Stories for the new stars

DSCN1857c.jpgWalking beneath the of faces of stars glowing from two story tall billboards, I glanced down at the stars embedded into the side walk—at least when they were not covered by the feet of the crowds on Sunset Strip. Above me are giant billboards–evidently Mary Poppins is coming back and so is M. Night Shyamalan. However, I must also look down occasionally to ensure I didn’t trip over a homeless person sleeping at the edge of the sidewalk, curled up in a blanket on hard concrete in the relative safety of the daytime. It was fun for a while, this walk of fame, replete with costumed super heroes who may be sleeping on the streets with the homeless if they don’t get enough tips. It is also unnerving—a reminder of the great divide when it comes to performers.

Enough of this, as my real intention in visiting LA was to see an exhibit at UCLA. So, I contact an Uber driver to get me to my destination. He chats about his idea for a movie, and producers that haven’t responded to his script. Everybody wants a piece of the movie business. The driver assumes he’s written a sure-fire success, a part two of a previous film. He is even trying to contact the same big name actor to ask why his studio hasn’t come up with a script for this, yet. Of course, I know the driver’s chance of ever getting his script acknowledged by any one in a movie studio is almost nil. And, I try to tell him this. Yet, I also mourn that he has fallen into the same trap as many movie producers who assume the crowd is always hungering for another flashier version of what they witnessed on the big screen last month.

How does this assumption alter the quality of what screen writers and book writers actually produce? Writers no longer seem to strive to improve their previous work—reaching for a new level of creativity and quality. Rather, they try to polish the same work and make it flashier. Perhaps the major character takes a complete switch in direction in part two and ends it in a sudden twist that nobody would guess. But what is to be done to make part three even more dramatic? Switch back again and repeat the plot of part one with more battles scenes and more devastating weapons. After all crowds entering the theaters every week want what they’ve seen before. Don’t they?

Not always. The shift is away from movies produced by big-name studios to series made by independent studios and video streamed directly into our homes. A glance up at what’s being advertised on the billboards on Sunset Strip makes this obvious. Even the driver mentions that series on Netflix that are the next big thing and the quantity of their representation on billboards is stunning. So, the challenge becomes greater for the writer. No longer is a three book series enough, but rather a whole season of plots that unwind without noticeable repetition is the new demand. It’s time to stop depending on special effects, and stories that are supposed to draw readers in with instant action. It’s time get back to writing complex characters that unfold over a period of time and high quality stories that can continue long after a series of three. Are you ready for the new challenge?

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The strong female character

Tape_cubby_roseRecently, I read three short stories dealing with female characters of different strengths. None of them exactly fit the common meme of the female warrior—who can take on man larger than her and physically defeat him while remaining stoically detached from “feminine” emotions like crying—but one came close.

The business woman who moved with the movers and shakers—the only woman in a high level meeting with men—outwardly resembled the female warrior the most. Danny enjoyed a life of vintage wine, designer clothing, and five-star hotels. Yet, the phrase that kept reappearing was her feeling of being bloated. She consumed luxuries without gaining sustenance. Danny did a good job at keeping her emotions under control. Her only response was restrained anger when sexual relationships with men occurred out of mere form and politeness. She is a tragic character who is a pale shadow of the powerful, yet unfulfilled Citizen Kane. In psychological terms, she was the weakest of the three female characters.

The next “strong” female, Diana, shared a resemblance in her early career to Dian Fossey who lived in primitive conditions as a scientist in Africa. This Diana had moved up to professorship at a prestigious university, sending students out on the field to do the work she had once done. Her husband’s career had spiraled downhill. But, the narrative from his viewpoint was honest. Men are not attracted to a smart, successful woman unless they are unquestionably smarter and more successful. In this story, the husband loved their child, but his switch to expected full-time childcare provider unnerved him. Diana had lived a comparatively charmed life and dealt with his struggles in a logical and not particularly empathetic manner. Unable to be an equal match for his wife, the husband foresaw their union dissolving because she would not put up with him.

The last female character, Mavis, reeked of weakness. The old woman was constantly in a state of indecision, not sure of how to move forward. She cried a lot, she prayed a lot and desperately needed emotional support. Her husband had committed a crime and traumatized her nephew. She could not shake her guilt for her part in this. As the story unrolled I realized that although the term narcissist was never used, Mavis’ husband showed every indication of being one. He blamed his action on her words, insisting that she apologize, while he actually played the part of the provoker. Many readers would ask “How could she not see who he really was?” They probably have not tangled with the wile of a narcissist. (Or perhaps they have and do not realize it, yet.)

