Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex

Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research finally proves that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are both accurate and believable to their own gender?

In this tip, we’ll explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that are true to their gender.

At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.

First, let’s consider that gender has four principal components:

Anatomical Sex

Sexual Preference

Gender Identity

Mental Sex

Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.

Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither (or self). Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or celibate, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a homosexual encounter at least once in their lives.

Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have passing attractions to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.

Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.

Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.

Gender Identity is not just how one feels or things of oneself, but also how one act’s, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.

Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where one can explore the greatest nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.

Finally, Mental Sex describes where one falls on the scale from practical, binary, linear, logistic, goal-oriented thinking to passionate, flexible, emotional, process-oriented thinking. In fact, every human being engages in ALL of these approaches to life, just at different times and in different ways.

Now, in creating characters, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.

For example, you might have a character extremely toward male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his secret sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).

Any combination goes. But when it comes to Mental Sex itself, there are four sub-categories within that area alone which tend to define the different personality types we encounter:Memory relies on our training to organize our considerations in a give situation toward components or processes. And every character always has a Conscious choice to focus on the components or processes at any given moment. In other words, in a given situation, at each level of Mental Sex does a character center on the way things are or the way things are going? At each level is the character more interested in getting his or her ducks in a row or in a pond?

Subconscious

Memory

Conscious

Preconscious

In brief, each of these “levels” or “attributes” of the mind can lean toward seeing the world in definable or experiential terms. Pre-conscious is a tendency to perceive the world in components or as processes that is determined before birth. It is the foundation of leaning toward the tradition “male” or “female” personality traits. Subconscious determines the tendencies we have to be attracted or repelled from component or process rewards.

Finally, beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles are fairly rigid and include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or order the wine, who has to pretend to be inept where and skilled where else (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll take a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a salad”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.

In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference between those qualities, which are inherent and those, which are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay, and merely sculpt it in different ways.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Does Your Story Suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder?

In psychology, Multiple Personality Disorder describes a person who has more than one complete personality. Typically, only one of those personalities will be active at any given time. This is because they usually share attributes, and so only one can have that attribute at any particular moment.

Stories can also suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder if more than one character represents a single attribute. In such a case, both should not be able to appear in the story at the same time. If they do, the audience feels that the story is fragmented, or more simply put, the story has developed a split-personality.

Dramatica sees a story as representing a single mind. Most writers have been taught that characters, plot, theme, and genre are people, doing things, illustrating value standards, in an overall setting and mood. In contrast, Dramatica sees characters, plot, theme, and genre as representing different “families of thought” which go on in the story mind as it grapples with a central problem.

Characters are the “drives” of the Story Mind, which often conflict as they do in real people. Plot describes the methods used by the Story Mind in an attempt to find a solution to its central problem. Theme represents the Story Mind’s conflicting value standards, which must be played out one against another to determine the best way of evaluating the problem. Genre describes the Story Mind’s overall personality.

Traditional story theory states that each character must be a complete person to be believable to an audience. But because the characters represent the independent drives of a single Story Mind, each is not really a complete person but is rather a facet of a complete mind. In fact, if you make each character complete, they will all be overlapping, and will give your story a split-personality.

It is in the story TELLING stage where characters take on the trappings of a complete person, not in the story STRUCTURE. Each character needs to be given traits and interests, which round out the character’s “presence,” making it feel like a real human being. But these trappings and traits are not part of the dramatic structure. They are just window dressing – clothes for the facets to wear so the audience can better relate to them on a personal level.

Think about the characters you have seen in successful stories. They might represent Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, or function as the Protagonist or Antagonist, for example. Each of these kinds of characters is an “archetype” because it contains a whole family of drives in one character. For example, a Protagonist may contain the drive to “pursue,” and also the drive to be a self-starter, “pro-action.” Because these drives work together in harmony, the character becomes archetypal.

The individual drives don’t have to be bundled in an archetype, however. In fact, each single drive might be assigned to a different character, creating a multitude of simple characters. Or, characters might get several drives but conflicting ones. These characters are more “complex” because their internal make-up is not completely consistent.

