FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2 with Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.




FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2

 Today I continue our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. In my last blog post (September 9), we looked at the four story questions writers must be able to answer. Today we discuss the second rule:


 ü  At least one key character has to undergo a transformation.

 Often referred to as the character arc, this concept has been underscored by notables such as Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field. If plot is the external story, then the character’s arc is the internal version of events.

 The arc can be as intimate as a widow coming to terms with her loss, or as monumental as an everyman summoning his courage to save the universe. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Eight Tips on Writing a Great Short Story’ is: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” The character we meet at Once upon a time is (or becomes) driven by this want. He’s shaped and formed, or reformed, by the conflict he endures, usually with the help of the supporting characters, but ultimately he must face the final challenge alone. Who he is by happily ever after depends on how he’s changed through the course of the story, and what has occurred to cause those changes. Whether she’s a factory worker who takes up a cause (Silkwood, Norma Rae), a dutiful son who reluctantly shoulders a crime family (The Godfather), or a hardened cynic who sacrifices love for a nobler cause (Casablanca), watching the characters transform before our eyes, on screen or throughout the pages of a book, transforms us as well.

 That change almost always occurs in the protagonist, but there are exceptions – if a 
narrator is telling your story about someone, or if the protagonist is steadfast, but inspires change in another character. We’ve come to learn (with regret) that Harper Lee’s novels are examples of the former, while High Noon is an example of the latter. Stories featuring animal protagonists, like Marley and Me, can be examples of both exceptions.

 If you outline or use another form of story organization, you should plan the character arcs before you begin writing. If not, a technique I’ve found very helpful is to complete my novel or story and then read through it several times, searching for individual components of the manuscript with each pass. One read-through is dedicated to character arc, first for my protagonist, and then for each key character. I look for a pattern, for inconsistencies, for triggers and reactions – for ways to smooth the transition into something natural and realistic. I also identify the characters who shouldn’t change and check to insure they stay the same throughout the pages.

 In the final part of this series, we’ll exit the movie theater and examine a screenwriting concept adapted from live theater – the three-act structure.

 

From Screen To Page – Part 1 – by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.


FROM SCREEN TO PAGE

One of my NYU media professors once told me, “You write well.” I felt proud, assuming he meant I was a good writer. I was mistaken. What he meant was I could write sentences that were comprehensible and precise enough to get an A on an assignment, but not for a story worth reading. It took awhile for me to learn the difference.

If you’re unsure of how to tell a story, I can recommend an unusual source for guidance – a screenplay instructional.


Now I know what you’re thinking…screenplays are fast and cheap, like pulp fiction, too often empty-headed, driven by plot rather than character…and you’re right. But it’s a great way to learn how to tell a story succinctly. Although I no longer write screenplays, I’ve learned a great deal about storytelling techniques from the genre. There are basic rules in writing for film that will benefit all writers of fiction, which I’ll share with you in my next three posts.

Before you begin to write your story, see if you can answer these questions:

1.       Who is your protagonist?

2.      What does he want?

3.      Who, or what, is trying to stop him?

4.      What will happen if he fails?

Knowing the answers is critical for most fiction genres. The website ‘Screenwriting 101’ has set up a formula for this:

Story = (Character + Want) x Obstacles

The answer to question one, two and three fills in Character, Want, and Obstacles.

You could say Character is a ‘noun’, but add Want to Character and it becomes an ‘action verb’. Obstacles create tension and suspense. Each element must be in balance to work properly. 

For example, the character may have lived a colorful life, or experienced a unique, even dramatic situation. But without tension, the suspense of what will happen, these stories often fall flat. Knowing what the character wants and what obstacles stand in his way are the building blocks to creating suspense. The trick is in the building, because coming up with a tension-inducing scenario is not enough. 

Consider this plot: 

Your protagonist is a busy single mom and in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, a major earthquake hits. Plenty of potential drama there, right? Except if the shaking starts when she’s pulling into the driveway after a Costco run with a gallon of trail mix, a pallet of water, and a year’s supply of toilet paper in the trunk, it deflates a lot of the potential for tension. 

But put your character at her job fifty miles from home, where she lives with her two preteen kids and her disabled mother, and that raises the stakes because we’re dreading what will happen if she can’t get home ASAP.  Then put impediments in your protagonist’s path – the quake destroyed the roads so she can’t drive home.  She’ll have at least a two-day walk. Fires, looters, and aftershocks threaten her way. When real danger looms with every step, readers white-knuckle every paragraph, wondering what might happen. 

