Friday, July 23, 2010

The Jumpstart IV: Characterization

Oh, I think he's absolutely despicable. I not only think it, I know it to be true, he is the worst person out there. There couldn't be and would never be anyone worse. This guy is the absolute base of a human being. Subhuman, in fact. The worst. I'm talking about, of course, opposite me. I was forced to meet opposite me during one of Kyle Bass's writing prompts. Yes, opposite me. As I sat down to write my opposite me I did it with the intention of writing the worst character known to man. But as I got down to it, and the more I wrote the less nasty opposite me became. And as my relationship with opposite me developed, as opposite me was born, reared and matured on the page, I started to like opposite me. When the exercise was over, I kind of liked opposite me and opposite me wasn't so different after all. It's a great exercise. The next time you're on a plane to Cleveland pull out your notebook and think of opposite me. Also, it's not a bad way to start the writing day.

With characterization, or the development of characters, we can go in any number of directions. There are the natural, more organic ways to begin the characterization process. And as the story progresses, there are the natural ways to develop them too. We'll look a few of these today.

To begin with, a study of archetypes may be in order. Whether it's required reading in school or not, these books must be required reading for all writers of fiction: Aesop's Fables, The Brothers Grimm's Folk Tales, Charles Perault's Collected Folk Tales and just about everything the old Greeks wrote down. These are a much more fun way to discover the types of personalities or characters or archetypes than reading the psychology textbooks of Jung. Either way, an understanding of the few categories a character may fit in is a great tool to be armed with. I am yet to read Women who Run with Wolves by Dr. Clarrisa Pinkola Estes, but I know she deals with archetypes of women. Interesting stuff. In a way, I find a great deal of comfort knowing that there are a finite amount of basic personalities going around. This is not a limiting thing, after all, there are the events, the conflicts and relationships that make a character in fiction do whatever that character is inclined to do. The fact remains, learn about some of the archetypes, learn from the Greeks, learn all the classic literature lessons, and the formation of your characters will be richer, if not easier to develop.

Along the same lines as “Opposite Me,” and another useful exercise begins like this: “He'd be a good guy if...” Try it on the flight home from Cleveland.

Leaving the archetypes aside for a moment, lets look at a few examples. As I've mentioned before, I think Jamaica Kincaid's short story, “Girl” is a great example of character development. “Girl” is a short short story that reads much like the looping of voices in one's head. It's almost an internal dialogue a young girl has when formed by those around her. At a young age, we are formed by those around us. “Girl.” Great.

In Crazyhorse, John Tait's “Reasons for Concern Regarding My Girlfriend of Five Days, Monica Garza,” strikes me as wonderful characterization. The insecure nature of the narrator and his voice as he discusses the girlfriend is funny, a little heartbreaking and totally pathetic. And for some reason, I want this fellow to win, to get the girl, to live happily ever after. Of the two main characters, the narrator and Monica Garza, we get to know them both. There's plenty packed in. Archetypes? I don't know, maybe. Lovers. Conflict? Oh, yes, and that's what makes it work.

This leads us to the next point. If a character in fiction is stamped out from an archetypal mold, then what? We know a character by what they do, how they interact with others, or the world, or themselves. We know a character by what they say, how they say it and to whom they say it. We know a character by how they deal with conflict and how they satisfy their wants and desires. This is characterization. The next piece of fiction you read, pay attention to the characters. Pay attention to how you're introduced to each character, and then pay attention to how the character grows.

Some writers, and perhaps it's the nature of some personalities, they want to know all there is to know about a character. If you think you might be one of those kind of writers I have a direction for you to go. The EPIGUIDE.COM's fiction writer's character chart/dossier may be of help. This chart is a five page get to know you questionnaire for your characters. If you have a character in mind, and this chart doesn't help, you may need to go about things a little differently. For me, I meet my characters in the middle of a conflict. And it's in the middle of their conflict that I learn about them. I guess, in a way, I learn about the characters as I write them, much like a reader learns as they read. It's more natural for me.

