Becoming a Hero

What specifically makes Odysseus heroic?

What makes Odysseus heroic is his extraordinary story – extraordinary quest, settings, challenges, feats, distractions (i.e. the character as hero from a story perspective)! He’s got what it takes to be a hero (strength and intelligence above the norm), but we really only imagine him as a hero because he’s put on a True Hero’s Journey (wonderful trials and tribulations across the wine dark sea), he faces major major conflict (God’s wrath, temptations, monsters, geographical constraints), and showcases key values and actions that help him overcome, transforms him in his personal growth arc to achieve a worthy end goal (Save the world / Free Penelope from suitors / Bring glory to his Kingdom).

From a structural standpoint, Homer set it up that way: when we meet Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, stasis equals death – Odysseus has to get out of a dire situation. A Mentor (Athena) sets him on the path of The Hero’s Journey (via Zeus-Hermes-Calypso). Change is required (or die), and movement through the story-story sets this in motion. He embarks on a high-risk journey fraught with monsters and god’s wrath, he’s tempted by sirens along the way, thinks through decisions-decisions in the face of difficult choices, and struggles, showcases his wits and strength, James-Bonding it or Vin-Dieseling it (Chuck Norris-ing it?) to get to point B.

He gets tools, he collects allies, he battles it out with enemies. Conflict is everything, right. His arc of growth compels us to read and retell his story; his incredible situation, and what he does with it, becomes an example or morality tale for what other folks could be capable of if hard-pressed in a situation like that — and so this surmounting, or standing out, makes him heroic. [Even if he is supported by the gods or fated to do something]. And… worthy goals!

Right from the get go, Homer has got us rooting for him, even before we meet him in first person. Because Telemachus cares, and Penelope cares, and Athena and Zeus… so if all these worthy mortals and deities care, we must have lots of empathy for Odysseus and want him to prevail, too! And that’s what makes him a hero — someone we (as reader/audience) look up to and care about.

In what ways does Odysseus potentially present a challenge to models of heroism?

Odysseus is not quite the stereotypical alpha male hero from the outset.  He cries like this helpless baby when Calypso has him in her cavern. (Weeping, not anger) I mean, if he’s so full of wit and strength why hasn’t he moved to action and dreamt up a thousand methods to get off Ogygia?  And then when Hermes brings instructions from Zeus to free him, Odysseus questions Calypso’s good intentions.

He doesn’t immediately latch onto the opportunity to sail home without one last tryst with her and getting her to help him with the sails of his ship, etc. If he is so heroic, with worthy goals of going home to his wife, why be unfaithful and why delay any longer? If he’s so crafty, why does he need anyone’s help in building a ship? He delays a lot, he is unfaithful, and somehow takes a long time coming home. He questions Ino’s good advice about abandoning ship when Poseidon clearly has it out for him, and then begs for Nausicaa and Arete’s help when he does land in Scheria.

There is some inconsistency in how he trusts some women, not others, even when caught in similar dire situations where he needs help. It is not necessarily rational, but perhaps emotional, based on his view of the gods.

Also, he got into this whole mess in the first place because his crew stole cattle from the Sun God. If he’s the true ancient greek hero, who’s just a cogwheel in the piece of the gods’ plans, he really should have known or managed his crew a little better, and not have angered the gods so terribly in the first place. But I guess every hero makes mistakes.

What about Telemachus?

Even less the alpha male, perhaps more beta or omega, Telemachus just requires a whole bunch of handholding all the way. He’s lounging around when everyone’s ransacking his home and waiting to pounce on his mom, dreaming of the day his dad comes home to save the day. It takes Athena in disguise many times to move him to action. He has no proven track record to inspire authority when he calls for assembly, instead, he is cajoled and pitied. He doesn’t seem to have his father’s good luck being surrounded by a harem of women (did this define a hero in Ancient Greece imagination?). And Nestor, Menelaus and Helen have to bring up the story of Orestes over and over before Telemachus gets it through his thick skull that action is required to do something about his situation. Other people have to tell him what to do! It’s like he’s not even aware of how bad it is, he’s just a frog in boiling water waiting for it to get so hot he dies before jumping out. And he requires a lot of divine intervention in order to get tools and friends necessary to proceed.

What is Myth?

Herder‘s view, “it bubbled up automatically”, resounds with me [Myth as human attempts at coming up and expressing deep ideas that resulted from human beings feeling of being alive.].  The brain is wired to remember story and that’s why we can remember Aesop’s Fables read to us as toddlers when we face the world. Not only is the brain wired to remember story, people, whether Ancient Greeks or modern-day Hollywood screenwriters, want to tell stories because something bubbles up and they do want to share.

When we go out into the world and come across unusual, or surprising, or wonderful, experiences, we tell them over and over to our friends at the dinner table, at the bar. Our motivational structures for storytelling are driven by passion, and passion really comes from an experience so profound, so impactful and meaningful to us, that we must express it.

