Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Structure and “Are You My Mother”

Probably the best structured of any children’s picture book that I have read, and the book that best illustrates structure for any piece of fictional writing is, “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman. Structure of fiction books and movies is not the three act play that most of us are brought up to think of. They have three acts but the acts are not equal.

In a movie the first twenty minutes is the introduction to the character and the situation in which the character finds himself…. at twenty minutes (1-3 pages in a children’s picture book or 1-2 chapters into the novel) there is an “inciting incident” which causes the main character to make a decision that sets him on the track of the rest of the movie, novel or children’s picture book. Generally, he thinks it is the thing that is going to solve his problem. In a well structured novel, the first chapter or two is the equivalent of that first twenty minutes of a movie or the first few pages of a children’s picture book.

In “Are You My Mother?” the set-up takes the first two or three pages. The mother bird is sitting on an egg. She sets off in search of food. The baby bird hatches, doesn’t find its mother. The inciting incident, that sets it on the track for the rest of the book, is the decision to set off to find its mother. From that moment on, it’s on a track that turns every one or two pages to within two or three pages of the end (every 15 minutes in a movie, 1-2 chapters in a novel).

In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a dog, a cow, a cat, a chicken, a boat, a plane, a car… and always his question is “Are You My Mother?” and always the answer is, “No.” Each time the question is asked or thought, the answer is slightly different. The plot is turned and each section of the plot is handled slightly differently. If you use the seven Harry Potter books as samples of that template each chapter leads to a different confrontation with a variation of Lord Voldemort, or someone else or some elucidating situation or circumstance. Each situation and each confrontation is different. Each chapter adds to our knowledge of the wizarding world, or Harry or Lord Voldemort until you have the entire tapestry before you.

Finally, in each modality there is a visit to the Valley of Death in which all is apparently lost for the lead character. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, tragedy, Sci Fi, mystery, novel, movie, children’s story – in a well structured book there will be a moment at which the lead character finds himself in a hopeless situation. In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a “Snort.” The snort, which is a steam shovel, picks up the baby bird – at which point the bird thinks it’s a gonner – so does any child listening to the story for the first time.

Then follows the resolve. The snort puts the bird back in his nest. His mother comes home. They recognize each other. They snuggle lovingly. All in 2-3 pages.

In a well constructed book – like the Harry Potter books – Harry is confronted by a variation on the theme of Lord Voldemort and survives. The end of Book Three is slightly different in that Harry saves Serius (his godfather) and does not actually confront Voldemort to do battle. That is a transition book. It allows Serius into Harry’s life and it sends Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew) to the aid of Lord Voldemort. Number six is also a transition book. It takes out the powerful Dumbledore, it introduces the first Horcrux, and it sets Harry onto the path of ending the fight with Voldemort in which one of them must die.

The “Die Hards” bring up another problem. What happens when you have a strong character who has met many Valleys of Death and isn’t intimidated by them. In that case the Valley of Death is applied to someone he cares about (his wife, his daughter) and the character confronts it on their behalf. Whatever is going to elicit the emotion of all is lost is what the writer uses.

Structure is fascinating to study. After you’ve enjoyed a good move or book for the first time, read it for the way in which the author handles structure. Watch any studio-created action adventure (a high concept movie which plot you can encapsulate in a sentence or two) with a stop watch and at 20 minutes the action changes to the track the movie will ride on. At about 110 minutes the Valley of Death appears and you slide into the resolve. Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality, the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, they’re all structured in the same way. The interesting thing is how brilliantly and differently each of them does the exact same structure.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Villain Allies

Villains have friends. They have lovers and wives, dogs and cats. The people around the villain contribute to our understanding of that villain and to the advancing of his or her objectives. How he treats each of them and how they in turn respond to him help describe him. Does he treat them well? Does he love them? Hitler loved dogs, he loved Eva Braun, he had allies that both carried out and dictated his wishes. Villain allies can help the hero by creating a whole cadre of villainous people that must be overcome rather than limiting the hero to battle to one villain - this in turn enhances the strength and greatness of the hero.

Movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, to name just a few, have great cadres of villain allies. Harry Potter rarely does direct conflict with the arch villain Voldemort – at least until the end of each book. He usually does battle with surrogates like Bellatrix Lestrange and Lucius Malfoy. In Harry Potter the lines of the villain allies are not always easy to see.

One of the more interesting villain allies is Severus SnapeHarry Potter’s potions teacher at Hogwarts School of Witches and Wizardry – because Snape is a profoundly effective double agent. Snape is so effective that Harry does not recognize his goodness until the end of book seven. Snape is both a devoted ally of Albus Dumbledore and the right hand of Voldemort. His allegiance to Dumbledore and Dumbledore’s complete trust in him is a subject of much discussion and internal conflict throughout the series. J. K. Rowling is so effective as a writer that the audience does not come to grips with the fact that Snape really is a good guy until the last pages of the last book and then you see the bread crumbs that could have told you about his devotion to the side of good all along if only you’d been privy to a few more conversations.

If you want to explore another villain ally, read Silence of the Lambs. Actually Hannibal Lecter isn’t a villain ally – he’s a hero ally who is himself a villain. He represents evil incarnate, one of the most interesting allies ever written because he himself is so patently wicked, cruel and dangerous. As an ally to the young Clarice Starling whose bravery was proven by standing up to him, he was brilliantly interesting and enhanced Starling so that when she took on the true villain of the story we knew that her youth and inexperience wouldn’t stand in her way because she had already dealt with Lecter. Lecter gave her credibility. When he became the villain in his own right, he had nowhere to go with his evil. He became just another psychopath and far less interesting even though his character traits were unusual. Indeed, Hannibal Lecter as the villain was less readable or watchable than Hannibal Lecter the ally.