I have two last examples of characterization. From the archetypal position, Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles is a mythologized creation of the author's family. When he describes Adele, the housekeeper coming home from the market and likens her to Pomona, the Roman goddess of plenty, we know how the character develops. They all seem to fit into a form. But, again, this is not such a confinement. Schulz describes this little Polish town as a sort of world in total, and the characters within this world are sovereign and complete.

Flannery O'Connor. Need I say more? I could recount every story in A Good Man is Hard to Find as character development. Each story has great development, and this development is from speech patterns, dialect, conflict, situations, and relationships. In “The Artificial Nigger,” for instance, O'Connor describes the the grandfather and grandson so wonderfully by how they look, and by what they do and lastly how they treat each other. It's amazing that the few events of the story can give so much depth to these two characters. Likewise, in “Good Country People” O'Connor plays with stereotypes and interactions between two characters. In this example we know the characters by first what they say and then by their actions.

Development of characters is important. Right? Without characters, what is the story? What is the conflict? What is the plot? When writing, give these characters something to do, something to accomplish, or whatever. It will make it more real for them, more interesting for the reader and more enjoyable for you, the writer.

Next Jumpsart:
Place, Space and Time

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Jumpstart Part III: Plots and Back Stories

After a brief detour in the film department, we have made it back to the beginning. If life was only so circular, right? Of course life isn't always linear either. And sometimes the undulations of the day, or the story are what really keep us going. Whether it's Brautigan's winding trout stream or the Kosinski years one stacked on another, there is plot. The plot. There were a few key players who lead me to the plot pond, just to see if I will drink. It was a cold Vermont winter then. I spent the long nights reading one book after another not really thinking about the plots but enraptured by the language. Then I met Patricia Highsmith on a train. When I followed her events one linked to another to another to another I finally saw the evidence. The plot and the mastery of it is indeed elemental to constructing good fiction. The back story here? Well, it took a few conversations, a few cold Vermont nights, and thinking about it for me to understand plot and its importance.

If not Patricia Highsmith (or at least not this early our conversation); we have John Gardner to look forward to discussing. The Art of Fiction really has made a huge impact on me. I don't know if I can attribute this huge impact to the time it was presented to me, or what has been going on in my life since. Published in 1983, I feel like the book has aged well enough. The discussion here today is Chapter 7, “Plotting,” and more specifically, the Fictean Curve.
This means, in effect, that in the relationship between characters and situation there must be some conflict: Certain forces, within and outside the character, must press him toward a certain course of action, while other forces, both within and outside, must exert strong pressure against that course of action. Both pressures must come not only from outside the character but also from within him, because otherwise the conflict involves no doubt, no moral choice, and as a result can have no profound meaning. (All meaning, in the best fiction, comes from -as Faulkner said- the heart in conflict with itself. All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.) The famous Fictean curve is in effect a diagram of this conflict situation:

When we think about this conflict that Gardner suggests, it must be deep enough to cause a course of action. Recently, I read Ian McEwan's Atonement. Admittedly, it took several weeks for me to get past the first fifty or so pages. I guess I was confused about most of the events going on. Yet, as those Vermont nights of years gone past would have it, I was attracted to the language. But the basis of the conflict which Gardner tells us that is the foundation for plot, Ian McEwan gets it. In Atonement the baby sister sees her older sister and the servant boy in a compromising position. That situation and the way she deals with it take up the entire first third of the book. This is conflict, and that conflict, as Gardner says, is within and outside of the character. It becomes plot.

