Monday, May 30, 2011

Visual Image Systems

I am finally catching up on some films I didn’t get around to last year for various massive personal reasons, and I just watched Black Swan, which is a great example of a blatant and shameless visual image system.

Look at the fun Darren Aronofsky and his designers have with black and white: note when the heroine wears white, when she starts wearing white and black, when shades of gray are used (as with the company director), who else wears black and when.

It made me want to revise a previous chapter on Visual Storytelling and Thematic Image Systems to incorporate other examples I’ve come across in the last year.

I’ve said that I think it’s most useful to think of theme not just as one sentence, but as layers of meaning, a whole set of morals and lessons and ruminations and propositions; a world of interrelated meanings that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have, where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal. And by the way, if you’re a writer, and you’re not keeping a dream journal, you’re working too hard. Why not let your subconscious do the work?).

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story. The most obvious is the PLOT. Every plot is also a statement of theme. DIALOGUE is another, as I’ve discussed before.

But today I’m going to revisit the concept of reflecting theme through primarily visual image systems.

A great example of working a thematic image system, in this case entirely visually, is the first scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

The very first encounter and shock moment comes less than two minutes into the film, when one of the guides in Indy’s search party chops through undergrowth to reveal a huge, demonic statue. The terrified guide runs away, screaming. It’s a thematic reference to the awesome power of the gods (And a setup of Indy’s CHARACTER ARC: he begins the movie without fear of the supernatural; by the end he understands that there are things he will never understand, awesome forces that need to be respected).

The entrance to the cave is temple-like, part of the thematic image system of world religions and mysticism.

Inside the cave, Indy pushes through a veil of cobwebs. At first this just looks cool and spooky – but maybe it’s also symbolic of piercing the veil between reality and the supernatural or divine.

Beyond the chasm Indy and the guide pass by a gold Aztec calendar (or something like one!) at the entrance of the cave: another visual representation of world religions, which will be presented in various ways throughout the film. The calendar is also part of the ongoing theme of mysticism and the supernatural; note the eerie music.

And finally, the inner chamber and the altar with the gold idol, another religious image. Indy susses out another booby trap: the stepping stones: if you step in the wrong place, poisoned darts fly.

Just as Indy makes it out of the cave, there’s the reversal and defeat that the natives are right there with bows and arrows… and Belloq steps up to take the idol away from him. When Belloq holds the idol up, all the natives bow down to it, externalizing the theme of the power of the gods and the necessity for reverence.

And you thought all that was going on there was action, right?

Of course, one thing all my screenwriting has been good for is learning how to convey a story visually. But my obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, Henry May, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.

That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.

So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?

A lot.

In film, every movie has a production designer: one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of sometimes a whole army of production artists) for the entire look of the film – every color, costume, prop, set choice.

With a book, guess who’s the production designer?

You are.

And how do you learn to be a great production designer?

But studying other great production designers.

Alien is a perfect example of brilliant production design. The visual image systems are staggering. Take a look at those sets (created by Swiss surrealist HR Giger). What do you see? Sexual imagery everywhere. Insect imagery, a classic for horror movies. Machine imagery. Anatomical imagery: the spaceships have very human-looking spines (vertebrae and all), intestinal-looking piping, vulvic doors. And the gorgeous perversity of the design is that the look of the film combines the sexual and the insectoid, the anatomical with the mechanical, throws in some reptilian, serpentine, sea-monsterish under-the-sea-effects – to create a hellish vision that is as much a character in the film as any of the character characters.

Oh, and did I mention the labyrinth imagery? Yes, my great favorite: you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery open us up on a subconscious level and make us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. The combination imagery also gives us a clear visual picture of a future world in which machines and humans have evolved together into a new species. It’s unique, gorgeous, and powerfully effective.

Obviously Terminator (the first) is a brilliant use of machine/insect imagery as well.

Nobody does image systems better than Thomas Harris. Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember: her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale: Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have another twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

You have the insect imagery here as well, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget: he’s trying to turn into a dragon. A lot of authors will just throw in random images. How boring and meaningless! What makes what Harris does so effective is that he has an intricate, but extremely specific and limited image system going in his books. And he combines fantastical visual and thematic imagery with very realistic and accurate police procedure.