Regardless of how the drives (also called character “elements”) are assigned, each drive should appear in one and only one character. If not, your story may develop Multiple Personality Disorder and leave your audience unable to relate to the story as a whole.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Love Interests and the Dramatic Triangle

A lot of books about writing describe the importance of a “Love Interest.” Other books see a Love Interest as unnecessary and cliché. What does Dramatica Say? As with most dramatic concepts, Dramatica pulls away the storytelling to take a clear look at the underlying structure.

A Love Interest has both storytelling and structural components. The storytelling side is what most people think of – A Love Interest is the character with whom the “hero” or “heroine” is in love. Simple! But what does that tell us about the kind of person the Love Interest is, or even what kind of relationship the two have between them? Not a whole lot!

For example, the Love Interest might be the leader of the enemy camp, in which case he or she is the Antagonist! Or, the Love Interest might be the supportive, stay-in-the-background type, in which case he or she is the Sidekick. In both cases, the hero is in love with this person, but structurally each positions the relationship on different sides of the effort to achieve the story goal. Also, the Love Interest might be a person of noble heart, a misguided do-gooder, or even a crook! And, any of these types of people might fit into either of the two example scenarios we’ve just outlined.

As we can see, the structural and storytelling elements have little to do with one another, other than the fact that there will be some of each. So, what can Dramatica do to help provide some guidelines for developing a Love Interest that works?

Lets start with some basics. Dramatica sees there being two types of characters in every story (and a prize in every box!). The first type contains the Objective Characters such as the Protagonist, Antagonist, Sidekick, or Guardian, who are defined by their dramatic functions.

The Protagonist strives to achieve the goal; the Antagonist tries to prevent that, for example. In and of itself, this aspect of character outlines how the participants line up in regard to the logistic issues of the story. But there is a second side of the dynamics of every story that center on the second type of characters – the Subjective Characters.

There are two Subjective Characters, and unlike their Objective relatives who represent functions, the Subjective Characters represent points of view. These characters are the Main Character and the Obstacle Character. The Main Character represents the audience position in the story. The Obstacle Character represents the point of view, ideology, or belief system opposite that of the Main Character.

The Objective Characters represent the “headline” in the story and the Subjective Characters represent the “heartline.” Often, the character who is the Protagonist is also given the Main Character job as well. This creates the archetypal “hero” who drives the story forward, but who also represents the audience position in the story. Of course, the Main Character (audience position) might be with ANY of the Objective Characters, not just the Protagonist. For example, in most of the James Bond films, Bond is actually the Antagonist and Main Character because although he represents the audience position, he is also called into play AFTER the real Protagonist (the villain) has made his first move to achieve a goal (of world conquest.) It is Bond’s functional role as Antagonist to try and stop it!

Not quite as often, the Antagonist is given the extra job of also being the Obstacle Character. In such a case, not only does the Antagonist try to stop the Protagonist, but he (or she) also tries to change the belief system of the Main Character, whether the Main Character is the Protagonist or another of the Objective Characters by function.

The worst thing you can do is to make the Protagonist the Main Character AND the Antagonist the Obstacle Character. Why? Because then the two “players” in the story are not only diametrically opposed in function regarding the story goal, but are also diametrically opposed in belief system. As a result, it is difficult for the audience to figure out which of the two throughlines them is being developed by any given event between them.

What’s worse, as an author it is easy to get caught up in the momentum of the drama between them so that one skips steps in the development of one throughline because the other “carries” it. Well it may carry the vigor, but it doesn’t hold water. Both throughlines must each be fully developed or you end up with a melodrama or worse, plot holes you could drive a truck through.

The solution is either to assign the Main Character and Protagonist functions to one character and split the Antagonist/Obstacle Character functions into two separate characters, or vice versa.

And this brings us to the Dramatic Triangle and how it is used to create a sound Love Interest relationship.

First, let’s assume we assign the Main Character and Protagonist jobs to the same player to create an archetypal hero. Now, this hero (we’ll call him Joe) is a race car driver who is vying with the Antagonist for the title of best overall driver of the year. Each race is a new contest between them with their balance so close that it all comes down to the last race of the season.

But there is something troubling Joe’s heart – his relationship with Sally. Sally is very supportive of Joe (a Sidekick, in fact) but Joe feels that if he really loves Sally, he should quit racing to avoid the potential of an accident that would leave him dead or crippled and ruin her life. Why does he feel like this? Because his own dad was a racer, whose untimely death on the track left his mother devastated, and ultimately committed to an asylum. (Hey, I never said this example would be creative!)

