#WritingAdviceWednesday – Unspoken Communication

Photo by: Jeansman Lee. All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been in Europe working with a variety of television dramas and one recurring issue is the most effective use of subtext. If a scene is about what it is about—the writing is dangerously close to being boring. Great scenes are always about something deeper than what, on the surface, appears to be going on.

The subtext of a scene is the underlying emotion that changes or alters the meaning of the words spoke or the actions taken. Or it is what is “under the skin of a character.” Or it is what is under the surface of what a character says or does.
Subtext is what is left unsaid, or what is active concealed or what is just not right out in the open. It is the part of the scene the audience must “fill in.”
For example: A mom finishes preparing dinner. A plate with chocolates sits on a nearby kitchen counter. As her very young son heads directly toward the chocolate and is about to reach up, she says, “Josh come here.”
Why does his mom call to Josh?

If you say “because she doesn’t want him to eat the chocolates before dinner,” you have understood the subtext in this simple scene.

The dialog never directly says his mom doesn’t want Josh to eat the chocolate. You inferred that from the juxtaposition of the description of the scene and the dialogue.

Is that subtext? Mom is really telling Josh to “come here.” There is no hidden or concealed meaning in her words. Subtext does not necessarily need to be “hidden” in the sense that the characters have some secret or unspoken agenda. Mom really does want Josh to come here. Subtext is the additional meaning we infer from the words spoken.

Now let’s say the mom says, “Josh come here. You know you can’t eat sweets before dinner. It is very bad for you. Come here and eat a nice nutritious meal first. You can have the chocolates later for dessert.”

This version of the scene adds much more information. It spells out exactly what is going on in much more detail than we need to understand the scene. It doesn’t allow the audience to fill in any spaces themselves. The scene is less interesting and is “too talky.” In writing, less is always more.

If you don’t allow the audience to be engaged in creating the scene they become bored. Think of a time when someone gave you more information than you needed to understand something— It felt dull and repetitious. Trust your audience to fill in the meaning of the scene.

The text is what is on the page. It is narrative description, action, and dialogue. Subtext is what is not on the page. Subtext is the emotional meaning of the scene. People don’t usually say exactly what they mean in a conversation. Sometimes, they don’t say what they mean at all. Sometimes they say exactly the opposite of what they mean.

In real life, we rarely speak exactly what is on our minds. We rarely ask for what we actually need. We rarely confront emotional issues head on. We talk around things and expect others to infer what we mean or to fill in the gaps. Research has shown as much as 70% of communication is unspoken. Is that the case in your scripts? Or do people speak their minds too directly to be realistic or engaging.

For example: In real life, an argument about “taking out the garbage” is rarely about emptying out the kitchen wastebasket and carrying the contents to the outside bin. In life, such an argument is probably about who is responsible for what, who respects (or doesn’t respect) whom, who is shirking households responsibilities and who is doing an unfair share, who is not paying enough attention to the home, or the relationship, or who is rebelling against another’s sense of order or desire for control. The scene appears to be about one thing but it is really about another.

Does every conversation have to have subtext? Is any communication direct? Doesn’t “no” sometime just mean “no”? Ask yourself what is the person actually refusing? Let’s say a woman offers a man a box of chocolates and the man says “no.” Why? What are the surrounding circumstances? What emotional exchange is really taking place? What does the character’s “no” mean?

Is he on a diet? Is he trying to maintain his discipline and refusing to give into temptation? Does she know this and is subtly trying to sabotage him? Or does she think he is fine as he is and he should just enjoy the treat offered? Or is he furious because he told her he is allergic to chocolate and he thinks she is being insensitive or cruel? Or does he think she is offering this box of chocolates with a hidden agenda or that she is trying obligate him to her in some way?

If set up properly, all that emotional information is processed in connection with the simple word “no.” We call this additional information “subtext” because the real communication isn’t on the surface of what is said. The real communication is just underneath the actual verbal exchange.

Let’s say two lovers are having a romantic Valentines Day dinner. One lover gives the other a beautiful box of chocolate and says, “I love you.” That is a very boring scene. Everything is spelled out and right on the surface.