Hopefully I have by now trained you all to be on the lookout for SETPIECE SCENES in films and books. But a really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in Silence. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

If you watch or rewatch Sea Of Love, which I did just recently, you’ll see how the storytellers work the sea images and the love images throughout the film. The film is often shot in blue tones and against backdrops of wide panes of glass, with moving shadows - all creating an undersea or aquarium effect, especially in the suspense scenes. The story explores themes of love, including obsessive love, and addiction – sex addiction and alcoholism. There are repeating visuals of bottles, glasses, drinking, nudity, erotic art, X-rated movie theaters, hookers.

The film also uses color to create emotion and thematic meaning: red for passion and attraction (in clothing, flowers, fruits and vegetables), and white for innocence, truth, new love (again in clothing, bedclothes, dishware). Al Pacino as the protagonist starts wearing the soft leopard-print slippers his lover gives him to reflect that he is discovering his sensual and animal side.

The Harry Potter books are so crammed full of visual imagery it would take a book to go into it all (there probably is one, in fact...) The books play with all the classic symbols of witches, wizards and magic: owls, cats, gnome, newts, feathers, wands, crystals, ghosts, shapeshifters, snakes, frogs, rats, brooms (I don’t really have to keep going, do I?). But Rowling also uses recurring images very specifically - and numerology as well. Twos are ambiguous and problematic, a classic symbol of duality, with good and evil unintegrated and opposing. You see this in the character clusters of Harry and his rotten cousin, Dudley; Harry and Draco Malfoy; Harry and Voldemort (who are linked by the feathers in their wands, only two of a kind in existence, produced by the same phoenix, another recurring image). In the first book and film, Voldemort lives as a tumor on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head (creating a Janus two-face). Even the cake that Hagrid brings Harry for his birthday is cracked in the shape of the yin/yang symbol.

Threes, on the other hand, are good: there’s the triumvirate of Harry, Ron, and Hermione; and the other powerhouse three of Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid. Even the seemingly threatening three-headed dog turns out to be a guard dog named Fluffy who is in the service of Dumbledore and Hagrid.

In The Secret Life Of Bees Sue Monk Kidd builds a wonderful, intricate thematic image system based on fairy tale symbols and tropes and representations of the goddess and femininity. The young protagonist runs away from her abusive father after breaking her African-American housekeeper out of custody, and the two of them are taken in by a group of three African-American women who keep bees and practice worship of the Black Madonna. This is total fairy tale stuff: the girl and her companion, the three fairy godmothers who raise her to true womanhood in the wilderness (relatively). But the three fairy godmothers are also representations of the Triple Goddess; bees are the classic symbol of the goddess; there are lots of references to flowering and queens, Mary and the Black Madonna, as the girl discovers the strength of her own femininity and femininity in general. There is also a strong theme of love transcending and healing the wounds of racism. It’s a great book to study for superb use of image systems.

Look at The Wizard of Oz (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne and Roman Polanski do with water in Chinatown and also, try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away. Take a look at Groundhog Day, which constantly provides groundhog images, images of stopped or handless clocks (and that malevolent clock radio), an ice image of the eye of God, anthropomorphic weather.

It’s always useful to start with blatant use of symbolism and visual imagery, as in the some of the examples above, to get the hang of how storytellers use these visual techniques, and then start looking for more subtle usages. But if you prefer your stories more bare instead of dripping with imagery, well, great! It’s all about what works for you.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what image systems authors are working with in books and films that you love. Some readers/writers don’t care at all about visual image systems. That’s fine – whatever floats your boat. Me, with rare exceptions, I’ll toss a book within twenty pages if I don’t think the author knows what s/he’s doing visually.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words (in my notebook!) that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… I did pages and pages of words like that.

For The Price: bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). Other people do collages on their computers with Photoshop. I am not one of those people, myself, I need to touch things. But it’s another way of growing an image system. And it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Chris Nolan was blatantly working the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Inception (a little too on-the nose to me to actually call the character Ariadne; we get it, okay? But overall, it was good stuff).

Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

So if I don't get out of working on the holiday, you don't either. What are some of your favorite symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic? I'd love to hear some books and films which to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems. What are some of your favorite images to work with?

- Alex

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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rule of Three

I have somehow avoided a blog on this topic, but when I am live in a workshop (and as I am writing this new book) I am constantly referring to this basic rule of drama.

So okay, let’s get down to it: the Rule Of Three.

Hmm, how to define this…

Well. It’s a rule of comedy that anything is funnier in threes. It’s a rule of learning that it takes three repetitions to assimilate a thought. The Three-Act Structure – it’s based on a rhythm of three: Setup, Complications, and Resolution.

