Friday, 14 September 2012

Are You Receiving Me...?!

When a writer gets inspired, he takes the world he wishes to communicate and telescopes it down, through the limiting lens of language, into a written form. What we get as readers - perhaps 100 years later, perhaps a world away - is a pile of paper with symbols on it. The reader doesn't get given a world by the author - the author isn't there - the reader gets a lot of words to interpret, and draws the author's world out of himself.

Reception Theory... a branch of literary theory that deals with the critical role played by the reader in the literary process. Without a reader, the pile of paper bequeathed to us by a writer is a dormant, useless object - as lifeless as a stone. It takes a reader with adequate ability to bring meaning to the writers words and generate a version of the writer's world in the form of mental structures in his mind, created exclusively from the reader's own knowledge and experience. A child may know all the words in an adult book, but cannot make sense of it because he doesn't have the necessary life experience and knowledge to create the intended structures in mind. And - get this - because we all have a different profile in terms of life knowledge and human experience, every single reading of a text produces a unique individual production of the writer's world. Every single reading of a text is a unique interpretation. A new version of that story personalised to that reader at that time of reading. Even two readings by the same reader will be different from each other.

A receiver of a narrative is not simply a reader of text but a producer of story.


How Can I Use This as a Writer?

Well, if a reader draws on his own life and human experience to produce a version of your story, you, as a writer, must write about the shared human values and experiences that will stimulate and excite the mind of your reader. What kind of writer activity does that to best effect?

To do this, we have to write in two ways: Firstly, Denoted information. We provide solid, factual information that is interpreted the same way by all readers to create a consistent story framework. If I tell you a story about a 'BEAR', you will get an image in your mind. But this is not enough information. She got a Polar bear; he got a fluffy teddy; you got a koala; I meant Angry Grizzly. So the denoted information must be clear and solid in order that the framework of the story is the same for everyone whatever their life experience. If I say I am about to be attacked by an angry Grizzy bear, we're all aligned with the same denoted picture in mind because we all have a common understanding of what an angry Grizzly bear 'means' to a person.

Secondly, Connotated information. This is where we get to the very substance of story. This is the information the reader brings to the party himself that fills in the gaps we deliberately leave in-between the planks of our clear and solid denoted framework. Let me put some more structures in your mind. I tell you I am being attacked by an angry Grizzly bear. I am cornered in a college music room and have only instruments to protect myself. You have a clear (denoted) picture of the situation because you know what an angry Grizzly 'means' and you know what a college music room is like; but now, you do something more. Your human understanding of the position of being cornered by an angry Grizzly has you responding emotionally and appropriately. The human in you wants to survive the bear attack, and your mind instantly searches for answers. There are possibilities that are unstated, and you instantly begin filling in gaps yourself - projecting possibilities, running through a mental list of musical instruments to find which I could possibly use to protect myself from being torn to pieces by a bear. THIS is story - not what I said, but what I didn't say. Not what I gave you, but what you gave to yourself from the threat you perceive that stimulated your human emotional response. If you are being attacked by a bear in a music room, what do you do to protect yourself? You can guess, and you do guess instinctively, but now we are getting somewhere as a writer, because the reader will read on, because he wants to know what happens next, and he instinctively feels a need for more information. This is the need you must work on as a writer. You have (presumably) no experience of bears in music rooms, so the story has stimulated you to new mental structures and new mental stimuli. The human brain likes this.

Mental stimulation through story comes from knowledge gaps. Show someone a gap in knowledge in your (denoted) story framework - work on human emotions to raise questions and create unknowns - and your readers will project knowledge into the gap and test it whether you ask them to or not. Then they read more. They cast around your story, desperate for new and more information to fill knowledge gaps because there is nothing like a gap in knowledge to make a person feel uncomfortable, insecure, intrigued, curious... and utterly engaged in the process of finding out the information that goes into that gap in knowledge and fills in the denoted framework from their own experience. This is story. And your reader needs to know what happens next...

What happened next? Me and the bear are forming a band. He's an amazing lead guitarist. Giraffe on drums. Mole on piano. Three hippos in short skirts on backing vocals. 