Now let’s say the audience knows one lover is actually married to someone else (and the other lover doesn’t know this). In fact, the person’s spouse gave the chocolates now being “re-gifted.” Or let’s say the audience knows the box of chocolate is poisoned and one lover is actually plotting the murder of the other lover. Now the simple scene is much more interesting.

What if the lovers really do love each other? If this is the case they should express their love in a way that allows their feelings to be communicated through subtext. The lovers should be talking about something else but really saying “I love you.” They might discuss or compare wines and really be talking about the nature of their love for each other.

Actors do a much better job of communicating their emotions if they aren’t saddled with “on the nose” dialogue. Dialogue is “on the nose” if it communicates exactly what is on the surface and nothing more. Remember that real people always infer more than what is actually spoken. It feels more real and is more emotionally engaging if the audience is allowed to make the emotional connections between what a character says and what a character actually means or feels. Trust your actors and trust your audience to fill in the gaps. It will vastly improve your writing.

Valdimir Putin and the Power of Will

Valdimir Putin,  the President of Russia, has been much in the news lately, specifically regarding the Russian invasion/annexation of the Crimea.  The New Republic magazine has an interesting analysis of Putin’s personality and goals.  He is described in the magazine and in other news reports as a classic Power of Will character.

Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat.  New Republic Magazine

Power of Will characters believe that expanding their power base, extending their territory, protecting and defending what is rightfully theirs (according to them) and swiftly avenging any wrong (or perceived wrong) is how one gets along, gets ahead and stays ahead in the world.

These characters take what they want, fight for every inch of turf, refuse to show any weakness themselves and pounce decisively on the weakness of others. They have a kill or be killed framework for everything. They believe absolutely in the Law of the Jungle and divide the world into aggressors and victims, hunters and prey, and the strong and the weak. They believe it is better to be feared than to be loved. They never want to be seen as “soft” or vulnerable. They show no mercy and they expect none.

Power of Will characters fear showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability. They fear that remorse, compassion, empathy, compromise or forgiveness leaves them soft and open to possible attack by others. These characters believe there is no mercy in the jungle that is the world. There is only survival of the fittest. The biggest, toughest, meanest dog wins. Might makes right. Speak decisively and back it up with big guns.

For more on the Power of Will character visit the ETB Screenwriting Shop.

 

Make the Strongest Choice

Photo by: Edgard Medina.  All Rights Reserved.

I recently did a film consulting job for a very talented writer. The story involved a romantic rivalry subplot. Two men were in love with the same woman. One man was rich and powerful. The other man was poor but intelligent and savvy.

Both men needed the other to succeed and they owed substantial debts of honor and respect to each other. The woman was the rich and powerful man’s servant. My first question about this romantic triangle was– what would drive the powerful and important man the most crazy? Would this influential pillar of the community be driven to extremes if the intelligent but poor man stole his SERVANT or his WIFE? The answer is, of course, is his wife.

That much more intimate betrayal would produce a nuclear reaction of outrage, shame and revenge. No servant girl, however, beautiful and desirable, matches the humiliation of being cuckolded by one’s wife, business partner, and best friend.

In another consulting job, two best friends decide to embark on a road trip. The night before they leave they hook up with some local girls. The girls, who are new acquaintances, are generally supportive of the two guys’ dream of heading out on the open road. What would cause more conflict? Telling your FINACE that you are leaving town indefinitely to pursue your dream or some easy-going ACQUAINTANCE  you might never see again?

The answer is clear. Telling your fiance involves intense inner angst, incredible turmoil, and probably a torrent of tears. (Along with a lot of guilt over a loved one’s sense of betrayal and abandonment)

Always ask yourself– What would make the situation more impossible? What would twist and torture your character more intensely. Then make the strongest choice. Ramp up the conflict. Make it more personal. Make it more intimate and emotional. The higher the stakes for the character the more the audience cares about what happens next.

#TypesTuesday – Archetype or Character Type? Wizards in Harry Potter

dumbledore-etbscreenwritingI was having a conversation with a friend the other day about archetypes. I must admit, I am not a fan. To me an archetype is a job description: a wizard, trickster, mother, hero, outlaw, seductress, judge, or mystic simply do different kinds of work in a story.