Three main characters. Three questions. Three wishes. “Third time’s the charm.” “Three strikes, you’re out.” “Ready, set, go.” “Ready, aim, fire.” “Lights, camera, action.” “And a one… and a two, and a three…”

As a species, we seem to love threes.

What this three thing comes from, I can’t say. Personally I suspect it’s cosmic. Really. Let’s face it: the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone… Father, Mother, Son… Father, Son, Holy Mother… Father, Son, Holy Ghost, three Fates, three Furies, three Sybils, three Wise Men, three Graces, three witches…. All the spiritual heavyweights come in threes.

It’s also a basic principle of the Fairy Tale Structure. The three-brother structure, or three-sister structure, the three-task structure, three activities, three key questions, three fairy godmothers, three supernatural helpers, three wishes, three magical gifts….

The id-ego-superego structure is a basic principle of Freudian psychology….

Think about it.

- How many times have you seen a movie or read a book in which you see a character attempt things three times… fail the first two times, and then succeed on the third try?

- How many times have you seen a character cluster of three?

- How many times have you seen the three-in-a-row pattern of a joke?

It’s a rule of advertising, of rhetoric, of politics: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” “Faith, hope and charity.” “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Location, location, location.”

Call it religion, call it astrology, call it numerology… however, whyever - this pattern of three is somehow intrinsically satisfying to us as human beings.

It’s often this pattern: Same, Same, Different. One is the set up, Two establishes the pattern, Three breaks the pattern with a twist.

In the Three-Brother or Three-Sister Structure, it’s Fail, Fail, Succeed. In The Godfather we see older brothers Sonny and Fredo are not up to the task of running the Corleone family, but unlikely youngest brother Michael is. In Jaws, we see scientist Hooper and ship’s captain Quint go up against the shark and fail, but in the climax, very unlikely Sheriff Brody actually kills the beast. In Cinderella, the two eldest stepsisters fail utterly with the Prince, then youngest stepsister Cinderella wins the crown. Sorry, I mean prince.

Think about character names: Dumbledore, McGonegall, and Hagrid. Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether. Do you see that change in rhythm? Same, same, different. Serious, serious, joke.

So it is essential for you, writers, to be aware of the existence of the Rule Of Three so you can start being alert to its use in storytelling. You will find it in act structure, in dialogue, in character clusters, in critical events – it is rampant, ubiquitous, and shamelessly used in storytelling of every genre.

The ancient Greeks had it down, and named it, of course, as was their wont: in rhetoric it was called a Tricolon, a sentence with three parallel words or phrases. I’m not going to test anyone on this, but I think it’s important to understand how very long this rhythm has been in use (we’re talking 400 BC, if not earlier!). The Greeks delineated two types of tricolon: the ascending tricolon (tricolon crescens) and the descending tricolon (tricolon diminuens). In the ascending tricolon, the words increase with each pause; and in descending tricolon, the words lessen in length after every break.

Are your eyes glazing over? Well, take another look at these examples:

Ascending Tricolon
: Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.
Descending Tricolon: Dumbledore, McGonegall, and Hagrid.

I don’t know about you, but that to me is fascinating. I can’t tell you that J.K. Rowling designed those character names consciously as a descending tricolon – but a descending tricolon is what that is, there, and I’d say it’s done pretty well for her. My point is: why on earth would anyone not want to at least be aware of a rhythm which has worked on audiences for thousands of years?

Start looking for threes in the movies and TV you watch and the books you read (and the commercials, and the political speeches, and the news articles…). You will be staggered at how often this principle is applied in storytelling – and in life.

You know the question - what are some examples you've noticed of the Rule Of Three?

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Key Story Elements: Into The Special World

I was watching Collateral a few days ago: one of the best mainstream thrillers to come of Hollywood in ten years, I think (by Stuart Beattie. And anyone who says Tom Cruise can’t act is just plain wrong). Besides being maybe the most accurate and weirdly beautiful depiction of LA I’ve seen on film (actually digital video) since Chinatown, with wonderful characterizations from a stellar cast, it just hits so many things perfectly, seemingly without trying.

But a lot of “not trying” comes from having learned your craft so well that you make the right instinctive choices.

I’m thinking of a moment early in the film that on the DVD commentary director Michael Mann says he can’t explain, but he knew he had to have the shot because it summed up the whole story for him.

I was thrilled to hear it because it had been a goosebump moment for me when I rewatched the film. But I know why, for me at least.

