What an Actor Wants You to Know About Your Novel — a guest post from Art Holcomb

Hi… it’s Art here. It’s my honor to be filling in for Larry here as he finishes up working on new training videos and other materials for you, his StoryFix family of writers. He’ll be back very soon.

In the meantime, I want to tell you a story about the unexpected power of your characters.

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Studio from Art

Years ago, I was on the lot at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood for a story pitch session.  And, as I was early, I decided to grab lunch at the commissary.

Now, the commissary was one of my favorite places in the world because I never knew whom I might see – actors and actresses, directors and studio execs.

For a young writer like me, this was like having all of Hollywood in one place.

I got my lunch and found a place at a table with a veteran actor (we’ll call him Bob) and a studio executive named David, both of whom I knew from my time pitching to Star Trek.  As we ate, we talked about the business and politics and the world. Being a bit bold, I asked a question that had bothered me for some time.

“Bob,” I said, “I train writers – both screenwriters and novelists – and I’ve always wanted to know something. If you don’t mind my asking, what are your absolute favorite roles to play? The ones that absolutely draw you doing a particular script?”

It seemed to me to be the obvious question. Almost every novelist and certainly every screenwriter I had ever met had a burning desire to see their story turned into a movie and to hear their words spoken on the big screen – I know it had been a turning point in my own career. So, if I knew this, I could improve both my own work and the work of my students.

But the real question here was – how does one write a role that an actor really wants to play?

Bob thought about it a bit and said, “I guess I have three types of roles that make me want to do a picture.” He smiled and said, “And so, in the tradition of building suspense, I’ll give them to you in reverse order.”

And what he said next really surprised me.

“My Number Three choice would always be to play – The Hero.”

“Really”, I said. “Number Three?”

“Absolutely!” he said through a mouth full of salad. “In a well-written piece, the hero is the most powerful role. He or she should get all the great lines and the powerful scenes and gets most of the publicity. A movie is made up of perhaps sixty separate two- minute scenes, and it was Jack Nicholson who once said that he would consider playing any role that had for him three good scenes and one great one. Plus, when you’re playing the hero, the story is all about your journey, the focus is on you, so what’s not to like?  If it’s good enough for Jack . . .”

Made sense, I thought.

“So, yeah, absolutely,” Bob said. “But, really, the Hero’s not even the best role.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s Number Two?”

“The second best role to play is always – The Villain.  The villain is where so much of the power and personality comes through. The range for most heroes is limited because of what they must stand for, but a villain can run the gamut. If for no other reason than the way the audience comes to hate a great villain, most great movies succeed or fail based on the power of the villain and, besides, they are always such a gas to play.”

By this time, I was a bit lost. Besides the hero and the villains, what other great roles were left?

Bob leaned back in his chair and smile wistfully. “But the absolute best role is the one that we are all trained to play, they one that gives us all a chance to show the audience exactly what we can do as actors . . .”

He paused for effect.

“I will always be attracted – first and foremost – to play any character who really suffers in the story.”

“Why?”

“Most people would say that we come to the movies or read a story or watch a play to enjoy the plot of the story. And we have always believed that plot is what draws us to the film. But the plot, from an actor’s standpoint, is only there to show the world the nature and range of human emotion through the actor’s art. Great stories, whether in films, television, or novels, are first and foremost about the truth of the human struggle.”

“I agree,” David the studio executive said. “Consider any film that you’ve really loved.  If you think about it, you were really drawn to the emotions that the characters portrayed – the pain, sorrow, anguish, elation and sheer love and happiness that you were able to connect with. It’s through that emotion that the audience bonds with that actor. Well-written pieces which always show that kind of human drama – the length and breadth of human emotion – and, it’s what makes the story a hit or a flop. From a pure craft standpoint, I would much rather play a powerful role is smaller film than the lead in a blockbuster. Fame, as wonderful as it can be, is not why most of us became actors. Humans, playing roles where the human heart stands in real conflict with itself, where pain and suffering can be shown honestly, makes that role – and that actor – unforgettable.”