But telling us isn’t effective; you must get under her skin and make us feel her fear. The mom may die trying to get home, but if she doesn’t try, her family may not survive. Here, the mom is the Protagonist, she Wants to get home, the impediments caused by the quake is what’s Stopping her, and if she Fails it would mean the devastation of her family, and/or her.

That’s why the key to creating a story that will grab people’s attention is the fourth question – what are the stakes? In film, the answer is always the same: Death. If the hero doesn’t succeed, he will die. If you don’t believe it’s true, think of every successful movie ever made. 

Death – either actual or metaphorical – is what must be risked and overcome, except in tragedies where the hero actually does perish. If you still have doubts, see if you can name a book with a female protagonist written before the 20th century that doesn’t end with her marrying or dying. Death can be losing the basketball game, not destroying the Death Star before it obliterates the planet Alderaan, never getting back to Kansas and Auntie Em; in short, failing to achieve whatever task has been set out for the character.

Here’s my formula:

Engrossing story = [(Engaging Character + Want) x Obstacles] x Stakes

                                                                       

The more invested we are in the character, the more we want him to triumph. Therefore the greater the obstacles, and the higher the stakes, the more conflict you create. If character is the heart of a story, conflict is the lifeblood that drives both character and plot. In short, figure out what the hero wants and deny or delay it.

This is particularly useful in writing flash fiction, short stories, and novellas. Like a screenplay, short form fiction must maintain a word limit and therefore every word has to move the story forward, reveal character, or both. Here again, the combination of challenging obstacles and high stakes, coupled with a character we’ve come to like, creates a powerful arc.

A perfect lead-in to my next blog post, which will discuss story arcs.

Building a Better Villian by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon


BUILDING A BETTER VILLAIN
Call me TINO – tolerant in name only. I recently noticed many of my odious characters share a certain trait, which would be fine if that trait related to being dislikable. However, the similarity my antagonists share is physical – they’re gross in every sense of the word.
It made me wonder if I have a deep-seated bias against those who share this physical attribute. But wait, I’ve read many books with villains who ‘look’ like mine. Does that make me biased, or just lazy?
So that got me thinking – how do you build a better villain, one who is complex and human, who doesn’t fall into the easy prejudice category? It’s one thing to make your villain a classic enemy, like a terrorist or Nazi. They’re no challenge to make despicable; we recognize them as bad from their title. You can say murderers, a staple of mysteries, are easy villains, while action/adventure genres almost demand evil characters bent on destroying the world. But that isn’t enough to create a truly memorable bad guy.
The most fascinating villains are the ones we can relate to on a certain level, no matter how vile their behavior, unconscionable their deeds, or distasteful their appearance. For villains who are pure evil there must be something about them that intrigues us beyond their horrific actions. What draws us to Robert Benchley’s shark in Jaws, or Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, is not so much their conduct as their nature. Unlike the hero, it’s not about the villain’s vulnerability, but ours – to the likes of them.
As writers, we must build characters, not caricatures, which means we have to find some redeeming qualities in our villains. That’s not to say the nemesis has to be admirable, but like a protagonist who is purely good is boring, so is an antagonist who is one-dimensional. If we give our heroes some imperfections, we must also balance our villains with enough positive qualities to make them real without making them nice.
To build this kind of villain, think of how many real life villains are smart (Ted Kaczynski), charming and attractive (Ted Bundy), or charismatic (bin Laden). What makes them villains is the way they used those positive qualities in a negative way. This type of villain should present a genuine challenge for your hero by having the power or ability to exploit your protagonist’s weaknesses. Whether a mighty army against a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters or a devoted family man bent on annihilating one segment of society, the greater the task to defeat him the more invested we’ll be in the story.
Villains don’t have to be evil. It surprised me to learn that one synonym for ‘villain’ is ‘antihero’ – I’ve always thought of them as protagonists – flawed people you empathize with, even like, despite their badness. Whether Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, Count Dracula and Frankenstein, Moriarty from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, or Michael Corleone in The Godfather, these antiheroes fascinate us and we often root for them. Even when their actions horrify us. 
It reminds us that villains don’t have to be wicked moustache twirlers, rope in hand. Haven’t we all known good people who’ve had a momentary break and done bad things? Some, like BTK killer Dennis Rader or Susan Smith, go well beyond bad, but what shocked us most about them was their very ordinariness.
To build this kind of villain, write a character biography to create a backstory. Then seek a motivation for the deed, one that readers can relate to, with a believable trigger. That will provide a reason, which is different from an excuse. Bad can never be excused, but if we understand what provoked the bad – fear, shame, anger – we won’t view the character as a really evil person but as a real person who did evil.
It’s a subtle but important difference. It’s what makes them complex and human.