Did you get a picture...?! Of course you did. But if I said that in my band there was a dremble-fogger mindi-lobbing furiously on a lingle, it wouldn't mean anything, and you won't get a picture (not the same as anyone else's, anyway!); not because they don't exist - they do - I invented them - but because these things are not part of our shared life experience. I sincerely hope not, anyway. Those dremble-foggers can give you nightmares when they mindi-lob...

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

How to Write... How NOT to Write...

Many writers fear story theory. "It will damage my natural talent!" they cry. And I understand entirely. As I return to writing fiction again with a decade of story theory in my head, how will my 'formal' knowledge influence how I write now? Am I ruined?

Perhaps more importantly, how do I feel about the things I've said to aspiring writers on this blog and in my paid work as a story consultant now I'm trying to write under the influence of this kind of knowledge myself?

The Big Idea
I think the main thing that hits me is that my knowledge of story theory doesn't impact my early writing process at all. The fundamental fact that kinda undermines all theories is this: do you have a killer idea for a story? If you don't have a great story idea, or characters with compelling conflicts, all the knowledge in the world is absolutely no use to you. I guess this is why so few story analysts are writers of fiction themselves: they don't have any winning story ideas.

Write it... Or Analyse it?
And the first thing you must do when you have a story idea is let it pour out of you. If it feels good, don't stand there thinking about it - get deeply immersed in it! This is the joy of writing - the creativity, the world you build in your mind, the imagination and escapism - it's all brilliant, and I don't think I stress strongly enough in my story seminars or books the importance of just being yourself and getting stuck in. This is your story, you must draw it from your own heart, and the very last thing you should do is let someone else get their hands dirty in amongst your natural ability at this stage.

I feel my analytical work makes it seem like developing a story is a very formal - almost scientific - process, but it really isn't and it really shouldn't be. Just write. Write lots. Get stuck in and follow your heart. It doesn't matter if you throw away 90% of what you write, but write you must if you are going to find out if your stories work or not.

I get lots of inspiration and new ideas from getting into the detail, so I just write - without editing and without polish - in order to get deeper into the characters and possibilities. I accept that I will not keep much of this rough content, but I get a great deal of progress out of it. Then it's back up to the top level analysis view to see how things are shaping up. I think my analysis work might encourage people to spend too much time thinking and not enough time writing. Juuuust get stuck in!

Productivity - the Key Differentiator
Too many writers wait for inspiration. These people rarely become professional. Successful writers work very, very hard to dig for inspiration by forcing themselves to write at the coal-face every day, even on those days when they have no inspiration at all. The successful writers work the hardest, in a very real sense, and I have no doubt that sheer dogged determination to keep delivering a word count and to hit deadlines is a massive differentiator in those writers who can:

a) find inspiration when none is arriving by itself; and
b) be productive enough to produce a book a year and thereby turn professional.

So my advice is this: write from the heart; write lots and let it flow. Then re-write using your head, your story theory knowledge and the dustbin. Be confident in yourself - there is no 'right and wrong' - if you write from the heart you will be fulfilled, irrespective of commercial success. Yes, learn the craft of story in order to help optimise your ideas and speed your process, not to dictate your ideas or BE your process.

So, what am I writing?
Thank you for asking... I'm currently writing my third humorous book. I've never really spoken about my humorous writing on this blog but if you are interested to see if a story theorist can actually write, here is the link to my first book of humorous tales. This book got me my first proper publishing deal. This is a fine book, in my opinion, and judging by the reviews, people do seem to like it. I do hate marketing so make the most of this - I don't plan to do it very often!

OCEAN BOULEVARD (Amazon- UK - Hard copy and Kindle)

OCEAN BOULEVARD (  Kindle store)

"David Baboulene is a seriously funny man with a great gift for storytelling. One of the funniest books I have ever read." City Talk.

I hope you love it! Feel free to let me know what you think!


Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Writer's First Tripwire...

One of the first traps that a writer often falls into in their early career looks like this.

Most writers get confidence in their early writing from some success with some short pieces. A writer might place an article or two, a short story published - 1500 words that get roundly admired. Then he does it again and feels a terrific - and well justified - sense of achievement as he receives the accolades of people who have genuinely enjoyed his work and he maybe even trousers his first payment for writing. Feels great, right?!