We are physically-expressive creatures. We can’t explain why and when we want to dance, or sing… or jump for joy.. there is a physiological thing that happens in our bodies at the moment in time, we want to do it!

We are triggered, by an emotional reaction, a physical sensation, a mental state, and we follow through on it. It’s also in our learning systems. Ask any auto-didact, the best way to learn something and remember it is to tell a story about the thing that makes sense to you.

Something in the closed-frame, open-frame, closed-frame arc of a story that has a beginning, middle, and end serves to secure that information in our brains’ hardwiring.

 

I think that’s why when you do a Milton-Ericksonian trance induction to go into a resourceful state in your brain and give it a story, give it a chance to solve the problem in a resourceful way… it works.

To me, stories, songs, movies, etc captivate us in their telling because they are structured in a way that the brain understands and remembers at a physiological level.

Charon, psychopomp and prisonward of Tartarus

Charon the Boatman ferries dead souls a.k.a. shades (the ones who received proper burials, and had obols under their tongues) from the Banks of the River Acheron through to their respective destinations in the Underworld/Tartarus past interesting rivers and stops along the way. Here are some of the inconsistencies about this whole scenario that got me wondering:

Why do shades, who supposedly ‘fly’ from their human dead bodies, need to sit in a boat? Are they unable to swim? Is the River Acheron (the River of Pain) so named because it would be painful to cross, or dangerous even, for these already-dead shades, without Charon’s help of passage? And if so, why? What happens if they were to dip their transparent and immaterial toes in? Aren’t they already dead, or do shades get bound by some new paradigm of existence once they’ve crossed over into the world of the dead? Are they in pain every second they spend hovering, waiting for Charon to ferry them?

Also, do they weigh his boat down? What exactly is “At-capacity” for Charon’s boat/skiff/barge? Has the vehicle been upgraded over the years, with all the obols they pay him? If shades are immaterial, there should be unlimited space on his boat for them — both in terms of volume and weight. When then does Michelangelo depict a grumpy old man batting away crowds of shades from his “at capacity” boat?

How does Charon actually decide who gets to get on his boat and who doesn’t? How can Charon possibly tell by looking at a shade/psyche/transparent soul (can he see shades, with those fiery, burning, eyes?) whether they have received proper burial or not? How do they carry obols with them to give him if their souls can’t interact in the material world of the living? Or are the obols also translucent and “shady” like them??? Or do shades ‘materialize’ in the world of the dead intact with burial props, obols, dress, etc? And, more importantly, how do all the shades of this world know how to converge on the Banks of Acheron? Does that place, or Charon himself, have some kind of magnetic pull or call that irrevocably beckons them?

Here’s another puzzle: the Ancient Greeks were more afraid of ghosts than of Hades themselves. So Hades’ realm, the Underworld, was stocked with monsters to guard them. Among them, Cerberus, the Hundred-Handers, and principle henchman, Charon. Principle henchman! Charon patrols the river Styx, waterway of Hate. Waitaminute. Charon is the guard over all other guards when it comes to keeping the souls in? He doesn’t just ferry them in, but also makes sure they don’t get out? Why? What does Charon have, that strikes er…. mortal fear into the heart of souls that Cerberus and the Hundred Handers lack? And why does he have to patrol the river Styx? Is that because the Styx is one of the few ways out of the Underworld? Also, where does he find the bloody time to do that, when new souls crowd the Banks of Acheron every day and he spends 2 hours ferrying each boatload across? Can Charon bend time? Or is he some crazy oar-rower high on steroids? Does he not sleep, eat, or take a break?! What happens if Charon ever fell ill or went on holiday?

Speaking of which… does Charon ever make mistakes? I.e., ferry souls across who were not buried properly? I mean, say they did not have Homer or Lucian writing epic poems for their characters to dramatize their lack of burial. Say they haunt the living and no one in the mortal realm ever buries them. What then happens? Just a second.

Back up. If Charon patrols the Styx and is one of the main guardians of souls in the Underworld, how do souls haunt the living? Do some of them slip out? Is Hades aware of that? Does Charon point the finger at one of the hundred-handers, or Cerberus, when such a slip-up occurs? Actually, does any mortal ever report such a slip-up? And then, if the souls do escape, why would they ever get back in? Do they just haunt the mortal realm permanently?

Does anyone ever sit around taking a headcount of souls in the Underworld? Do Cerberus, Charon, and the Hundred-Handers have KPI’s from Hades? In Nordic countries today, prison KPIs account for their vision of the purpose of imprisonment: ‘to train offenders how to be ordinary citizens’. Well, errr. in Hades’ realm, everyone’s dead. Ancient Greece doesn’t offer a chance at reincarnation. So, what would the prison-for-souls thing function as? In Arke’s tale, it’s a political prison. Presumably to Ancient Greeks’ purposes, it was to keep souls from haunting the living. We know it was a kind of dumping ground. But what is the relationship like between prison guards and inmates there? I mean, what was Hades’ objective? Surely he had one. Did he care about the happiness and comforts of his inmates, souls damned to spend eternity there? Surely he must have had some kind of design on them. Perhaps the reason no one ever describes Tartarus very well, or the reason no one ever wants to talk about the Underworld, is because Hades keeps everything secret. He doesn’t want Zeus to know he’s building an army.