The Three R’s for Writers and Those Who Love Them by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon


FOR WRITERS AND THOSE WHO LOVE THEM
I plead guilty. Let me explain.
Writers may work alone, but we’re part of a community. In March I wrote a post about critique groups, which I consider a great way for writers to find the encouragement and support they need.  But there’s an even better way for us to help each other that is being virtually ignored. I call it THE THREE ‘R’s:

READ
REVIEW
RECOMMEND
READ: One of the best ways we can support our fellow writers is to purchase their books. Why not devote a bookshelf to their work. I put my colleagues’ books in a guestroom so visitors can be introduced to their writing and it’s worked brilliantly. If you worry about the cost or where you’ll put all those paperbacks, invest in an e-reader. A basic model is modestly priced and you’ll recoup the cost fairly quickly since electronic versions of books are often less expensive than print copies. You’ll also be able to buy books that are only available in electronic format. Then think of a clever way to get your friends to ‘sign’ your copy. If you’re in a writers group, suggest a book swap and trade a copy of your book for theirs. A signed copy of a book makes a great gift as well, so buy a few from the author for those last-minute occasions and offer to do the same for them.

REVIEW: “Readers always tell me they like my books, but why don’t they write a review?” Sound familiar? And it’s more baffling when the readers are other writers.
Reviews are the lifeblood of book sales and marketing. There is no better way for writers to support each other than by reading and reviewing each other’s work. We writers all know this, and yet…. How many reviews do you have from other writers, and have you posted reviews of their books?
Non-writers may not realize the importance of online reviews, perhaps more important than purchasing the book. Ask everyone you know who’s read your published work to leave a review on Amazon (also suggest Barnes & Noble, Goodreads and Smashwords). Then check to make sure the review is posted; Amazon removes comments for reasons other than ‘inappropriate’.
Do tell your reviewers to be truthful; while anything less than three stars counts negatively on Amazon, their algorithms are based on an average score, so a few low ones won’t hurt if you get enough good reviews. The key is to get enoughreviews. No one cares if you get five star evaluations if you only get a few; they’re meaningless because readers assume it’s your mom and BFFs writing them. You must be honest as well. If you feel you can’t praise someone’s book, and that happens, then at least tell that to the author – I wouldn’t want to post anything less than three stars for a writer I know. And keep in mind the generation gap when it comes to technology. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this on Anne R. Allen’s blog –
One sweet woman in her seventies had been devastated to find out that giving a book “a gold star” wasn’t letting people know she liked the book. She thought one star was a good thing.
If Grandma is uncomfortable posting a review, have her express what she wants to say and let her ten-year-old grandkid post it for her.

RECOMMEND: We tend to recommend books we enjoy, but we don’t always include those by authors we personally know. Recommending is perfect for those who feel uncomfortable writing or posting reviews online, or who want to do more to help your writing career.
If they liked your book, ask your family and friends to recommend it to their family and friends, as well as their neighbors, fellow worshippers, volunteer groups, clubs, and co-workers (especially the ones who always ask them to buy the cards/wrapping paper/candy their kids have to sell for school!). If they have a blog or Facebook page, ask if they’d mention your book and include a link to your author home page. Suggest they buy additional copies, which you’ll graciously sign, for last-minute gifts. And advise them to recommend your book only to people who’d enjoy it – if cousin Flora’s idea of the great outdoors is a parking lot without lines, she probably won’t be interested in your camping memoir.
People outside our writing community who want to help need to be shown how.  And if we truly want to encourage and support each other, we all must make the effort to do it, in the most effective way. If we do, then ultimately we’ll all benefit. Isn’t that what a community is all about?
I confess to some failings – on how many counts do you plead ‘Guilty’?