You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘advice for new writers’ tag.


I decided to create an addendum to this article, originally posted in 2010, due to insights that I wanted to add. I understand from feedback that this checklist has been quite helpful to my readers. I hope the additional comments will make it more so.

As writers, we all need to start somewhere. Ask anyone who writes for a living, and they’ll tell you: they’re a better writer today than they were a year ago. The simple fact is, do anything long enough, and your skills improve. The same goes for writing.

I’ve worked as a fiction editor and story analyst since 1996, and have judged adult fiction in writing competitions. Many of my writing clients have been first time writers. In analyzing their manuscripts, I’ve noticed some recurring writing tendencies, what I call “habits of prose,” that severely limit the content – sometimes rendering the manuscript unmarketable.

If you have your first fiction manuscript in hand, try checking your work against the list below of the most common writing omissions and errors made by first time writers:

Proper Formatting

Don’t let something so simple and basic hurt your chances of being well-received by anyone who holds your manuscript. Standard formatting is so easy: Times New Roman or Courier font in a 12pt typeface. 1″ margins on top/bottom and sides. A SMALL header containing your: last name/book title followed by 5 spaces and the page number, all on one line in the upper right hand corner of each page. The header makes it easier for any reader to track where they are in your manuscript and what/who they’re reading throughout. For a busy professional, this ease of management can make the difference between being read or rejected, so don’t let your hard work be demolished by a lack of attention to expected details out in the real world of publishing. Also, use hard page breaks to eliminate hanging windows, phrases or sentences that run from one page to another. Having a little extra space at the bottom of a page is okay if it means keeping a thought coherent. If you are using Chapter Headings, make sure to put a hard page break at the end of each chapter. A new chapter should start on a new page. There are other small tricks to formatting that are more about personal choice of the author, such as extra spaces between paragraphs to indicate a time or scene change, but you don’t need to get into that until your final line edit, although seeing this device properly used beforehand is always a joy. Just make sure that your manuscript is formatted to allow for the greatest ease of reading, tracking and managing before you submit it to anyone, even casual readers, so you don’t burn bridges.

Characters/Back-Story

You may think you don’t need to go through this common writer’s exercise, but the fact is, the better you know your characters, the easier it will be for you to know what he/she will do in any given situation, and the clearer your character will be on the page, even if, and especially if, you don’t use all the back story you create. Knowing what shaped your character into who they are when your story opens is a key exercise for inhabiting your story with memorable characters. And, unfortunately, when a writer omits this step, sooner or later in the story, it shows.

Engage the Reader’s Senses

Many beginning writers fail to utilize taste, smell, touch and hearing in their storytelling. I once read a thriller by a first time writer, which took place in India. The entire time I felt as though the story was taking place in some gray zone. Here I was in India, and it felt like the clouds! Ground your reality with the things we all pick up on in our environments everyday. Use weather, smells, sounds, how something feels in one’s hand…to bring realism and place to your story. After all, if your story takes place in an exotic locale, it’s your job to take the reader along!

Give Every Character an Arc

Although some of us never learn, it’s irritating to a reader when your characters don’t. Nobody wants to read about a character who goes through some great adventure only to have them end up no different than they started once the smoke clears. Even minor characters should be shaped by the events you put them through.

Clear Definition between Characters in Dialogue

Again, this is a benefit of doing back story on each character. Many new writers end up creating characters that all talk the same way, even when they come from supposedly diverse backgrounds. You don’t expect a southern belle to express herself the same way as a mercenary soldier, and you don’t want your characters all sounding like you! Back story helps you know your characters so well that they cannot express themselves the same way. If you’re still stuck, try creating a simple scenario and situation, put each of your characters in that, and write how each one feels about it and expresses what happened.

Organic Flow of Time and Scenes

When you watch a good movie or read a good book, there is an element working that you may not be consciously aware of, and that is the logical and organic flow of one scene to the next, of one element of your story leading logically into the next element. The flow of information should always be a conscious and deliberate choice of the author. This gives the reader/viewer a sense of time within which the story unfolds. Many new writers struggle with a cohesive alignment within their story and I believe it comes from a reluctance to eliminate scenes that do not serve the whole story during the self-editing process. There is a wonderful literary quote, with conflicting sources cited if you look it up online, but it’s a quote all writers should live by: “For good writing, you must be willing to kill your darlings.”  As writers, we all get caught up in the excitement of our ideas, scribbling them down as fast as possible on any surface available. But the thing is, even some of our most brilliant ideas will not serve a story as a whole, and we must be willing to sacrifice those brilliant little darlings on the altar of good storytelling. It’s probably one of the hardest lessons in developing your craft, and one of the most difficult disciplines to enforce on your writing, but it must be done if your goal is to create a quality product.