In any event, Sally doesn’t feel that way at all. She would rather see Joe go out in a blaze of glory having done his best than to spend her life with a limp shell. She tries to tell him, but he just won’t be convinced. He starts to play it safer and safer as his worries grow (because the closer he gets to the final race, the more it resembles the chain of events that happened to his dad.) Finally, he has lost his edge and his lead and it all comes down to that final event.

Now, realizing that she would never be able to live with Joe if she felt that he lost the title because of her, Sally tells him at the final pit stop that if he doesn’t win the race, she is leaving him. Joe must now decide whether he should stick with his approach born from fear of hurting another, or let Sally be her own judge of what is right for her and put the pedal to the metal.

What does he do? Up to you the author. He wins the race and Sally’s heart. He hasn’t got the courage and loses both race and girl. He loses the race, but Sally realizes how deep his love must be and decides to stay with him. He wins the race, but there is such a dangerous near-fatal crash that Sally realizes Joe was right and leaves him anyway because she discovers she really can’t take it after all.

Or, you could have Sally want him to quit and Joe refuse, resulting in four other endings with a more cliché flavor.

Why this long example, to show how the conflict of the logistics of the plot occur between Joe and the Antagonist, but the emotions of the personal relationship occur between Joe and the Sidekick, Sally.

If you charted it out, there are two throughlines. Both hinge on Joe, and then they split farther and farther apart to connect to the Antagonist on one and to the Obstacle Character, Sally on the other. In this way, the events that happen in the growth of each relationship are much easier to see for the audience and much easier to complete for the author, yet they both converge on the “hero” to give him the greatest possible dramatic strength.

Now, you could hinge them both on the Antagonist, as in a James Bond film, and slip the Protagonist from the Obstacle Character. Look at “Tomorrow Never Dies.” The Protagonist is the mad newspaper mogul. The Obstacle Character is the beautiful Chinese agent (whose function is muddled dramatically by Bond’s relationship with the mogul’s wife). Bond is Antagonist AND Main Character, but the dramatic triangle is still functional.

Silence of the Lambs: Starling is the Main Character / Antagonist, Jamie Gumm (Buffalo Bill) is the Protagonist (after all, she didn’t go looking for a crime and THEN he committed one!) Hannibal is the Obstacle Character and perhaps a Love Interest of a sort (as described by the director on the Criterion Edition DVD.)

For a different approach, consider Witness: John Book is the Obstacle Character / Antagonist, the crooked Chief of Police is the Protagonist. Rachel, the Amish Girl is the Love Interest and Main Character. Or is John Book (Harrison Ford) the Love Interest to Rachel? It’s hard to tell because John is such an active Objective Character that he carries more momentum than Rachel, even though we are positioned in her shoes. The important point is that even if the Protagonist is made to be the Obstacle Character and the Antagonist and Main Character are split into two different people, the dramatic triangle still exists!

The dramatic triangle is one of the best structural ways to focus attention on one character even while splitting the headline and heartline to make a more pleasing and complete story. It can be used for “buddy” pictures and even used when the heartline isn’t between lovers or even likers but between two people who would like to see each other’s emotions destroyed by slyly manipulating the other to change his or her beliefs. Think of all those “cheat the devil” stories in which the Main Character/Protagonist is after something and the devil tries to convince the Main Character to sell his soul to get it. Yep, the dramatic triangle at work again!

So, in considering whether or not to have a Love Interest in your story, simply consider whether that would make your storytelling cliché or not. Either way, consider the dramatic triangle as a means of putting heart into an otherwise logistically mechanical plot.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The 8 Archetypal Characters

There are 8 essential archetypal characters, each of which represents a different aspect of our own minds.

The Protagonist portrays our initiative, Antagonist our reticence to change.  Reason is our intellect, Emotion our passion.  Skeptic is our self-doubt, Sidekick our self-confidence.  Finally, Guardian represents our conscience and the Contagonist is temptation.

Naturally, each must be developed as a complete person as well as in its dramatic function so that the reader or audience might identify with them.  Yet underneath their humanity, each archetype illustrates how a different specific aspect of ourselves fares when trying to solve the problem at the heart of the story.