Each villain ally should have his or her own relationship to the villain. He or she should be as three dimensional as the villain or hero.

Describe the villain’s allies. How do the villain allies advance the plot? How do villain allies give us more understanding of the villain or of the hero? Write brief biographies of each of them. Make certain to create memorable traits, behavior patterns or habits. Analyze their relationship to the villain and why they are his allies from his point of view and from their point of view.

Monday, December 7, 2009

“Monkey Mind” or "Mind Chatter”

Everyone has Monkey Mind at some time or another – indeed Monkey Mind is one of the things that separates man from beast. It’s that nagging nasty voice that says things that upset us…. Or take us off course… or lead us into making delusional mistakes. It is the antitheses of reason or intuition.

This author once wanted to make a cartoon illustrating Monkey Mind.

It’s a two part cartoon titled “Eve and the Tree of Knowledge”

* In part one, the serpent is tempting Eve to partake of the apple, and she does.

* In Part two, she turns toward Adam and thinks, “I just know that he thinks I’m too fat.”

As Harry Potter and Ron Weasley enter their teenage years in book four, J.K. Rowling introduces the idea of Mind Chatter – not specifically but through the thoughts and reactions of both boys – as Harry drives himself to distraction with rage as he feels more and more isolated and put upon by the weight of his life’s purpose and Dumbledore’s strange attitude toward him. Ron is distracted by his own false beliefs that Harry hasn’t included him in his activities. It is part of Rowling’s genius that she includes those thoughts and feelings, with which all of us struggle, for examination in her characters. Not only do her books create a parallel universe, but they create parallels of thought and belief with which all of us can identify.

There are three lines of thought for all of us including the characters we read, write, read about and act:

* Conscious and reasoned: which is problem solving, logical and ordered.

* Intuition: which is a quiet guidance, sometimes considered to be divine, that leads smoothly to perfect solutions of problems.

* Monkey Mind which is a nasty, screaming, worrying voice that occupies a great deal of our waking time and can lead us to making grave mistakes.

* Insanity: which is Monkey Mind run amok – disjointed and disconnected to any links in reality.

Hamlet’s Ophelia is a great exploration of insanity within the context of character. Shakespeare does not take her into dark realms, of which she might actually be unaware given her innocent nature, but keeps her young and unexposed, and lets her go insane in character. The outcome is the same, she dies. And it’s much more interesting than if she had suddenly turned into Lady MacBeth - who he also drives to insanity – dark, frightening insanity commensurate with her life and deeds. Shakespeare explores a unique concept with Ophelia - the concept that torture and torment don't have to be dark and chilling.

Shakespeare explored Monkey Mind in the “To be, or be” speech in Hamlet. Characters who contemplate suicide, even in iambic pentameter, are definitely at the effect of “Monkey Mind.” Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem from which the character can see no escape. It is a cry for change. Suicide itself is change incarnate.

A wonderful writing or acting exercise is to explore the character’s Monkey Mind. A marvelous term paper idea would be to create the underpinnings of Monkey Mind that lead to some action that the character took. Mind Chatter that the author may not have explored in the actual writing. The characters in almost any Elizabeth George book could lead to hours of Monkey Mind exploration because they’re so psychologically rich. Indeed, she explores the Monkey Mind thinking of her villains in great depth.

Questions about Mind Chatter include: Give examples of the character’s Monkey Mind. Contrast Monkey Mind with the character’s reasoned thought and intuition. How does Monkey Mind advance the plot? How does it enhance the conflict between characters? How does it advance the reader’s understanding of the character? What Monkey Mind would you give to a character that you feel the author left out of the story?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Collections in Character Development

People collect all kinds of things. They collect scalps, they collect rich husbands, antique cars, art, newspapers, original editions, bottle caps, guns, cats, ceramic frogs, baseball cards, salt and pepper shakers. The things that people collect, and the way they keep what they collect, speaks volumes about their personality.

Native American warriors used to wear scalps on their belts. Of course it was the French who started the tradition by demanding proof of kills. Later, businessmen (rarely women in those days) were known to collect the scalps of their competition.

If you look at the movie “First Wives Club” you will find a perfect example of a collector of rich husbands in Gunilla Garson Goldberg played by Maggie Smith – delightful, classy and perfect – a high class meets low class contrast to the social climbing collector Shelly Stewart played by Sarah Jessica Parker. In fact, the writers cleverly used a sale at Christy’s to accentuate the collector qualities of both characters. It’s subtle and brilliant.

In Harry Potter, chocolate frogs come with cards of famous wizards who drift in and out of their pictures. This is another perfect example of J.K. Rowling’s parallel universe; recognizable but different. She uses this particular tool to advance the unexposed young wizard Harry to Albus Dumbledore as well as to ways in which the wizarding world differs from the muggle world.

In the 1954 edition of My Brother’s Keeper, Marcia Davenport created two brothers who collected obsessively until they died of their compulsion.

Collection Questions: What does the character collect? How does he take care of what he collects? What do the things he collects contribute to our understanding of the character and those around him? How does what he collects contribute to our understanding of his world? How does what he collects contribute to the plot? Does what he collects contribute to conflict with other characters? What would you have him collect that the author didn’t have him collect and why?