As I was saying about my own development as a writer, plot was something that took a long time to develop. I say this only because in my earlier days I didn't think of my writing projects as a whole. This is the beginning, middle, and end song I like to sing. But it's true. Since language is such a part of everything that we are, we need the beginning, the middle and the end. Yet, to craft this in fiction it cannot be simply linear, this and then this and finally that. No, to make fiction work well, and be enjoyable for the reader, and who knows, for the characters too, a set of circumstances leading to conflict leading to action works wonders.
Before we get to the three examples of plot, I want to propose an exercise. There is only so much reading about writing one can do before it's unbearable. In this exercise, describe a room. The room must be a room you've been in, but not a room you are (or were) intimate with. In the room, there are the objects, placed there by someone, and there are the feelings you have as a visitor in the room. The object is description of place and a description or feeling or mood.
I suggest the room piece during the discussion of plot, because I feel a description as such can become back story used as exposition for character development. That seems like a tongueful, but watch where we go. In Richard Brautigan's So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, he has two characters inside of one narrator. One character is the voice of 1979, and the second is him as a little boy in 1948. The descriptions of 1948 are haunting and vivid especially overlaid on 1979. In the room exercise, please keep in mind how powerful a back story can be for a character. There are things we do because of where we've been. This is perhaps the conflict within exercise you may need.

Moving on, I mention Patricia Highsmith for one main reason: she is the master of plot. Perhaps writers of suspense, crime or mystery are all masters of plot. They have to be. In her book Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno meet and plot a murder for the other. Guy Haines is not such a bad fellow, but when caught up with Mr. Bruno he has to comply to the original agreement. Talk about trouble within and outside of a character. As an aside, Highsmith writes very exciting stories.

I developed an interest in Jerzy Kosinski in grad school. The Painted Bird I believe is a must read, but I warn everyone to read it on a sunny days only. The basic plot: 1939, Poland, dark skinned boy wanders from village to village. He develops and changes. It's a horrifying account. In Kosinski's own words, in his 1976 “Afterword” he states: “man would be portrayed in his most vulnerable stare, as a child, and society in its most deadly form, in a state of war.” (xii) The conflict is plot.

The last example for plot is a little more strange. Talk about a beginning, a middle and an end; we can throw that out the window with this example. Rabih Alameddine's I, the Divine is a book written in the first chapters. In a way, Alameddine's novel is a great sum up for us here today. The Sarah character in I, the Divine endeavors to write a book about her life. It's in first chapters because she narrates the beginning. She chooses to start in a different place each time, and through all of her stories, false starts and beginning, we actually get to know so much about her that the overall picture of novel construction can be so different and we get it. Talk about back stories and plot (lack of). It's a read well worth the time, and if not, read the first chapter.

Next Jumpstart:
Place, space and time

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Anecdote: Part II: Stranger than Fiction and Juxtaposition

During the last discussion of the the anecdote, we wrote a story belonging to someone else and made it our own. That exercise is great for capturing voice, and in some cases, capturing vernacular. Plus, it's fun to create a character around a person you know and to tell a story you've heard so many times you feel like you were practically there. But the idea of the anecdote goes a little further than a simple reproduction of a story once heard. In the last anecdote we looked at voice and characterization and used the third party story as an example. For this anecdote exercise we're going to superimpose the strange right on top of a personal story.

Stranger than fiction? Heard it a thousand times. Stranger than fiction is very easy to explain. Life is odd, people are odd, actions are odd. It's life, and that is strange. We all know that. But do you know this: Lord Byron was the one to coin the phrase. And much of his life was stranger than fiction. For instance: to think that Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Lord Byron and John Polidori spent the rainy summer of 1816 on the shores of lake Geneva. Not so strange. But when you think about all of these characters in one place, it becomes a little more strange. So, as the story goes, a volcano erupted which caused a cold, wet summer. Now, had it been a warm sunny summer, perhaps things would have been different for the course of English literature. And this rainy weather kept them all inside reading aloud Fantasmagoriana ou Recueil d'histoires d'apparitions de spectres, revenants, fantomes, etc. (1812), a French translation of a German book of ghost stories. To further the point one more step, it wasn't long before this group of writers took action: they decided to write some horror stories themselves. Among them, we know about Frankenstein. John Polodori wrote a peculiar little story called The Vampyr, the first in the English cannon. There are more books and classes and stuffy professors on the subject than we can count, so we need not belabor the point here. It's stranger than fiction. The collection of writers, lake Geneva, the horror stories, the volcano, the sexual tension, and the results.