And it is at this point that the writer decides to set about the novel or screenplay he's been brooding over for the last few years. They open a new document, take a deep breath... and begin with their own version of 'Once upon a time...'

And this is the mistake. The trap is sprung. The writer is in trouble, and he doesn't even know it.

Writing 100,000 words or two hours of screenplay is a totally different discipline from writing a short piece. With 1000 words, we can begin at the beginning, write through to the the end, read it through, rewrite it, reorder things, screw it up and start again - whatever. Our writing method is simply to rewrite; read it again; then re-write again until it reads cleanly and no further changes are necessary. This is manageable, because even the most fundamental of changes can be managed and accommodated across the arc of the whole story.

So we set about our first full-length work in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, this rarely - very rarely - leads to success. To get to the end of a 100,000 word first draft, and then read it through and realise there are one or two wonderful changes you'd like to incorporate is a major new piece of work. To successfully manage all the ripple effects of even the smallest of changes is very, very tricky, and to do this two, three, four times is simply not sustainable in one lifetime. The vast majority of stories that are written this way end up dying in a drawer somewhere as the writer loses all sight of what the story was about, loses all vitality and connection with the heartbeat of the story and has no mental energy left to lift themselves for yet another re-write of such an enormous beast.

There is a saying that there are no writers, only re-writers, and there is no doubt that this is true. But there are limits, and a full length work needs to be approached in a different way if it is to have the best chance of getting itself finished. In my experience, the most effective method looks like this:

1. Begin with an idea. Question that idea to develop it. Ask what if? What if? What if...?

2. Focus on the ending. Once you are armed with your ending, you have your story. And from a working point of view, once you have your ending, you know where the goal is, so all the component story events (chapters/sequences/scenes...) can be geared to that ending. 

3. Once the idea has grown into a series of 20 to 30 component events leading to a clear ending, start pitching the story to people. Tell it out loud. It might not be something you want to do, but it is the single most valuable exercise in story development. Tell your story (that is what it is FOR!!) and you will learn SO much about it - the improvements will amaze you.

4. If there are frustrations in your story, think about meaningful conflict, character growth and subtext in every event and across the story as a whole. The source of your frustration will almost certainly be in one of these areas. Learn about these key story elements in order to speed up your writing process.

5. You are now ready to write the first draft. Even this process, because it is slower, will generate new ideas, so be prepared to go back up to the previous level and rework the story at the event level.

If you follow this process - without writing a single word in earnest until you know your entire story from front to back and have broken it down into manageable chunks - subsequent changes to the drafts will be minimal and editorial rather than fundamental, and your chances of becoming the proud creator of a fine, finished product will be greatly enhanced.

This is a brief, blog version of the method. An in-depth analysis of a proven story development method can be found in The Story Book; A develoment method discussed in step-by-step detail, from the seed of the idea to the distributed film, with Bob Gale on how he and Robert Zemekis developed their story: Back to the Future

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Two Types of Key Question

Leading on from my last post on The Subtext of Character Growth, I would like to refine - and hopefully clarify - the information by using this post to identify two types of key question. I am calling these an 'Event' key question and a 'Character Development' key question. Let's look at two simple children's stories and see what's going on.

Event Key Question
As discussed, the classic story structure we learn in our first year of story theory looks like this: an inciting incident raises a key question in the mind of the audience. The key question is pushed and pulled in the battle between the forces of protagonism and those of antagonism until the climax when we find out the answer to the key question. So, for example, the tortoise challenges the hare to a race (inciting incident). The key question is raised: 'who will win the race?' At climax, we find out the answer to the key question (the tortoise won the race).

This is a key question raised through an event. A 'plot' level key question - and although this is very clear and simple and is a fine mechanism, found in many great stories, it is evident that the very finest and most highly rated stories often do not have a clear and evident Event Key Question. So what do the finest stories have instead?

Character Growth Key Question
In the more highly rated stories, we in the audience are asking ourselves: 'What will happen next?' and we are gripped, but there is no clear and identifiable inciting incident raising a key question that carries us forwards. The Ugly Duckling is an example of such a story. A duck is born. It is different from the other ducklings, and suffers bullying, ridicule and social exclusion. No obvious key question is raised. So why are we intrigued?

