Thursday, 21 March 2013

The C Word...

The most obvious difference I see between the successful writers I have met and the aspiring writers is confidence. Confident writers are focused and productive. They say, “This is MY story. I’m writing it MY way, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.” They put their blinkers on, they put the hours into what they think is right, and deliver. After that it’s part luck and part commercial savvy that decides whether the final product attracts deals or not, but this is the right approach to any artistic endeavour. So if self-belief and an uncompromising approach to writing is the way to go, what can a writer do to get precious confidence without getting tainted by someone else’s directions?

The wrong thing to do, which I see a lot in the writers I work with, is to go on endless courses or read a pile of books on ‘How to Write’. They inevitably provide you with a set of rules that seem to apply to famous stories.  As soon as you buy into this, your story becomes driven by structure. It becomes a little unnatural and it loses its spark, and you have your creative instinct damaged by someone else’s rules.

That paragraph may seem odd coming from a man who gives courses to aspiring writers, but I am very careful in my approach. The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin ‘to draw out’, and for writers, with precious, highly personal inspiration, the difference between ‘drawing out’ and ‘forcing in’ is a critical distinction. In my experience, what writers really need is not help from the outside to change what is inside. It’s help in making the best possible use of the inspiration that is already there.

The questions writers really want answering are: “How do I make the most of my story ideas? How do I tell my story to its absolute best? How do I guide my ability to tell stories without damaging my natural talent? It takes me months to find out what’s bugging me in my story. How do I understand and solve story problems quickly and effectively? What gives one story power and another one not? What are the story tools that are available to writers that make stories grip and intrigue?”

There is only one person who can tell your story the right way, and that is YOU! Yes, you need knowledge of the craft of story so you are empowered to tell your story your way. Then you will also have the confidence to send it off and, importantly, take rejection knowing that what you’ve done is right irrespective of what the rejection letter says. Many of the writers I meet are hugely restricted by fear of rejection. So much so that they don’t even finish their work. Once it’s finished, it’s judgement day, and that is unbearable, so people keep writing and re-writing for years rather than face the dreaded judgement day. Again, confidence is the issue. If you know you have been true to yourself and true to your story, then you cease to care about external judgement. You listen, of course, in case something constructive resonates with you, but ultimately your own personal judgement is all that matters, so if others choose to reject it for their commercial agenda, so be it. Of course, rejection hurts, but it also goes with the territory, so grasping the rejection nettle and taking the consequences is something you simply have to do. John Sullivan gave me all you need to know about ‘How to be a writer’:

1) Write the best stuff you can.
2) Send it off.
3) Go to 1) 

What happens after that is out of your hands, so just go to 1) ,do 2) and forget it. Over time you will improve, and one day something will click. When it does, the weirdest thing happens: the pile of rejections become a massive badge of honour, and the glow you feel from success becomes magnified ten-fold by every single rejection you collected along the way.

Writers who become clients of mine are always surprised when we start work because I won’t read their story. I’m working to help the writer take responsibility for themselves; to find and shape the inspiration that comes from within. There’s only one right way to write your story, and that’s your way. If you think about it, there simply can’t be any other way to write your story. So forget the gurus and take responsibility. Yes, learn about story so you can squeeze the most from your ideas. Write every day, and say to yourself every day:

“My Story. My Way. And balls to the lot of you.”

Say it now. Say it out loud and mean it. Not only will you laugh at yourself, but take responsibility for your own development and suddenly life as a writer, and your path forwards from today, becomes very clear indeed...

Now. Go To 1).

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Hunger Games - Story Analysis

!This Article Contains Spoilers! 

The Hunger Games is something of an enigma. As you watch it, you love it, and it kinda keeps you gripped, because the premise is so good, the characters are very strong, and the key question provides excellent tension. But it is low rated by public opinion on IMDB, and leaves you feeling a little unsatisfied by the end, although strangely attracted to it at the same time. Here's why. 