Your challenge is to look at each scene to determine the flow of your story and to be ruthless with yourself when a scene you’ve written (that you just LOVE) really does not work, does not serve or stands out awkwardly from the rest. Cut them out and paste them in a separate document so you can refer back to them if you must, but cut, cut, cut. It’s your best friend. And use formatting tricks for indicating big time leaps or POV changes.

Clear Sense of Place

In a way, this vital element of good fiction relates to the item cited above, using the senses. Every story unfolds somewhere. We are sensory beings who experience our environments through our physical being. Ensuring that your readers experience the environment of your story is just as important as ensuring they experience your plot or premise.  So many new writers dash about from scene to scene without grounding the reader firmly in each place. My intuitive response to this common omission is, if it’s not important to ground me where the action is, maybe the action isn’t so important.

Most of us spend years working on a story. We can get so close to it, know it so well, that we often forget to include important information for those who know nothing of our story. It is a fine line, deciding what you can allow a reader to “fill in” and what must be presented as a full painting. Make sure to review your scenes with this sense of grounding in a solid “place,” whether your story unfolds on a wildly-advanced, organically intelligent, interstellar space ship – or a quaint  and sunny sidewalk cafe on the ancient island of Malta. Creating vague locations well get you a “no-pass” from publishers and readers alike.

Defining Your Premise

Why are you telling this story? What do you want a reader to walk away with after reading it? Is there an understanding or basic underlying philosophy to your story? Maybe you’re writing about courage in the face of great adversity (a common element for any drama). Maybe you feel that doing “the right thing” pays off in the end, no matter how it looks, and this is your underlying message. Maybe your story is more literary, full of angst and condemnation of the human race or western culture. Many great writers have taken on that challenge, framing the human dilemma within one character and using his environment as metaphor to deliver a subtle or not so subtle message about ourselves.

The thing is, most new writers don’t think of their story in this manner, from such a remote overview. If you had to boil down the message of your story into one line, what would that be? It’s actually quite helpful to gain clarity on your premise before you start writing. You can tape it to your computer as an anchor that keeps you from wandering too far. Knowing your premise is like having a glue that will keep all elements of your story relevant and connected to each other. Knowing your premise can help you eliminate ideas that have the power to pull you from your narrative path, wasting time and brain power on ideas that don’t quite fit.

There is a wonderful book I have on my reference shelf titled “A Story is a Promise,” written by Bill Johnson, manager of Willamette Writers, (the largest and oldest writer’s group in the U.S.), teacher, author and friend. If you feel at all fuzzy about the concept of a premise or its importance, I highly recommend this book. Heck, I recommend it to all storytellers, no matter your level of craft.

Sending Queries before a Book Proposal is Complete

Ah, the dreaded Book Proposal. Unless you plan on self-publishing, a book proposal is a marketing tool that your agent needs to shop your manuscript to a publisher. You must have this ready to send out along with any other sections of your manuscript that an agent wants you to send. There are plenty of books and information on how to create a book proposal, so I won’t go into that herein. However, I will share the cautionary tale of one writing client of mine who lost representation by a well known and very busy agent, because he was scrambling to assemble his proposal. He wasn’t prepared to respond immediately to her interest from his query, and she wasn’t interested in representing an unprofessional writer.

* * * *

It’s an unfortunate fact that, even if you’ve never been published, all agents expect professional level manuscripts and materials from any writer they represent. This means your work must compete against an enormous and never-ending slush pile of submissions. The good news is, if your writing is any good at all, you stand a chance of “getting the ink.”

So check your manuscript to see if your story has all the necessary elements required to transport the reader into your world, whatever world that is. Make sure you get a professional editing job done on your manuscript before submitting it anywhere. And compile a book proposal to have ready to send out to any positive responses you receive to your queries. Once an agent is contacted, and disappointed, it’s extremely rare that they will be bothered with you again, so make sure your materials represent your best abilities right out of the gate.

Break a pen!

Advertisements

TranscendenceNot too long ago, I saw Johnny Depp’s movie, “Transcendence,” in the theater. I tried to think of a joke using the title that would describe how I felt while in the audience. Nap-tendence-y? I’m still working on it. I did catch myself squirming in my seat multiple times, longing for the movie to end. It was easy to pin why: I never cared. Not one bit. Who ARE these confusing and confused intellectuals explaining quantum computing and their love to us with equal raised eyebrow-time? The story structure didn’t invest in exposing the tender underbellies of the protagonists in an ordinarily human way for us to care about what happened to them during the subsequent and oh-so-long remainder of the film.