But let’s assume for a minute that ghosts, if permitted to haunt the living, would commit crimes that would really upset the human world. So, keeping them in the Underworld is just more than just ‘warehousing’. Perhaps it’s for the safety of all living beings. OK, but then what’s in store for them? Rehabilitation? A new life, starting over, but with eternity on your hands, no materiality, no reproduction, no need for eating or any bodily function?

 

 

 

Differences in Pacing by Author Gender (P1)

This is part 1 in a discussion about differences between (in my personal and limited experiences) reading literary fiction written by men vs what’s written by women… specifically, with  regards to pacing. As an avid reader of fantasy action, mythology, historical fiction, ghost stories and legal/detective stories, I’ve really noticed a big difference in pacing through action sequences and character development throughout the plot depending on the author’s gender.

One thing I’ve noticed is, men tend to do chapter after chapter of battle-scenes, or solving a puzzle, or going at something, driven by an overall journey towards the prize. Each chapter almost reads like a closed room in a videogame where the player has to do a set number of things given the tools he has in order to pass a level, or gain a lifepoint, and move on. Enemies are dead, places blown to bits, and then a new chapter opens somewhere else, where developments will ultimately lead to another mexican standoff.

 

This has to do with the motivation drivers of men, right. From the Martian point of view (if you subscribe to John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus propositions), men have a basic need to achieve and solve puzzles and overcome hurdles and hunt something down (food). Millions of years of evolution have (hard)wired them that way. So from the point of view of male protagonists, dopamine-fed stimulation comes from the hunt, the chase, the battles, etc. The reward system is all about nailing that prize. Testosterone shoots up, pupils dilate, and men feel good about themselves. They’ve just established their self-worth. Heroism by association. Hook, line, and sinker! They love it!! More! More!!

From a pacing point of view, you then have books that read like RA Salvatore’s The Companions, Dan Brown’s Dante’s Inferno, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Ultimatum, etc. etc. Very notable works of fiction that drive potentially lucrative transmedia franchises across the board. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to criticize what evidently translates into millions of sales revenues and loyal fans worldwide. These books are exciting and they totally keep me at the edge of my (tanning) chair. I think there is lots of value to fast-paced action sequences and scenes.

But — it does get tiring. I do not have as much testosterone flooding my brain as I do estrogen. A brainscan of my brain is going to show slightly different sized left and right brain hemispheres than those of an average guy’s my age. Biology and evolution dictates that our experiences of space and time is different. I’m reading these swordfights and explosions going, ‘oh god!’ (cower), ‘oh god!’ (cower), wait, he/she is dead (winces)? Already (shudders)? The guy is wounded, and has moved on (sniffles)? Already (blinks)?! Wait, they just killed a whole bunch of orcs (ever noticed how there are orcs everywhere, like hundreds and hundreds of them, in practically all fantasy action books — they come out of nowhere like indian chorus dancers in bollywood movies — it should be a trope!), aren’t they going to sit down and talk about it?! What? No? Not even for a couple of sentences? Packed their horses and moving on, already? Wait, only 1 paragraph of reminiscing all of that? Doesn’t the hero who slayed all those orcs need to look around for a place to nap or take a beer or go write a WhatsApp note to his folks or something? Seriously?

 

Now… in real life… if my best friend just found out he’d lost his job, or  if my relative had just succumbed to stage 4 cancer, or my coworker finalizes her divorce… stress level up to 11, mind you… I would need a massive time out. I would suggest that we talk about it. Someone would inevitably pour their heart out, vent, have a good cry, before distracting themselves with chocolates and tequila. We’d say — go get through the work day, and come back and figure something out some more. People would want to listen. We’d go forwards a few recommended tactics and then circle back to see whether what we’ve done really solved the problem, and how does everyone feel, now? OK, and do we have a long-term plan to cope? Is everyone properly communicated with, does everyone feel they can move on?

 

A lot of the problem-solving, and recovery (getting back my ‘life points) have to do with an emotional recharge. And time. I sense time very keenly. Not taking the appropriate time to deal with huge problems of life-affecting import is a huge tactical error in my book. And it’s probably because I know that time is a huge resource, and secondarily, that my emotions will need time to get to a resourceful state of dealing with life’s problems. Sometimes it’s so hard to anchor to positive states, that I’d need a complete shift in environment (by going on holiday, or just leaving the office, or the apartment) in order to come back to it with a fresh perspective.