In this manner, stories not only involve us superficially, but provide an underlying message about how we might go about solving similar human problems in our own lives.

Here are the eight archetypal characters, described in terms of their dramatic functions:

PROTAGONIST: The traditional Protagonist is the driver of the story: the one who forces the action. We root for it and hope for its success.

ANTAGONIST: The Antagonist is the character directly opposed to the Protagonist. It represents the problem that must be solved or overcome for the Protagonist to succeed.

REASON: This character makes its decisions and takes action on the basis of logic, never letting feelings get in the way of a rational course.

EMOTION: The Emotion character responds with its feelings without thinking, whether it is angry or kind, with disregard for practicality.

SKEPTIC: Skeptic doubts everything — courses of action, sincerity, truth — whatever.

SIDEKICK: The Sidekick is unfailing in its loyalty and support. The Sidekick is often aligned with the Protagonist though may also be attached to the Antagonist.

GUARDIAN: The Guardian is a teacher or helper who aids the Protagonist in its quest and offers a moral standard.

CONTAGONIST: The Contagonist hinders and deludes the Protagonist, tempting it to take the wrong course or approach.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about archetypal characters

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A Screenwriter’s Bag of Tricks

Most of our writing tips focus on the creation of a sound story, regardless of the medium in which you are working. But since the writing of screenplays has its own unique restrictions, requirements, and opportunities, we thought it might be useful to offer a Screenwriter’s Bag of Tricks.

Like any good grab bag, this collection of tips and techniques is in no particular order. Some are geared to the beginning screenwriter, others to the expert. But regardless of your experience level, you’re likely to find a few keepers.

Use index cards to work out the scenes in your script

Index cards (3×5 or 5×7 in size) are often used by screenwriters to plan out the sequence of events in their stories. Usually, a script has many different dramatic threads. The trick is how to weave them together over the timeline of the movie. For example, you might have several key challenges for your hero to overcome. You describe each of these on a different index card. You tack them up on the wall or lay them out on the table (or floor) and stand back and look at them. You see how the action seems to flow from one to another. Perhaps it seems that the ending is a bit anti-climactic, or that the build of dramatic tension isn’t right. So, you rearrange the order of the cards until you arrive at and order that feels the best.

Then, you may realize that you actually have a gap in the action that requires the creation of another challenge. So, looking at what comes before and what comes after, you determine the kind of action that is needed, and make a new card to fill the gap.

You might also realize that you have two challenges that are too much alike, or that would happen too close to each other, so you decide to lose one, or combine two into a single one that makes it all the stronger.

Then, you may know that you want a series of arguments between the hero and a love interest. In one creative session, you may work out how many arguments you want, and what each is about. You describe each of these arguments on a different index card.

As with the hero’s challenges, you tack up the cards and arrange them in the best possible order, filling gaps with new cards, and deleting or combining cards until the flow is right.

Since a movie generally focuses on one dramatic situation at a time, then intercuts among several different threads as necessary, your next job is to combine both the challenge thread and the argument thread into the overall timeline of your script.

You might decide to start with the first challenge card, then go to the first argument, and alternate. Or you might start with the first argument, have a second argument, and then two challenges in a row.

There are no “rules” as to how the two threads of cards should be shuffled together. It is purely a choice of how you wish to impact your audience.

You may even find that once you have blended the two threads into a single timeline, that combination highlights the need for an additional challenge or another argument, or perhaps the removal of one or the other. You might even be able to see the need for a whole new thread that is suggested once the first two threads are combined. So you create a third set of index cards, put them in order, and then weave them into the other two.

In this manner, many screenwriters work out the basic beats and flow of their stories so they have a loose blueprint from which to write, and therefore don’t get stuck in a logistic corner, or an emotional dead end.

Break up long monologs among several characters

There are some moments in some movies in which a long monolog by a single individual works well. Any inspiring public speech, for example, or when one character holds others transfixed with a tirade or diatribe. But movies are an action medium, and most of the time a long-winded dissertation by one character while the others simply stand and react gets boring very quickly.

To avoid this, take your longer speeches and distribute the material to one or more additional characters. It is far more interesting to see what everyone has to say on the issue, than to see what one person has to say.