I went to the theater without reading any reviews, but reading them afterward, they echoed my experience. We love Depp. We love his movies. We all struggled to understand this movie because we wanted to love Depp in this one, too. But as the lights went up, a young man sitting in my aisle turned to his friend, his face aghast, and said, “So…the end of all technology is supposed to be some kind of ‘happy ending’!!?” (That’s not a spoiler. It’s where the film opens). Actually, I suppose the best thing you could say about the film is that the story structure follows a classic full circle: where it starts is where it ends, but in this case, that’s not an emotionally satisfying or even very clear beginning.

Besides registering as emotionally vapid, the story offered no unique message. “Beware of technology,” it seemed to say. Well, okay. How long have we been hearing that one? Since Charlie Chaplan’s “Modern Times?” The movie did not offer any solid emotional connections whatsoever: watch the girl scientist stumble-run down Kubrick-meets-Fellini-like hallways (repeatedly) as her dead husband’s projected yet self-aware cyber-image follows and watches her, wherever she goes…a love story!? Even the leading lady thought her cyber-love was creepy. How are WE supposed to feel any different? Over the whole of it, the movie was either emotionally confusing, barren, or skirting on repugnant. Give me a break. How the heck are we supposed to care against all that? There was too much emotional distance and muddy fields for an audience to overcome.

How important is it to get an audience invested in your characters? How important is eliciting an emotional response from an audience? How important is it to dig around so you can tell an emotionally honest story that others can feel? Evoking emotion in your audience, however you do it, is more important than any other single element in storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, or even writing a damn TV commercial.

Here’s a very real-world example of why I believe this holds true, and not just for me:

Many years ago, I was invited to guest-judge adult fiction entries for the Kay Snow Award, given yearly by the Willamette Writers Group, based in Portland, Oregon. WW, as the members like to call it, is the largest and oldest writer’s group in the United States, which seems natural given that it was founded in a city containing a street hosting more published-author’s residences than any other street in our country. In addition to its plethora of traditionally published authors, Portland is a city populated by avid, cultivated and educated readers. Do a book signing event in Portland, and you best be ready for a crowd asking relevant questions about nuances you wrote deep in subtext that you thought only you noticed. So, being invited to judge adult fiction entries for this particular contest in this particular city was an honor, like receiving a seal of approval on one’s perspectives from a long-established, respected, and focused institution.

It was the first time I had been invited to judge any kind of writing contest, and I anticipated stumbling across great, undiscovered talent, of being humbled in the face of what would surely be impressive submissions to such an esteemed competition. 75-manuscripts (20-pages each) were handed to me at the WW Office, along with a printed page of judging guidelines, and a twinkle from the eye of WW’s mascot, office manager, and skilled author in his own right, Bill Johnson, who invited me to help with judging after reading some of my short stories.

He loosed the heavy box of submissions into my arms, stepped back, and nudged his aviator frame glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “You’ll need to decide on first, second and third places from these entries,” he said. “No pressure.” He chuckled. “There are other adult fiction judges, so all submissions are read by more than one judge, to keep things fair. It’s all anonymous. Nobody knows who else is judging, and there are no names on the manuscripts, just numbers for tracking. You’ve got two months. Most find that’s plenty of time.”

Once home, I dug in, unconvinced by Bill’s declaration that two months was long enough to contemplate and judge all 75-entries entrusted to me. What happened next stunned me. I reduced the pile of 75 to only 20 in about one hour! Entry after entry stumbled and bumbled so poorly across their first 3-pages that I read no further. It was painfully obvious that these quick eliminations could not hope to contend against even a dry yet skillfully written submission. The most common mistakes of the unpublished were presented like a tic list in bold letters. Next!

Judging the remaining twenty entries was where volunteering became work. It took another two weeks to cut those twenty to twelve, with many quiet, coffee-fueled reveries on each one. This is where the mountain got steep. All remaining entries were diverse in genre, all had strong merits. Unknown to me at the time, some remaining entries were already sold to publishing houses, such was the quality of the survivors, but eventually, I had to offer my opinion on which three stories should win and place, and back my decisions with a written explanation. My decisions would be hedged by those of the other two judges reading the same entries as I, but knowing that didn’t lessen my sense of determination to offer the most honest and professional assessment possible, no matter how green I was to this judging process.

