Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Real Life Head-Heart-Gut Trios in “Humans of New York”

And here’s the last one:
I found this gratifying: more than once on the site, Brandon discovers genuine polarized ensembles wandering the streets of New York!  Even when advocating such trios, I usually stress that they’re more common in fiction than they are in real life, but it turns out that they’re more common than I thought.

First we get a Heart / Gut / Head (in that he’s risk-averse)

And a Heart (in that his goal is more childlike) / Head / Gut (with an extra gut tagging along...)

It’s simple enough to differentiate characters by giving them different responses to a question, but an even better way to establish their personality is to have each one interpret that question in a fundamentally different way, showing us that their brains are hard-wired differently, and so they’re inevitably going to create conflict.

So that’s it for HONY week.  I urge you all to haunt the site as I do, gleaning more insights into human nature and tools for establishing a blast of personality right away.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook: Kid Logic in "Humans of New York"

After yesterday’s heavier material, let’s look at the gentler side of “Humans of New York”: the kids. Once again, what Stanton does seems easy (Kids say the darndest things!) but there’s more going on. Whenever I’ve had to write kid characters, they utterly defeat me, because I can’t resist the natural urge to simply write them as little open-hearted adults. The key to writing kids well is to understand their bizarre logic. Stanton focuses in on this aspect like a laser.

Kids are worried about things that only kids worry about.  Sometimes this causes them to overestimate their challenges...

And sometimes to underestimate them:
And whoops, here we are back in tragedy-ville, because utilizing kid-logic fears can also be a great way of making the horror of a situation feel more real:
Kids have almost all of the same worries and anxieties as adults, but they process them in strange ways. Good kid-character dialogue reflects our own fears (large and small) back at us in a funhouse mirror, allowing us to see anew in a fresh and startling way.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook: Keeping the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange in Humans of New York

Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton recently expanded his focus radically by tagging along on a 50-day UN tour of 10 countries. Thankfully, he proved to be equally adept at getting great portraits and stories abroad as he has been at home.

Once again, it’s easy to undervalue his accomplishment. It might seem easy to generate sympathy simply by entering a refugee camp and letting people describe their troubles, but there’s actually a huge danger that such stories will alienate and even annoy audiences.  (Such as in the ads brilliantly parodied here.)

Stanton succeeds because he obeys the number one rule of world-building: make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. In other words, get us to identify with these people (They’re just like us!) while also making it clear that they’re going through some things that are totally beyond our experience (I can’t even conceive of what it would be like to have to live through that!). The trick is constantly keep your audience on their toes, not knowing if the next details will be universal or shocking.

So we get lots of horror stories such as this one:

Right alongside utterly universal worries such as this:

Once we get used to fact that some of these people are enduring epic struggles unique to their situation:

We then see others who we assume are also suffering from geopolitical terror, only to discover that their pain is the same sort of thing we can just as easily suffer here, such as this man…

…or this girl, who surprises us by offering an entirely atrocity-free reason for her broken arm:

By interspersing universal stories with shocking ones, Stanton keeps us alert, unable to “other-ize” his international subjects. In the link above, I showed how Letters from Iwo Jima did the same thing to instantly bond us to the hero. This is an essential skill for making your audience feel at home in an unfamiliar world.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy in "Humans of New York"

Why am I spending time on Humans of New York? (After all, it’s not as if this material isn’t already widely shared on the internet) Because I think that what site creator Brandon Stanton does has many good lessons for writers.

Ideally, every writer would do what Stanton is doing: for at least an hour a day, walk around talking to people on the street, collecting unique language, unique life details, and compelling real life ironies. Unfortunately most of us lack the time and/or temperament, but the good news is that we live in the golden age of information, so we now have sites like this that provide treasure troves of perfectly chosen character moments.

As writers, we have two nearly impossible jobs to do: first we must create a great unique-but-universal character, then we must succinctly convey that greatness, that uniqueness, and that universality, in a flash, so that the character will swiftly blossom to life in the mind of the audience, allowing our stories to really begin.

And that’s what truly wonderful about Stanton’s work. It’s easy to credit the site’s success to his skill as a photographer and an interviewer, but there’s a third element that’s equally important: he’s a great editor. He asks several questions designed to create emotional and unique responses, gets a chunk of material to work with from each person, and then he cuts all of that down to just the right snippet to instantly make these people fascinating. That’s a lot harder than it looks, and it’s a big part of our job.

Let’s look at some of the ways he makes certain subjects instantly likeable. The trick, of course, is empathy, and one thing he’s good at is making opposite types of people equally likeable.

