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Tony Soprano is a Mafia Power of Will character. He believes that expanding his power base, extending his territory, protecting and defending what is rightfully his (according to Tony) and swiftly avenging any wrong (or perceived wrong) is how one gets along, gets ahead and stays ahead in the world. Life is a battleground.

J.K. Rowling’s Handwritten Plot Sheet

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Always interesting to see how other writer’s think and conceptualize.  Even more interesting when the novel is a hit.

Brave from Pixar – How Good is Good Enough?

Pixar_Brave_1I saw Brave this weekend along with a surging box office crowd.  It’s Pixar after all and their first film with a female protagonist in the studio’s 17 year history.

Settling down in the theater seat I saw what seemed like a dozen trailers for upcoming animated films. There is a lot of competition out there!

All of the visuals for the coming attractions looked great, and so does Brave.  Every review of Brave (even the bad ones) wax poetic about  the lush scenery, the gorgeous colors, the spectacular hair, the realistic fur, and the impressive claws!

Folks, I’m here to tell you– The technology war is OVER. How much more realistic can you make rippling water, wind-whipped tresses, galloping horses, and  sleek bear pelts?  Great visuals are now the norm. Every animated studio film has them and the incremental improvements, unless they are game-changing, don’t add up to very much in my book. Are technological advances in fur, hair, and water really the reason why we go to movies? Is it to watch a fabulous moving painting?

We go to movies for the same reason people sat around the castle hearth in 10th century Scotland– for a great story filled with memorable characters! Brave, set in that very time and place, repeats over and over “Legends are lessons.” That is true of the best stories. They tell us what it is to be human in all our fragility and strength, blindness and insight, and selfishness and transcendence.

What story exactly is Brave telling? What is the lesson in this legend? The film’s very muddled narrative adds up to a lack of complexity and not enough heart. If the film’s visuals were on a par with the story we’d be watching stick figures.

I knew Brave was in trouble from the first few words spoken in voice over as the film began. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) uses the words “fate” and “destiny” interchangeably.  This muddle-headedness is at the heart of the film’s problem.

What’s the difference between fate and destiny? Philosophers through the ages have distinguished the two based on choice. Fate is something that happens TO you. Destiny is something that happens BECAUSE of you.

Fate is at the root of such words as “fatal” and “fatalistic.” It implies LACK of choice. Philosopher Rollo May says fate is what we are born into, something that cannot be changed and that we have no control over, such as race.

May says destiny is what we create based on what we were given. Destiny is all about CHOICE. It’s what we choose to do with what we have.

imagesMerida is born a princess. She can’t change that. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is grooming Merida for a role as future queen. After a long series of wars King Fergus (Billy Connolly) has united the four clans. Merida’s duty is to help keep the clans unified though a judicious marriage.

Merida is a wild rebellious child with special talent as a rider and archer. The demonstrations of her skills are absolutely breath-taking.  She is unique and extraordinary and initially looks very much like a Power of Idealism character.

These kinds of characters are driven by their passion. They abhor what they consider to be a mundane, boring, or mediocre life. They want to seize some grand destiny that is uniquely theirs.

The film starts out like a Power of Idealism Coming of Age story. The deeper human questions at the heart of these stories are: How can I be true to myself and find my rightful place in the world? What is my own special destiny?

Well drawn female protagonists in this vein are:

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Whale Rider. This film, for those who haven’t seen it is described on IMDB as “A contemporary story of (family) love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.”

Jess Kaur Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) in Bend it Like Beckham is another example. IMDB states the film’s log line as “The (talented) daughter of an orthodox Sikh rebels against her parents’ traditionalism by running off to Germany to play with a girl’s football team (soccer in America).”

Unlike Paikea or Jess, Merida doesn’t fight for what she believes is HER destiny. Merida, instead, decides to change her mother!  Perhaps this is because Merida has no clue about what she is really called to do.

tdy-120613-brave.380Now the story gets even muddier. With the help of an old witch’s spell Merida does indeed change her mother — into a bear.

Instead of figuring out who she is and what she uniquely is called to do, Merida must again deal with who her mother is. In the struggle over the middle part of Brave, Queen Elinor becomes the protagonist.

The definition of a protagonist, in my book, is the person who makes the biggest emotional sacrifice in the story. It is the person who undergoes the most profound transformation. This is clearly Elinor on every front.