Think about real life situations. Aside from presentations and reports in a business situation, or structured events such as a ceremony, no one thinks well of someone who hogs the conversation. Let you characters make their point, then let someone else have a turn. Good examples of this can be found in the original Howard Hawk’s production of “The Thing,” and also in “The Big Chill,” both of which have extensive exposition and opinion, but no one says more than a few lines at a time before another chimes in with his two cents’ worth.

The exceptions, of course, is when someone gets all wrapped up in his own rhetoric, as when an individual muses, reminisces, waxes poetic, or proclaims a higher truth with fire in his eyes. People don’t mind if a good storyteller talks forever. Look at the long pontifications of the characters in “Network.” But even these are handled as special moments, and the ebb and flow of normal conversation continues in between, serving both to break up the monotony, and also to uplift the long passages by contrast.

Use “Red Herrings”

The old expression, “A Red Herring,” means something that is intentionally misleading. In screenplays, a red herring is a scene, which is set up intentionally to mislead an audience.

One example is in the movie, “The Fugitive,” with Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble. He escapes from the prison bus, gets some street clothes, and is on the run.

He waits under a bridge and when an associate that he worked with stops his car for a red light, Kimble steps out and pretends to be a homeless person trying to wash his windshield for a buck. He uses this action as a “cover” while he holds a conversation with the associate to get some information and help.

In the background, out of focus, a police car slowly approach behind the associate’s car. You don’t see it at first because you are concentrating on the conversation. The police car stops. Suddenly, it’s lights and siren comes on. The audience is sure the jig is up. Kimble turns to look at it, and the police car whips around the associate’s car and takes off for some call it received.

The initial impression was that Kimble was about to be recaptured because the cops had recognized him. The “reality” was that they were just on patrol, got a call, and sped off with sirens wailing.

Red Herrings can be used for anything from the momentary shock value as above, to making a bad guy appear to be a good guy.

To make it work, you have to do two primary things:

1. Don’t leave out essential information or the audience will feel manipulated. Tricking your audience by misleading them is fun for them. But if you fool them by leaving out information they would legitimately have expected to be told about, then you are just screwing with them.

Red herrings are best accomplished by having information that is taken in one context and then the context is changed. This way, you aren’t holding back, you are just changing the perspective.

Your audience invests its emotions in your story. You don’t want to violate them. As an example, there is an old joke about a nurse in a maternity ward who comes in to a mother’s room carrying the new baby. She trips and falls and the baby hits the floor. Then, she gets mad at it for falling, picks it up, swings it around and bashes it against the wall. The mother is in hysterics. The nurse picks up the kid and says, “April Fool – it was born dead.” Don’t do this to your audience.

A better approach is to see a mom yank her child by the arm in a very abusive way while walking down the street. First reaction is she is an ogre and you run to stop her. Just then, you see the truck come whipping around the corner that would’ve hit and killed the child, and you stop in your tracks realizing the mom was saving his life. You look again, and the is hugging and holding him, and she is crying because he was almost lost, and because she startled him.
Psychologists call it “Primary Attribution Error,” and you can use it to your advantage. If done properly, they will love you for it.

2. Don’t change the rules of the game just to make things happen another way or the audience will feel that you lied to them.

The audience will give you their trust. They expect that what you tell them is the truth. They build on each bit of information, trying to understand the big picture.

You can easily change context to show something in a different light, but don’t tell them one thing and then simply say, “Oh that wasn’t true, I was just messing with you.”

That is a sure way to lose their trust, and once lost, you’ll never get it back.

Don’t say it if you can show it

Movies are a visual medium. The strongest impact is created by what is seen, not what is said. Although we might marvel at well-written dialog, it is the moving shadows that capture our imagination.

Before writing a dialog scene, consider the information you are trying to convey. Consider visual alternatives that would show the audience rather then tell them. Even character development can often be more effective by seeing what the character does, rather than listening to what he or she says.

If you do need to say it, try to create a visually interesting situation in which the dialog can occur. I once had to do an interview on a big-budget industrial film with a geologist about drilling for bauxite samples 50 miles outside of Van Horn Texas in the middle of a desert.

I could have just gone to the site, set up the camera, and filmed him in front of the rig. But when he picked me up at the airstrip, he was in a dusty, beat-up pickup truck, and headed down the rough dirt road at literally 100 miles an hour.