I was beginning to see Bob’s craft – and my own work – in a new light.

Bob stood and gathered his belonging. And the worst part,” he said as he got ready to leave, “is that there are VERY FEW of those roles that come an actor’s way in his or her lifetime. And since the majority of movies are adaptation of novels and other materials these days, the problem lies as much with the sort of characters in novels today as they are in screenplays.

And, with that, Bob was gone, disappearing into the rush of people hurrying to get their lunch before the commissary closed for the day.

David said, “I love that guy,” and we sat silent for a while as I considered it all.

Writing for emotional impact was something I taught but had never considered from Bob’s position. Stories are, in the end, emotion delivery systems. We all come to the movies and to novels to be taken out of ourselves, to be made to feel things that we might not feel in our own lives. So the vehicle for these feelings had to be based in universally relatable emotions. We watch films and read novels for the same reason that our ancestors sat around the fire and talked about that day’s hunt. Stories were created by the elders of the village to teach the young people of the village about what their lives would be like and how to cope with the challenges ahead. All good stories invoke real emotions in the audience, and it’s that emotion that binds the stories to us and us to the stories.

Novelist or screenwriter, if a writer cannot write with emotional impact, s/he will never really reach the audience.

It was something I’d never forget.

I turned back to David as he was finishing his lunch.

“So when’s your pitch?” he asked.

“In about an hour.”

“I’ve got some time,” he said as he got up to leave.  “Walk with me back to my office. Bob really only gave you part of the story.”

And so, fascinated (and not believing my luck), I followed him out.

NEXT TIME ON STORYFIX: What Hollywood wants you to know about your next novel.

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A special offer to STORYFIX readers: We have a new slate of seminars in 2017.  We’ll be teaching you about How to Write for Emotional Impact as well as How to build your Writer’s Platform and Brand for ZERO DOLLARS . . . . PLUS news about our Summer Boot Camp that can get you up, writing, and possibly published within the next three months.

If you’re interested in these and any other of our courses and seminars, just drop me an email at aholcomb07@gmail.com, tell me you’re a StoryFix fan, and we’ll let you know about exclusive discounts we’ve created just for Larry’s loyal readers.

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Thanks for spending this time with me. Larry will be back soon.

So, until next time – Keep Writing!

Art

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The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling

The goal of today’s post is nothing less than to explain why writing a novel that works is hard.

As opposed to, say, a pile of 50K-plus words poured into a steaming pile during, say, the most recent month of November, that doesn’t.

But if you break it down, there really aren’t that many different things going on, categorically. And with so many of us trying to do it, and so few of us producing a sure thing (this isn’t a knock on the new or struggling writer; so many famous names and titles were rejected multiple times before finding a place in the market, and so many others have one flash of the spotlight and then virtually disappear), why are the odds so long?

Especially since there are more than a few folks like me seeking to clear the air and impart some sense of what works and what may be holding you back.

In an effort to get to that bottom line, I set out to view the problem differently.

To break down what actually happens in the moment of collision between a writer’s intention and action, tempered by the heat-resistant presence of that author’s distilled sense of story.

In the end  it all boils down to three things, and really, only three things.

  • What we know about storytelling (the sum of what we think we know and actually do know about how a story is built – craft – and what it is built of);
  • What we know about the story itself, including the ending (which explains why some drafts work and others don’t);
  • and, then, how we steer that ship across the void of the blank page (our story and prose sensibilities).

That last one is the kicker. It explains (or it doesn’t; more accurately, this is just the label on a map about a place we know very little about, sort of like the Marianas Trench of storytelling) why some writers are consistently better and faster than others… writers who seem to wield a natural gift of some kind.

Versus those that think they do. Finally realizing that you may not yet be among that tiny crowd can, for some, be the most empowering moment in your writing journey.

