Saturday, March 24, 2018

Stealing Hollywood - Character Introductions

There are so many tricks that authors can take from filmmaking to help with character.

Today’s example is the CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

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I’ve been breaking down HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE for the online class I’m teaching and that movie is superb for this character technique. Every major character has a fantastic character introduction.

Character introductions are painstakingly developed by screenwriters because the making of a movie (at least in the past) almost always hinges on attachments – that is, attracting a star big enough to “open” the movie – that is, bring in enough box office on the opening weekend to earn back production costs.

When you have an actor like that, the studio will finance the movie.

(Okay, now we could go into the fact that lately studios are less and less willing to rely on stars to open movies and why, but this isn’t an article on film financing, it’s an article on character).

And since the character introduction is the first thing an actor will read in the script, and may be the one thing that makes him or her decide to keep reading, that character introduction may be your one shot at the actor who will make your film or consign it to that grim warehouse (one of many grim warehouses) where scripts with no attachments end up.

Actors don’t always read the whole script. I am absolutely sure that all your favorite actors do. And there are actors who convince great directors to sign onto scripts that they love. There are actors who love a script so much that they produce it themselves, without even taking a role in it, to get it made.

Still, and I know you may find this hard to believe - some actors only flip through the script reading all their own lines, and make the determination of whether or not they will play a part from that.

And so no matter how brilliant the rest of your script is, an irresistible character introduction may be your one shot at getting an actor who can get your movie made.

But what does all this have to do with writing novels, you ask?

Well, what I’m saying is that even as a novelist, it doesn’t hurt to think of character in terms of casting. I know some of you design characters (in novels as well as scripts) with actors in mind. I certainly do. You may start writing a scene imagining a certain actor playing the role of the character you have in mind, and use that actor’s voice. I do this, not all the time, but fairly often. I can feel myself writing for an actor, and imagining an actor saying the lines – but then ALWAYS, at a certain point, the character just takes over. Everything I do with character until that point is just treading water until the REAL character shows up.

Then I forget all about actors and creating and designing - I’m really just following the character around taking dictation.

But – until that point, imagining an actor, and writing for that actor, can be a real help in attracting that mysterious being called character.

(I would be worried about sounding completely psychotic at this point except that I’m talking to a bunch of writers and I KNOW YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.)

So, if you’re willing to buy into this metaphor I’m working on, that characters are much like actors, and you have to design parts that will attract them to your story and convince them to take on the role…

A really good way to do this is to create an irresistible CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

Let’s take a look at some great ones.

- Rita Hayworth throwing back her hair in GILDA.

- Dustin Hoffman on stage playing a tomato in TOOTSIE (and then the equally classic introduction of “Dorothy”, struggling to walk down a crowded NY street in high heels and power suit.)

Hoffman as a tomato tells us everything about his character, both his desires and problems: we see the passion he has for acting, the fact that he’s not exactly living up to his potential, and how extremely intractable he has, basically unemployable. It’s also a sly little joke that he’s playing a “tomato” – a derogatory word for a woman.

- Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I want a BIG one.” And freeze frame on that handspan… fabulous, funny, sexy introduction. (That big, huh? Mmm.)

This intro also tells us something about George Bailey’s outer DESIRE line – he wants to do big things, build big things, everything big. In fact, the story will be about how all the LITTLE things George does in his life will add up to something more than simply big, but truly enormous.

- Mary Poppins floating down from the sky holding on to that umbrella.

- Katharine Hepburn in PHILADELPHIA STORY, throwing open the window shutters on a gorgeous day and exclaiming, “Good going, God!”

- And okay, let’s just look at the mother lode of brilliant character introductions:  HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE.

- Dumbledore: an elderly, medieval looking wizard regally walks down a modern street, using some flashlight-like device to kind of vacuum the lights from the streetlamps into this tool.

- MacGonegal: A cat on a porch meows at Dumbledore, then the shadow of the moving cat turns into the shadow of a witch in pointed hat, and MacGonegal walks regally into frame.

Hagrid: first appears as a glowing light in the sky, very conscious reference to Glinda’s magical appearance in the glowing bubble in THE WIZARD OF OZ (and Hagrid will be the fairy godmother to Harry). Then the Wizard of Oz reference has a humorous twist – Hagrid descends not in a shimmering bubble, but on a Harley.

But the introduction of Hagrid is more than humorous – it tells us a lot about the character. First, the debate that Dumbledore and MacGonegal have over whether Hagrid should have been trusted with the baby tells us a lot about this character we’re about to meet. And when we see Hagrid carrying the baby this hulking giant is as tender as a mother.

Harry Potter: we see him first as a baby in swaddling clothes, left on a doorstep (like every fairy tale changeling and also Moses in the bulrushes, the child who grows up to be the leader of his people), while the witch and the wizard talk about how important he’s going to be - then the scar on the baby’s forehead is match cut to the scar on 11-year old Harry’s forehead to pass time and introduce Harry again.

Again, note that this introduction of Harry tells us a lot about this character – in pure exposition and also by using the visual, archetypal references to Moses – and, let’s face it, the baby Jesus with the three kings (wizards and witch).

Olivander, the wand master: John Hurt slides into frame on a ladder, slyly glowing as only John Hurt can glow.

Nearly Headless Nick: pops his head right through the dinner table.

Of course, having actors like all of the above has more than a little to do with the power of those introductions – obviously we’re talking about screen royalty here.

But those introductions were also specifically designed to be worthy of those stars.

So add character introductions to your list of things to watch for when you look at movies and read books. Note the great ones. The more you become aware of how other storytellers handle this, the better you will be at writing them yourself, for your own characters.