Firstly, let's outline that key question, because that is what gives it its attraction, and is also what lets it down, because they blow the power of that key question halfway through the story. 

In a futuristic world, The Hunger Games is an annual entertainment put on by the repressive government ('The Capitol'). Each of the twelve districts must donate two people between the age of 12 and 18 to the games. All 24 of these young people - 'tributes', as they are called - are set free in a televised terrain where they must kill or be killed on reality TV. Only one of the 24 can survive, and return home a hero. But it isn't simply survival of the fittest. If a tribute appeals to the audience, they can gain practical help in the field from 'sponsors', so having public appeal is also a key factor. The story follows the journey of the two tributes from District 12: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The tension in the story comes from our knowledge that, although their relationship is steadily growing and intensifying as the story progresses, only one of them can survive. As the story goes on, they begin to fall in love (or are they? Is it just a ploy by Katniss for sponsors?). The key question looms large over us and tightens its grip because we know, at some point one of them... is going to have to kill the other one. Excellent, excellent, gripping, powerful story. 

So why – oh, please why – did the writers have the ‘Capitol’ introduce a new rule halfway through the game by announcing: ‘actually, just this once, we’re going to let two people survive the games, provided they are from the same district.’ What the hell would you do a stupid thing like that for?! The story is now shot to pieces. Oh! Two can survive now! Well, I wonder who on earth THAT could be?! Might it turn out to be - ooh, let me think now - might it be... Katniss and Peeta (the only district partnership we even know the names of anyway!)? Now we know who will survive. The jeopardy is decimated. The tension is gone. The story is over. There is no other subtext to carry the story. Finished. Forget it. Go home.

And it's SO good up until then! It's a crime! What doubles my horror at the way they utterly blew the story power is that they then, just in time for the very end, they bring it back in again! The Capitol make another announcement: 'Errr. We've changed our minds, and now only one can survive.' 

Yes, it gives the story traction again, because now we feel the tension again - one of them will have to kill the other, but we've had an hour of knowing the outcome, so putting the doubt back in for what turns out to be ONE MINUTE is hardly going to rescue the thing. Clearly, the writers saw that they had to do this to create any kind of cleverness in the ending, so they put it back! Which just makes taking it out in the first place all the more unbelievable!  

What makes it even worse is that the Romeo and Juliet ending we are offered at climax (it's not what happens), whereby Katniss and Peeta choose to commit suicide together - thereby removing the power of the Capitol, making their love sublime for all eternity, making them into martyrs and causing a furious revolution in the districts - would have made this film an all time classic – BUT only if they'd kept that tension gripping us throughout. If the jeopardy had been there the whole way through we would have remained utterly gripped by the knowledge that one of them MUST die, doubly gripped as their relationship grows, and totally knocked out when they choose to commit suicide together to confound the Capitol and undermine their power. 

Now, I understand why they did it. They wanted to force a love story into the reality television show, and by announcing that two from the same district could survive, this was done, but the same 'love dynamic' could have been introduced by having Katniss, recognising the power of gaining sponsorship, feign her love for Peeta as a strategy all by herself. This would have shown her character growth and cleverness. As it is, that one announcement makes it a weak story and one of the worst errors and biggest missed opportunities I have ever seen. 

Apart from that trashed key question, the other serious issue is that there is no other subtext. All the story participants - the characters, the Capitol, the audience, author, you, me - everyone - know just as much as everyone else. Yes, the Capitol are sneaky and evil - but the moves they make are instantly communicated to all participants. There's no difference in the information held by the different story participants, Katniss and Peeta are trustworthy towards each other, even in the early stages when we know that they fell out in previous years and Katniss has good reason not to trust him now. Even the excellently dubious character who is to coach them - Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) - a previous winner of the games from District 12 - doesn't have an agenda and doesn't do anything dodgy, despite his clear dialogue with the Capitol. It just doesn't go anywhere. Despite the nature of the dog-eat-dog games, everyone knows everything that is going on. The human mind feeds off subtext - it's what we look for in a story, and this is why Hunger Games leaves a nagging hollow feeling you can't quite explain. 