Because that might be when you let craft into your process.

Welcome to The Bermuda Triangle of storytelling.

Screenshot (108)

Because in the stormy, uncharted confluence of these three natural forces of storytelling, some writers get lost and some are never heard from again.

Two out of three of these sub-processes may be good enough… if you have the time or patience for it. But nailing the story reasonably early (for many this means, in this lifetime), and easily (before your world collapses, or before you begin deceiving yourself about it)… that requires firing on all three of these cylinders.

All three of these forces, though — 1) knowledge of craft… 2) a vision for the story… 3) a sense of how to get it on paper — are in the end required, at least in some perhaps unequal proportion. The good news is that each time we give it a try, we make a deposit into the each of these three creative/intellectual accounts.

Soak up enough craft, apply it to your vision for the story, and your story sense is bound to elevate. Do this long enough, in context to the principles of craft, and your story sense will at some point catch up with your enthusiasm.

Analogies abound. I’ll spare you those for now, but let it be said, immense knowledge without some sense of magic and movement does not a singer or dancer or artist make.

The reason we study craft IS to beef up our story sense. To skip the craft in reliance to one’s natural storytelling gifts is like preparing for the Olympic trials without training… because you were born fast and strong.

Clearly, this isn’t math.

It’s more like Olympic figure skating or platform diving, where results and the pursuit of perfection are determined by a bunch of imperfect human beings levying judgment. But even the experts often get it wrong (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, for example, was rejected by 46 agents before one of them had a higher sensibility to the party), thus testifying to the imprecision of story sense.

This little model gives us something to work on and build upon.

Not to mention, something to blame.

From the moment the spark of a story idea lights up our brain, continuing through the entire process up to the moment we set the story free (which is to finish it and move on to something else, whatever that looks like for you), we are juggling these three very different intellectual and creative phenomena. Viewed separately, we can see how they apply (if you can’t, it is a sign that one or more is still underdeveloped). But it is in the areas of overlap where the math becomes vague, where so many have tried to credit an unexplained inspiration or what becomes the equivalent of a muse, or perhaps just plain blind luck, good, bad or otherwise.

In the absence of this understanding, that may be as good an explanation as any.

 

 

The principles are always available to tutor your story sense. 

You don’t need a “natural storytelling gift” (as some claim) to develop a novel that works, or become a successful career writer.

That’s why Jeffrey Deaver proudly says he writes twenty-two drafts of his novels… which, at a glance, is not the outcome of a highly developed story sense. Rather, that’s Deaver trying to get it right, over and over and over again. He succeeds because he follows proven, reliable, solid principles of craft – he has the requisite knowledge about how and why stories work – and doesn’t settle until he knows as much about his story, from premise through the entire structure, as he needs to for it all to work… and to recognize when he gets to that point.

Novels that fail or under-perform are often simply drafts that the writer didn’t – perhaps cannot – recognize as unfinished.  Which is a story sense issue every time (lack thereof, in this example), arising from an inadequate foundation of story knowledge.

Bottom line: you may have been born with The Gift. But most writers who truly hold, nurture and present a solid sense of story, got there as a product of craft, leading them to a vivid vision for their stories.

This is precisely why experienced authors don’t write every idea that pops into their head. They have the story sense – born of craft – to recognize a rich premise and not jump at one that is merely clever.

Story sense is what happens when you lead with craft, rather than relying solely on your gut.

That can work… usually for Stephen King and authors like him. Which means we must ask if we consider ourselves in his league.

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If you haven’t checked out my first wave of craft training videos, with a slant toward newer writers, click HERE. Remember, as a Storyfix.com reader you get a 25 percent discount… just use this code – storyfix25off – during the Vimeo checkout process (the Download links on my new training website take you to the Vimeo page where the videos are available).

A new wave of training videos will be launched in March 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                      

 

 

 

 

 

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