I took out the camera and did the entire interview while bouncing around in the cab. When we arrived at the site, I simply shot a lot of silent footage of the goings on. When we cut it all together, we began with the truck interview, and then cut away to the various aspects of the job as the geologist spoke. It created a riveting three-minute sequence and pleased the client immensely.

So if you have dialog to deliver and you can’t really communicate the information in a visual way, consider changing the location or engaging your characters in some activity that will at least add a visual element.

You might have them conversing during one-on-one basketball, while doing yard work, chasing after a dog that needs a bath – whatever. And if all else fails, don’t ignore the potential of a cheap cinematic trick.

You can do a scene completely in silhouette, seen from the POV of a goldfish in a bowl, from another room as a janitor stops to listen and then continues with his cleaning.

You can even get overt. There was a television program many years ago called “Then Came Bronson,” starring Michael Parks. It was noted for trying new visual techniques. For one long dialog conversation, the director shot the two characters from the side, walking along a sidewalk across the street. He shot them silent in several locations with different backgrounds, always the same distance away, walking at the same pace. In the editing room, he cut from one location to the next so that it appeared as if the characters were continuing to walk and the background jumped from one to another behind them. The dialog was then added over the sequence as a whole.

This simple technique gave power to an otherwise uninteresting scene, added the impression that they had been talking for a long walk all over town, but got the verbal information across as concisely as possible. So look for visual opportunities to enliven dialog, and if there aren’t any, make them.

Drop exposition through arguments

Here’s a short one… A person talking is often boring. People arguing are often compelling. If you have to drop exposition, try to do it in the back and forth barbs of an argument. Let the characters use the information you need to convey as barbs in their back and forth attacks. Then your story won’t grind to a halt just because you need to tell your audience something.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Screenwriting 101

Screenplays are blueprints for movies. As such, they are not art, but instructions for creating art. Therefore, there are two things every great screenplay must have: A good story, and a clear and understandable description of how it should be told.

Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain dramatic conventions became accepted that put requirements and restrictions on screen stories that don’t apply to novels.

In this tip, I’ll outline a few of the key dramatic elements usually present in most successful scripts.

1. Teaser

Though not absolutely required, it is usually desirable to start your script with a teaser scene. This can be an intense emotional experience, a thrilling bit of action, or an offbeat introduction to a strange world. It might advance the plot, set the theme, and establish the time and location, introduce characters, or just serve as a roller coaster ride to get the audience involved.

2. Remember your audience.

Your audience is the cast, crew, and all the agents, readers, development executives or producers who may become involved in the purchase or production of your script. Your audience is NOT the people sitting in the theater. Like the old game of “telephone,” your purpose is not to tell a story but to tell other how to tell the story. And your purpose is not to impress movie go-ers, but to impress those who decide if your project will get the green light for production.

3. Don’t be overly literary in your scene description.

Many production personnel frown on anything but straight-forward prose. The purpose of a screenplay is to tell people how to tell a story, not to tell it yourself. Still and all, successful screenwriters often violate this rule because they can get away with it. And, if you are planning on directing the movie yourself, you may want to capture your intended mood. On the other hand, you don’t want those considering your project to be bored, or find your words too dry. So, the concept is to be as efficient as possible in conveying both the information in your story and the feeling of what it will be like on the screen.

4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.

Genres are guidelines, not rules. List your favorite genres; list your favorite elements in each genre. Then, gather together all the elements you might like to include in your script. Pepper them throughout your screenplay so that your genre develops, rather than being set at the beginning and then stagnating.

5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”

Break up all long speeches into back and forth conversation. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but in general, conversation is far more interesting both in sound and in how it can be presented visually.

6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.

Have you ever seen one character tell another, “He’s at Dollar-Mart, you know, that big national chain store?” If it were so big and national, the other character would already know this information! One of the best ways to drop exposition is in an argument. You can then exaggerate and bring out information a character might already be expected to know by using it as a weapon. And for simple exposition, try billboards, newspapers, answering machines, photos on mantles, two people talking about a third, and any other technique that doesn’t hit the audience over the head or smack of cliché.