Juxtaposition? Easy enough. Right? All we have to do is put two things side by side for the sake of a comparison or a contrast. Within the definition of this anecdote exercise, we must find something that can support this. We have a story, and we have something to contrast (or compare) it to. In essence, we will take a true personal story (the anecdote) and overlay it on an element to get our reader to think (the juxtaposed). This is our way of making fiction from life, or from autobiography. So, stranger than fiction? We'll see.

Example: The Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek gives us a delightful little story called “The Elephant.” It seems that the anecdote here is about a lower level bureaucrat during the days of Polish communism who aspires to be promoted. Since he is a zoo keeper, he has to take every opportunity he can get. The juxtaposition here? Well, when the zoo is allotted an elephant, the zoo keeper refuses it and decides to manufacture one out of rubber. Now, we do not know Mr Mrozek personally, and we don't know how much of the story begins with an anecdote of a sullen-wants-to-be-promoted bureaucrat, and we certainly know the probability of the rubber elephant is low. But the piece does have the two elements.

Example: Isaac Babel's “Crossing into Poland” is very much autobiography. It is an account of the Russian invasion of Poland. It's awful, it's creepy, it's war. There is no denying it. However, the descriptions of landscape are surreal, serene and often times beautiful. In a way, the descriptions make the scene somehow softer and more horrific at the same time. The anecdote/juxtaposition is easier to identify.

Example: Last week I read in the news about a guy who was running from the police. Once his car was enabled, he took to foot. Soon, he jumped a tall fence to get away from the police. Once he landed on the other side, he found himself in the yard at the county correctional facility. Sounds like a bad joke and the punchline is something like: stranger than fiction. Now, In Jamaica Kincaid's “Girl” we meet a girl who is repeating everything she has been taught. My suggestion: use a voice like Kincaid's and juxtapose any interesting news article.

I came to this exercise during Sue Eberling's “Creative Cross Train Workshop.” Sue is more of personal essayist, than a fiction writer. I felt very engaged and challenged in her workshop. Admittedly, I don't remember the exact assignment, but it had to do with a personal experience and life altering conclusions. As many of you, I'm a fiction fella, and that's all I ever wanted to do. But the challenge of this workshop got me to think. I think in terms of fiction. So, how can we take life, real life, the strange life, our life and mold it into fiction?

I tried to sell a house several times over several years. I used three realtors. What a process. The last one eventually sold the place on Craig's list. This was during the weeks that the Boston Medical student was finding murder victims using the same internet service. The second realtor, a good friend, simply had the weight of the financial world to contend with. And the first realtor, as close as I can tell, was lazy. Instead of working hard and doing whatever it took, this realtor invested in a supernatural assessment of the house. Anecdote? Yes. Juxtaposition? Read it for yourself on the story of the week page: “A Monument to Failed Endeavor.”

The challenge:
1)Come up with at least three of your personal stories: things that happened to you.
2)Think of the “stranger than fiction” things that you can contrast (or compare) them to. This is your juxtaposition.
3)Use this as a springboard into your imagination.
4)Your prowess as a writer should ring through.