This guy’s humility is instantly appealing:

Whereas this lady wins us over with her swagger:

We love this guy’s humble appreciation of his job:

And this guy’s yearning to escape his, expressed with such telling specificity:

We sympathize with this man’s poverty:

But we’re also sympathetic to the problems caused by this man’s wealth:

Fiction writers have to be all three types of god: All-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Journalists such as Stanton, on the other hand, are denied the first because they cannot create their subjects, so they have to make up for it by focusing even more on the other two.  They can’t let their confirmation bias get in their way when they approach people, molding their subjects to fit their prejudices.  Instead, they must remember that everyone has some personal detail that will earn our empathy, if only we can find it. This is true in real life, and so it must also be true in our fiction.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Humans of New York #1

I don’t have time for a long post today, but I think I’ll spend this week looking at lessons that can be drawn from “Humans of New York” posts. I’ll have more to say about the site soon, but for now I’ll just start with this one, which is one of my favorites:

This exemplifies two rules: The importance of an “I understand you” moment at the beginning of a romance, and the importance of ironic positive developments. Presumably, both men came to the party determined to be antisocial sticks-in-the-mud, and then the two sticks saw each other across a crowded room. (Fun fact: I used to write songs in college, and one had the chorus “I don’t care and you don’t care so let’s not care together”)

More tomorrow...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Prophesies Suck, Legacies Rock

At last! The final Star Wars post…
It’s the word I hate the most in all of fiction: prophesy. Prophesies are the laziest form of lazy writing: foreshadowing without any shadows. There’s nothing worse then the horrible sinking feeling I got at the end of the fifth Harry Potter book when the prophecy was revealed. I at least had some vague hopes that it was a fake out, but alas it wasn’t.

Even when the ultimate point is that prophesies are a bad idea, as in the Star Wars prequels, they’re still coldly alienating to an audience: That usually just means that it comes true in an ironic way, which still implies a predestined universe, which is something that audiences hate. We want our heroes to have free agency, to choose to be great, and earn their place in our hearts, without a prophesy telling us (or them) how special they are.

But as James Kennedy pointed out in the letter that started these posts:
  • Aunt Beru says, “Luke's not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him” and Uncle Owen responds, “That's what I’m afraid of”, now we’re truly intrigued by Luke – there’s more to Luke than even Luke knows, and they key to it all is his father! So we’re subtly prepped for when Ben Kenobi starts talking about Luke’s father: whatever Ben says about Luke’s father (great star pilot, Jedi knight, cunning warrior) is something that is potentially true about Luke. Aunt Beru has promised it in this scene! She’s planted the seed here!
All the way from “Oedipus” to Guardians of the Galaxy, the secret of the hidden birth has been a beloved third-quarter twist. Of course, the even bigger reveal in The Empire Strikes Back will up the stakes for Luke, but even this first movie has a smaller version of the revelation: Luke finds out that his dad was a great Jedi.

A belatedly-revealed legacy is the smart version of a prophesy. On the one hand, if you believe in nature over nurture, then you’ll feel that you can inherit the qualities and/or abilities of your dad, even if you’ve never met him…but even if you believe strictly in nurture, a secret-dad reveal can still have a powerful psychological effect on a person, because we all have limiters in our head saying “a person like me can’t aim that high.” Finding out about great accomplishments in your family lets you know, “hey, why shouldn’t I be able to do the same thing?”

Luke just chortled when Threepio called him “Sir Luke”, but once he finds out more about his father from Obi Wan, he begins to change his way of thinking: Hey maybe a guy like me can be a knight…

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Value of a Counterintuitive Metaphor Family in Star Wars

An unexpected metaphor family can be a great way to add complexity to a character. It’s fine to simply draw a character’s metaphor family from the role they play in the narrative (the cop can’t stop using cop lingo at home, the doctor sees everything in medical terms) but sometimes it’s more interesting to skip over the obvious choice and choose a metaphor family that subtly highlights a suppressed aspect of a hero’s personality.

Obi Wan in Star Wars is a great example. His role in the story at first seems to be that of “jolly old elf” / hermit / wizard, and that’s all true, but none of these labels determine his metaphor family. His language reveals that all of those roles are somewhat of an affectation hiding what Obi Wan really is: a general.
  • One of his first lines could come out of the mouth of Patton: “Quickly, son, they’re on the move.”
  • When he gives Luke an emblem of his religion, he gives him, of all things, a laser-sword, and he praises it by pointing out that it has superior target accuracy to a laser-gun: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.”
  • Later his concern with weapon accuracy continues: “Sand People always ride single file to hide their numbers. And these blast points, too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
  • And there’s plenty more general-speak… “But it also obeys your commands” “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” “No, it’s a short range fighter.”
It’s not just a matter of his knowledge-set, his word choice is inherently militaristic: referring to their “numbers”, “blast points”, etc.