Because we are powerfully locked on to the question of fulfilment for our protagonist. We are aware that our protagonist has a yearning - an ambition - with which we empathise. In life, we naturally crave a sense of belonging; we desire successful relationships and we feel secure if we fit in with communities and groups. So we want the duckling to be fulfilled as we desire to be fulfilled ourselves. We recognise the character suffering in these terms, and we are gripped by our own feelings about these issues in our own life, so we want to see what will happen to the protagonist's fortunes. The duck becomes a beautiful swan, achieves a sense of belonging in a group of other glorious swans, and the bad guy animals who ridiculed and excluded the ugly duckling look foolish and rather ugly themselves. The Ugly Duckling becomes fulfilled through an unexpected reversal in fortunes, and we are heartened and satisfied by the story and by the 'life' lessons we have understood. So the key question is there, but it is: "Will the protagonist find fulfilment?"

This is kinda important, because every single story of all time has either an 'event' key question, or a character growth key question, or both. Always and forever. Although a character growth key question tends to characterise the very finest stories, I would suggest that the easiest high power stories to write are probably those that have both. The Hare and The Tortoise is based around a very clear key question (Who will win the race?) but also has a second strand of character growth. We (and The Hare) learn a life lesson along the lines of 'more haste less speed'.

So as a writer, I would suggest that when you find a story idea that has potential, you need to look for how the story idea is going to describe a character arc of growth up the ladder of human values, and how that character arc is going to be achieved in the context of the real world challenges presented by the plot level 'event' that look like they will take the protagonist downwards in life.

Or to give an example from a story that has both, let's look at - guess what - Back to the Future. Marty McFly is sent back to 1955 in a time machine ('plot' event) raising the key question: 'Will he ever get back to 1985?'. Answer at climax - yes, he will); but the real story lives and grips and engages us on the question of George McFly's character growth. When George grows from weak and unassertive to take out Biff with one punch, he grows into a strong and confident man, and it is this life growth that defines the whole story.
 Will George find fulfilment? He certainly does, and there is the Character Development Key Question.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Subtext of Character Growth

Story theorists down the centuries have faced one recurring problem. They discover early on their journey to becoming a guru - in a eureka moment of intense revelation - that most stories are based around a key question. It works like this: An inciting incident raises the key question in the mind of the audience; the key question keeps the audience gripped across the long haul before being answered at the climax to the story. This, he decides, IS story structure. Act l is the bit up to the inciting incident. Act lll is the climax where the answer to the key question is addressed. Act ll is the bit in between where the forces of protagonism and antagonism battle for supremacy. Simple as that. This is the template for story power.

Now, it's true that most stories indeed have this basic framework. Take Back to the Future. The inciting incident is when Marty McFly is accidentally sent back in time, raising the key question: 'Will he ever get home to 1985 again?' The issue is then thrown into doubt as the forces of protagonism and antagonism battle it out through act ll, and the question is finally addressed to our satisfaction at climax, when Marty does, indeed, make it back home to 1985. Classic story structure. 

The problem for a story theorist is that there are exceptions. And as the exceptions mount up, we find that it's actually the very finest and highest rated stories that do NOT have a framework based on a key question. Stories I have discussed recently in Writing Magazine and on this blog, including Hugo, The Kings Speech and The Shawshank Redemption have no obvious key question - at least, not one that is up front and in your face. And this is not only inconvenient for story theorists who want to make a science of story, it's a bummer for the film studios, too, because even an accountant can tell if a story has a key question, so for decades the studios have only been giving the green light to those that do. This implicitly throws out the very best stories with the trash, which, in turn, is why there have been an enormous number of formulaic and somewhat mediocre stories since the key question became the God of story decisions around the early 1980s. 

So what do the very finest stories have instead? Well, what these stories have is Character Growth. Great stories all appear to resonate psychologically through the evident growth of a character towards personal fulfilment. As human beings, we very naturally strive for fulfilment, and are driven (often subconsciously) to advance ourselves in terms of social values. We love stories that show us the journeys of others up the ladder of life. The key question mentioned above in Back to the Future is a 'plot' question, not a character question, but think of the basic 'life values' at stake in Back to the Future in terms of character growth: Will George get it on with Lorraine and have children? Will Marty be born? Will the bad guy, Biff (who we know from the sequel intends to promote his own gene pool at the expense of Marty's) succeed in getting Lorraine and power? And think how clearly Marty's family have progressed in social/fulfilment terms by the end; and all because George overcame his daemons and became strong and assertive (character growth).