With women, the right frontal parietal lobe is all about personal transactions, right, ‘do I like you, do you like me, how do you like this, are we all in sync here? Do we all like the solutions presented, how do they fit with our values, etc.’ With men, the left side of the brain is all about impersonal transactions. ‘We killed 10,000 orcs! There are 20,000 more!’ Cold, hard, calculations about impersonal concepts without any attachment to whether killing orcs meshed with everyone’s core values or not.

In other words, there is a disconnect for me, reading my favorite male authors. It hasn’t stopped me from devouring all of their works, it’s just a thing to note that I really need to adjust to their pacing. I still have an incredibly high regard for my favorite male authors.

After about 3 solid chapters of back to back chasing and fight scenes I’m so emotionally drained I need to temporarily collapse on my bed, or switch to something less intense, like drinking hot tea or spacing out. I could intellectually just keep up and read the following fight scenes, but I just don’t want to. It’s variety, I know — different monsters, different video-game room. Levelling up and down the lifepoints. But honestly, to a girl, who’s keeping score anymore? Why? The emotional buildup and release reads the same to me. I don’t naturally seek it. (NB: I’m speaking for myself, not for 50% * 6 billion other women, or more…).

Ever read Lord of the Rings? I mean, read it, not watch the movie. It is a STRUGGLE (no offense meant to fans the world over of this franchise – the movie was awesome! The book, well, to each his own, right?). JRR Tolkien wrote it having experienced trench warfare in WW1. I mean, that’s why the hobbit’s constantly on the move and constantly suffering pangs after pangs of immovable heartache and doleful regret in long wordy pages. Phew! I’m really so not trench-warfare material. Not without break, that is. Even his endings, are like — “how many endings are there?” – Jack Nicholson’s question to Elijah Wood at the Academy Awards.

Maybe it is that being the average men and being generally expected by society to be naturally more independent [feminists, please don’t read too much into this statement], male authors expect me, as a reader, to find the space and time on my own to process and recuperate from all the high-intensity gore and blood they’ve made me experience … before flipping the page to the next chapter. Could be. Maybe that’s what “—-***—-” signifies at the end of each chapter, no? “We know that was some heavy stuff. Space out and chillax for a few hours before attempting the next scenes. Have a KitKat. Sneak into your woman cave and lick your wounds alone before coming out for another chapter.” Yikes!

Next, Part 2 will address the effects of pacing in works by female authors. Is there a sophisticated middle ground?

The First Draft is Complete

EUREKA!!!! I’ve finished the First Draft of The Black Tail!!!

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

I’ve called my friends to tell them.

I’ve cried tears of joy.

I couldn’t sleep thinking about it.

Oh but FUCK, now comes the BIG REWRITE.

… where do I start? *Shudder*

I mean, Jesus, think of all those gaping plot-holes I haven’t explained away.

All the inconsistent point-of views left to fix.

All those scenes that do so much telling, but so little showing.

CRAP CRAP CRAPOLA!!!

Like poor Sisyphus, I have my work cut out for me.

… What’s the bright side?

There are things I could do with a first draft that I couldn’t do before.

I could file for copyright (prematurely).

I could submit entries for a competition.

I could turn it into a screenplay.

Or a storyboard. Or a graphic novel.

I mean, even as I edit, I could get professional feedback.

And I still need to build up author credentials (sigh)

Taking some distance learning degrees online wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Maybe blogging would do it.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The point is, an important milestone has been crossed

And suddenly, 2015 just got a whole lot more interesting :-)))))

The Art of Story

The Art of Story

Can you learn the art of storytelling? Or is it something that you’re just born with?

Bill Martell: There’s a million things you can learn about how to tell a story. What you can’t learn is how to tell it. That’s the thing that you’re either born with or you’re not born with. If you’re a good enough storyteller you can maybe bypass the not-having-the-amazing-amount-of-talent… uh, that’s why I’m here. It’s not ‘cause I’m immensely talented, it’s just because I figured out how to tell stories that people paid me money for.

Karl Iglesias: It’s really not about the art of story, it’s more about the craft of story… meaning that the art is what you have inside (that’s your talent). The craft you can learn. That’s the only thing that somebody can teach you. We can’t really tell you what to write but we can tell you how to write it in a way that’s appealing to an audience, that’s engaging to an audience, that makes an impact to an audience. One of my old-time favorite quotes by the writer Juan Luis Borges, who said “art is fire plus algebra”. The fire is what’s within you. The algebra is the craft, what can be taught.

Pamela Jaye Smith: Both of the gentlemen make very good points there, so I’m going to approach it from a slightly different angle, which is mythology – the basis of very good stories. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world around us and within us.  As artists, you naturally tap up into that collective unconscious and start bringing it down (that’s the art part), and then what we can all work on is the craft of it. Presumably you are all here because you have tapped into that huge overshadowing world story (what’s often-called ‘the raincloud of knowable things’ ) and you bring it down and tell the same stories we’ve been telling each other for thousands of years but with your unique individual perspective.