A Monument to Failed Endeavor
2831 Monroe Street is haunted, and everybody knows it. Well, everybody but Chris and me. By the time we found out about it, well, it was worth a good laugh. It never occurred to us, not in all the years we lived, and didn't live there that the place was, or is, or could become haunted. I'm pretty sure it never occurred to me that a place could be haunted part-time or even temporarily. At the time of this haunting, however; Chris is in Syria and I am struggling for sanity in the Sonora desert. This story is not so much about us in these long miserable months of 2005; it's a story about 2831 Monroe Street and its ghosts.
The specters stay in bed late. These are sleepy ghosts, the stay out late and wait for the morning kind of ghosts. In fact, these ghosts, come morning are so hungover that a neighborhood dog with one bark is enough to set a chain of events that is neither favorable for the dog, the ghosts or the neighborhood. These poor bastards, the hungover ones, are not to be disturbed, this is common knowledge and everybody knows it.
Those who don't know it, especially those pushy intruders who wander through this empty house in the AM, this hungover house, will learn the errors of their ways.
The house, 2831 Monroe Street, is for sale. The place is cute at least superficially speaking. It's cute even despite the curtain-less shower and the bathtub full of dead spiders. They have no problems, these spiders, getting into the tub, but for some reason they can't get out. These spiders, these garden variety 2831 Monroe Street spiders, are much more impressive while still living. After they die their legs curl under, their sheen fades, and they're brittle like dust. The carnage of spider skeletons is just what it appears to be. They may have souls, these spiders, but they do not haunt the place, they are not ghosts. This is probably a good thing especially if you have stepped on as many as I have. To the potential buyer, the dead spiders are not menacing as much as they are, well, unsavory.
These potential buyers are a problem. They come into 2831 Monroe Street on any given day, and as long as it's daylight, they come at any given hour. This is clearly the problem.
It moves on toward sunset. It's summertime. The windows should be open so the thin cooling air like a purple Colorado sunset can come in. Cool air from the north side of the house, the master bedroom, or the office, say, can breeze through to the south side windows of the dinning room and kitchen. The aid of box fans strategically placed in windows helps this cooling process. Also, turning on the sprinklers in the backyard helps cool down the house. For maximum coolness, hitting the back patio with the hose really does help. It raises the next question: why don't these peepers, these interlopers, these potential buyers come at this time of day? This is a great time of day, and it's an especially wonderful time of day at 2831 Monroe Street: the sprinklers are on out back watering thistles and weeds, the air is heavy with moisture diminishing the day's heat and Herb Alpert plays on an old phonograph. It leaks out the windows—The little Spanish Flea, Tijuana Taxi, Lonely Bull. All of this indicates a time for gin. There is a procedure here too. Ice is important, and it aids in the cooling process. Gin and tonic. Although gin is not necessarily in short supply, a new bottle must be purchased at Todessa's place at the end of the alley before it gets too dark. See? Again, any of the strangers looking at ol' 2831 Monroe Street who might be afraid of ghosts just have to come by during gin and tonic time. There's enough tonic to last until the end of the war.
So the hostile time is in the morning, the time when the place really feels haunted is one of two not so ideal times to close the deal at 2831 Monroe Street, and everybody knows it. The other less desirable time is much later on. The gin is drunk, and drunk are the ghosts. It's insidious, it happens slowly: one drink, two drinks, three drinks, four. Well, I shouldn't have to explain that process to you. It's late and that's a problem. Well past midnight and the carryings-on are ridiculous. Tap dancing in the mud room is event one. A fire in the backyard ensues. Birdhouse building in the garage, then there are trumpets, guitars, sea shanties, barroom songs and scratching records. It's the cacophony that happens nightly from midnight 'til dawn or from the ½ full (these ghosts are optimists, but they'd never admit to it) to the dregs of the bottle of gin. This is not the best time to see the house and no realtor ever attempts to show a house at this hour anyway. Hell, not only is this a bad time at 2831 Monroe Street, it's a bad time to show the neighborhood, but don't tell a buyer that. With the hour and the level of drunkenness, it is not a good idea to come around. A stranger might see the ghosts winding down the night on the front porch smoking cigarettes as the eastern horizon lights to lilac. Orion rises and fades into the dawn of the new day. The ghosts of 2831 Monroe Street retire for the night.