In The Shawshank Redemption, we don't know what the story is about in terms of any key question, but we do have lots of questions about our protagonist and his 'life values': Will he find justice? Will he find freedom? Wow. Justice and Freedom. Fundamentally important subjects, but when we ask ourselves: 'What is going to happen next?' what we really mean is: 'Will our hero progress in life despite the forces of antagonism railed against him?' And as long as someone somewhere learns a life lesson and climbs the ladder of life (or fails to learn, but the opportunity missed is clear to the audience), then we tend to like the story more.Andy Dufresne, in Shawshank Prison, learns patience. He learns to use what he has - time and hope - and turns these into a single devastating escape attempt, wealth and beautiful revenge.

In Hugo, for example - a story with no key question, but five Oscars including Best Screenplay -  it’s not just one character that climbs the ladder and finds fulfilment. It’s all of them:
  • Hugo himself goes from alone, grieving and living in fear to having a family, friends, safety and a sense of belonging. A boy gets a family - how basic is that?!
  • Papa George journeys from lost and forgotten to being recognised for his achievements. 
  • Even Sacha Baron Cohen‘s wonderful bad guy, Gustav, goes from an injured, cruel and heartless child catcher to a happily engaged friend to one and all. 
Mama Jeanne, Tabard, Madame Emile and Frick, Isabelle - everyone is progressed in terms of human values. This is why we feel uplifted and satisfied by the end. 

As writers, how can we use this? When you view the story in the light of Hugo’s life values and character growth it turns out it does have an inciting incident: the death of Hugo’s father is a huge blow to Hugo's life progression. But how does that raise a key question? The obvious one is impossible – “Will Hugo get his father back?”

Because we know Hugo can’t get his father back, the key question – subconsciously but powerfully – is, “Will Hugo find himself a family?” The knock-on effect of this subconscious drive also means that the story does have a protagonist after all. The focus may switch firmly to Papa George by the end, but we are always watching out for what it all means to Hugo. When he ends up getting a family, we love the story. (Indeed, most of the characters, in a sense, 'find a family'. That is the overriding theme of the story.)

A story with a clear key question based on an 'event' (such as travelling through time) rather than through character fulfilment (finding freedom or a family) can still be a great story. However, it seems that the stories that win Oscars and Booker prizes tend to wrestle with the subtext of character growth: 'Will the protagonist overcome the odds and achieve fulfilment (whatever that means for him)? How will he do that? What form will that advancement take?' And as long as every event keeps addressing his fortunes, the story will grip and intrigue in the best ways possible. Better still, is when the character growth is intrinsically connected to the moral argument of the story. For more on this, read my Morality blog post here

This is quite tricky to get your head round - and not easy to explain in a small word count. If you'd like to know more, it's addressed in more depth and with the help of some interesting layman's psychology, in the early chapters of The Story Book

Subtext through Character Growth. The single most important factor in truly great stories.

Monday, 23 January 2012

A Story about Actors and Auditions...

Here's a little story about an actor who brought his own ideas to an audition...

I just had a fascinating weekend with Craig Hinde (Director) auditioning for the lead roles in my film HeartStoppers. Auditions are a very strange and unusual dynamic between human beings; potential stress and pressure for actors, and very difficult for us too. How can we ever be sure we got it right? Anyway, before we get to the story, here's a perspective on the events that should be interesting and useful to actors and writers alike. 

For me, the key thing I look for in an actor is that sparkle and life that will bring some ideas and creativity to the role; someone who will take it beyond my vision and explode the character into three dimensions in ways I couldn't have envisaged BUT... will limit their imagination and creativity to ideas that do not undermine the story or the director. If an actor thinks s/he has better ideas than those in the script and gets angry or goes all sulky if you won’t take on their suggestions then big problems can ensue in rehearsals, on set and in the overall vibe amongst the other actors and crew. This is a seriously difficult balance for an actor to strike - too much is not right and too little is not right - but if you can strike that balance, you'll get every role you apply for.