Karl: One of the things that took me a long time to learn is why stories are so important in our lives. It all comes down to myth and Joseph Cambbell. If you study all the myths of the world you’ll realize that they all tell the same stories. And the reason for that is because stories have a bio-evolutionary purpose in our lives. We’re ingrained to really appreciate story to learn from story. Stories are like the owners’ manual to life. The reason we love stories is that there are owner’s manuals and how-to-manuals for everything, except for life. And stories kind of take that purpose, so when you go see a movie, unconsciously your body wants to learn something about life. About love, relationships, about how to solve problems.

Bill: Well, the thing with action films usually is… and again, this gets into the myth: life is a mess… in real life, our problems never get solved…they just go on forever. In an action movie, the problem gets solved because the protagonist steps up and does something that solves the problem and that becomes the lesson of outrunning the fireball and in stories like that. As people we need to step up and confront our fears and confront our problems and resolve them. The fantasy of a good action movie is, you leave it going, “Ahhh… all my problems are solved.” And then you go home, and flip through the bills, you know, and … all this stuff that’s not your problems solved.

Storyworld Panel

When we’re telling a story, we’re always told you should be thinking about theme…

Karl: Why you’re writing it! Why you’re writing a story.  Think about your stories and ask yourself, “why am I writing this?” Other than –  ‘Oh boy, I want to get an agent!’, ‘I want to make a million dollars!’, ‘I want to have my name in print!’ which are all kind of fake motivations, right? They’re like materialistic, ego, fame and all that stuff –  which is the last thing that’s going to happen to you when you’re a screenwriter. You know you’re not going to hob-nob with Tom Cruise and… no, ok, nevermind… that’s the business side of it. But the dream is that you’re going to be rich and famous. But your motivation is, should be, about wanting to tell a story and why. Like there is something within you that you want to communicate to the world, in other words, you want to teach to the world. There’s something you want to teach that you know the answer to, in a sense. The trick is how to do it so that it’s not in a didactic, preachy way…and that’s where the craft comes in: you want to make it entertaining.

Bill: What you want to do is you want to make the story theme, rather than have the character tell the theme.

Karl: Exactly. The story is the illustration of the theme, in a subtle way

Bill: Right. For me (and this sounds stupid because I write explosion movies)… is, everything always comes from a theme. When I write a script, I sit down and I go, OK. I come up with some crazy idea, and I go, ‘this is a cool idea… but what about it is me personally?; Because every story idea I came up with came from my brain, which means, it’s me! And no matter how crazy the idea is, in some place, there is some issue inside my brain that I’m trying to work out in that story idea… and once I figure out what that issue is, then I can use the story to explore the theme… because that’s really what it’s all about.

Karl: And that’s probably why he has 19 produced credits. Because his stories are thematically driven. In addition to just explosions. When you see that movies are just explosions, and are empty in just a sense, it’s like cereal. Your cereal that’s empty: it’s a sweet treat right now, but it’s devoid of any nutrients and then you’ve got your really whole grains and full of vitamins and stuff. It’s the same with stories: you’ve got your empty stories that you enjoy for like an hour and then you forget about it, and then you want the ones that become classics, you know? I don’t know about you, but the stuff I write, I want them to become classics. I want my movies to be spoken about in film school and in books and analyzed.

Pam: Back at the Mythic Challenges program, what we do is identify a couple of themes that address the 15 Global Challenges. Our pilot program went to a high school in Los Angeles and we chose along with the instructors 4 of the challenges: water, the technology gap, the rich-poor gap… and as a mythologist and using my Beyond the Hero’s Journey work… 2 of the kids decided between themselves which themes they wanted to use, and we had 6 plot points that for their short films they would touch upon about 4 of those 6 plot points.. then they would be tapping into that thematic pattern. And it would resonate with their audience. They were also working with sister schools in Afghanistan. So these kids chose their mythic themes, wrote their stories, filmed them, and you could see them online at Mythic Challenges.com. It will take you to it. The Millenium project is going to translate it into 27 different languages so it’s addressing what the gentlemen were saying about using theme to communicate messages to give cautionary tales, and sometimes just to entertain. One of my favorite ones that they did is barely 2 minutes long and some of the other films are 18 minutes, 11 minutes… but this one, in fact, I won’t tell you about it. I’ll just tell you to go see it. It’s 2 minutes long. There are 2 people in it. It’s shot against a brick wall. And it says so much about the problems of water in the world. And it’s done funny. It’s entertaining. So you can still get across a great message even if you’re blowing a lot of things up.

Think about theme in your subplots too; it’s not just in the A-story…

BillThat’s where the theme ends up surfacing is that most often too; the subplots are where the characters most often symbolize the theme.

So let’s talk about structure…a lot of people use Save the Cat, Beatsheets, Hero’s True Journeys… with Michael Hauge and Kris Folger…what about writing to formula?

