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what i’ve learned as a writer

what i’ve learned as a writer

by jturkin on April 13, 2011

I just figured something out. Something about writing characters. Something so obvious, it’s going to sound dumb as a revelation.

The first important rule I learned as a screenwriter was the 3 Acts Paradigm. Even if you don’t agree with Syd Field, you have to admit, every story needs a beginning, middle and end. Each of these must have a catalyst, or “plot point,” that shoots us into the next act.
Once I mastered this, I could write a plot.

The next most important rule I learned was a character’s motivation. Each character can’t arbitrarily go on a life-altering trek. There has to be an event that catapults them into a new world, and they need to have a reason to want to return to homeostasis, or whatever it was life held for them previously.

Once I mastered this, I could insert characters into my plot.

Characters can’t exist in a vaccuum. They need to have a scene to explore. The problem with characters in scenes is they just want to stay there. They can meander about, using trivial dialogue until they stumble across something meaningful to say. The writer’s job is to curb this aimlessness. The writer needs to figure out what has to be done, and what has to be said. He needs to leave out the wandering. He needs to take the “American Psycho” Christian Bale and make “the Machinist” out of him. The minimum.
It’s like going to the potty. You go into the bathroom knowing what needs to be done, you take care of it, and you leave. No dilly-dally. It’s like going to church or your ex’s birthday party. Get in as late as possible. Get out as soon as possible.

Once I internalized this, I could give my characters a playground to advance the plot.

Today, I was reading a book on acting, “Audition” by Michael Shurtleff. He has a “guidepost” for taking acting to the next level. Find the love. He’ll ask an actor in a scene, “where’s the love?” This helps create a dynamic to complicate a pedestrian scene into a complex one.

When a mother and daughter quarrel, it’s not because they don’t love eachother. It’s because they do. The daughter loves the mother and wants to know that the mother loves her. She wants to win her mother’s admiration by demonstrating what an independent girl she is. She wants to prove how little she needs her mother, so in return her mother will realize how much she needs the daughter around, and thus will show how much she loves her daughter by trying to win her back.
The mother loves her daughter so much, she wants the girl to feel slightly inadequate and realize how she still needs her mother, and will then show an outward lovingness towards her mother.

A woman tries to leave her husband and fights with him to convince herself she doesn’t love him… but this proves difficult, because she really does love him. The man fights for this woman, because he loves her, but also because he loves himself. “How dare she think she found someone better than me.”

I took this one step further. Why does the daughter need the mother’s love so bad? Because the mother was cold and less than open about her love for her daughter when the girl was a child. Why was the mother so cold? Because the girl took the attention from her father away from the mother. Because he showed his love for the young girl more openly than he did for the postpartum woman with visible baby weight. Even after the mother lost the baby weight, the father had already become less interested in the mother, and his life became about providing for his daughter.

Why is the husband so wounded by the wife trying to leave? Because his mother showed him so much attention as a child, he believed no woman could ever resist him, no woman would ever reject him. Etc.

These aren’t just circumstantial motivations. These are inherent motivations. These are ingrained in our DNA. This is such a core part of who we are. This isn’t the a motivation for a scene, why a character acts this way for the remainder of the script… but why he is this way for his entire life.

I was struggling with a character’s motivation in a rewrite of the script EAT IT (look under the “SCRIPTS” tab for more info). Wouldn’t it suffice to say, “his motivation for eating these weird things is because it’s what he and his friends do?” I was told, this isn’t sufficient motivation for such an integral part of the story.

I just figured it out. The character Chip is a hobby-less kid. He goes to school because he has to. He had no drive to do well in school. He belongs to no extra-curricular programs. But why? Because I wrote him this way? Yes, but also…

Chip grew up fatherless. He never had a father show him about tools, or sports, or music. He has no interest in these things because he had nobody to show him how cool they can be. Nobody to pique his interest in anything. So why does he have eating competitions with his friends? Because it’s the only skill he posses: the ability to eat. He’ll never win accolades for his writing or scholarships for his GPA or trophies for his athletics abilities, but he will win the attention and respect of other students by eating what they won’t.

Once I master this, I’ll be able to create three-dimensional characters and arcs for them to slide down.

Then, I’ll be a writer.

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