If you are going for an audition, I believe you need to show that you are outgoing and dynamic and will take ownership of the character, but at the same time you must reassure the director that you will also be happy to be ‘directed’ and can accept that your ideas might need to be changed or rejected for reasons you might not fully understand from the information you have.

So here's what happened. We had a good example of what I'm saying with one of the leading male auditions. The actor had some decent experience, but had got my lead character – ‘Max’ – a bit wrong. Max begins the story without confidence. He’s got a sort of magical knack for playing Cupid, but he's not partnering people up with flare and self-belief. He’s a slightly timid character who is bullied by his boss and even trampled by the customers he is helping. He has a gift, but it kinda happens to him – he doesn’t wield his capability with pride and swagger. This actor didn’t get that. He felt that the character was smooth and cool – like ‘Hitch’ in the film of the same name - helping losers to become suave, like him, to get what they want. He therefore delivered the character very differently from my vision during the script reading. This isn't 'wrong' - it's just his interpretation. His interpretation might be brilliant and there could be times when this might be exactly what's required (in other words, this is the kind of proactive approach to a role that I like to see from an actor). But not in this case, because the story relies upon Max growing from a starting point of timidity to a summit of confidence by the resolution, so he couldn’t start with the personality the actor was giving him. All wrong. Would the actor deflate and feel devastated – or take on board what I was saying? He explained how he viewed the character - revealing another misinterpretation. He thought the kiosk in which Max works was a burger bar. All wrong. The kiosk is a matchmaking business. Burger bar? Where did that come from? Just shows how we all interpret a text differently.

But here’s the thing. I explained to the actor that he couldn't change the character to his vision of him because it would fundamentally change the dynamics required for the story to work. We then asked the actor to do the reading again – this time re-creating his version of Max to match the character my story required. He turned around and nailed it with a whole new persona. He got the job. He brought ideas and creativity, and although it led to some slightly awkward conversations, he took on board immediately the points we were making that required him to adapt. He didn’t take it personally – he didn’t see our request for change as ‘criticism’ – he was talented enough to take it on, understand it, change and develop – and he turned himself into the Max the story needed there and then in front of my very eyes. Wonderful! His attitude made it very easy to discuss the role and the character – he even put me on the spot a bit concerning Max’s backstory. I felt sure he would bring ideas that would work, and would accept a negative response if his ideas would not work. Perfect.

And his wrongness might prove to be righter than my rightness - if that makes any sense at all. I think the kiosk possibly should be a Burger Bar! I'm working with the idea and I suspect this might just solve a couple of story issues I had and bring genuine improvements to the story!  

So here's what I think we need to take on board:

Be flexible to change. You want people to bring their ideas and creativity to your story. If you have written your story well, so that every event or character facet in that story is justified by a contribution to the bigger picture, you can assess a proposed 'improvement' or idea very accurately. If the publisher/producer/guru/actor - ANYBODY! - wants to make a change, you can say 'yes' if the change is a genuine improvement, or you can say 'no' with confidence because you know exactly what the impact on the story will be. And when you defend your story with knowledge and certainty even Mr Speilberg will back off, because it becomes so clear that you know your own story inside out. Many publishers and editors and producers suggest changes. The best thing ever - for them as well as you - is when you can say 'no', and mean it, and know exactly why the story has to stay as it is.

How to Pass Auditions:
Bring personality and vibrance to an audition and to a character. And yes, bring ideas and suggestions, but make sure the director knows you are perfectly happy for these ideas to be rejected and reassure him/her that, ultimately, you will accept direction. When you suggest an idea, say out loud: 'I'm not precious about it - just a suggestion. I understand if you think it doesn't work in the bigger picture.' They LOVE to hear suggestions, but couched in these ego-free terms. On the one hand, a director does not want to have to direct you so much he has to drag the acting out of you. On the other hand, he doesn't want to have to fight you back into line to deliver the part appropriately. He wants you to take responsibility for delivering the role and show dynamism... but listen and accept direction so he can guide your dynamism into perfect shape.

You are helping to deliver someone else's story. If you can add to the character or to the story's power, that will be welcome, but if you are going to be too insistent on your ideas being accepted, you'll either fail the audition or ruin the story!

Don't be too hard on yourself if you don't get a role. There are many, many reasons for rejection, very few of which are to do with your talent or ability.