After much deliberation, twelve became six. Now I was comparing tales with conscious applications of deep craft, all worthy of going to print just as they were, except for one humble story that gained entry to the pile of contenders in a manner vastly different, so different that no other remaining entry was in the same class. I had mysteries, check. A few of those. Crime thrillers, yes. All very well-crafted. Some brilliant short stories. One exploring modern concepts of fidelity that was very strong, acerbic and clever. So what was this little, bedraggled, grammar-challenged story that would not let me toss it aside for its petty sins? How could this piece that needed line-editing and polishing still be in the running with all these other stories that were honed to perfection, especially now, with the criteria so narrow and refined?

In the end, the bedraggled little story won. I had to do it. It was a brutally honest, gut-wrenching, gut-driven share, completely absent of false notes. This author was not trying to imitate the voice of any known, successful author. This author was not imitating any formulaic structure. No, this author shared a story based on a childhood memory, told by a damaged and authentic voice, with a decision to be made left hanging and unknown for an ending. The brave refusal of the author to offer any trite and easy answers was perfect, appropriate, and thought-provoking. Sure, it had grammar issues, but the story itself hit me hard emotionally and stuck with me emotionally, and it was the only story to do so with such quiet intensity and authenticity. In this sense, of the 75 contestants, it was unique.

After deliberating over the second and third places and finally choosing those, I submitted my findings to WW, and spoke with Bill about my experience. I shared my surprise that so many entries were just bad writing, easily eliminated from the list of contenders, and how I had expected better from this competition.

“I’ve been told by agents that the mix of writing skill one tends to see in competitions closely reflects the mix of quality in what they see submitted to them as literary agents,” he shared.

Really!? That single fact should give hope to anyone reading this who has worked on their craft. You’re already above the fray. Strike an emotional chord that can resonate with most readers, and you’ll be miles above the rest.

After all the judges’ votes were tallied, I had yet another surprise: the entries I chose to win and place in adult fiction were the entries that won those spots. Apparently, the other judges were as smitten by the honesty and fragility of the childhood memory piece as I had been. Like me, they decided the emotional impact of the story was more important than the occasional mistake in grammar, and therein is the moral of this story: whomever strikes a resounding emotional chord, wins.

Make Your Audience Care (dammit).

Easily typed, not easily done, I know. But this is the one single thing you can strive to accomplish in your storytelling that will help your work rise above the rest, whether submitting manuscripts or screenplays, to anyone, anywhere. If accomplished, this single feat will more than compensate for other errors your story might contain. Errors can be fixed and whining darlings slain. That’s why we need editors and other eyes on our work. But evoking emotion? That’s the job that only the author can wrest from their heart or their gut, and it’s where the magic lies, where your success resides, and where the keys to the kingdom are hidden.

You must, must, must make your readers care about your characters in order for your story to succeed. It’s up to you to figure out how to do that. Exposing a character’s vulnerabilities – the earlier in your story, the better – is a popular method. Exposing their vulnerabilities allows for natural human feelings of compassion and/or sympathy with your character. But if you don’t create a distinct and solid emotional connection between your protagonist/s and your audience early in your story, it doesn’t matter what calamities they must overcome, because nobody cares. Go ahead. Drop a bus on ’em. But really, we so want to care. Heck, we paid for the experience! But the author/screenwriter must TAKE us there and MAKE us care about the characters they torture for our entertainment.

All this said, there are a few fiction elements and structures I can think of that tend to inherently create emotional distance. Not what you want, these are elements best left in deft and proven hands. In other words, if you are not thoroughly seasoned, critiqued and found adept, don’t try this in your own document.

Emotional Killers:

Heavy Dialogue. Talking head type of heavy dialogue is a killer for so many reasons. I got started on this topic after watching Depp’s “Transcendence.” Science fiction is often plagued with this problem due to the need to explain alien worlds with which readers are unfamiliar. Dialogue that explains is referred to as ‘exposition,’ and this is frowned upon for good reason. There are better ways to bring the audience into your worlds, and techniques that apply to film as well as fiction, such as ‘show, don’t tell.’ But heavy dialogue stories are also capable of delivering clever intimacy, such as what was achieved in “My Dinner with Andre.” Many films by Richard Linklater, for example, also skirt that razor edge of too-much dialogue in such a way that he exposes common frustrations and creates dramatic tension! Heavy dialogue requires fabulous actors with a great director to pull off in a film, as well, and I’m not sure any novelist can fill tens of pages with dialogue without losing tens of reams of readers. Best to avoid creating manuscripts of soliloquies. Even Tarantino went too far with his diatribes in “Kill Bill.” If he can’t do it…you know…so tighten your dialogue as much as you can stand, cut and cut, and let your deepest philosophies pump up the volume from deep within your subtext and plot. When it comes to dialogue, less is most definitely more. A grimace of pain from our hero makes us feel more sympathy for him than we would feel if he bitched about it for two minutes.

