Sunday, July 6, 2014

Eight Story Fixes

Congratulations! The easy part's over.
Something's wrong. You can't put your finger on it, but that brand new manuscript you've been working on for years lacks that something that Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and R. A. Salvatore have in spades. Or maybe it's your screenplay that for some reason lacks the snappy dialogue you'd expect from a Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin script. Or your play that's missing the emotional gravitas of an Edward Albee, Martin McDonagh, or Tom Stoppard work. Maybe a short story that aspires to be regarded like the works of James Joyce or John Updike.

Whatever it is, it's yours. You wrote something. You're a writer. And that's awesome. Period.

But could it be better? How?

1. Setting Fatigue

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, most of the series's action takes place in a single location: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But the location is really interesting. There are even chapter and book titles named after the various rooms and places on the castle grounds (i.e., The Unknowable Room, The Chamber of Secrets, The Forbidden Forest). The point is, a film audience will grow tired of a single setting after about three minutes. Unless it's the site of a major action set piece (i.e., a race track, a boxing ring, a shootout), if it's in a screenplay, you have about three pages per setting before the scene becomes more of a stage play.

One setting. A zillion possibilities.
But what about a stage play? In so many, most (if not all) of the action takes place in the same place. Neil Simon's Plaza Suite? Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman? How is it that a play can do it but a screenplay usually can't?

In a play, oftentimes a single setting is used (at first) as a blank slate - be it a hotel room in Plaza Suite or a backyard in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. In examples such as these, it's the characters who use the setting (itself arguably a character) to its maximum potential, and no such setting is ever chosen arbitrarily.

In a film, however, you have a bit over 100 pages to move us from place to place to place. Keep it moving, and take us to locations that we don't expect. As much thought should be given to your settings as to your characters.

2. Flat Protagonist

Write or I'll jump out of your closet, tonight.
Stories must move us. The characters who move the stories must be moving, themselves. There's a physical journey (find the grail, rescue the prince/princess, find my father, stop the bad guy, move my house to Paradise Falls, etc.) but too often neglected (and far more important) is the internal journey that the character takes in becoming a new character by story's end. In Braveheart, how does young William Wallace turn into an ideal? A legend? How does Luke Skywalker turn from bumpkin farm boy to savior of the rebellion? How does Red go from hopeless to brimming with hope, in The Shawshank Redemption?

The best protagonists are imperfect. They're flawed. Their flaw is oftentimes their defining characteristic. Why a flaw? Because we are flawed in various ways, and we like projecting ourselves onto screens and imagining ourselves as the hero of the rebellion, as being full of hope, and as leading a charge of disgruntled Scotsmen across a field. It's so much easier when those who do it remind us of ourselves. Ditch the perfect character. They have to learn something the hard way.

3. Flat Antagonist

"Trust me."
It's often easier to name the attributes of an antagonist than those of a main character. "Evil," "mean," "cruel," "sadistic," "British accent," and such. But "antagonist" doesn't mean "bad guy" so much as it means, "person or force who stands in the way of the protagonist." That doesn't always mean evil. In fact, it shouldn't. Why? Because like your protagonist, your antagonist should also be sympathetic. Tragic, even. Your audience should be shaking their heads, saying to themselves, "If only the antagonist had made the right decision at the right moment, he/she'd be a good person." While a protagonist rises to the challenge of overcoming their flaw, an antagonist often falls victim to and is dominated by their issue.

Sometimes, this is turned on its head. In The Social Network, for example, the antagonists are really more sympathetic than the protagonist. The Mark Zuckerberg character comes across as opportunistic and treacherous. Those he tricked sue him and become his antagonists, but they're certainly not awful people. What makes this such a strong script is that each character is worthy of sympathy. Only we're shaking our heads at Mark rather than the Winklevoss twins.

In most cases, however, antagonists are characters we'd like to see put in their place. If only Anakin Skywalker had realized that death was the natural way of things, he never would've turned into a homicidal maniac... if only the Joker had used his incredible intellect to help and believe in society rather than give up on it and subvert it... if only Warden Samuel Norton wasn't corrupt and had a strong sense of justice, he'd have been a champion of Andy's cause in Shawshank... if only Senator Paul Thurman had more faith in humanity and didn't initiate an apocalyptic plot in Hugh Howey's Silo Trilogy...

The road to a good antagonist is paved with if onlys.

4. No Subplots

Subplot on a U.S. postage stamp!
The main plot is your alpha story. It's what you pitch. It's what your audience will relay when someone asks them, "What's it about?" Subplots carry the emotional thread of the story.  If the main plot is the story of the physical journey, then subplots carry the emotional thread of that all-important inner character journey. As such, subplots are character relationships.

In Up, it's Dug the dog's relationship with Carl that ultimately changes Dug from lowest-on-the-totem-pole to pack leader. In In Bruges, it's Ray's relationship with Ken that ultimately ejects him from his suicidal funk. In The Social Network, it's Mark's growing relationship with Sean Parker that undermines and ultimately obliterates his relationship with Eduardo Saverin, completing his journey to full-fledged asshole.

Subplots are relationships that support your main story, and your main story is your story's main relationship. Your subplots demand your attention and care, so don't be stingy.

5. No Conflict

"Why aren't WE on a postage stamp?"
I ran a writers' meeting recently in which I stated that every scene, without exception, must have conflict. A writer laughed at that and asked me why. Simply stated, nothing is more interesting, more arresting, than conflict. Want proof? Glance at the news. Glance at your Facebook feed. Which posts have the most comments? Those that report an injustice, or are otherwise polarizing.