“I think it's possible, or it might be the colors,” the Realtor says into the phone. Alone in her car, she doesn't want to have this conversation and it creeps into her voice.
“Do you really think it's necessary?” I ask. I would rather not be having this conversation either. We have this conversation over and over again. I don't have a high opinion of realtors, this one especially.
“Well, the house isn't selling,” she says. There's a pause and I hear static. It could be her phone or her street in Denver, Colorado, or it could be me in my dirty apartment in Tucson, Arizona. Either way, this is not a clear connection.
“No, it's not selling,” I say. I say it because everybody knows it. “And your psychic realtor didn't help,” I say.
“No,” she says. “Listen, I have another appointment.”
“Yeah, me too,” I say. I hang up. I'm hungover. And I think the realtor is full of, well, shit, but I'm too far away to do anything about it. I'm baffled by the very notion of a psychic realtor, and how can I take her findings seriously?
“There were two individuals found in the house. Both male. Both hostile. Showcase the metal roof to potential buyers, and tell the sellers to let go. They have to let it go emotionally.”
I send the findings to Chris—Chris in Syria. I send the findings because the place is haunted, this is why it isn't selling, and everybody knows it. In the email note I attach the psychic's findings, I have to ask Chris: “Can you believe this shit?”
I guess it's one thing to have a haunted house when dead people are involved. It's something else to be haunted by people who are still living. And worse still by two dumb mugs the likes of Chris and me. We look at 2831 Monroe Street as a monument to failed endeavor. We must evict the ghosts, this will take years. Time will probably prove this.

Next time: The Jumpstart parts 2-6

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Adventures in Screenplays Part the Last: Know a Thousand People

“So, it really does pay to know a thousand people?” Crystal Sharp said to me many months ago. She said it, of course, because of some recent events involving Umbrella Factory Magazine. It seemed like the magazine, and the larger picture of it, was moving faster than light. She was speaking the truth, and she was one of the thousand people—and indeed, one among the first ranks. Crystal has, in many ways, been at the onset of many great projects I've done. She housed the Tea Room Writer's Workshops when I needed a location to host my graduate school teaching practicum. She also hosted the first round of Umbrella Factory Workshops. This relationship happened, I suppose for people who really do know a thousand people. In all reality, these things come to fruition to people who happen to know just one person who owns a hotel on East Colfax in Denver, Colorado.
Denver, Colorado. Colorado? Who would have thought it, right? When people think about Denver, they generally think of skiing or in recent months (to my fucking chagrin) of marijuana of the medical type. But of all the people in Denver, and of all the thousand who I know, I really do owe a debt of gratitude and admiration to a few of them. Crystal, and the good people at The Holiday Chalet Bed and Breakfast, as we already know are a few of them.
But Denver? Let me continue with these acknowledgments. Janice Hampton. If she is in the ranks of these thousand people, she is the first one I met. We were the best of friends for the first ten years of our relationship. In the last three and a half years she has been the most reward part of my life. I am grateful to have her as a friend, co-conspirator, lover, and partner. I am blessed to be with such a caring and supported person. She has and (I hope) always will be at my side. I love the old joke “What do you call a writer without a girlfriend?” The same would be true with an Anthony without a Janice. Anyhow, she listened to all the rants and raves about the state of affairs and the affairs of the state. As Umbrella Factory was forming first in my mind and later in actuality, her ideas and support were the foundations of much of this wonderful factory.
I will tell you about Mark and Oren and Jana and Sue and Corrie and Brian later on. They are all factory workers. I'm grateful to them too.
In my thousand people, many of you know Gio Toninelo. If you don't know him, you know RocketHouse Studios. If you don't know Rockethouse, you must know “Pastrami on Rye.” And “Pastrami on Rye,” is the reason why I'm here.
Being given the assignment to write screenplays at Rockethouse Studios is also attributed to the knowing of a thousand people. I just happened to know Gio who is an animator, a filmmaker, and a film festival curator. Likewise, of all the thousand people he knows, I was only one of them and perhaps I was the only writer he knew.
When I taught the Tea Room Writer's Workshops at Crystal's hotel in 2008, I didn't give Janice a choice, she had to attend. This makes it seem like she had some sort of reluctance to go which is not true. I know it was tough for her to work an eight hour day and then sit in a three hour writer's workshop. Sure, she surprised me by being able to function and write great stuff at the end of a long day. But she wasn't the only surprise. During the first few sessions I was pleased, and impressed if not somewhat baffled that Gio showed up with pen posed.
Before we move any further, I cannot stress how important community is to all of us. It starts at home, for me it is Janice, and it includes the whole real and social networks. These people are doing all sorts of things: Janice, corporate trainer/writer, Mark, freelance writer/web designer; Crystal, dressmaker/hotel owner, Jana, flight attendant/artist; Sue, teacher/mom... do you see where this is going? It's how Umbrella Factory Magazine developed and it's how Rockethouse Studios built it's sphere of influence. For many writers, they work in a bubble or in a vacuum oblivious to potential relationships and community. For all of us, and specifically for writers and filmmakers it really does mean success to simply know a thousand people.
For those of you out there who have been following “Adventures in Screenplays” for these last several weeks, and those of you who have taken part in the two Umbrella Factory Workshops on the subject, I hope you have learned the importance of community. And I hope you've learned a few things about writing and screenplays.
It may seem funny to bring the end up and shore it to the beginning. In this last installment of “Adventures in Screenplays,” I fill finally give you the course: the objective, outline; the assignments, the filmography and bibliography.