Let’s take the first job on the list, wizard. The Harry Potter book and film series features many different wizards. Each has his or her own individual kind of wizardry and distinctive personality.

That’s the problem with archetypes. There is no one way to be a wizard. There are lots of different ways to play that role in a story. Different wizards view their role or job differently, believe different things about the world, and frame their responsibilities very differently. In a story, a character’s job or role is much less important than how the person sees the world, understands that role, and fulfills his or her duties.

That’s where Character Type comes in. Character Type determines how a person views the world, sees his or her place in it, and develops a philosophy of life and love, Character Type creates innate strengths and weaknesses and determines the lessons to be learn over the arc of the story. Different Character Types are concerned about very different aspects of their role or job. For example:

A Power of Will wizard is most concerned with using his or her abilities for vengeance or to expand and defend a personal domain or to bend others or the elements into submission.  Lord Voldemort is a great example.  “There is no good and evil, there is only power…and those too weak to seek it.”

A Power of Conscience wizard is most concerned with the justice and ethics of magic and how it is most rightly or properly used.  They do not break rules or tolerate misbehavior.  Minerva McGonagall is a great example:    ‘Now, I must warn you that the most stringent anti-cheating charms have been applied to your examination papers. Auto-Answer Quills are banned from the examination hall, as are Remembralls, Detachable Cribbing Cuffs and Self-Correcting Ink. Every year, I am afraid to say, seems to harbour at least one student who thinks that he or she can get around the Wizarding Examinations Authority’s rules. I can only hope that it is nobody in Gryffindor.”

A Power of Ambition wizard is most concerned with the flash, dazzle and showy presentation required to be impressive, gain prestige, status, being popular, or acquiring a grand reputation.  Draco Malfoy is a great example:  “My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford… You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

A Power of Truth wizard is most concerned with divining oracles and prophesies or delving into deep dark hidden secrets.  They are secret keepers and it’s hard to know where their real loyalties lie.  Severus Snape is a great example:  “What made you think he’d really stopped supporting Voldemort, Professor?”  Dumbledore held Harry’s gaze for a few seconds, and then said, “That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.” Snape has the most surprising reveal in the story, which changes our whole view of him at the end.

A Power of Reason wizard is most concerned with the magical formulas or precise processes that lead to specific knowledge or expertise.  Hermione Granger is a great example:  “That’s what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library.” She is a little off-putting and can be very condescending but she is one of the smartest and best informed young wizards in the group.

A Power of Excitement wizard is most concerned with adventurous exploring, wild experimenting or creating the chaos that makes magic fun and surprising.  They hate being bored or trapped. Sirius Black is a great exmple:  “Personally, I’d have welcomed a dementor attack. A deadly struggle for my soul would have broken the monotony nicely. You think you’ve had it bad, at least you’ve been able to get out and about, stretch your legs, get into a few fights…. I’ve been stuck inside for a month.”

A Power of Love wizard is most concerned with relationship magic, bonding spells, and creating mutual alliances.  These Character Types are stalwart friends and are self -sacrificing for others.  Harry’s best friend Ron is a good example:  “We’re nearly there,” Ron muttered suddenly. “Let me think — let me think…” The white queen turned her blank face toward him. “Yes…” said Ron softly, “it’s the only way … I’ve got to be taken.” “NO!” Harry and Hermione shouted.”That’s chess!” snapped Ron. “You’ve got to make some sacrifices! I take one step forward and she’ll take me — that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!”

A Power of Idealism wizard is most concerned with creating magic that is completely unique, entirely special, and is a reflection of his or her deepest passions.  These are the truly exceptional wizards, those who are the legends.  Dumbledore is a good example:  “Professor Dumbledore, though very old, always gave an impression of great energy. He had several feet of long silver hair and beard, half-moon spectacles, and an extremely crooked nose. He was often described as the greatest wizard of the age.”  Harry Potter is also such a legendary wizard, specially marked, and charged with a unique and extraordinary destiny.

