Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating “chick flicks” compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.  […]  The deeper issue here is not whether “chick flicks” are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

– John Truby on the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume’s first and perhaps greatest, and because this year is my year of studying John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, of course I was struck by how neatly this story fits the principles of good storytelling — whether Blume herself was analytic about this as she wrote, or intuitive.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

Continue reading “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume”

Do Characters In Fiction Need To Change? How Much?

character change don draper

Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.

Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).

This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:

  1. Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.
  1. Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.
  1. The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.

The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.

Michael Hauge

Useful Concept: Range Of Change

How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.

If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.

You must think of your hero as a range of change, a range of possibilities, from the very beginning. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

The smaller the range, the less interesting the story; the bigger the range, the more interesting but the riskier the story, because characters don’t change much in the limited time they appear in most stories.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

 

Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.

 

The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction

While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:

  1. A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth
  2. Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

CHARACTER CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF STORY

Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting

Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.

But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”

The Influence of HBO

Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:

Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.

That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s battle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that battle–the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]

It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]

“Everything changed” after 9/11.”

“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]

the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes–In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behavior, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

— Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad

 


RELATED

When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

Bret Anthony Johnston

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

The stages of character change as broken down by psychologists, from Psychwriter

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.

— Robert Penn Warren

The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear “The People Across The Canyon” read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. This is partly due to how much I relate to the characters; when our daughter was 5 some new neighbours moved in next door. They were very unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. “The People Across The Canyon” encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.

Continue reading “The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar”

Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home

Shirley Jackson's Louisa Please Come Home can be found in this collection, along with other short stories similar in tone.
Shirley Jackson’s Louisa Please Come Home can be found in this collection, along with other short stories similar in tone.

Disclaimer: If you attend Floyd Light Middle School, or any other school, especially if your teacher is called Mr William McDonald, and he has set an assignment on “Louisa, Please Come Home”, you should probably know that he does not agree with the following analysis. (I probably don’t agree with it either. I wrote it ages ago.)

In any case, if you’re brave enough to refer to my personal blog in an assignment, prepare for a condescending lecture and a bad mark.

*

Without meaning to, I keep reading short stories written by women who died young: Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, and now Shirley Jackson, who died age 48 in 1965 of heart failure. Jackson’s husband released Louisa, Please Come Home after her death. Before that, she was best known for The Lottery, which is still her best known short.

Shirley Jackson’s best fiction is troubling and creepy, but this story, though interesting, is neither scary or suspenseful. Instead, you’ll be left wondering what possessed the main character to do such a thing, and maybe you’ll start wondering if our view of the people closest to us is really the accurate version.

I’m sure this short story appeals to me partly because I’m interested in the idea that perhaps there is no ‘true self’ — that we learn to fill the roles imposed upon us. I explore this same idea in our YA short story app, Hilda Bewildered.

Continue reading “Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home”

Telling A Story Over The Course Of A Single Day

When it comes to treatment of time in stories, there are several main options:

  1. Over a period of years
  2. Over a period of months (seasons)
  3. Over the period of a few weeks/days
  4. Over the period of a single day

John Truby, in his book Anatomy Of Story, writes of the advantages of stories set over the course of a single day:

  1. ‘The first effect is to create simultaneous story movement while maintaining narrative drive. Instead of showing a single character over a long development…you present a number of characters acting at the same time.’
  2. ‘…the ticking of hours keeps the story line moving forward and gives the story a sense of compression.

It’s worth dividing the ‘single day storyline’ down further into

  1. 24-hour stories
  2. 12-hour stories

If you use a twenty-four-hour clock ‘you lessen the urgency and increase the sense of the circular. No matter what may have happened, we return to the beginning, with everything the same, and start all over again.’ In many ways, the

twenty-four-hour circular day has many of the same thematic effects as the four seasons. Not surprisingly, both techniques are often connected with comedy, which tends to be circular, emphasizes society as opposed to the individual, and ends in some kind of communion or marriage. Techniques of circular time are also associated with the myth form, which is based on circularity of space. In many classic myth stories, the hero starts at home, goes on a journey, and returns home to find what was already within him.’

If you make use of a 12-hour clock, you create a ‘funnel effect’.