Remember that old saying about how you never really know a person until you see how they perform under pressure? Well, we really want to know your characters, so you had best put them under boatloads of pressure. How best to accomplish that? Conflict! Characters grow through conflict. Characters accomplish through conflict. Characters act through conflict. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy grows closer to his father but only after fighting through a phalanx of Nazis. We learn more about characters through conflict, and the story charges forward because of it. It's absolutely necessary. Embrace the conflict.

6. Tired Concept

"I like you, too. Why are you holding a lamp?"
"It's similar to Nicholas Sparks" or "It's similar to Jaws" or "It's similar to Alfred Hitchcock." If you begin a description of your story with one of these phrases, then you may want to reconsider. Let me ask you: do you think that Nicholas Sparks, Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, or Alfred Hitchcock described the works they set out to make as, "Well, it's similar to such-and-such"?

Of course they didn't.

That's because they came up with new ways to tell stories and they had absolute faith that their particular takes had not been done before. There were romantic tales for over a thousand years before Nicholas Sparks penned The Notebook. Stories of horror long before Jaws. Yarns of the uncanny ages before Hitchcock. Write what only you can write. That doesn't mean tell your life story, but it does mean that if horror interests you, then what's your specific take on the respected old genre? What's your take on the romantic comedy? On drama? What can you bring to it to make it fresh? New? Something we've never, ever seen before? If it's too similar to something that's already been done, then that doesn't make an audience say, "Awesome! Another vampire book!" They'll ask, "Why should I spend my time reading another vampire book? What makes this one different from the flood of vampire books we've already read this summer?"

The trick is to focus less on the story, when you're starting out, and more on the characters. When you're asked, "What's your story about?" you don't want to say, "It's a romantic comedy." You'd be much better off describing it as, "A cynical, obsessive-compulsive romance novelist attempts to woo a struggling single mother who thinks he's creepy. But once he generously pays for her son's medication, they begin a relationship." That's far more specific, far more image-based, and far more intriguing (the film is Oscar winner As Good as it Gets).

I Love You, Man is an example of a romantic comedy... with two guys coming together (platonically) as opposed to a guy chasing a woman. It takes the standard rom-com engine and spins it in a new direction. It's fresh and funny, even if it goes overboard on iPhone product placement. Bridget Jones's Diary is another example, this time of a woman chasing a guy. It's funny and different, and was a success. Maybe every story has already been done... but every character sure as heck hasn't, and that gives you a colossal advantage.

You want people to hear your logline and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Don't write the familiar. Write the uniquely familiar

7. Passive Plot

At least it's not a Sharknado.
I call this Twister Syndrome. In a film in which the natural disasters cause the plot, the natural disasters become the most interesting characters in the film. And that shouldn't be. Your protagonist must cause the plot and be the source of every action that pushes it forward.

I read a colleague's script recently about a likable, powerful politician who orders his underlings to stop his rival politician from seizing control of the government. High intrigue, sure, but if all your protagonist does is sit in his armchair and dole out orders, he stops being altogether interesting. He should be the one out there, boots on the ground, stopping his adversary at every turn. After all, that's what makes a hero a hero. They're willing to stick their neck out.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is content to hang out atop his tower and send out everyone and everything to stop his foes... but he never leads the charge himself. He's a static antagonist who literally remains in the same place for the entire trilogy. He's willing to sacrifice legions for his cause, but he never once sets foot on the battlefield (at least during the time period exhibited in the story). He's powerful, but in many ways he remains impotent.

Don't let an impotent protagonist happen to you. Your protagonist must lead the charge into every plot event. Events shouldn't happen to your protagonist so much as your protagonist causes events. The antagonist should take interest in your protagonist because your protagonist is already off somewhere, driving the plot. That's when the antagonist strikes, forcing your active protagonist to strike back, and so on.

In Braveheart, William Wallace tempts fate (and the ire of the aristocracy) by secretly marrying his childhood sweetheart in order to save her from rape. The king's men then execute Wallace's sweetheart, Wallace strikes back, and the conflict spirals out of control from there. All because Wallace acts to help someone he loves. But in doing so, he makes things worse for himself. That's a terrific irony, and all because he's an active fellow.

Bang bang, she shot me down.
8. Low Stakes

What if Darth Vader shot Luke out of the sky in Star Wars? What if Dr. Alan Grant didn't save Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park? What if the Nazis caught up with Victor Laszlo in Casablanca? What happens if your protagonist fails at their quest? Writer/producer Jim Cirile says that if at any point your protagonist can just throw his hands up during the quest and say, "The hell with this," then you shouldn't be writing that story.

The cost of failure on the part of your protagonist must be absolutely dire.

How do you ratchet up the stakes? A great place to start is death. If your protagonist doesn't win, he/she will die. That's a pretty big deal. But it's not necessarily even the biggest of the stakes you can write. For many people, there exist situations that are a fate worse than death. In Finding Nemo, Marlin would rather die than have a life without his beloved son. In Casablanca, Rick would rather die than lose the love of his life a second time ("Go ahead and shoot," he tells Ilsa, "You'll be doing me a favor."). In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy fears a loss of hope more than death.

Whatever represents death or a fate worse than death for your protagonist must be that which hangs over your story. Screenwriter Blake Snyder made this point succinctly when he wrote that the prime motivators were sex, hunger, fear of death, protection of loved ones, and survival. These are primal motivators, and everyone can relate to them. Any one of these must be threatened over the course of your story in order for the audience to genuinely care about and fear for your protagonist. Keep the stakes high!

Throw an active character into an intriguing setting with a deep antagonist, rich subplot relationships, and plenty of life-or-death conflict. Your readers will thank you for it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these tips. :) I'll have to save this and go over a draft.