Mavis’ husband could be very charming, and she recalled their good times fondly. One pivotal memory was an unexpected enjoyable outing on her birthday. It took a bad turn after her insistence that they see a movie. While complying with her request, his mood showed this displeased him. Later he relieved his anger on a girl he did not know for a minor incivility. Now, he was incarcerated. Mavis’ struggle to break free from her husband’s control was beautifully drawn in her memories as she traveled to visit him and finally gathered the courage to turn around without confronting him. She would no longer be there to field his provocations.

Of the three stories, the woman who appeared like the warrior was the weakest. She portrayed a tragic character, on the way up in power and on the way down in her respect for herself. The timorous, older woman who broke from a clever man that imagined he could do no wrong received my vote for the most powerful. When it comes to creating strong female characters, be aware that appearances can be deceiving.

Cohen, Robert, “Roaming Charges.” Boggs, Belle, “In the Shadow of Man.” and Crew, Ashlee, “Day One.” in Ploughshares Summer 2018. Ed. Jill McCorkle, Vol. 44, No. 2.

Image by S.L. Listman

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Creative mess

It’s all about ambiguity

Write about what?

DSCN0746Psychologists often study creativity like a kind of pathology, researching causes of creativity, methods to diagnosis it, and determining best practices. The creative person is often contradictory because the strongest drive in creative people is to not be like other people, even other creative people. During the 1950s, when creativity research was acknowledged as a legitimate scientific subject, Psychologist Frank Barron tested and conducted in-depth interviews with writers, architects, research scientists, and mathematicians  at University of California in Berkeley.

According to Barron the highly creative person is “both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner than the average person.” Creative people could appear and actually be conventional in many ways. However, “they tend to rebel against conformity as they accompany their own private visions down lonely, untrod paths.” They also could appear highly neurotic on personality tests while having an ego strength that could…

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How do you end an never-ending story?

BinaryData50Stories do not always require a flesh and blood antagonist, or even a spectral one. They do not have to end with the discovery of who perpetrated the crime or the demise of the villain. A plot can trace the main character’s growth: from child to adult, from poverty to wealth, from anonymity to fame, or from one plane of existence to another. (Did you ever read Jonathon Livingston Seagull?)

The tale of transformation may not be the most common type, but when written well they have staying power which endears them to continuing generations of readers. This type of plot also has special challenges. Exactly how do you wrap up a story in which the main character engages on a path of progress that will continue after the book is finished? It’s necessary to include at least one signal that this part of the story is over to fulfill the reader’s desire for a conclusion.

So, how do you end a never-ending story?

The most common device is inclusio. Despite the literary sound of this word, this device is often demonstrated in a manner so simple that a child could comprehend it. Think back to the beginning and end of the animated Walt Disney movie The Lion King. You probably recall the new heir being presented to the pride on top of the dramatic jutting slice of hillside called Pride Rock. The lion cub is not the same, but the son of the first one. However, the image from the beginning is repeated at the end to tell you it’s over. (And if you didn’t catch this, a reprise of the song “Circle of Life” is blared as a backup to hammer the idea into your head.) If you watched the earlier movie Bambi, you will recall it also had a similar beginning and end. Although, it was delivered with more subtlety than in The Lion King.

This devise of inclusio, also called the bracketing or an envelope structure, has been used in writing for millennia. Scholars of the Bible will search the original language for similar phrases that mark the beginning and end of a passage on a subject. But, you do not have to be a scholar to pick up this signal. However, if you fear your reader may not remember the beginning phrase of your tale, reinforce the impact of inclusio by including a similar image or returning the major character to an environment that is the same as in the first scene.

Now, you have the beginning and ending for your story of character growth. The difficult part will be completing the middle.

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What is the bad guy really thinking?

Picture 036 antihero 2Do you recall the campy original Batman series in which the villain de jour always explained his detailed plan for the crime as Batman was slowly moving towards a not so sure death? Is there a problem with adding the villain’s point of view is this manner? Not as long as you are writing a farce.

Seriously, why should you show the antagonist’s POV in a book or screen play?

Scenes revealed from of the antagonist’s POV create a flesh and blood multi-dimensional character. The more internal motivation that you describe for the villain, the more the audience might begin to identify with this character. That is not necessarily wrong. However, your protagonist, must feel this same conflict, unless you want the hero to be an insensitive heel.

What are some of the pitfalls to avoid when included the antagonist’s POV?

Be wary of using this POV in scenes where your antagonist is in conflict with the protagonist. The villain may seem more interesting when confronting the hero, because the bad guy often has more to lose in these scenes. But, so do you if your reader starts rooting for the bad guy.