Queen Elinor is a Power of Conscience character. She is a strict and demanding taskmaster, a perfectionist, and is driven by a strong sense of tradition and duty. Over the course of the story she recognizes her daughter’s uniqueness and fully appreciates Merida for who she is.

The first important glimpse of Elinor’s change of heart is the brawl in the great hall after Merida has disappeared.  When Merida strides back into the hall it is Elinor who puts words in Merida’s mouth. Elinor speaks through her surrogate about going against tradition and marrying for love. It is Elinor who makes an eloquent plea for choice and following one’s heart. Merida is just her passive interpreter. At the end of the film Elinor is willing to sacrifice her own life in a battle with the ancient cursed bear, who one would assume, was the monster who took off her husband’s leg. Or not? Who knows?

Even more confusingly this monster turns out to be the legendary brother, it would seem, who destroyed the ancient kingdom so long ago because of his pride and selfishness.  How did he turn into a bear? Was it mother love or something else that breaks his curse?

When a legend and curse is set up so carefully it should have a pay-off having to do with Merida or her destiny– if the film is really about Merida.

And what does Merida do that is so brave?  She scurries around looking for the witch’s house after her mother turns into a bear.  She stitches up (with big clumsy childish stitches) the tapestry she slashed separating her from her mother.  She does a lot of running away and running around. She is ineffective in battling the monstrous cursed bear. And she collapses in tears remembering her mother’s loving kindness as the second sunrise threatens to make her mother’s bear curse permanent. In other words, she acts like a child– or worse a girl.

At the end of the film, Elinor has changed but not Merida.  Merida is the same galloping wild child as she was in the beginning.  This refusal to accept restrictions, grow up, or take responsibility is Power of Excitement territory. It is a sinking back into childhood rather than striding toward an adulthood based both on duty and and an individualistic sense of self. If you are a young woman, what is the lesson here?

Brave offers no alternative vision of how Merida might help unify the clan in some way that is uniquely hers. It provides a very unsatisfying resolution. How has Merida changed or grown? What happens when King Fergus and Queen Elinor are too old to rule? What is Merida’s role going forward?

MANOHLA DARGIS NY TIMES–  discouragingly uninspired script by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi. (Ms. Chapman, the first woman hired to direct a Pixar feature, either left or was removed from “Brave” and now shares directing credit with Mr. Andrews.)
The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture. Here, however, the nature-culture divide is drawn along traditional gender

There is so much missed opportunity in Brave.  Manohla Dargis writing in The New York Times laments:  “The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture.”

BraveThe story thuds along on the surface. None of the characters in Brave is particularly complex or have much emotional depth. Although Elinor and King Fergus are a love match now, theirs was an arranged marriage. Did either ever love another? How does either feel about the fact neither might have chosen the other if it was up to choice? How did they eventually find love together? That is rich emotional territory that never factors into the story– or in Elinor’s advice or lessons to Merida. It seems incredible that a loving mother wouldn’t speak of her own experience on the eve of arranged betrothal, especially if it was a struggle that ultimately lead to happiness.

King Fergus himself, is a simple lovable loud-mouth lout. He is the very broadest brush-stroke Power of Will character. He’s a big, larger than life presence. He is a man of lusty appetite– for food, wine, and brawling.

Merida’s three suitors are a joke. None of them is remotely appealing.  This is a huge mistake and gives Merida no pause for thought nor any temptation to chose a different path.  It removes essential inner conflict for her. All the conflict in the story is the simplest external conflict. No one has self-doubts. No one struggles within themselves.

How did the film go so wrong, except for the visuals?  Joe Morgenstern writing in The Wall Street Journal reports: “Brave was a notoriously troubled production, with a change of directors that clearly led to a change of narrative direction. (The complexity of the final credits reflects the tortuous history: directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman and co-directed by Steve Purcell, from a script written by Messrs. Andrews and Purcell, Ms. Chapman and Irene Mecchi.)

Colin Covert writing for The Minneapolis Star Tribune pretty much sums it up: “The standout characters, exciting set pieces and memorable songs that we’ve come to expect are absent. The truest advertising tagline would be, “From the studio that brought you ‘Cars 2.’