You know the question by now. What are YOUR favorite examples of character introductions?

- Alex

 PS - I'm now microblogging on my Facebook page. Check out how Lee Child introduces Reacher in 61 HOURS!


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Thursday, March 08, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time for International Women's Day

--> Today is International Women’s Day. And tomorrow A Wrinkle in Time opens in theaters nationwide. So I thought I’d combine those topics and write about the book, before I line up to see the movie tomorrow. And then of course I can talk about the movie adaptation!

But first, the book. And women. And writing.


 A Wrinkle in Time is the story of thirteen-year-old misfit Meg Murry, who on a dark and stormy night is visited by three mysterious and iconically eccentric women who transport her, her child prodigy brother Charles Wallace, and her high school crush Calvin O'Keefe, on a cosmic adventure to rescue her scientist father from the evil forces holding him prisoner on a distant planet.

Famously, when author Madeleine L’Engle finished the book in 1960 (pre-YA is putting it mildly!) it was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was "too different", and "because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adults' book, anyhow?" Oh, and “It had a female protagonist in a science fiction book.”

I’m eternally grateful to whatever forces of light were looking out for it.



When people ask me why I write what I do, or even just why I write, instead of rambling on, I could just as well just say A Wrinkle in Time. Countless female author and screenwriter friends, and a good number of the men as well, have said the same thing to me over the years—I suspect just about every woman genre writer who came of age pre-Harry Potter. Meg Murry wasn’t just our Hermione – she was our Harry Potter, too. She is every smart girl who ever lived. We didn’t just read that book—we lived it. We are Meg. And I’m thrilled that through the casting of Storm Reid, the new movie is bringing even more girls into the universality and outsiderness of Meg.




I’ve read just about everything L’Engle ever wrote, fiction and non. Once in a while I realize I’ve missed something and it’s always a treat to add that book to my shelf. She was a huge part of my extremely random spiritual education… in fact she might have been singlehandedly responsible for any spiritual sense I did have in my childhood and early adulthood. I was raised with both no religion and a smattering of a large number of religions. My parents took me and my siblings to Native American ceremonies, Orthodox celebrations, and Hindu holy days. If I spent a weekend night with a friend whose family had a religious practice, they’d drag me along to church or temple. But I was never sold on the idea of a single male God (I mean, come on, really? I love men in general, but omniscient? Let’s just look at the facts, here!).

Then A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the concept of the Goddess, in the three “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and the very intimidating Mrs. Which. That powerful, eternal feminine triumvirate, whether you describe them as former stars, guardian angels, messengers, centaurs (don’t you love that scene where the three children try to explain them to Mr. Murry?) —is to me the Triple Goddess. It was the most positive depiction of spirituality I’d ever encountered, and the one that made the most sense to me: that the universe manifests itself in guardians, and we are watched over, and we are loved.

(L’Engle herself was a devout Christian, yet the book often appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, because of references to witches and crystal balls, because it "challenges religious beliefs", and because Jesus appears on a list of “names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders".)
L’Engle’s equally profound influence on me (it’s inseparable, really) was as a genre writer. I always gravitated toward the spooky, the thrilling, the fantastical, the twisted, in my reading. I discovered A Wrinkle in Time when I was in sixth grade and something in my mind said – “THIS is what a book is supposed to be, do, feel like.” It’s a thrilling adventure with flawed but deeply moral characters, fighting for cosmic stakes. While you’re reading you experience it as a breathless, nail-biting ride, but the moral implications imprint on your soul.

In fact, I was so obsessed with the book the year I first read it that I wrote a movie adaptation of the book. This was a pretty radical and prescient thing for me to have done (at age ten!), considering a lot of adults don’t even understand that there is such a thing as an adaptation process from book to screen. I had no inkling at the time that I would grow up to work as a screenwriter and make a living adapting novels for screen. And no desire to, either.

It was just that book. I wanted to live in that book. I wanted to somehow create the world of that book around me. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything ever since (except, um, Hamlet) that feels as perfect in every way – character, theme, structure, dialogue, action, spectacle, catharsis – every single layer and detail.

I’ve read it dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and I learn something new about how to tell a story every single pass. And not just about the how of it, but the WHY as well. It makes no sense on the surface to write as dark as I do and say that I aspire to the spirituality of that book, but it’s true.

As L’Engle said:

“Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

I struggle with every book of my Huntress Moon series (currently on Book 6, somewhere in the swamps of Act Two, Part 1…). These are very dark books. They confront crimes so heinous that I think they can only be called evil. My FBI protagonist is often on the verge of giving up entirely; he feels so powerless in the face of what he’s being exposed to. But these crimes exist. Someone must face them and fight them. And once again, I’m looking to A Wrinkle in Time to remind me that even in the darkest abyss, the universe manifests itself in guardians—and we are watched over, and we are loved.

There are other books of L’Engle’s that shaped me as a writer, an author, a genre writer. She wrote thrillers: Arm of the Starfish is a wonderful YA spy thriller, again with a profound spiritual dimension, and even her dramas have such an thriller edge – I’m thinking specifically of A Ring of Endless Light – that I’d almost call them cross-genre. She put urgency and cosmic stakes into everything she ever put on paper.

But A Wrinkle in Time is a masterwork… and I guess it’s always in the back of my mind, the question – will I ever be open enough, focused enough, skilled enough, mature enough… enough anything – to write something that is everything I could write, in a perfect world?

I don’t know. But at least I have a light to guide me on that path.

So how about you, readers and authors? Do you have A Wrinkle in Time experiences? Or was there another book that most influenced your childhood and/or writing?

Are you seeing the movie this weekend?

-        Alex


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