A Power of Imagination wizard is eccentric, slightly dreamy and live in a world of their own.  Although unassuming, these Character Types have enormous heart and bravery.  These kinds of wizards can see and hear things others don’t or simply miss.  Luna Lovegood is a great example:  “Oh, yes,” said Luna, “I’ve been able to see them (winged horses) ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.”

Each type of wizard looks at the role of magic through very different personal lens of Character Type. Resorting to an archetypal “wizard” too often leads to stereotypical behavior that is cliched. There is no one way to be a wizard just as there is no one way to be a cop, a nurse, a priest, a mother, or a fool. Each Character Type makes the role, the job, the archetype entirely his or her own.

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Lessons from eQunioxe Scriptwriting Workshop

I am the 2013 eQuinoxe Europe workshop in Zurich.  We’ve got nine script from seven countries.  In working on all these projects one set of questions keeps coming up.

The answer to this these questions provides a critical overview of the story. If they aren’t answered clearly then it doesn’t matter how good the individual scenes might be. The story won’t add up to much or hold together properly.

The following is an excerpt from my book How to Evaluate Stories available on Amazon

What Does the Character Want?

What the main character wants is a clear and simple ego-driven goal. It is something that directly benefits the main character that he or she can physically have or obtain. It is concrete. It is specific. It is the finite object of the character’s personal desire. For example: Win the championship trophy, get the promotion, pay the rent, solve the crime, buy the fancy car, steal the jewel, get the girl (or guy), etc. To obtain the want, the character must abandon the need.

What Does the Character Need?

What the character needs is an inner ache or yearning that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses, or ignores. It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible human longing. It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional or spiritual urge or inner call to live up to one’s higher nature. For example: To become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a more reliable friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.
To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific self-centered goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concerns.

What is the Conflict Between the Want and the Need?

One of the most common problems with stories that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

The want pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the story won’t add up to very much.

Does the Story Clearly Distinguish the Want and the Need?

Does the main character have a specific physical or concrete object of personal desire? What does he or she want? What is the concrete physical goal or specific objective? Does the main character actively pursue this objective through the story?
Does the main character have a clearly delineated deeper human longing? What is missing deep inside the character?
What is the main character willing to sacrifice or surrender to obtain the want or to embrace the need? Is there a high cost for each choice?

Does that mean that no character ever gets what he or she wants? We know that’s not true. Characters get what they want all the time. But this happens in a one of two ways.

1) The character gets what he or she wants and finds that it is hollow:

For example, in Jerry Maguire, Jerry (Tom Cruise) gets what he wants, to get back in the game by representing a major NFL player. He finds his victory is hollow when he realizes he has no one to call or with whom to celebrate after a big win. This is when he returns to his wife and family.

In Dangerous Liaisons, Vicomte Valmont (John Malkovich) gets what he wants: To seduce the un-seducible woman. He finds his victory is hollow when he realizes he has destroyed the only woman he has ever loved and who truly loves him. The story ends tragically with his death and hers.

2) The character lets go of the want and embraces the need and then, in the classic comedic turnaround, he or she finds something even better or finds that the want comes around on the other side:

In life, this is the experience of a young couple that tries to start a family. What they want is a biological child. They try and try to no avail. They realize what they need is to start a family with a child who needs them. They adopt and are deliriously happy. What happens one year later? The wife gets pregnant. This happy turnaround happens enough in life that we believe it in fiction.

Or for example, in Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) wants to pay the rent. That’s why she picks up Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) in the first place. It’s why she stays with him over the course of the story. When he offers to meet that want by buying her a condo (and pay her rent in perpetuity) she turns him down. What she needs is to live a life of honesty and integrity. If she accepts his deal she will always be a whore. She rejects his offer and it is that act of integrity that brings him back to her as a real suitor and a true partner (rather than as a man who is simply “buying” her).

The tougher the choice is, the better the story. Does the main character pay dearly for whatever he or she pursues and chooses? The price is the end of the long road where the character comes face-to-face with the ultimate truth. Who is the character really? This supreme price is what the audience is waiting to see. If the price is not high enough, the story suffers.

The following was an excerpt from my book How to Evaluate Stories available on Amazon

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Advice from Script Lab on Scenes

I agree with every word of the following post by Script Lab.  Writers– take this to heart!