Bill: There is no easy answer. Every script’s its own animal and the thing about it is, at least for me: every script is its own animal, and the basic concept of the 3 act structure, I use… there’s no page numbers involved with that… Except if I end up with like a 50-page Act I, there’s probably something wrong with it, you know? But other than that, there’s no page numbers. There’s no Act I ends halfway down page 27 because I think that’s bullshit.  It’s ‘What’s good for this script?’ And often, scripts work different ways. Some scripts are going to have a short Act 1, some scripts are going to have a longer Act 1… Some scripts are going to have a short Act 3 or longer Act 3… you can’t give a page number on any of that stuff. It’s whatever the story is.

Karl: I do actually tackle this all the time in my classes, because it’s always brought up. The fear that people have about structure. They think oh, structure is formula. And the reason they think that is they read that in books, and they think “oh, you should do this, you should do that”.

The way I look at it, I actually have an interesting way of showing it to the class… and the way I look at structure is…imagine you are looking at a human body, right? We’re all human bodies. The structure of the human being  is the skeleton. And if we took away, if we peeled away what you look like outside, we all look the same, in a sense. We all have similar skeletons, right? Well, the skeleton is the structure to a story. So, all stories have the same structure in a sense. But they…none of them look the same from the outside.  Human beings have the same skeleton but they don’ tlook the same. They all look unique.

The whole thing about page counts and 3-act structure and everything like that is similar to them telling you you have to build a human being and telling you that the bone of the arm has to be exactly 27 inches wrong.  And that’s ridiculous! Because everyone has different proportions.

Michael Hauge

However, what  the Greeks used to do, in terms of art, they tell you, well, the head should be about half the size of the torso, and the human being should have two arms and two legs. Well, that’s correct in principle and you should follow that because if you construct a human being that has 3 heads and 1 arm and the foot is over here and the leg is over there, you’re going to go, that’s a mutant, not a human being. And that’s the same with stories. You can go ahead and defy the 3-act structure, but it’s not going to look like a story.  It’s going to feel weird. Something’s going to feel weird. Just like if your first act is 50 pages, the audience is going to start feeling weird because it’s ingrained in our psyche, in a sense.

So what I prefer instead of page numbers is percentages. I think Michael Hauge talks about that… like your inciting incident should come in at around 10% of your story… so if you have a 300-page book, well, it should be around page 30. AROUND page 30, doesn’t mean you have to be exactly that. And like, you know, Save the Cat. Save the CatThe only thing that I really hated about the book was the fact that he would say, ‘it cannot come on page 4, it has to come on page 5…not on page 6’, and that was a little too weird. Well, you can’t. And now they’re starting to do it by the minute. He has a book where he tells you there’s a beat. Every beat of the story, like something startling should happen on … and he does it by the minute…like 120 beats in your story which…well, what do you do when you have a short, that’s like 2 minutes long? It doesn’t work.  So.  Look at it that way. Don’t be afraid of structure, because everything has to be structured.  This hotel, this room is structured. It has got 4 walls and doors. You can’t construct a house without walls.

Bill: For me it goes to Billy Wilder’s whole thing where Act 1 you get a cat up a tree, Act 2 you throw rocks at it, Act 3 you get the cat down from the tree. And for me, that’s it! You create, you introduce the conflict, escalate the conflict, resolve the conflict! And, that’s it.

Pam: I’d agree with that and add once again, a little bit of mythic perspective to it. Absolutely you need to have structure or you’ve got a mess. And I think any of us working with other writers helping to instill structure is to identify the theme, and then once you know what the theme is, you can start working on how are those themes best portrayed? In the mythic themes, I found that there are typically a dozen if not twenty plot points that you will find in each story, each well-told mythic story, on a particular theme… like Stealing Fire from Heaven. And you can look at those plot points and select for a feature story or for a novel, let’s say, at least 12 of them… unlike the kids projects where they just used 6. So go back and look at the old, old, stories that worked and identify, you know, analyze those old myths yourself and you can find those plot points, those beats, and say OK, if I get at least half of these,  I’ll be tapping into it. And as far as the cat up the tree, etc, one thing that I like to teach is the SDS: Sympathy – Danger – Salvation.  In order for us to want to go along on the journey with your protagonist, we have to have some kind of sympathy with them, for them. So you have to give us something about them that we can either relate to personally, or say, “Oh, I know somebody just like that”, or “I’ve always wanted to be like that”… to get that kind of identification. So the first step is sympathy. The next step is danger. What is the danger that the person is going to be put into? That now that we’re sympathetic to them, we’re going to care, we want to know… what’s going to happen? The explosions are fine!

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And then salvation. And the neat thing I like about the Greek tragedies, what they show us is: it doesn’t have to be a happy ending for there to be salvation. We know what it would look like even if the protagonist doesn’t get there.  So if you’re telling a cautionary tale, if you’re telling a tragedy, you still want to show us what salvation would look like. What surviving the explosion would look like even if your hero does not survive it.