This isn’t to say that Obi-Wan isn’t a spiritual character, he clearly is, but if the spiritual wisdom he dispensed was accompanied by a more new age-y metaphor family (which would be the default choice) then we would be more likely to see him as a hoary old stock character. Giving him a metaphor family that speaks to his suppressed former life enriches the character and makes his wisdom seem much more powerful, because it’s clearly hard-won.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Luke as Emotional Manipulator in Star Wars

Just a few more Star Wars posts, I promise! There’s a lot to talk about with this movie!
I’ve said many time that every character should pursue what he or she wants using verbal tricks and traps, rather than direct requests or confrontations. This isn’t just true of dishonest or manipulative characters: even nice guys should use tricks and traps to pursue their nice guy goals. As I said in my original post on this topic:
  • Don’t assume that only unsympathetic or devious characters do this. Anyone who is clever and persuasive knows that they must pepper their conversation with tricks and traps. Take a look at the knife scene in Twelve Angry Men. As a lone holdout juror in a murder trial, Henry Fonda pretty much plays the ultimate living embodiment of human decency. He’s one of the most humble and noble heroes in the history of movies. And he does it all with tricks and traps.
Another character notable for his open-hearted idealism is Luke Skywalker. There’s a reason he dresses all in white: he’s unambiguously good! But Luke, too, is a big fan of tricks and traps. He actually uses a lot of indirect and manipulative dialogue, in an admirably crafty way:
  • He tries to trap his Uncle Owen by talking up the usefulness of the new droids before slyly segueing to the idea they could take his place on the farm. (“I think those new droids are going to work out fine. In fact, I, uh, was also thinking about our agreement…”)
  • He goads Han into accepting a lower offer in the Cantina (“We could buy our ship for that!”) and pushes him to work harder on the broken lightspeed (“I thought you said this thing was fast?”)
  • He hammers away at Han when he won’t help in rescuing Leia, circling around him looking for weak spots, until he finally figures it out (“She’s rich!”)
  • Once he wins Han over, he’s the one who comes up with the trick where they pretend Chewy is their captive.
We think of Han and the slick one, but he’s actually transparent and plainspoken, while Luke is far more wily, and more likely to wrap Han around his finger. This culminates in the finale, when Luke finally convinces Han to totally betray his own self-interest by hitting him below the belt one last time: “Well, take care of yourself, Han... guess that's what you’re best at, isn’t it?” Han just can’t stay away after that.

Obi Wan isn’t the only one who knows how to play mind tricks!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Drop Some Half Facts

Speaking of novelists who read the blog, I’m happy to report that occasional Cockeyed commenter Jonathan Auxier has found a ton of success with his latest novel, “The Night Gardener.” I love this book, and while I read it, something became clear to me: the value of the half-fact. This is nothing I haven’t advocated before (to a certain extent, any form of foreshadowing can be considered to be a half-fact) but I’ve found that thinking of it in this way is particularly useful.

When the book begins, an Irish girl and her younger brother are roving the English countryside in a rickety wagon looking for work. As they do, two half-facts keep coming up, because it’s clear that she wants to avoid both: what happened to their parents, and where their cart came from. She keeps accidentally veering onto each topic and then abruptly pulling away.

This shows the two types of half-fact: We eventually find out what happened to their parents (as you might, expect, with all that foreshadowing) but, oddly, we never find out where they got the wagon.

You might think that audiences would get frustrated by foreshadowing that never pays off, or that the author owes it to the audience to keep things airtight, but this isn’t true. As long as most of the dangling half-facts pay off, we don’t mind it all of some are left dangling.

Of course, if you’re going to leave it incomplete, it should be the sort of half-facts that we can fill in for ourselves. It’s not hard to figure out where they got the wagon, after all: they probably stole it. When they dangle references to the wagon in the beginning, we expect to the get the full story later (and perhaps see some consequences) but we don’t mind at all when it never pays off. If we think about it again, we just fill in the other half of the fact on our own.
Let’s look at the two types of half-fact in Star Wars, starting with the kind that does pay off: there’s no better example of this than the holographic recording, which literally cuts off halfway, over and over again, only to finally complete itself later.

This example shows another value of the half-fact, it’s a great way to parcel out the exposition. First we see Leia record it but don’t hear anything, then we hear the first half of the message 15 minutes later, then we get the second half 15 minutes after that. If we’d gotten the whole thing during the recording or the first playback, it might feel like an awkward info-dump, but by cutting it off, Lucas achieves the opposite effect, making us anxious anticipate finding out the rest.

Of course, there’s also no shortage here of half-facts that don’t pay off, but, again, each is something that we can fill in on our own: “I fought alongside your father in the Clone Wars.” Huh? What? When will we hear more about that? Well, not for another twenty-five years, as it turns out, and by the time we do, we’ll wish Lucas had just left us with our own suppositions. It was a lot more fun not knowing the other half of that fact.