‘The audience senses not only that each of the story strands will be settled at the end of the twelve hours but also that the urgency will increase as the deadline nears.’

dawn-nowhere
establishing shot from Courage The Cowardly Dog Dr Le Quack

12 HOUR CLOCKS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Anyone who has read books to children will already know which of these single-day stories is more popular in children’s books. Some common clocks in picture books:

  1. The main character wakes up in the morning, goes on an adventure, comes home to safety and sleeps happily in bed. These stories make for good, calming bedtime tales, functioning like a lullaby.
  2. Some books are about a specific time of day. Perhaps the entire focus is about going to bed, and the story is condensed to the bedtime routine. Or it might equally be about getting up and going to kindergarten.
  3. Less common is an inversion of the daytime story, in which the child is put to bed and the adventures begin. Maurice Sendak was fond of this form, evident in his book In The Night Kitchen:
  4. A young boy named Mickey sleeps in his bed when he is disturbed by noise on a lower floor. Suddenly, he begins to float, and all of his clothes disappear as he drifts into a surreal world called the “Night Kitchen”:[Mickey, a little boy] falls into a giant mixing pot that contains the batter for the “morning cake”. While Mickey is buried in the mass, three identical bakers … mix the batter and prepare it for baking, unaware (or unconcerned) that there is a little boy inside. Just before the baking pan is placed into the oven, the boy emerges from the pan, protesting that he is not the batter’s milk.To make up for the baking ingredient deficiency, Mickey (now covered in batter from the neck down) constructs an airplane out of bread dough so he can fly to the mouth of a gigantic milk bottle. Upon reaching the bottle’s opening, he dives in and briefly revels in the liquid. After his covering of batter disintegrates, he pours the needed milk in a cascade down to the bakers who joyfully finish making the morning cake.With dawn breaking, the naked Mickey crows like a rooster and slides down the bottle to magically return to his bed. Everything is back to normal, beyond the happy memory of his experience.- Wikipedia
Rooster, Umbrella, and Morning Glories

The advantage to setting a story over the course of a night-time is that the child will likely find the darkness and night-time spooky and mysterious, so the setting of darkness provides inevitable adventure. Also, the night-time is the perfect setting for dreamscapes and imaginings and all sorts of surreal fantasies.

 

 

Television Endings

It’s impossible to say anything about television endings without first drawing a sharp line down the middle of two very different narratives:

  1. The continuing series, of which successful stories can run perhaps 10 series.
  2. The novelistic, limited series which runs for perhaps 5 or 6 seasons at most.

The storytelling in each looks quite different.

THE STRUCTURE OF CONTINUING TV SERIES

A complete story is made up of 7 stages:

  1. WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM
  2. DESIRE
  3. OPPONENT
  4. PLAN
  5. BATTLE
  6. SELF-REVELATION
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM

These are the terms used by John Truby, who is a Hollywood movie guru. TV writers use a different terminology.

TV writers in the United States call the BATTLE the ‘worst case’.

BBC writers call it ‘worst point’.

The essential difference between a complete TV drama and an ongoing series: In an ongoing series such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, Batman, Superman, Flash Gordon and everything else like it, each episode ends at the BATTLE.

COMPLETE STORIES

Be it TV or film, a complete story is a complete story. The main difference may simply be budget allocated, but even that difference is disappearing as high budget TV gains in popularity and in quality.

If it’s a commercial station you’re watching, writers know where the breaks must go. The BATTLE scene will occur right before the final ad break. The final segment will of course give us the SELF-REVELATION and the NEW EQUILIBRIUM.

CASE STUDIES

The Sopranos

the-sopranos

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That’s the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.

John Truby

 

When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought it worked. It’s not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.

There are four classic endings to a story:

  1. purely positive
  2. purely tragic [Breaking Bad]
  3. positive with irony where the character gets what s/he wants but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
  4. tragic with irony where s/he loses everything but s/he learns something [Big Love]

Those are the classic tonalities of endings.

Q: But The Sopranos ending isn’t really any of those, and it’s still satisfying.
Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call “exhaustion.” That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There’s nothing you don’t know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.

All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That’s exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.

The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn’t that complex to begin with.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

Mad Men

mad-men-ending

I would say Mad Men ended with the fifth kind of ending, too, not because there was nothing more to know about Don, necessarily — a secretive character by nature — but because there was nothing more to learn about that whole world.

The Wire

Robert McKee on ‘exhausted characters’:

What about The Wire, which didn’t try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore?
That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you’ve come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.

the-wire

Dexter

A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn’t going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

dexter

The Walking Dead

For months AMC has been beating the drums for the so-called “last” Rick Grimes/Andrew Lincoln episode. And as it came time to hunker down for Sunday’s “What Comes After,” speculation ran rampant on how our leading man would exit the zombie apocalypse.

Would he remain impaled on that rebar spike and simply bleed out? (Too easy).

Would he become zombie-chow for the two hordes of walkers coming his way? (Too lame).

Would Negan somehow escape and kill him? (Too convenient).

Would he realize his dream of an ideal society was crumbling and simply ride off into the sunset? (Too undramatic).

Or would he, as gamesradar.com had listed among its scenarios, be accidentally killed by little Judith after she somehow got ahold of a gun? (Too horrifying).

Mercury News

RELATED LINKS

  1. Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings from FlowTV
  2. 10 Movies And TV Shows Where The Characters Probably Died 5 Minutes After The End, from io9
  3. And Then What? 5 Maddeningly Unresolved Plots from LitReactor
  4. Film Endings and TV Endings are similar in many ways.