Inciting Incident and Action – Too Early.  Here again is where I think “Transcendence” failed. We are hit with a dreadful scenario immediately in the movie opening, and informed that, somehow, our leading couple, our protagonists whom we have yet to meet, are responsible for it all. Yikes! Emotionally, in the audience, our leading characters get a minus 10-points before we meet. The world is completely trashed now, so they must be jerks in some way, right? Then the story flashes back in time (the whole movie is a flashback), and we see the supposedly ‘loving couple’ cuddling in their lush garden that we already know is now vacant, dead, and in ruins like every other garden for a thousand miles. Pushing the protagonists even further from our emotional grasp, their ‘love’ reads as cool and intellectual, not flesh and blood (a lack of chemistry, perhaps?), and we know that our ‘creepy couple’ ruin the whole damn world in the end (since that’s how the story begins). The rest of the film shows us what happened, but we never really find a reason to like the scientist couple who destroy the world over their oh-so-special-but-we-don’t-get-why love, so we don’t have the means to care. While the subject matter of the movie asked the audience to contemplate the nature of life and consciousness, and the changes that new technology might mean in the near future, the story failed to engage because it failed to connect.

Action movies also tend to hurl us into the plot before letting us in on and close to the protagonist. I suppose if you can get away with a lack of emotional connection, it might be in an action movie, but if you look at the best pure action movies, ones with real heart like “Die Hard,” which is as much of a love story as an action story, you can easily see the difference that an emotional connection can make.

Regardless of our styles of word crafting and story structure, regardless of the genre in which we revel, in order for our audience to remain open to the spells we weave, we must connect them EMOTIONALLY with our characters before we hurl them all into hell. No modern storyteller can hope to pierce the toughened hide of a modern audience without FIRST evoking a sense of compassion and sympathy for their characters. Only then will audiences sit still and give a damn as we proclaim and illuminate some human truth through our characters’ struggles, choices, and metaphor-laden fates.

Strike an emotional chord in your writing like your career depends on it, because in many ways, for fiction writers and screenwriters, it actually does.


Screenwriter of: Edward Scissorhands/The Addams Family/The Nightmare before Christmas/Black Beauty/Corpse Bride.

The Ballroom for this event was predictably packed with those eager to hear words of inspiration and career insights from this iconic screenwriter known mostly for her work with director Tim Burton. As she sat on the stage and shared her early childhood stories, I was immediately reminded of the character Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and was a bit surprised when she eluded to feeling sympatico with that character herself. She was present at AFF 2011 to receive the AFF “Distinguised Screenwriter” award, presented to her by Johnny Depp, and to promote her new company, Small and Creepy Films. (www.smallandcreepy.com).

Caroline said that, since the age of four, she knew she wanted to “cast spells” with images and stories, adding that she has found that life is not about self-discovery, but about self-creation. She also said that every story she writes is essentially about dogs. “I think I was a dog in another life. All I want to write about is dogs,” Thompson said, citing her family dog as a remarkable animal who profoundly influenced her point of view from an early age.

Her first novel, First Born (1993) was inspired by a remark made to her by her mother, a woman not known for her tact or sensitivity of expression to others. As Caroline put it, the book was about an abortion that comes back to life to haunt its mother. Given Caroline’s proclivity to craft strange tales about strange characters, it seemed quite apropos that she would begin her writer’s journey with such a quirky fable. Yet, as she shared her writer’s journey, we got that her work is truly an honest extension of how she experiences life.

Of course, she had her share of Hollywood horror stories, saying that she has been fired five times from various projects over the course of her screenwriting career, and outright betrayed on a few occasions, saying, “I’ve learned not to put my soul in Hollywood’s way.”

She kept us laughing and amazed at her resilience, tossing off the hurt and disappointment, always focusing on what she wanted to do as a storyteller. On genre writing, she said, “Whatever it is that feeds you, let it feed you. Your only job is to find your voice.”

She also offered tips on dealing with various rights of passage to those who aspire to be screenwriters. On dealing with nerves before pitching, she said, “I just pretend it’s my cocktail party, and it’s my job to make them (studio execs) comfortable.”

For novelists and writers of fiction, she offered the tip that, when you sell a book, if you ask for the rights back after ten years, they have to give them back to you.

