Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ray Bradbury on Ray Bradbury

"It is easy to doubt yourself, because you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.

But you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg -- I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.

That is the kind of life I've had."

Ray Bradbury, excerpt from Zen in the Art of Writing

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Heinlein's Rules

I know, you've seen them before. But it's worth repeating. Write, finish, don't dither, sell it, write something else. Okay, I'm paraphrasing. Here are Robert Heinlein's actual rules for writing:

1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4.) You must put the work on the market.
5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

I've seen writers spend years working on one thing, and what's the point of that? If it sells, great. What else you got? Nothing. If it doesn't sell, you're bitter, despondent, and not as good as you could have been had you written more, more often, and more diversely.
Write, finish, don't dither, sell it, write something else.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Rulebreakers

Before becoming a proud parent of the cubist movement, Pablo Picasso was a classically trained artist who knew exactly where noses and eyes were supposed to go (as evidenced in his 1896 self-portrait to the right.)

One could argue that had he not previously displayed mastery of his craft before attempting his later work, Pablo Picasso not only wouldn’t have succeeded in shifting the paradigms of the art milieu of his day, he might have been locked away. Or worse – ignored.

What’s more, one can argue that Picasso couldn’t have created his later works without first thoroughly understanding the fundamental principles needed to paint that self-portrait. Brush technique, color, depth, lighting, shadow, perspective, and proportion are only a few of the elements he used to express his stationary stories, realist or otherwise.

Which brings us to another type of storytelling – writing. It may not be immediately obvious, but the two forms of expression (and in fact all forms of expression) have a great deal in common.

Painting, writing, furniture making, and cooking for example, all require a great deal of skill and understanding which we call craft. The scribe’s analogs to the painter’s skills are language, character, dialogue, action, pacing, structure, etc. Guiding these skills are simple rules learned over time through observation, education, and trial and error.

Without fully internalizing the rules governing the most rudimentary stories, a novice writer attempting to write a masterpiece would be as likely to do so as the proverbial chimp at the typewriter hammering out a draft of Hamlet—

"To be or … poop!"

There are exceptions of course – the rare savant, the Mozart, the intuitive wunderkind who crawls out of the womb and taps out a masterpiece over a long weekend. But they’re one in ten million, and their careers are often as ephemeral as a Hollywood marriage.

When I was 12 years old my father bought me a banjo. I took lessons for about two months, and like many kids, I became frustrated with scales and chords and all the rules you have to learn in order to actually play music. Long story short, I decided that instead of learning the banjo I would invent my own instrument.

So like a young Thomas Edison I set about deconstructing my brand new banjo. And after only a few days of blood, sweat, and tears I had created -- a useless pile of strings and tuning knobs. Why did I think I could invent a new instrument when I didn’t understand the first thing about the one I had?

When a head chef is hiring a new cook, he’ll often test the skill of the applicant with an omelet. It may look simple, but cooking an omelet perfectly each time takes a lot of craft, and that can only be attained through experience.

"Do not try to go beyond where you haven’t yet begun.” The Book of Runes

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tolstoy on Tolstoy

“I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder - there was not a crime I did not commit ... Thus I lived for ten years.” Count Leo Tolstóy

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Midpoint

The Midpoint of a story isn’t just a bookmark slipped into the center of a screenplay, short story, or novel. It’s quite possibly the most important plot point in the entire story, yet it’s also the most neglected element.

The Midpoint is where the main character stops reacting and starts acting.

Billy Wilder (attributed)

It’s often a tributary in the story where character joins plot in a pivotal moment when the protagonist or hero stops reacting to events controlling his life and decides to take control of his own destiny. In the beginning of many stories, the antagonist or antagonistic force is pushing against the main character. At the Midpoint, the main character pushes back.

The Midpoint may also give the audience a glimpse of the answer or resolution to the main character’s problem established in the beginning.

In 40 Year Old Virgin (because I happen to be staring at the DVD), the Midpoint occurs when protagonist Andy Stitzer (Steve Carrell) hits a low point after his friends set him up with a male prostitute. Deciding that he’s no longer going to react to events, Andy takes control of his own destiny, marches across the street, and asks the gorgeous grandmother (played by Catherine Keener) out on a date, thus giving the audience a glimpse or sneak preview of the story’s final resolution.

The midpoint of The Empire Strikes Back is actually a late one if you're going by pages. It's where Luke Skywalker battles the false Darth Vader in the tree cave. The scene not only signals Luke's intentions to meet Vader face to face, but it sets up the fight between father and son at the end, and even hints at the later revelation that Vader is in fact Luke's father.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the Midpoint of the book is when Harry, Hermione, and Ron discover the great big dog guarding the entrance to the hidden passageway. The final line of the chapter reads: ‘It looked as though Harry had found out where the grubby little package from vault seven hundred and thirteen was.” This introduces the second half of the story, which is working out what’s hidden in there, and how can they get to it. It also foreshadows the setting for Harry’s final confrontation.

Understanding the Midpoint and learning to use it effectively can be the key to unlocking the mysteries of plot for many writers struggling with structure.