Last year, I worked on the screenplay for the short film version of The Green Bench. Unlike novels, screenplays are intended to be a group effort. Lots of people bring their abilities and you won’t be happy if you are not flexible. The major plot points and themes, yes, fight for those. However, if you’re fortunate, actors will breathe life into your characters in new ways, chemistry happens between a group of actors that you cannot plan for, the camera crew lights and frames according to their expertise, the director has his or her creative vision, and so on. The director’s creative vision may align with yours and they will still bring new ideas and shading to scenes and to the work as a whole. All of the cast and crew names are on a film for very good reasons.
As with short stories, short films are all about distilling down to the essential elements. Short stories done well are more difficult than novels – in longer works, you might be able to pause to explore or add in another point of view. There is no room for that in short forms. When we got a script that was ready to shoot, it turned out to be an absolute joy on set. Everyone was upbeat and professional. Whenever a crew assembles, sometimes the family is functional and sometimes not. This time it was. There were a handful of smaller parts I wrote with friends in mind and they delivered flawlessly. It’s rare to have that voice in your head be the same one on set and it was pure joy to experience.
Now I am working to expand that short work into a longer one. Oh boy! After all that distillation, now it is time to broaden, develop and enlarge. I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know poet Brendan Constantine and he gave me notes as only a poet can on the short version. Poets look at the small, the minute. If you’ve never asked a poet to give you notes, do. It’s a whole new world! Things I would never have thought of and, perhaps counterintuitively, gave me a few jumping off points to expand the work. For example, is there anyone else in one particular scene that is not referenced who would logically be in the background? Who else is impacted by Evan’s illness? I saw right away that his best friend needs to be a part of the larger story. What is more interesting to explore, before or after? In this case, after is where all the drama lives. I don’t yet know if I will pull it off successfully, but it’s stretching me in unexpected ways and the unexpected journey is the most fun and satisfying.
There’s been a lot of bad news this summer. Drought, unrest, domestic violence, hacking the Cloud, hacking off heads… in the 21st century. We’d hoped we would be better by now.
One of the most important things the arts can do is allow us into another person’s world. Of course, if you set out to do that, you probably won’t achieve much of anything beyond preaching to those who already agree with you. But if you’re willing to allow it to unfold as part of the process, magical things can happen.
Some are calling the leaking of nude photos of celebrities sexual assault – no – sexual assault is sexual assault. What is closer to the mark is a disregard for the dignity of another human being. Intentional humiliation is attempted murder of the soul.
Disregard for the dignity of another human being. How do the characters you create feel about that
At their best, stories help us understand each other and ourselves. If you can tell one honestly, passionately, through writing or acting, you will affect others. Watch the actors who allow their vulnerability to shine through; think of the books that stayed with you. What was it that resonated? If you are willing to dive into your unconscious, if you have courage, if you are willing to be still and let us see, you can give that gift. Michael Redgrave shows us the secret part of himself – he allows us to see his vulnerability – and a quiet performance becomes powerful and deep.
What do you know that is yours? That thing you’re fighting. Your success. Your failure. What do you feel deeply about? Why? If you allow the real you, with all the fears and insecurities and secrets to shine through, we will love you for it. And you will make our load just a little easier to bear.
Laurie Hutzler breaks down characters according to 9 types. She has a free ebook and newsletter on her site. Her emphasis is on film and television, but characters are characters and this is one approach.
Another piece of advice is in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine. Benjamin Percy discusses the Geometry of Dialogue, specifically giving your characters something to do when they’re talking. You will add layers to both your narrative and your dialogue. It’s worth checking out.
There’s material all around us for short stories and novels. Here are 5 different takes on Ruth Madoff and other clueless wives. I haven’t been following as closely as when the story first broke, but it’s entirely possible she did not know. It never fails to amaze me how people see what they want to see. There’s also the point that just because you wouldn’t do it, doesn’t mean either they wouldn’t do it to you, or to others. If a person is not a cheater or liar, chances are they are not looking for it, especially in the people closest to them. Why should they? And that can make not only for headlines, but interesting fiction. Your character is in some kind of self-made bubble and drama happens when an event or another character punctures that bubble. Now go write.