Avoid uncovering the secret that the hero is searching for when revealing the antagonist’s thoughts. Heroes must get their act together and sniff out secrets on their own. Occasionally, I have seen writers fall into the trap of assuming the protagonist knows everything the reader knows. When adding scenes from an antagonist’s viewpoint that is no longer true. Meticulously track who knows what. (See: The character who saw too much).

Readers may recoil from the horrific inner thoughts of an insanely vicious villain. But that horror is actually judgment coming from the author. Real vicious criminals do not perceive themselves in that light. If you portray an authentic twisted viewpoint both you and the reader might struggle with the sense of becoming insane while the reversing the concepts of good and bad. Keep these passages infrequent and brief.

C.S. Lewis spoke of The Screwtape Letters, which was written from the POV of a demon, in his last interview. “Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” This short novel became one of his more popular books, which spawned a whole new genre. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to write lengthy passages from the POV of the antagonist.

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Group IQ

How to make your group smarter

Write about what?

Picture 012a3One of the tricks in getting groups to be more creative is tohave a hand in determining who goes into the group. A number of gurus on increasing group creativity will mention the need for greater diversity in groups. How exactly does this work?

Wooley and Malone performed research on “group IQ.” Members of a group were tested for IQ individually and then randomly assigned to a team. Each team  was required to complete a number of complex tasks such as creative brainstorming, and solving puzzles. Interestingly enough the teams containing the people with higher IQs did not do any better. However, the teams that had women did. The more women there were on a team, the better they did at the tasks, unless the team was entirely female.

Choi and Thompson found that rotating new members into already existing groups improved their performance in creative tasks. It was the…

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Stuck in a group

How do you get people working in groups to actually be creative?

Write about what?

1024px-Allegorie_op_visserij (2)_edited-2The concept of group synergy, the belief that combined abilities of people in groups produces better ideas than individuals  is often praised. However, most research points in the opposite direction. Suppose your assignment is to work with a group to come up with new solutions to age old problems, or maybe create a plot for a new movie. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?

First, it helps to understand human characteristic that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge with others.  It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of  describing what each person knows without the pressure to come up new ideas or commit to any new plan of action.

Clearly defining why we know…

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Sweet solitude

Does working in a group increase innovation? Or do too many cooks make a boring broth?

Write about what?

switzerland1Does group work encourage creativity? Not according to the art and writing instructors that I surveyed determine which classroom environments induced creativity. Encouraging students to work in groups is suppose to improve creativity, but most instructors observed the opposite result.

More unique ideas surfaced when the learners worked on projects individually. Students collaborating in groups did not seem able to piggyback on each others’ ideas to produce elaborate and sophisticated products. Sometimes everyone followed a leader’s instruction, but the leader rarely was the most creative person. Others spent time in long discussions. Then, under time pressures they put together something that had already been done before and therefore was already familiar to the group. In a few cases, the  disagreement between members caused the end product to appear piecemeal and shoddy.

Brainstorming has been touted as the way for groups to multiply innovative thinking in the workplace. Groups sessions produce more…

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Mentors and money

How do you attract a mentor as a writer?

Write about what?

Telemachus_and_Mentor_cropIn the epic poem the Iliad, Telemachus father Odysseus was absent twenty years; first at war and then wandering on his long route home. Meanwhile his Telemachus grew to an adulthood without a father. Having pity on the youth, the goddess Athena disguised herself as an old man, took on the pseudonym “Mentor”  and became his guide. For the novice in writing finding an appropriate mentor with seems almost essential, but most of us are not as lucky as Telemachus.

Often an aspiring author seeks to further their experience and searches for someone of standing to help them. But, mentors are real people, not deities with immortality and powers.  A voluntary mentorship takes time away from an author’s own productive work. Why would they want to enter into this kind of relationship? One obvious answer is for the ego boost. It is a great self-esteem builder to have someone select…

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Wanted mentors: Dead or Alive

What can you learn from dead people?

Write about what?

Old_Man_with_Water_StudiesIn the city of Florence, Italy stands the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore with a massive brick dome, a masterpiece in its day, built without the wooden framework required to hold up a dome while the mortar dried. Yet, it took centuries before anyone could build a larger one. The architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, was a goldsmith by trade who learned the secrets of architecture by examining  the work of Roman builders who died centuries before him.

In the sketch book of Leonardo da Vinci is the diagram of a unique machine for lifting heavy weights to great heights. He didn’t invent it. Filippo Brunelleschi did. However, da Vinci observed and recorded this machine in use long after its real inventor died and so he is often credited with inventing it (King 2000).

“Describe the person who influenced you the most.” That is a generic writing prompts that students (and the…

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