On getting through a complete screenplay, she outlined her own process. “I race through the first draft,” she said, “writing five pages a day before I let myself stop.” She said she doesn’t force herself to write more, even if she is inclined because she has learned that five pages a day is the right pace for her, adding that all writers have to find what works best for them. “My first draft is done in a month,” she said, then shared that she revises it about five times before she ever shows it to anyone else.

On creativity and finding that in oneself, she said, “Everything we do all day long is a creative act.” A remarkable, independent artist, when she said this, I’m pretty certain that everyone in the audience believed her.


Panelists:Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle/Rise of The Planet of the Apes), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (From Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete).

The room was packed as these four screenwriter panelists took their seats, and it’s no surprise. Horror is one of the most popular movie genres, translating better to other countries and cultures than other movie genres do. Horror has fans worldwide, and many aspiring screenwriters seek to break into Hollywood by building on familiar horror concepts – and adding a fresh twist to come up with something that audiences haven’t seen before.

Interestingly, the panel started by trying to define the meaning of the word “genre.” They all seemed at a loss with that, so here’s the definition.

Genre: A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. Taken from the latin root, genus, which in our case would be defined as: a class, group, or kind with common attributes.

Since we’re talking about Horror films here, we must assume the common attribute would be films that scare us, right? That was the next discussion: why do we like films that scare us? Why do people flock to theaters to be scared? The consensus was that the frightening things we see on the screen are always much worse than the fears we carry during our typical day. In this sense, a scary movie is cathartic. We get to scream and release our fears in a safe and mutually supportive environment, and that acts as an emotional release. That’s why people love scary movies.

And what scares us the most? The panel as a whole felt that fear is more profound when based on real or grounded possibilities. A normal day, a normal room and an old lady crawling like a fly on the ceiling sort of thing. It’s creepy. With the supernatural, the panel felt that content is more frightening when the events are grounded in reality. The panel cited the recent movie, Paranormal Events, but personally, that movie bored me, and was only scary during the last five minutes. That’s not structure that works for me, but you get the idea. For me, The Exorcist was much more effective as a supernatural thriller.

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver spoke at length about how they came up with the idea for Rise of the Planet of the Apes by extrapolating on a character (Cesar) from the original movie Planet of the Apes, and using that character as a protagonist for a prequel story on how the chimps got smart to begin with through laboratory experiments, and how they escaped. They said it was really fun to devise a protagonist that could get an audience cheering for the apes instead of the humans.

Alvaro Rodriguez said he considers his genre (Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete) more exploitation than horror, and said he enjoys writing in that genre because he finds it very freeing. Everything is possible. You can throw everything at it – even the kitchen sink.

Rhett Reese (Zombieland) commented on how his latest is more of a comedy than a zombie movie, and that was what he intended – to make a comedic zombie movie as a way to reinvent the genre. He also cited the convenience of using what has been done before in the sense that nobody has to explain what a vampire or a zombie is before getting into the story, so you can build upon the past, and use it to launch right into your new ideas.

And the last bit of advice to writers trying to break in was one of those that I heard repeatedly throughout the conference and from many panelists.

RULE #1 FOR NEW WRITERS: Make sure that your first effort is a genre you love writing, because if it succeeds, you’ll be riding that genre wave for the next several years of your screenwriting career.


Of all the sessions I attended during the conference, I have to say that the Creative Roundtables were the most rewarding. Attendees can only sign up for one roundtable, where about twelve panelists sit at various six-chaired tables, speak to conference attendees and answer questions. Time is short, and you change tables three times during the session. Who you sit with is by chance more than choice. I was most fortunate to sit with only five other attendees at a table with Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Pen Densham (Moll Flanders).

PEN DENSHAM: Founder and Co-Chairman of Trilogy Entertainment Group. Film credits include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Moll Flanders and Houdini. TV Credits include resurrecting Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Author of “Riding the Alligator” – on writing screenplays and strategies for a career in Hollywood.

A delightfully humble and helpful panelist, Pen shared his early start, from dropping out of high school in the U.K. and moving to Canada where his career start was funded in part by a government program. He also shared his early lack of confidence in his skills, which he eventually overcame. He advised us to write for ourselves; to write the stories we want to tell because, even if they don’t sell, this form of writing nurtures the writer’s creative spirit, and that approach constantly builds the writer’s confidence and skill. He repeatedly reminded us that he only knew his own story, that each writer must find their own path and methods for understanding what works, but he offered what I thought was a sound strategy for approaching the many drafts needed to complete a screenplay:

FIRST DRAFT: “Write crap.” He said the first draft is about exploration. Let yourself off your self-critical hook and just explore your story, whatever comes. The first draft is not about anything but letting the story unfold until you reach Fade Out. Allowing yourself total freedom is critical, according to Pen. Don’t worry about how “good” it is, rather, have fun and play with the possibilities.