The shot I’m talking about is when cab driver Jamie Foxx heads out onto the downtown freeways to start his night shift (it’s late afternoon), and he drives seemingly head on into a huge, wall-sized Mexican mural that actually is sort of iconic, if you know downtown L.A: a painting of a desert canyon with a vaquero (cowboy) on a white horse, and a black bull. The mural is unfinished, and the vaquero has no head. And for a moment it really does look like Jaime Foxx is driving right into that landscape. It’s surreal, and mythic, and it totally sets up the action that is to come.

Well, that moment hits one of the most important beats in storytelling: the Into The Special World or Crossing The Threshold moment.

A story will usually begin by showing in some way the Ordinary World of the main character, which externalizes a lot of essential information about that character – especially why they are somehow stuck in the life they are presently living. Then it’s time to take her/him out of that old, familiar comfort zone and plunge them into the adventure – no matter what the genre is. And this is one of the most magical moments of storytelling; perhaps the most important one to get right.

Because it’s so big, this scene very often comes as the Act I Climax, although it can be as early as the Sequence 1 Climax. Once in a while it comes early in Act II, right after the Act I Climax. And once in a great while it doesn’t happen until the Midpoint, as in Jaws, when Brody and his team of Hooper and Quint finally head out (in that too-small boat) to open water to hunt down the shark.

It’s not uncommon to have several crossings of thresholds, as the hero/ine goes deeper and deeper into the Special World. This is always an effective technique to make us feel we’re really going on an adventure.

In Groundhog Day: the obvious Into The Special World scene is very early in the story, under the opening credits, in fact, when after the opening scene in the newsroom, TV weatherman Phil Connors, his cheery producer Rita, and cameraman Larry drive out of Pittsburgh, over a bridge (an archetypal symbol of crossing a threshold), and into the snowy mountains of Pennsylvania. Out of the city, into a small mountain town. This kind of contrast underscores the feeling of newness and adventure we want to experience in an Into The Special World transition.

But there’s a second, more subtle Crossing The Threshold, when Phil wakes up in the morning to a replaying of the day he just spent. The filmmakers cue this moment with the shot of the clock alarm clicking over to 6 a.m., while “I Got You, Babe” plays on the radio. It’s a big visual that will repeat and repeat and repeat. The numbers on the clock are like a door, and they usher Phil into the real Special World: a time loop where every day is Groundhog Day and there’s no escaping Punxsutawney, PA.

The first Harry Potter is a great example of the many-threshold technique. There is often a special PASSAGEWAY into the special world, and in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone you first see Harry enter the new world of London, then Hagrid magically rearranges the bricks in a stone wall so Harry can step through into the very new world of Diagon Ally, then Harry has to figure out the trick of Platform 9 ¾, then the train takes Harry and the other first years into the wilderness, then finally the kids cross the dark lake (looking very much like the River Styx) in small torch-lit boats to get to Hogwarts. The Into The Special World moment is very often turned into a whole scene or sequence to give it the weight it deserves.

Other famous passageways are the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz (and Dorothy stepping over the threshold into Technicolor Oz is certainly the most famous depiction of that moment in film history!), the red pill in The Matrix, the chalk sidewalk paintings in Mary Poppins, the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the tesseract in A Wrinkle In Time.

But certainly the entering the Special World moment doesn’t have to be a supernatural experience. In While You Were Sleeping – the warm, bright Callaghan house is a special world to lonely Lucy, who wishes for a family of her own. When she gets out of the taxi and sees the big house covered in Christmas lights, you can see her longing to belong there on her face. There she is confronted by a Threshold Guardian on the porch: the family friend who suspects she is lying about who she is.

Joseph Campbell talked about the idea of the Threshold Guardian: a character (or sometimes an animal or creature!) who tries to turn the hero/ine back at the gate. It’s a great way of giving the Crossing The Threshold moment extra resonance.

Another trick is to use symbols we all have in our heads. Bridges, doors, gates, freeway on-ramps or off-ramps: these are all symbols that are used constantly by filmmakers and authors to create the sense of Crossing The Threshold. And it’s very effective to have this sequence be a descent: Clarice descends multiple staircases and passes through seven gates to get to Lecter down there in that dungeon – a great, ominous Crossing The Threshold scene, that takes us down into the subterranean realms of the unconscious along with her.

Are you aware of that Into The Special World moment when you’re reading or watching a film? Writers, do you design that moment, consciously or unconsciously?

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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- Kindle

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Key Story Elements: Inner And Outer Desire

Here's another key story element that I wanted to explore visually.