Resolution doesn’t mean happy ending. Resolution means there’s some sort of end.

PamFor those stories that you want to be really getting across a message, sometimes it is better if there isn’t a salvation for your heroine.

KarlEndings are EVERYTHING. There’s a lot of tips and advice about starting with your story and work backwards. In other words, there are a lot of writers who do not start a story until they know the ending. And writers who once they know the ending, work backwards. When you think about it, your whole story is designed to get to that endingAnd if that ending is powerful, if it’s emotionally satisfying to the audience, then you win. I think Robert Town that said an audience will forgive you if you have a boring 5-minutes opening, but they’ll never you if you have a 1-minute, boring ending.  In other words, the ending is what you leave the theatre with. The ending is what, when you finish reading a script, you have that feeling and then you read the coverage you’ll read, either the reader is satisfied with the ending or not. It’s what people remember. Even if you have movies that are great movies, and then the ending sucks, that’s what people are going to talk about.

Bill: I’ve seen movies that sucked, and then they had this AMAZING ending! And you go, “That was a GREAT FILM!” and watch it later on and go… “That wasn’t a great film, that was just a great ending.”

The Sixth Sense

Karl: The Sixth Sense is a perfect example. I remember when that script was going around and it was in development, and people were RAVING about that script because it sold a lot of money and then it was in the wrong font and everything, and people were reading it going, “what’s with this script? I felt it was kind of boring, right?” And then the ending, and you go, “Oh my god!”, you know? And look at the power that it had.

One of the ways that endings are important too is the transformation over character.

KarlThe whole purpose of a story is to transform the character. In cautionary tales, the character didn’t learn the lesson and therefore suffered. And you show that in the ending. On the ones where you see the character transforming, the epiphany, when the character realizes what the lesson that he’s supposed to learn and now he’s armed with enough power to then deal with the ending and then confront the antagonist and …whatever.

Subtext is good, but there are THREE TIMES when somebody NEEDS to say EXACTLY WHAT IS GOING ON.

PamSomeone needs to say the thematic statement (what the movie is about), somebody needs to say the mission statement (what the protagonist is supposed to be doing) and then someone needs to say the lesson statement ( that typically is at the end).

Apocalypse Now

But for a wonderful example of a story that turns around that kind of structure, watch Apocalypse Now. And watch just the first 10-12 minutes of it, because it starts off with the lesson statement, and then the mission statement, and the thematic statement is the 3rd thing.  And I could quote it to you word for word, but I would suggest that you go and watch that.

Watch the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now and get to the point where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has just gotten his mission and turns and looks out the window as the helicopters start whacking. And it’s a brilliant setup for then what is a more linear film but you’ve been pulled into the story by knowing in the beginning what the lesson is, what the theme is, and what the mission is.

The closer to reality you can get your characters, when you put them into fictitious situations, the easier it will be to identify with them.

Karl: Probably the longest education from me in terms of storytelling  has been about character. If you want a story to really have an impact overall… if you want it to be a classic, if you want to be able to relate to it, then it starts with character because all stories are basically illustration of the character who transforms. Because they’re supposed to, right, the purpose of story is to teach you something. To teach you how to live and how to deal with it and how to problem-solve.

The only way for us to really absorb that is by jumping into the skin of the character. ..so the first thing that the reader wants to do, or the first thing that the audience wants to do is: they’re looking for a character to jump into as… like surrogates…that’s why I always advise, when you open a script, try to introduce/try to start with your main character because the reader is going to go, “is this the main character?” and if you start with an empty action scene, or like a waitress and she’s like a no-character, then the reader is going to be really frustrated going, “is this my character?” “oh no, that’s not my character”… or if you introduce ensembles… scripts that open, when you introduce like 20 characters,“hello?” it’s like, how’re you going to realize who your main character is?

Bill: Personal stakes and global stakes. In an action film it’s really important. The biggest problem with a lot of action movies is that they have the global stakes but no personal stakes. Personal stakes is what it’s all about. That’s why we care about the character, that’s why we want that character to succeed.

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Pam: Armageddon is a good example of that. Where Bruce Willis is saving the world but he also has connection with his daughter and he’s trying to save her.

Bill: But sometimes characters don’t fix the issue.They face the issue, but they don’t fix it. But the thing is, they faced it and but every single scene is going to be about that character dealing with that emotional conflict in one way or another.

Even if it’s outrunning a fireball..although that’s probably not the best example…so what you do, is you give characters in an action scene you give characters decisions to make in the action scene which feed that character decision they have to make.  

If a character is all about being selfish and their whole thing is they have to be selfless, then the action scene is they have to rescue somebody else instead of just only rescuing themselves. You create an emotional situation at every scene…even if it is an explosion.