7. Don’t preach.

You should have a message, but don’t present it as a one-sided statement. Rather, show both sides. If you are interested in passing judgment on Greed, also show Generosity. Never put them both in the same scene side by side, but make sure the audience gets to see how well each side does on its own in at least once scene each per act. In the end, the audience will sum up all the instances in which they saw how each side performed, and will draw their own conclusions (that you have craftily led them to).

8. Give your Main Character a personal issue as well as a goal to accomplish.

A story with nothing more than a logistic quest, while perhaps thrilling, is heartless. Your Main Character should grapple with an issue that pressures him or her to consider changing their mind, attitude, or nature in some way, large or small. And don’t just present the personal problem and then resolve it at the end. Unless you argue it (usually through another character who is philosophically or morally opposed to the Main Character’s view) the ultimate change or growth of your Main Character will seem tacked on and contrived.

9. Characters don’t have to change to grow.

They can stick to their guns and grow in their resolve. There are two types of characters, those who change their natures (or minds) in regard to some issue, and those who stick it out and hold on to their views. The obstacles in a story drive a character to the point of change, but whether or not he or she will change is the issue, after all. Sometimes they should change and don’t. Other times they shouldn’t and do. Each of these presents a different message, and is less overused than the character who should change and does, or shouldn’t and doesn’t.

10.There are many kinds of endings

A character might change and resolve their personal angst, yet fail in their quest as a result. Was it worth it? Depends on the degree of angst and the size of the failure. Another character might not resolve their angst; yet by refusing to change accomplish the goal. And even if they do accomplish the goal, it might have been a misguided thing to do, and is actually quite bad that they were successful. The character might not have been aware that the goal was a bad thing, or they might fail to achieve a good thing.

In addition, goals might be partially achieved or only small failures, and a character might resolve only part of their angst, or just slightly increase it.

The flavor of the movie will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end, and offer you a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Screenwriting | Comments Off on Screenwriting 101

Origins of Story Structure

Imagine the very first storytellers. Actually, what they told would certainly not be considered a story by today’s standards. Rather, they probably began with simple communications with but a single meaning at a time.

Even animals recognize a cry of pain or a coo of love from another creature, even across species. So it is not a great leap to imagine that rather than just crying out in immediate response, early man might have come to intentionally make sounds to indicate his physical and emotional conditions. Ask any cat or dog owner if their pets don’t speak with them!

Nevertheless, a grunt, coo, scream or growl does not a story make. First we need to ratchet things up a bit and take one small step away from simple sounds that have direct physical or emotional meanings.

For example, if you are hungry you might make a “longing” sound and point at your belly with a wistful pointing motion. As simple and silly as this seems, it is actually quite a leap in communication. No longer are we tied to single symbols or single experiences; not we can string them together to create more complex meanings.

What about jumping up another level and stringing a few complex meanings together? Well, before you know it, early humans were chatting in non-verbal sentences, describing journeys, experiences, and even warnings.

And, of course, language would evolve as more and more people had more and more to say and discovered the benefits of a common vocabulary.

Now such a sophisticated communication is still not a story. But it is a tale. A tale is simply a statement that starting from a particular place and state of mid, if you follow a particular path, you’ll end up at a particular destination.

That’s what fairy tales are all about. Paraphrased, they all basically say, “If you find yourself in a given situation, you should (or should not) follow this given path because it will lead to something good (or bad).

As long as the physical and emotional journey is credible, the statement is sound. Now, your audience may simply disagree with your conclusion as author of the tale, but if your statement is sound, at least they can’t argue with your logic.

Of course, the very first tales were probably true stories about someone’s encounter with a bear or directions to find the berry bush that makes everything look funny when you eat them. But it wouldn’t take long or our early storytellers to realize that they could create fictions that summed up the value of their experience in a single, message-oriented tale.

But beyond this, a clever storyteller with an agenda might realize that he could influence people to take (or avoid taking) particular actions in specific cases. No longer were tales just descriptions of real events, means of imparting the value of experience, or entertaining fictions. Suddenly then became a tool with which to manipulate others.

To do this, there must be no gaps, no missed beats, no emotional inconsistencies. And in addition, the tale must be captivating enough to grab and hold the intended audience – to pull them in and involve them so deeply that they are changed by the experience.