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Getting to the Heart of the Story

I talk a lot about the Heart of the Story in my workshops and consulting. The Heart of the Story is the simplest emotional statement distilling the story’s essence.

At UCLA I always had my students do a poster for their movie. The image and logline was to be the distilled essence of their screenplay. I recently came across a blog post by Edan Leucki about another kind of assignment for the same purpose. This assignment was for a rewrite class where writers were stuck.

Go wild, I said.  Do whatever it takes, to keep writing this thing.
Melissa came to class with these…boxes.
They were cardboard jewelry gift boxes, and there were three of them, one inside the next. The first bore the title of her novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, on its face. The inside of this box contained a smaller box, decorated with a monkey (“Because…duh,” Melissa said, or something like it), and a piece of paper, which described her book’s premise.
Inside the monkey box was an even smaller box, this one decorated with a plastic heart. On the inside of the monkey box, Melissa had written a shorter version of the novel description, distilled from the notes on the piece of paper.  The smallest box — we all leaned forward to see — was empty, except Melissa had written the book’s premise on its inside.
She’d distilled it to a single sentence: “Chronicles the life of a woman who was separated from her bipolar mother and placed into foster care at 15.”
She told us she’d been struggling with how to describe her book to people who asked about it. This project forced her to find the book’s main idea, its essence.  It ended up thrilling everyone in the room.
The boxes were funny, and strange, and beautiful, and important. I keep imagining Melissa struggling to write in the margins of the smallest box, and it moves me. Making this project wasn’t novel writing, of course, but it enabled Melissa to return to her book with a fresh perspective. It helped her to keep going. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it?
Go wild, I said.  Do whatever it takes, to keep writing this thing.
Melissa came to class with these…boxes.
.
M41They were cardboard jewelry gift boxes, and there were three of them, one inside the next. The first bore the title of her novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, on its face. The inside of this box contained a smaller box, decorated with a monkey (“Because…duh,” Melissa said, or something like it), and a piece of paper, which described her book’s premise.
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.
.
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M5Inside the monkey box was an even smaller box, this one decorated with a plastic heart. On the inside of the monkey box, Melissa had written a shorter version of the novel description, distilled from the notes on the piece of paper.  The smallest box — we all leaned forward to see — was empty, except Melissa had written the book’s premise on its inside.
.
.
.
.
M6She’d distilled it to a single sentence: “Chronicles the life of a woman who was separated from her bipolar mother and placed into foster care at 15.”
.
She told us she’d been struggling with how to describe her book to people who asked about it. This project forced her to find the book’s main idea, its essence.  It ended up thrilling everyone in the room.
.
The boxes were funny, and strange, and beautiful, and important. I keep imagining Melissa struggling to write in the margins of the smallest box, and it moves me. Making this project wasn’t novel writing, of course, but it enabled Melissa to return to her book with a fresh perspective. It helped her to keep going. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it?
What kind of project would help you get to the Heart of the Story?
Okay, so here’s the homework part of this post:  Make … something as unwriterly as possible. No outlines, no character sketches. Instead, do something surprising and weird and beautiful and fun; the only requirement is that it provides you with a new outlook on your work, and gets you pumped to write.

Advice from John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck — Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel laureate, love guru — with six tips on writing, culled from his altogether excellent interview it the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4156/the-art-of-fiction-no-45-continued-john-steinbeck

john-steinbeckJohn Steinbeck, a Pulitzer Prize winning author (Grapes of Wrath) and Nobel laureate offers six basic tips on writing in his interview it the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.

1.  Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised. (This concept of small daily incremental progress is key to long term writing success.)

2.  Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.  (Self-censorship and a constant reworking of material day-by-day is absolutely antithetical to finishing anything!)

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one. (This helps to tell a story with real intimacy.  It’s just you and one other person.)

4.  If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there. (Constant forward momentum is the only way anything gets done.  Don’t let any one scene, or sequence stop or stymie you.)

5.  Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing. (Kill kill kill your darlings.)

6.  If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech. (This is excellent advice even for purely narrative passages too!)

The whole interview is here– http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4156/the-art-of-fiction-no-45-continued-john-steinbeck

What is Power?

51F7BV3TWPL._SL500_AA300_I was watching an interesting British mini-series, The Politician’s Wife, last weekend. The series is about a faithful political wife who supports her husband through an infidelity scandal. In this story, unlike The Good Wife, the protagonist exacts painful political revenge over the course of time.