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Pam: Indiana Jones (the very first one) Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think is a good example of that. When we first meet Indian in the opening scenes, we learn that he’s afraid of snakes. So we learn that that’s his foible, his fear, his phobia, and then later on in the story he has to jump into an entire pit of snakes in order to save the day. So you got that book ending…

Bill: Not just the day. The woman he loves…

Pam: Save the world!

“Well, Indiana Jones doesn’t change..he doesn’t have a character flaw or whatever…”

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Karl: But the whole movie, when you really think about it, is an argument between secular and spiritual power. And at the beginning, when the agents come and talk about his missions and the arc of the covenant, Indiana Jones kind of scoffs at it. He scoffs at it, he goes, “Oh, that’s just mumbo-jumbo, it’s like spiritual stuff”. And at the end, when he’s tied up, and he tells… this is his moment of realization, when he has changed, really. Is when he tells his girlfriend “Close your eyes”. “Close your eyes”, because he knows now the power of this thing and that’s what saves him at the end. I consider that his transformation; his lesson of learning the power of the arc.

Writing Real-Life Dialogue

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Scene from Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino

with…

Karl Iglesias, Instructor, UCLA Writer’s Program
Steve Faber, Screenwriter (Wedding Crashers)
William Martell, Screenwriter (HBO, Showtime, USA Net, CineMax Originals), First Strike Productions
William Massa, Screenwriter (Silver Pictures, Dark Castle, Warner Brothers, Sony, Maverick, MGM, USA and Mandalay)
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store

How important is dialogue in script?

Anthony:  Dialogue can be wonderful and funny, when you go through a script… and yet you’ll have scenes where actors say nothing in the scene. Unless you’re surrounded by a roomful of talented actors… whenever you can take words out of an actor’s mouth, do it. If you can show the character’s behavior instead, do it. Show, don’t tell. Most productions have no access to A-list actors. Have your character react a certain way, by default.

Steve:  No one speaks in real-life like they do in dialogue. Set-up, punch. Set-up, punch. Except for historical biography, there is no “real life dialogue”. There is a “hyper” or “meta” dialogue.

Karl:  Real-life dialogue.

How do you make hyper dialogue and make it sound natural?

Steve:  Depending on the genre, e.g. with horror, characters will scream.

Bill Massa:  The only thing when you’re reading is dialogue (script) telling the story therefore concept, story, characters, can be more important on a macro-level but dialogue jumps out at the reader.

Karl:  Least important – this doesn’t drive the story. What’s important is that readers read dialogue – trying to grasp the story through dialogue (vertically), and therefore, it’s not a conversation. It’s action. In a scene, there are only 2 ways a character can get something: either physically or verbally. Real dialogue is action.

Anthony:  Attitude towards the world. Flesh out character. Propels them to say things that are true to them.

How do you give dialogue distinctive character voices?

Bill:  Attitude of broad strokes: create conflict.

Steve:  Pick an actor at a given point in their career, and write in their voice. I pitched Wedding Crashers to 9 studios before I realized that Owen was not talking as fast as Vince… so I had to rewrite all of his lines.

Karl:  Contrast in scenes (emotional tempo: way characters feel in a scene). Favorite expressions, pet words.  In Lost: Jack Sawyer’s character nicknames every character.

Steve:  Moral lines in the sand. One character offending another character. That can manifest in great dialogue.

Bill:  Rhythmn. Cadence. The Coen brothers are masters at this.

Anthony:  Look at archetypes. Choose attitudes. Writer as an actor in the room. Drop into a place in your stomach that emotionally resonates with how a person is feeling in the scene. With each draft, find out all the characters’ ticks. Not all is lost if the components are not all working in the first draft.

Karl:  Every line has to have a reason. Not exposition (interrogation scene). Use dialogue to get something from someone.

Bill M:  In the Matrix, big chunks of the movie is exposition. Because we’re so intrigued, we don’t feel that this is just dumped on us. Very strong visuals. Exposition on the run. (Elements of danger). 

How do you make dialogue sound natural, again?

Karl:  Stilted dialogue is something that is grammatically correct, with full sentences, like an encyclopedia. Use contractions. If you want to say, “I want to go to the theatre tomorrow”, the trick is to contract it “I’m…” “I’ll”…. Have fragmented sentences. Cut words out.

Anthony:  Go through your script, and take out “well” and ‘look” from all the first words.

Karl:  It’s about trimming to the bone.

Steve:  I like characters who F*** up what they’re saying and then correct themselves. It’s a trick, it’s also part of human nature.

Anthony:  Have your character spit a question out in their mind, and then state the answer before asking the question out loud.

Bill M:  In real life, people interject. Running paragraphs don’t work in Casablanca – it’s all one line.

Karl:  Finger rule: it should be no thicker than a finger horizontally. Write tightly. (Subtext) Imply vs stating on the nose. E.g. first date questions – Quentin Tarantino, Ron Bass write good dialogue.