SECOND DRAFT: Check for clear “sign posts.” Pen described this as each element logically leading and building to the next in your story. Are the scenes well chosen to move your story forward? Is your story clear? Do all your scenes make sense within the context of the whole story?

THIRD DRAFT: Cut words. Screenplays are what Pen described as “emotional poetry,” which is what all great screenplays must strive to be. Stories that elicit emotion is something I heard again and again at the conference. Must be something to that, huh?

FOURTH DRAFT: Dialogue. Quicken and tighten. Although soliloquies are occasionally found in the movies we love, most dialogue should be honed with an eye toward how it sounds when spoken. Is it natural? Is it abbreviated, like it is when we speak to each other in real life? Is it relevant? Is it “on the nose,” i.e., revealing too much of what the character really wants? Or does it skirt the issue a bit, like most humans do, reluctant to give away everything they are after?

FIFTH DRAFT: Check your descriptions. Pen said our descriptions should never read like laundry lists, but should imply emotion and conjure the readers imagination. Cut the fluff, and “challenge the reader to pay attention.” I thought that was great advice.

One of my favorite panelists at the conference, I’ll be buying Pen’s book and advise all aspiring screenwriters who want to tell powerful, heart-felt stories to do the same.

###

JIM UHLS: Screenwriter (adaptation) Fight Club.

For most film aficionados, the movie Fight Club needs no introduction. In my opinion, it is one of the more important films in recent years, both artistically and socially. The level of craft embodied in the writing, acting and direction (from the Godlike David Fincher) is about as good as Hollywood gets. If you really want to hunker down with this film as a study piece (highly advisable), be sure to watch it with all the fabulous commentary tracks, from which you will learn a great deal.

Jim Uhls spoke at length about writing in general. The one question I wanted answered and asked was: how did you get the job of writing the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial and ground-breaking novel? His answer was surprising, and one I found most helpful to all aspiring screenwriters.

He said he wrote a spec script that, though never sold, was well-received because it demonstrated his ability to create gritty characters capable of attracting the best actors. According to Uhls,writing a spec script full of characters that actors will fight to play, rather than one geared for more commercial appeal, is one of the best tactics for an unknown writer to get their foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.

Prior to writing the Fight Club script, Jim had never sold a screenplay. How’s that for hitting a career bulls-eye right out of the gate? I am Jack’s bloated envy…


Image by Chris Miles

None of us is all good or all bad. If your goal is to craft believable characters in your stories, then none of them should be, either.

When dipping into the vast and brilliant reservoir of material on “The Hero’s Journey” and basic archetypes as a storytelling model with which to create your stellar beings, remember to give them more than one Internal Archetype to wrestle with. Layer the archetypal qualities in your characters as a means to develop and understand their unique perspectives and likely choices.

(No Spoilers): For an example, let’s look at the protagonist in the recent film (2010) “The Warriors Way,” (which became a guilty pleasure): The protagonist is both “Warrior” and “Priest,” quite literal expressions of the archetypes in most martial arts films. Tones of the “Artisan” gave the protag sensitivity (poetic, deep emotion) reflected in the stylistic look/shot choices of the film, and in his storyline choices (respect for purity – save the condemned baby – turn his back on a horrible “blood feud” tradition).

Our Hero takes the higher yet more difficult path and gives up everything in order to try to save The Child (Innocence, Potential, Seed, the Future, Continuation, Hope). As as a Warrior Monk, he is self-sacrificing and highly disciplined, and in the highest expression of that archetype, cannot turn a back to Innocence. We delight as his embodiment of the “Warrior” (Action/Courage in service to some kind of authority, be it King or Clan or an inner sense of morality), moves him forward on his chosen path (character goal/plot line).

The use of the archetypes Priest, Warrior and Artisan for creating the protagonist’s skeleton and flesh, if you will, gives us a character with depth whose choices we subconsciously accept as making sense for who he is in that story. But a key component to this character really working comes from the Artisan, because that element created a character capable of inspiring compassion in us for someone we care about and relate to on some level, no matter how tenuous. The Artisan makes him vulnerable, human and accessible to us after an intense embodiment and expression of the Warrior/Priest, who is not very emotionally approachable. (Imagine a warm conversation with Ripley from the Alien movies). Most people can relate on some level to the messy Artisan who takes leaps based on intuitive hunches and indefinable reasons, the Divine Fool, impossible to control or predict but willing to open their hearts. We relate because we all either embody the willingness to leap ourselves – or we long for the faith and confidence it takes to do so.