In The Politician’s Wife, a bit of advice from one of her husband’s advisors (and a long time family friend) instructs her: “Power, real power, is invisible and therefore inviolable.”  That is a view of power from a Power of Will character.  Real power need not be seen it only need be felt.

What do other movie or television characters have to say about power:

In Schindler’s List Oskar Schindler tells Amon Goeth what he believes real power is:

Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.

Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.
Amon Goeth: You think that’s power?
Oskar Schindler: That’s what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor… pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.
Amon Goeth: I think you are drunk.
Oskar Schindler: That’s power, Amon. That is power.Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.

Amon Goeth: You think that’s power?

Oskar Schindler: That’s what the Emperor had. A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor… pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.

Amon Goeth: I think you are drunk.

Oskar Schindler: That’s power, Amon. That is power.

Power, real power, is mercy and pardon according to a Power of Conscience character.

In Death of A Salesman, Willie Loman tells his son what he believes real power is:

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

Power, real power, is popularity and personal magnetism according to a Power of Ambition character.

In Gladiator, Maximus tells his fellow soldiers what he believes is power: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

To a Power of Idealism Epic Hero power, real power, is honor and the memory of honor.

In Batman Forever, the Riddler flatters himself: “For if knowledge is power, then a God I am.”

To a Power of Reason Character power, real power, is intellectual superiority.

In The X Files, Fox Mulder says to Dana Scully:  “The truth will save you, Scully. I think it’ll save both of us.”

To  Power of Truth character power, real power, is the ability to discern the truth and reality from illusion.

What are your favorite movie quotes about power?  Let me know and I will tell what Character Type the protagonist is.

Thriller Book Excerpt – Power of Truth Conundrums

300px-BigComboTrailerIn a Power of Truth story the conundrums at the heart of the main character’s inner conflict are:

Loyalty vs. Betrayal When does betrayal look like loyalty and vice versa? Who can your character trust? Can a character be loyal to someone as he or she is betraying that person? Can loyalty be an act of betrayal?

Ally vs. Enemy How does the character’s view of “good” and “evil” shift or change? Who is hiding what? Who is working behind the character’s back for good or ill? How does the character work against him or her self?

Pursuer vs. Pursued What is the character running after and what is he or she running from? How does this change or reverse itself?

Truth vs. Lie How does the “truth” move and morph depending on perspective, or new or reinterpreted information? What is really the truth, how does the truth shift or change depending on shifting perceptions? What is delusion, what is misleading and what is outright active deception?

Desire to Suspect vs. Need to Trust How does the character wrestle with suspicion, paranoia, and the aftereffects of betrayal or seeming betrayal? Can your character fully know the heart of anyone? Can your character fully trust him or her self? Can anyone ever be 100% certain of anyone or anything?

Illusion vs. Reality What is real and what is a set-up, a lie, misinformation, a conspiracy, a delusion, or hidden below the surface of things? How much of perception is preconception, prejudice, ignorance, naivety, pretense, paranoia, duplicity, trickery, or a set up?

Certainty vs. Uncertainty What can be pinned down, proven and quantified, and what will always have an element of the unknown, the mysterious, or the unexplained? Is anyone ever all “good” or all “bad”? How does the character deal with moral ambiguity, shifting perceptions, or shades of gray? Isn’t every situation a shade of gray? Aren’t all people combinations of good and evil?

All great Power of Truth stories — mysteries, thrillers, suspense, and detective stories answer these key questions.

Film Adaptation with Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje_01_bodyHere’s a wonderful article on adaptation from Bombsite

Michael Ondaatje I spent six years writing the book, the last two years of which were spent creating the only structure I thought it could have. So to turn around and dismantle that structure and put the head where the tail was… There’s no way I could have been objective and known what should go, what should stay.
WD Were you involved in the initial script development?
MO Quite a lot. Anthony Minghella, Saul Zaentz and I met every time there was a draft, and I think we worked well and adventurously together. The script felt “new,” and was not a “shadow” of the book. Because all three of us were working on something new it was a much more exciting project. I was amazed, right from the beginning, how Anthony got the voices, when Barnes meets Katherine and says, “Of course, I know your mother,” that sense of class knowledge of each other was caught perfectly. In any case, each time there was a new draft, we would meet up. It was a real education in terms of how a script gets tighter and tighter. Film is much tougher. I don’t think I could write a great chapter and then give it up because of the book’s overall time limitations, as you sometimes must do with entire scenes in film. That’s like a bad joke for a writer.
WD I run into so many people who, when they hear I’m involved with the film, say, “Oh, I loved the book.” And I get this sinking feeling, not out of disrespect to the movie, but that somehow they’re not going to see the book, not even a version of the book. They’ll see something that grew out of it.
MO I feel the film has become something quite distinct, with its own DNA.