Course Objective:
To develop craft and good habits of storytelling by developing fiction into screenplays.

Course Outline:
A) The short-short story. Write a well crafted piece of fiction within the confines of the flash fiction genre. This flash fiction, or a short story under 1,000 words, must have a beginning, a middle, and an end and it will have plot structure, character development; conflict and resolution and literary devices like dialogue, exposition and back story. A discussion of negative space is key to the well crafted flash fiction piece. Literary examples and directed writing exercises begin this process. Every participant will write. The next step to avoid writing in the “vacuum,” is sharing and workshoping each writer's work.
B) The short screenplay. The short screenplay is defined by the joke, the cliché, and the anecdote. Specific films provide case studies and models for writing assignments.
C) Feature length film and the short story. The basic belief in “Adventures in Screenplays” is simply stated: The short story makes the best feature length film because filmmakers chose what to add rather than what to subtract.
D) Crafting longer short stories (From 1,000 to 7,000 words) and associated film screenplays puts study into action.

The Assignments
A) Three pieces of flash fiction, publication ready.
B) One short screenplay or the “Ten-minute Screenplay.” Development of this piece from the Joke, the cliché and the anecdote.
C)Two longer short stories: from 1,000 to 7,000 words. Each piece must be magazine ready. Use Umbrella Factory Magazine submission guidelines as a model. Each piece must have the required elements: Plot structure, character development, conflict and resolution and literary devices: dialogue, exposition, back story and negative space.
D)The whole process culminates in one feature length screenplay: 114-134 pages in length.

“Secretary” Mary Gaitskill
“Walk Well My Brother” Farley Mowat
“Things that Hang from Trees” T.A. Louis
“Kneller's Happy Campers,” Etgar Keret
“A Souvenir from Hell” Etgar Keret
Virgin Suicides Jeffery Eugenides
Planet of the Apes Pierre Boulle
“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” William Gass
“A Country Doctor” Franz Kafka
The Club Dumas Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Talented Mr. Ripley Patricia Highsmith
Acting: The First Six Lessons Richard Boleslavsky
The Art of Fiction John Gardner
Writing Great Screenplays Dana Cooper


Death of the Tinman
Pastrami on Rye
The Snow Walker
Things that Hang from Trees
Planet of the Apes (1969/2001)
Virgin Suicides
The Ninth Gate
Coffee and Cigarettes

Course Conclusion:

A writer writes, we've all heard that. A smart writer learns by reading and watching and putting into practice all s/he learns. Only through practice, and perfect practice at that, will a product result. A safe “community” and a nurturing environment is of the utmost importance in a writer's development. The building of these thoughts and acquiring these tools: the network and the portfolio will build the knowledge and confidence in the participants. Happy writing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Adventures in the Screenplay Part IV: Film for Fiction Writers

I stay up late. I wish I had the late night personality some of my colleagues have. I do not have divine inspiration late at night, and I do not have a sudden dose of muse delivered. Late at night I do my best to waste time. I'm generally alone, which after too much time out in the world (the actual or my own), is not a bad thing. I spend these late night time wasting hours either drinking gin or watching movies, and often times, I do both. I spent this last week with nightly doses of Richard Linklater's 1991 Slacker. What struck me so funny about the movie was how it made me feel. It made me feel funny. In this course of discussion: film and writing we have seen several examples of how fiction fits into film. The difference here, and it's clear as we've developed, we haven't really talked about the sheer mechanics of the screenplay, or writing for the screen. I suppose we all can't be Richard Linklater: self taught, self made and brilliant.