I know that some storytellers have intentionally created unsympathetic characters, and I can understand that choice when it comes to purely artistic exploration, or when writing something based on actual events, but personally, the stories I enjoy the most are the ones where I have the means to root for the bad guys on some level, or feel sympathy when they lose, or at least get a sense of understanding why they’re crazy or mean. And I like to see the good guys hesitate with self-doubt during critical moments. Even the good guys have cracks in their armor, and I want to see them because it makes me root for their moments of courage all the more.

Bottom line: Please, don’t create flat characters by modeling them after one archetype. Audiences want flat characters to go away and don’t care how as long as it’s soon. When a fiction writer creates characters that nobody cares about, they’ve got a story nobody wants to hear.

By layering multiple archetypes, you have the potential to create a character capable of inspiring enough mystery and depth to convince us that we will never fully know that character, just as we are limited in our complete understanding and knowledge of each other. This is just one foundational approach for the proper use of multiple archetypes for creating characters whom we want more of once the story is over, characters who arouse our sense of curiosity. There should always be the sense that there is much more to be explored in your major characters long after “The End” and/or “Fade Out” appears.

Too often, we see movies or read manuscript and screenplay material wherein the characters are transparent in how they’ve been modeled after one archetype rather than revealing a deeper understanding and use of this storytelling model by layering multiple archetypes within each character. You can apply a simple, 2-or-3 archetype layering approach right down to the third spear carrier on the left, if you want. When you know each character at least on an Archetypal model level your spontaneous creative choices when blocking out scenes and writing your narrative and dialogue will all be truer to the characters and therefore more believable and emotionally powerful.

**7 Basic Archetypes

I primarily use the following seven archetypes for delineating fundamental characterization, as I find that most other archetypes are subtle variations that exist within each of these basic seven themes, depending on how the inherent energies are expressed:

King: Commander, guiding/providing for/affecting many others, yet seeking/needing to learn self-mastery (leaders, business owners, politicians, military commanders, role models)

Warrior: Action oriented, the “doers” of the world devoted to serving/upholding existing systems and/or powers (business people, soldiers, institutional workers, police, martial artists)

Artisan/Craftsman: Acutely aware of and affected by harmony in spatial and human relationships, and seeking to creatively express their observations (actors, builders, entertainers, designers, architects, photographers, artists, musicians, filmmakers)

Sage/Counselor: Agents of reflection, communication and change (writers, visionaries, entertainers, comics, musicians, filmmakers, spin doctors, artists, mentors, all trail-blazers)

Server/Healer: Compassionately aware of and seeking to tend to the needs of others (nurses, doctors, all healing arts, educators, social workers, therapists, religious workers)

Priest/Priestess: Primarily concerned with the spiritual welfare of others (all religious and spiritual fields, especially those who are actively guiding/teaching others)

Scholar/Scientist: Wants knowledge above all else; life-long careers of study and gathering information (workers in research oriented fields of science and other fields of specialized expertise and understanding)

Of course, the understanding of archetypes in human consciousness and in our storytelling is abundantly available through many authors better than I, and is a specialized field of understanding unto itself. You can delve as deep as you like through reading the works of Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to name just a few.

Everybody has a sad story, with the scars to prove it, so I also decide what sort of scar/s each of my characters carries, and how they acquired them. (Gotta love back-story). From deciding where each character is at with dealing (or not) with those scars when my story opens, I can determine the state of the character’s Inner Child (another archetype), which comes into play with the character’s sense of confidence, spontaneity and rebelliousness – and that affects how they experience and interact with their entire world.

Armed with this basic information, a writer can move forward secure in the faith that both the character/s and the story will fight them relentlessly (a good thing in this case) if they move their characters away from the natural choices and reactions those characters would normally have, given what the writer knows about them. This is just one way to develop a deeper connection to and keener intuitive understanding of your characters, which thereby allows you to keep them sharply in focus throughout their mis/adventures. In this manner, no matter what you throw at them or how quirky their choices might seem, your characters will sound like real, multi-faceted people and will stay true to the qualities you want them to embody.

**Archetypes taken from the Michael Teachings, as the information has been written and shared through multiple authors and channels, i.e, “The Michael Teachings” by Jose Stevens.

December 2017
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Help For Writers

Brooke Monfort - Find me on Bloggers.com