already read.

As I have confessed here before, I’m not much of a series reader. I realize that part of it is that I am generally doubtful and cynical that any one author can continue to build depth and complexity in the same characters for more than three or four books. And that’s if they’re really good and really lucky. With a series, I am always bracing myself for ennui to set in. Now, I think TV can do series brilliantly – but TV has the incredible advantage of having ACTORS along with a whole staff of writers looking after character development. And actors are fanatically devoted to exploring their particular character, exclusively. That specialization and focus can, in the best of circumstances, carry TV characters much farther than authors are usually capable of carrying them. That’s by no means a slight on writers, it’s an acknowledgment of the art, craft, magic and specialization of actors.

But Lee Child’s Reacher is an exception, and so is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and that has to do with unbelievably great plots, for sure, but I think it also has to do with character essence.

In any Reacher book you care to pick up, on the first few pages you are going to find this character who is almost always out on the open road, and preternaturally observant. Okay, sometimes you meet him right before a fight in which he is always outnumbered and always the last man standing, but the fight will be portrayed moment by moment so what we experience Reacher’s mental and psychological calculations at every second of the action. I don’t much think about what Reacher looks like – muscle seems to have very little to do with anything that happens. In fact, Reacher is huge, but is constantly dispatching bigger and stronger men because he’s fighting with his brain. It’s the Sherlockian powers of observation, whether in a fight or in the course of an investigation - that are compelling about the character.

There are a few other constant, essential things about Reacher that make him unique. He HATES a situation in which a big guy, whether an individual or corporation, is dominating or oppressing a weaker person or entity; he is driven to right that imbalance time and time again. He hates having any encumbrances – house, clothing, place, or even money. And he must have the companionship of an intelligent, unique woman to feel balanced and whole (he doesn’t say this, but it’s constantly played out).

Harry Bosch is another character I never get tired of. Harry was devised with a particular back story of being a tunnel rat in Vietnam, which – without being stated – gives a sense of why this man is damaged. And Harry is wounded, no doubt – while he is often heroic, you worry about him, wonder how he even gets through a day, sometimes. As an LAPD detective, Harry is constantly up against overwhelming forces – it’s not just about the case he’s working on, but the bureaucracy and sometimes malignance of the police department in general, or superiors in the department in particular. Sometimes the very family Harry is trying to help is working against him. Sometimes there’s a bigger, amorphous evil like racism. In fact, there’s always a sense of a greater evil that might finish Harry off for good. Harry is on some level aware of these larger forces and still he goes out there and does his job with a dogged determination that is both relentless and slightly – autistic, is the word that comes to mind.

Of course both Reacher and Harry are wounded knights, an archetype that has captured the popular imagination for hundreds of years, if not since the beginning of time.

Denise Mina’s prickly, scrappy Paddy Meehan is fascinating to me because of her in-your-face Scottishness. She’s a journalist too young to have any practical experience who ends up uncovering more than any of her male colleagues combined because of sheer cussedness. The lone woman up against a force of often hostile male colleagues has always done me (the brilliant BBC series Prime Suspect is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen) because it’s so true to my own experience. Paddy’s also like Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli, who startled me as a female lead because she is so desperately unhappy, so NOT a Cinderella. In the book which was Jane’s introduction, The Surgeon, Jane DOESN’T get the guy – she nearly gets killed instead. She gets no respect on the job because she’s a woman and she gets no respect from her Italian family because she’s a woman. And experiencing her pain and outsiderness made me a devoted fan.

Margaret Maron, to me, captures the essence of the South in her Deborah Knott books. Margaret’s own laser perception masked by that “Who - little ol’ me?” Southern slyness oozes through in Deborah.

Cornelia Read’s Madeline Dare is a fascinating character to me because she lives in – or at least has lived in – a world that is completely alien to my experience, and yet I completely relate to her razor-sharp smarts, wicked tongue, and feminism. SJS’s Hayden Glass being driven by this demon of addiction is compelling to me in essence. Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor’s essence to me is his wide-open heart and purity of soul.

Okay, you know what I want from you today. Who are YOUR favorite series characters and what is it about them – what is the essence - that draws you back, again and again?

- Alex