Scenes can come in all shapes and sizes: a one-sentence establishing, a half-page aftermath, a three-page reversal, the list goes on. And clearly there’s a lot that goes into crafting a great scene: start late; get out early; maintain conflict; keep lines of dialogue brief; keep action paragraphs short; maximize white space; avoid “I” and block pages; incorporate subtext and indirection; create audience connection through suspense, mystery, and revelation; and show the story in a visually interesting way, all while writing with a unique original voice. But that’s all execution.

Screenplays are built on “What happens next?” and, therefore, the root of every scene comes down to two fundamental objectives: (1) moving the story forward and/or (2) revealing character. The very best scenes do both.

But here’s the hard part, and something I call the 100% rule: if you’re not 100% positive that at least one of these two scene objectives is necessary, you must absolutely kill it! Even if you love it, even if it’s funny, or witty, or clever, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal some essential complexity of character, you simply do not need it.

Casualty

It all started pleasantly enough. The sun was shining, it was warm, and I was hurrying along the tree-lined road. The concrete island in the middle of the street was not exactly where I should be crossing but… I was in a hurry and the regular crossing was further down the way.

As I rushed across intersection, my foot slipped and I took a tumble toward the pavement. My head hit the pavement so hard it shattered my sunglasses. The plastic pieces cut my forehead above and near my eyebrow. Blood ran down my face. I tried to break my fall with my left hand. My fingers were forced into an almost right angles to my hand. In other words, two fingers were now in an an “L” shape! My knee was slammed and skinned.

But momentarily, almost as my head was hitting the pavement, several people rushed to my aid. A nurse showed up out of nowhere who checked my vital signs and made sure my neck wasn’t broken. Then the ambulance drove up. I was whisked off to A&E or the emergency room.

One of the burly young ambulance EMTs had his name written in elvish on his arm. How nerdy is that– and how nerdy is the fact I recognized it as elvish. He’s the dad of small daughter and has a job that daily points out just how fragile the human body is and the staggering variety of ways in which it’s possible to injure it. So he has a guardian angel prayer on his inner bicep. Then he’s got a full guardian angel on his upper shoulder. I felt very protected.

Now the irony of all this is– next week I am going to work with the writers, directors, and producers of Casualty. The show is a long running drama on the order of ER. I’d never been in a British emergency room before and my bed was placed with a full view of everyone coming and going. It was the perfect vantage point. In came the young and old, the critical and the minor accidents, like me.

I had an X-ray to make sure my fingers weren’t broken. They weren’t, only severely dislocated. Then a doctor who specialized in anesthetic injected my fingers and joints and the bone doctor snapped them back into place. I didn’t feel a thing except a small pop. They were straight again! I had another X-ray to make the bone didn’t when the fingers were repositioned. While I was waiting I was served a selection of sandwiches and a very nice milky tea. The report came back from radiology, all was okay. My fingers were taped, I got a few stitches and I was sent on my way.

I asked the doctor who administered the anesthetic why he chose that particular specialty. He said there was great variety of cases. You are only responsible for one patient at a time. And when you are done, you are done. You leave your work at work.

That brings me to the point of this post. There are a number of ways to approach being in the medical profession —

1. It’s a job. Being a doctor is solid professional employment and a good way to make a living or support a family. The doctor does what is expected and punches out. He or she puts in the time and is concerned and responsible when on the job. But the doctor doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is age-appropriate and financially feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a doctor is a good opportunity for getting ahead in life. The doctor is working to achieve advancement either in the organization (or hospital) or in the specialty. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, achieving greater recognition, becoming a sought after expert etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work, discipline, and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a doctor is a life mission or a higher calling. The doctor is there to make a difference and impact people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the doctor. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the doctor’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a doctor is not a good fit. The individual is in medicine for the wrong reasons, the wrong motivations, or to please someone else. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the ideal of the job or the fantasy of being a doctor. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job, and now feels trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly in medicine, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation “Why” anyone works at the hospital. This is a great area of opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in medical shows, or shows about other professions, everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in a drama.