Michael Ondaatje:  I spent six years writing the book, The English Patient, the last two years of which were spent creating the only structure I thought it could have. So to turn around and dismantle that structure and put the head where the tail was… There’s no way I could have been objective and known what should go, what should stay.

WD:  Were you involved in the initial script development?

MO:  Quite a lot. Anthony Minghella, Saul Zaentz and I met every time there was a draft, and I think we worked well and adventurously together. The script felt “new,” and was not a “shadow” of the book. Because all three of us were working on something new it was a much more exciting project. I was amazed, right from the beginning, how Anthony got the voices, when Barnes meets Katherine and says, “Of course, I know your mother,” that sense of class knowledge of each other was caught perfectly. In any case, each time there was a new draft, we would meet up. It was a real education in terms of how a script gets tighter and tighter. Film is much tougher. I don’t think I could write a great chapter and then give it up because of the book’s overall time limitations, as you sometimes must do with entire scenes in film. That’s like a bad joke for a writer.

WD:  I run into so many people who, when they hear I’m involved with the film, say, “Oh, I loved the book.” And I get this sinking feeling, not out of disrespect to the movie, but that somehow they’re not going to see the book, not even a version of the book. They’ll see something that grew out of it.

MO: I feel the film has become something quite distinct, with its own DNA.

Read the full article HERE

April 2012 – Writing Lessons from Norway

P1030798At the Western Norway Film Summit I looked at a number of projects under development by writer/directors and their producers.

First of all, let me say what an inspiring range of talent there is in the region.  The films were all very different and had a wonderful local sense of place combined with the potential universal emotional appeal that gives a film “legs.”

This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges to overcome in the stories and characters in the films discussed.

Here are three key take-aways about common issues that make a film project less effective and less emotionally compelling.

CONFLICT

No matter how poetic, beautiful, or inspired the visuals in a film are, without conflict you don’t have a story.

There are three levels of conflict–

External conflict (obstacles presented by the physical environment or terrain, the weather, the society or culture, or any other obstacle presented by the larger external world of the story)

Relationship conflict (conflict or opposition between the people or creatures in the story)

Internal conflict (conflict within a character– the personal or psychological obstacles the character struggles with inside him or her self).

The Internal conflict drives the other two kinds of conflict.  By this I mean how a character deals with any challenge, opportunity, or threat depends on who they are emotionally.  Emotion always drives action.

CONSISTENT OVERALL TONE

A film’s tone should be consistent and yet surprising.  The film can and should have ups and downs, shifts and reversals, and comic or dramatic turnarounds.  But the story should an overall tone that works as an underlying point of view about the story world.

If a film is a black comedy then the ending must be funny in an ironic way or end in a sharp or biting comic twist.  You don’t want to end a warm romantic comedy with a sad, ironic, or scathing twist at the end.  Nor do you want to end a sharp dark comedy with a moment of emotional violins.

Be careful that shifts in tone fit a consistent comic or dramatic sensibility.  Comedy must, of course, have moment of drama or pathos and drama must have moments of humor or absurdity.  But reversals in tone should not be confusing, jarring, or pull the audience emotionally out of the story.

FOCUS

Detail makes for a rich story world.  Avoid details that only complicate the story plot. Strip away all details that don’t support the main character’s emotional journey.

Audiences love SIMPLE stories about COMPLEX emotions.  Complex stories about simple emotions are confusing.  There is a great difference between what is complex (consisting of many different but connected parts) and what is confusing (extraneous information that is bewildering or difficult to follow).

I find that no matter how experienced or talented a filmmaker is he or she has to keep returning to the basics in every project. It’s so easy to forget the key tenets– we all need to be reminded of what is fundamental in each new story.