I've said here before that it's important to state your hero/ine’s outer desire aloud - either the character saying it or someone close to them (or better yet, in opposition to them) stating it for them.

Well, what I really meant is, you need to make inner and outer desire crystal clear. And that is often better accomplished visually than in words. You don’t actually have to have the hero say he wants the heroine, if you describe how his world stops at the moment that he meets her (as we see done so well in Notting Hill, as I talked about last post.).

Funny Girl is a great example of making the desire of the heroine concrete and visual (musicals so often do this brilliantly, in song and in visuals). Early in the story Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice is fired from the chorus line of a vaudeville show because she’s a terrible dancer and doesn’t, well, fit in. She tries to convince the producer to rehire her in a song (“I’m The Greatest Star”) but gets thrown out of the theater anyway. Out in the alley she makes a decision and storms back in to try again, still singing - only to find the theater empty. Then, out alone on stage, she has that moment – that I’m sure every actor and singer and dancer in the history of the world has had – that moment of being alone on an empty stage with the entire vast history and power of the theater around you – and she is speechless, silenced… and then finishes the song with a power and passion we haven’t seen in her yet. We see, unequivocally, that she IS a star.

Her desire is being voiced in the song: “I’m the Greatest Star” – but the visuals give it the emotional power – and truth. This is her drive – this is what she would kill for.

Think you can’t put that on the page? Come on, I know I could. And I think it’s instructive to look at musicals for the way they depict unadulterated longing. That’s the kind of emotion we want to get on the page, right? Try using that as inspiration.

It’s also interesting to look at the scene where Fanny first meets Nick Arnstein, and is instantly smitten. It’s clearly love… but not quite the moment that her first solo on stage is. And the whole story is about those two desires: for stardom and for love – are in conflict. I think it’s a great example of visualizing both the inner and outer desires.

Take Raging Bull. Jake LaMotta’s OUTER DESIRE is clear – he states it flat out, and he and all his entourage are working toward it. He wants to be a champion boxer.

But the moment he meets Vickie, we see a new DESIRE begin, and it’s quickly apparent that that new desire is going to conflict with his stated desire. He wants this woman, and Scorsese films Jake’s view of her so beautifully: she sits at the edge of a swimming pool, blonde and pale, with the sun and the water caressing her… the film goes into slightly slow motion as she moves her legs in the water. It’s a terrific depiction of the thunderbolt of love, and the beginning of obsession; time stops for the hero when he sees the loved one.

(That slow motion technique is used to wryly comic effect to introduce the teenage love interest, Astrid, in the wonderful animated fantasy, How To Train Your Dragon. Not only does the world go into slo-mo when protagonist Hiccup first introduces her in narration in the film, but also the backdrop is an explosion of fire and the expression on Hiccup’s face is downright starry.)

I want to note that the establishing of OUTER DESIRE is such a big moment that it’s often used as the SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX, as it is in Raging Bull and Funny Girl (the song gets her hired by the musical director at the theater). The hero/ine’s desire is important to establish early on, so using it as the Act One Climax would in most cases be too late.

It’s helpful to muse on how you might use any or all of the six senses to externalize INNER AND OUTER DESIRE. In It’s A Wonderful Life the sound of a train whistle is like a knife in George Bailey’s heart, reminding him of the places he’s never been able to go. As we all know, scent can be the most powerfully evocative of all senses… why not use it to externalize your own hero/ine’s desire?

And in the action thriller Collateral Jamie Foxx’s outer desire (two of them, actually) is established in a whole scene: when Jada Pinkett Smith gets into his cab for a short ride, their wonderful, sparkling, chemistry-laced dialogue not only reveals to us his dream of running a limo company (OUTER DESIRE), but also shows him developing a powerful new Inner and Outer Desire: He wants her (OUTER DESIRE ), but more than that: he wants to be a man worthy of her (INNER DESIRE). Which is so often the case in a love story or love subplot. And the way he can become a man worthy of her is to stop dreaming about the limo company and DO IT.

This terrific film shows how effective it can be to take an entire scene to detail the hero/ine’s desire line.

And remember that in a love story the moment of seeing the loved one for the first time does not just begin the inner – or sometimes outer! – desire, but it’s often also the INCITING INCIDENT and/or CALL TO ADVENTURE of the story.

Hmm, a lot of love story examples this time, for a change! May be the influence of some wedding that took place recently…

So you know the question. What are some examples of how filmmakers or authors externalize the main character's INNER AND OUTER DESIRE?

- Alex