Another negative is the real evil bad guy - President Snow. Katniss, through her anti-establishment rebellion, comes to his attention, and he shows his displeasure and orders that her 'hope' is removed. But nothing happens! There's no clear action taken as a result of the top man's displeasure or orders. No plan. No action. Nothing changes. The bad side of a story has to be proactive and threatening. Unfortunately, as it is... nothing changes as a result of his displeasure. 

I suspect - and hope - that the problems of this first film will be remedied across the course of the trilogy. The Harry Potter series is a little like this. Most of the individual films are rather difficult to enjoy in isolation (unless you've read the books), but the story power across the seven is awesome. Similarly with The Hunger Games, the potential is immense, and terrific foundations are now in place, but this first film, taken on its own, is not as powerful as it could have been with more subtext, and with the tension being allowed to persist throughout through our knowing that one of the two heroes must die at the hands of the other. If it had been allowed to persist, the lovers could still have been refused to play their game, choosing to live or die together, but refusing to kill one-another, but the power of the story could have been maintained throughout and magnified with this one simple story flaw being removed. 

Shame. Still - greatly enjoyable, and I suspect the trilogy will satisfy in story terms by the end. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Greeks have a Word for it...

I recently read Aristotle's 'Poetics' - the earliest known work of story theory. It was weird to be spoken to about story theory by a man who died 2,300 years ago, and extraordinary to find him speaking perfect sense in ways that still influence Hollywood today.

Let's see if a modern story can be seen to live up to Aristotle’s key elements, defined literally thousands of years ago. Here they are. An effective story has three essential elements:

  • Firstly, we have the Harmartia - a ‘fault’ or ‘flaw’ that disturbs the protagonist’s balance of life.
  • Secondly, the Anagnorisis - the ‘realisation’ of what this flaw means to the protagonist and the action that will be required to restore balance.
  • Thirdly, the Peripeteia - a reversal of expectation that pays off the story and brings the world back into balance at conclusion - but in a way that is unexpected (in the sense that it didn’t work out the way the protagonist intended and/or the audience thought it would).
So, taking Back to the Future as my example story, do these ancient structural imperatives hold up?

Marty McFly is going about his normal day when he is accidentally sent back in time (Harmartia - a fault which spins his world out of balance).

As he comes to terms with the challenges of getting home, he interferes with his parents' meeting when they were teenagers. Even if he could get home to 1985, he is going to be wiped from existence if his parents don't hook up. He realises (anagnorisis) he must get his parents to fall in love before he leaves, or else he will not exist in the future and will simply disappear.

Marty knows his Mum-to-be likes a strong man. And his Dad-do-be is weak. So Marty plans a big charade with his Dad-to-be to make him look strong in front of his Mum. The peripeteia (reversal) comes when he finally gets his parents together - but not in the way he planned - the charade goes wrong and his father is forced to demonstrate genuine strength. When he finally does get home to 1985 we are surprised to find that his family and quality of life have gone way upmarket compared to the life he left. His impact in 1955 has influenced his father's character and he is therefore born, 17 years later, to a stronger father and a whole different life.

Take a look at your own stories or story events. Do your sequences/chapters/scenes or entire stories live up to Aristotle? I've found that the Peripeteia is particularly significant. I analyse stories that bug me - they have conflict, great characters, key questions - lots of boxes ticked, but something not right... and often the problem is predictability. If a story is great, the chances are it is because it has a wonderful cleverness to it - and that will be the Peripeteia - a beautiful twistiness compared to expectation - shining through. 

I imagine that anyone who has remained influential for 2,300 years probably knew what he was talking about, so I'd pause and think about this one if I were you...!