$ $ $ $ $ $

As a side note, the whole experience cost me exactly nothing. No charge. Zip. Zero. Nada. My care was prompt, professional, and very concerned and personable. Despite paying the equivalent of a mortgage payment for health insurance in the US our deductible is $1600. The whole bill including ambulance would have cost several thousand dollars– or my deductible at the very least. When I tell this to my British friends they shake their heads and mutter softly, “Madness. Absolute madness.”

Vintage Cop Shows – Why Is The Cop On The Job?

Andy-Sipowicz-etbscreenwriting

I recently had a question from a reader about how different Character Types do the same job OR how the same Character Types might do a job differently.  This previous post answers both questions.  I love questions from readers.  Be sure to submit yours.

Three cop shows changed forever how police work is depicted on television. Each show was original and iconic in its own time. Each remains an example of emotional storytelling at peak intensity and engagement. Let’s look at Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue and the lessons that can be drawn going forward.

Hill Street Blues redefined the cop/crime genre through intertwined partnerships that combined police officers’ stressful work lives with the conflicts in their private lives. Very few investigations or interrogations were ever featured on the show. Instead, each episode charted a “day in the life” of the precinct from the early-morning roll call to a late-night rehash of the day’s events. This recap was usually in the bedroom with lovers Captain Furillo and Public Defender Joyce Davenport. Hill Street Blues focused almost exclusively on the interpersonal relationships between the core cast members. The show also introduced a more “documentary” look and feel to the genre. Real-life personal issues and situations were explored in a raw and more explicit manner than previously depicted on earlier shows such as Columbo or Kojak. Real-life street slang was used throughout the program.

Homicide: Life on the Street exploded television racial stereotypes with multi-dimensional complex depictions of African Americans. The show was set in Baltimore, a predominately black American city. The storylines managed to cross racial barriers that were previously taboo on television. Homicide also broke many of television’s editing and narrative continuity rules. Jump cuts were numerous and unpredictable shifts in the narrative marked it as one of the most unconventional programs at that point in the genre. With a sharp unflinching honesty about race, prejudice and violence, the detective’s job is depicted as repetitive and emotionally draining. The show examined the enormous toll that policing took on individuals and on partnerships.

NYPD Blue was set against the backdrop of urban decay in New York City. Career cops were depicted as complicated, complex and often deeply flawed human beings. Although the show featured risky adult material, most of the stories were about families and the terrible emotional aftermath of violence. Less attention was paid to the crimes than how the crimes affected the relationships in the core cast. NYPD Blue was really about one man’s journey toward redemption. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) began the show as a drunken abusive racist cop who is about to be thrown off the force (for good reason). Seventeen years later, he’s earned the top position in the precinct and, although still Andy, is fit to lead.

Each of these classic cop shows focused on the “Why” of the human cop story rather than the “How” of the crime story. That’s what made them successful. And that’s what separates these shows from the current generation of procedural cop shows like Law & Order (and all its varieties). But even in the Dick Wolf Law & Order universe, “Why” each person does the job is based on the individual’s very clear Character Type. For example: Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), over many years on the show, still wrestles with the same questions of ethical principle vs. political expediency and law vs. justice. His “Why” is clearly driven by the Power of Conscience.

In a one-hour drama it is only possible to do one thing well– procedure or personal relationships. There isn’t time to do both well. There currently is lots of procedure on television. Perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to emotional personal relationships in cop shows.

Clear true emotions travel. They connect with the audience and move them week after week to watch a show. The definition of “to be entertained” is to feel something. In the classic cop shows discussed above, the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.

The “Why” provides the passion and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop.

There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or anything else for that matter):

1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a way to make a living or support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the idea of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job and now is trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation “Why” anyone works at the Station House or Precinct. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring any profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in your drama.

Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. Every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.

1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is a duty and a responsibility to make the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) is a more recent example.

2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.

3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.

4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues.

5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop.  A more example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.

6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. (When is objectivity actually alienation?) Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example.

7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example.  Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a more recent example.

8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches and special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character.  A more recent example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.

9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.

The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake. Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:

1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious and not take the job home.

2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.

3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.

4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?

Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies and extraordinary individual characters.