Character Development

For writers of fiction, character development has plenty of facets. When crafting a character in a short story or novel, the writer can describe the character, have the character describe him/herself; have the character be described by someone else, develop the character through dialogue or give the reader a familiarity of the character through his/her actions. This is not necessarily different in film. Or is it? As views of film, we don't want lengthy descriptions of characters, do we? It might be great in a novel. No, what we need to see on the screen is how the character deals with situations, or other characters. And, we'll know the character by what is said. As writers, it's important to develop the character by what the character says. Dialogue is key, after all. I say this because after the screenplay is written, there are so many more workers developing the film. In thinking about the distance a screenplay will travel between the desk of the writer to a theater near you is potentially a galaxy far far away. The only thing to survive is the dialogue itself. Let me list a few characters to think about in fiction morphed into something else in film. Patrica Highsmith's Tom Ripley in the 1955 The Talented Mr. Ripley was a despicable character from every angle: the things he did, the clothes he wore and the way he looked. Even though the Mr. Ripley we saw in the 1999 movie of the same name was also despicable, the presentation was different. Try as one might, Matt Damon is a handsome man, this is different Patricia Highsmith's vision. Matt Damon did a good job as Tom Ripley, and he actually sang “My Funny Valentine" in the jazz bar scene. This presentation brings us to Jude Law, a very handsome British actor. In the pitch of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the filmmakers had a vision of a rugged Marlboro man cowboy type. They got Jude Law. The point is, in a screenplay endeavor, character development is in the words and action written on the page.

One last piece of character development comes from Dana Cooper's book, chapter eight. This chapter's basic premise: make your audience care about the characters. Emotional appeals, and conflict resolutions.
Characters also address the audience's need for new information through unusual personalities, habits, attitudes, or philosophies. Audiences satisfy their need for conflict resolution by observing how characters deal with their problems. (Cooper, 91)

I've also heard it said that making a character “real” is simply not enough. Real people are not enough, right, not on first inspection. Peeling layers of an onion: back stories, past encounters, baggage will make the characters more believable.

For the fiction writer, these are not terribly new things. But, the way in which the characters are development may be. Keep in mind that a reader and a filmmaker may have two very different aesthetics. A filmmaker needs so little to get going, and the dialogue should be enough.

As I was saying, Slacker made me feel funny. Why? Well, I haven't seen the movie since the early 1990s. At the time the film was released, I was the same age as most of the actors in the film, it had a nonlinear plot, and it was very appealing to the college kids and artists of my generation, Generation X. So, how does an aging Gen-Xer feel about Slacker? Beats me. But as a writer, and as a filmmaker, Slacker has some great things going on.

Dana Cooper's discussions of plot in chapter six of Writing Great Screenplays of film and TV suggests plot as roller coasters. Each peak is a key moment for change in the characters. This a great analogy. John Gardner in his style manual: The Art of Fiction has a similar description of plot. In chapter 7: Plotting he describes the Ficthean curve in much the same way as Cooper describes the roller coaster. Each peak is the resolution to a smaller story within the larger piece.

John Gardner suggests in Chapter 7 a different way to tell a story in what seems like a lack of plotting.
In this form the writer lets out his story in snippets, sometimes called “crots,” moving as if at random from one point to another gradually amassing the elements, literal and symbolic, of a quasi-energeic action. (Gardner 182).
His examples are William Gass's “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” and Franz Kafka's “The Country Doctor.” On the screen: Slacker, if that isn't told in snippets, or individual vignettes, I don't know what else is. Jim Jarmusch's 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes follows the same pointillism.


There are ways to write a screenplay, a formatting protocol. Here are some links:

Some more links:

The Thrirty-six Dramatic Situations

Plot Lines

Next time: the objectives, the syllabus, the list of assignments, the reading list and the timeline.