And yet, despite all its power, the tale has limitations. Primary among these is that the tale speaks only to a single specific situation and a single specific course of action. So, as a storyteller, you’d need to fashion a whole new tale for each specific path you wished to “prove” was a good one or a bad one.

But wouldn’t it be far more powerful to prove not only that a path was good or bad but that of all the alternative paths that might have been taken, the one is question is the best or worst?

Now, the simplest way to do this is to simply say so. You write a tale about just one course taken from a given situation, and then state at the end that it is the best or worst. So, rather than being a simple statement, this new kind of tale has become a blanket statement.

If your tale is being told just to your own village, to the people you grew up with, then there is a good chance they will accept such a blanket statement since your tale probably reflects a local truism – some “given” that is already accepted by your audience as true. The tale simply serves to reinforce existing beliefs, and at the end everyone nods their heads in agreement with the outcome.

But what happens when the tale is told in another village. What if their givens are not the same. There may be one or two in the crowd who question the storyteller and ask, “I can see why that path is good, but why would it be better than xxxxxx?”

When confronted with an alternative approach, the storyteller might then briefly describe how the suggested path might unfold, and why is it not as good (or bad) as the one presented in the tale itself.

Again, being among friends (or at least among those who share a similar if not identical world-view) they will likely be easily convinced. And, it is also likely that due to that similar outlook, only a few alternative paths might be suggested, and all rather easily dismissed.

The development of story structure probably languished in this form for centuries, as nothing more advanced or sophisticated was really needed.

Enter that advent of mass media. As soon as books began to circulate across micro-cultural boundaries, ad soon as plays were performed in traveling road shows, to important things happened that forced the further development of the tale into what has ultimately become the structure of story.

First, the audiences became wide, varied and was no longer drawn from a homogeneous pool of consensus. Rather, they cam from many walks of life, with a variety of beliefs and agendas. And so, as the tale traveled, blanket statements were not nearly as easily accepted. Many more alternative approaches would be suggested or considered individually by audience members. So, such a tale would be considered heavy-handed propaganda and discounted unceremoniously.

And second, due to the mass distribution of the tale, the original storyteller would not be present to defend his work. Whatever other paths might occur to the audience would not be addressed, robbing the work of its previous ability to be revised on the spot as part of the performance.

In response to this reception, many authors no doubt retreated from the blanket statement form of the tale to the simple statement, thereby avoiding ridicule and strengthening the power of the tale. After all, is it not better to make a smaller impact than no impact at all?

And yet, there were some authors who took another tack. They tried to anticipate the alternative approaches that other audiences might suggest, and took the radical step of including and disposing of those other paths in the tale itself. A brilliant move, really. Now, even when the storyteller wasn’t physically present, he could still counter rebuttals to his blanket statement.

Of course, the key to the success of this approach is to make sure you cover all the bases. If even one reasonable alternative is left un-addressed, then at least part of your audience won’t buy the message.

As mass-distribution moved tales farther a field from the point of cultural origin, more and more alternatives we required. By the coming of the age of recorded media, a tale might reach such a wide audience and cross such boundaries that every reasonable alternative would come up sometime, somewhere.

Eventually, the tale had been forced to grow from a simple statement, to a blanket statement, to a complete argument incorporating all the ways anyone might look at an issue. This effectively created a new and distinct form of communication that we recognize as the story structure we know today.

By definition then, a tale is a statement and a story is an argument. And in making that argument, the structure of a story must include all they ways anyone might look at an issue. Therefore, it certainly includes all the ways a single mind might reasonably look at an issue. And, effectively, the structure of a story becomes a map of the mind’s problem solving processes.

No one ever intended it. But as a byproduct of the development of communication from simple tale to complex story, the underlying structure of a story has evolved into a model of the mind itself.

Back in 1991 my writing partner Chris Huntley and I set out to document that model of the mind as a means of discovering the elements that would ensure perfect story structure.  The result was a whole new theory of narrative called Dramatica.

We published our findings in a book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, and along with our partner Stephen Greenfield, developed a software tool (also called Dramatica) that employs the theory to help writers structure their novels or screenplays.

You can read all about the theory and how we developed it here, and you can check out the Dramatica software and all our products and programs for writers here.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Story Structure | Comments Off on Origins of Story Structure