Join Me In Sweden in April and May

I will be in Stockholm from April 29 to May 5.  I will be meeting one-on-one with writers, producers, and productions executives but there are three workshops open to the public.

Character Map Workshop – April 29

  • What tools are in storyteller’s Emotional Toolbox?
  • What determines a character emotional power in a story?
  • How does a storyteller create fictional characters that always “ring true”?
  • What is the Character Map?
  • What six questions define a character?
  • What are the four dynamic conflicts that motivate any character’s actions?
  • Character Map demonstration/exercise:
  • How does emotion generate action?
  • What key emotion does the hero/protagonist always share with the villain/antagonist?
  • How does the antagonist attack or tempt the hero emotionally?
  • How do heroes/protagonists fall to the ”Dark Side”?
  • What must the protagonist surrender in order to prevail in the story?
  • What important emotional step must a character take to complete his/her emotional journey successfully?

Thriller Workshop – April 30

  • Emotion Power vs Genre
  • What is a Thriller vs a Detective Story vs a Crime Story?
  • How motivation and character determine Story Type
  • What is the Power of Truth?
  • How the Power of Truth propels a protagonist through the thriller plot line and creates an emotional bond with the audience.
  • How great story twists develop Power of Truth themes of loyalty and betrayal.
  • How deceit and deception keeps the audience off balance.
  • How storytellers can increase mistrust and suspicion by turning allies into enemies and enemies into allies
  • What drives a Power of Truth story?
  • How storytellers create a compelling internal emotion dynamic for a thriller protagonist
  • How the motivation and psychology of a male protagonist differs from that of a female protagonist.
  • How non-traditional narrative structure is created through character development.
  • How storytellers can re-imagine and refresh this popular film genre and make it uniquely their own.

RomCom Workshop – May 2

This program will help you get to the heart of one of the most beloved film genres. Great ”date movies” are often the biggest box office hits. Most other kinds of films have a love story or buddy subplot.  The program includes a complete discussion of:

  • How the Power of Love drives the protagonist through the story
  • How to couple and uncouple lovers or buddies in sequences that are both entertaining and emotionally moving
  • How to develop the psychological pairings that create the most sparks and ignite the hottest romance
  • How to use the three key elements that make the romantic journey interesting and worthwhile
  • How to establish the qualities of attraction and repulsion that keep the characters and the audience off balance
  • How the motivation and psychology of a male protagonist differs from that of a female protagonist
  • How to re-imagine and re-invent this enduring film genre and make it uniquely your own

Contact

Netta Frister Aaron
0725 – 24 99 85
netta@kulturkraftstockholm.se

For more information

 

 

What Gangnam Style Tells Us about Writing

Gangnam Style by Psy became the first YouTube video to cross the one billion view threshold, making it the most popular viral video in history.  In case you’re not familiar with this sensation– What’s Gangnam Style?

According to Wikipedia–

“Gangnam Style” (Korean: 강남스타일, IPA: [kaŋnam sɯtʰail]) is a K-pop single by the South Korean musician PSY. The song was released in July 2012 as the lead single of his sixth studio album PSY 6 (Six Rules), Part 1, and debuted at number one on South Korea’s Gaon Chart. On December 21, 2012, at around 15:50 UTC, “Gangnam Style” became the first video in the history of the Internet to be viewed more than a billion times. As of December 25, 2012, the music video has been viewed over 1 billion times on YouTube, and it is the site’s most watched video after surpassing Justin Bieber’s single “Baby”.

There have been pages and pages of analysis as to the odd-ball video’s popularity.  My take comes down to one word– Enthusiasm.

Psy is a short chubby guy with very unsophisticated, slightly awkward dance moves.  But he sings his songs and repeats his moves with absolute conviction and, most important, with wholehearted energy and individuality.

What does this song and dance video have to do with writing?   Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best–

“When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it.
Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic and faithful,
and you will accomplish your object. “

Does everything you write and the way you approach your writing have this crackling enthusiasm, passion, and authenticity?

Can you make everything you do in 2013 reflect your very own unique take on Gangnam Style?  If you do so you will be much more likely to succeed and to have more fun along the way!