This talk by French Screenwriter and Film Maker, Celine Sciamma, has challenged me in two ways.
It has challenged my already challenged mind regarding the received ‘this is the way you plot a story’.
It has challenged me to think even more deeply about what the focus of my stories are.
For Sciamma there is a three stage process for her writing. She may not title them exactly as I am about to list them, but this is my translation of them:
Identify your Global Desires for the film/story
Place the Local Scenes
Return to the Global View and ensure that each of the Local Scenes are in keeping with your Global Desires.
Your Global Desires for your story encompasses the whole form and key elements of your narrative. There may be a number: It is a love story; it has a non-typical viewpoint; its is artistically driven and not obstacle driven in plot.
Your Local Scenes are the actual scenes in the story and should be split into two lists:
1.The Desired List – This is the parts of scenes, the snatches of dialogue, the setting of the story, random ideas of plot; in fact they are anything which inspired you in the idea of the story to begin with.
2.The Needed List – These are the scenes you need to have in your story in order to tell it. It is the plot, the characters, the action, etc.
The aim here is to take all of the items in your second list and work them into the first list. All that should remain is your list of Desired scenes.
Focus on what is important in each scene. Is it the dialogue? Is it the detail of setting? Is it character? Is it the action between characters?
Your finalGlobal View for your story now checks that your Desired list of scenes is telling the elements you specified in the original Global Desires list.
What isn’t necessary needs to be cut or altered so it is necessary.
You may not need lots of background detail in your narrative.
You may not need to follow the conventions of your time period or the genre of your story.
Conflict and Obstacles – the usual cornerstones of plotting – may not have to be the focus of your story telling.
If you are telling a love story your key characters may not have to have large obstacles or have conflict in their relationship. If your Global Desire is to tell of the love between two characters then focus on the love.
Take a story you are currently working on, or a new idea you have and apply Sciamma’s three stages of planning/plotting to it.
I expect your view of your story to change. Mine has.
If you choose to take a break, have you broken your habit?
I’ve written just over 63,000 words in the last 7 weeks, with the aim of writing at least 1,000 words a day.
I established the habit I wanted of writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day.
Then two days ago, I stopped writing.
It was a conscious choice.
The story was going fine. I am a ‘pantser’ by inclination and, creatively, I was having no problems.
The problem came from the characters themselves.
They were easy characters, working well together.
They had a plot which was going forward and had layers. They didn’t grumble.
But they pull me to one side and ask me one question – we know what’s going on, but does the reader?
I looked blankly at them and then asked for more coffee.
They were right.
I was leaving the reader to make big leaps in understanding of the characters from subtle clues in the things they said.
The characters left me alone to work the problem out.
The first thing to do was stop writing.
Another one thousand more words which weren’t quite hitting the spot wasn’t going to help.
I realised I was going to have to make changes in what I had written so far, but I wasn’t going to do that now.
Finish the story. Edit after.
What I needed to do know was realise all of the character points I knew in their backgrounds, and let that information out to the reader, without them having to do an ‘escape room’ puzzle to work it out.
I am writing a thriller. Not a character trait treasure hunt.
I have dropped the reader into the midst of a group of tight characters.
The reader needs to understand how they got where they are and why.
I am the writer, so it’s my job to get them up to speed.
The main characters know we are back to work as normal tomorrow.
Break-time is over.
I’ve looked them in the eye, and I think they believe me.
It is difficult in these days of movies and tv series not to associate actors with the fictional people they portray.
Or is it the other way around?
An honest actor will tell you that if the writing is good then they just say the lines. Which is them being very generous. Their art is a truly skilful one.
But, if the lines of their characters are true to their part within the story, then they may ‘play’ the role rather than having to ‘invent’ the role.
I’ve been concentrating on character within my own stories a lot more recently.
I tend write and reveal character through dialogue. Which, for me, is fine; mostly due to the fact that these characters have been hanging out with me and following me around, talking non-stop to me.
I’ve started to think much more about how much I am actually revealing about these characters. I think I might not be doing as good a job as I think.
One of the articles I came across whilst deliberating this issue offered ‘five ways to improving your characters’.
In my notebook, I neglected to write down where the article was from . . . but when I track it down again, I will attribute it properly so you can check the whole thing out.
Until then I offer you the notes I made.
Get in touch with your character on a personal level – If you were describing having met this person to a friend of yours, what would you tell them? Your reader probably should know that much too.
Understand their backstory deeply – You probably will not tell this story in your novel/script but all of the things that have happened to them up to this point, will effect their decision making within your story.
Drive your story with your characters – Plot is obviously important, but how your main characters get to that end point, might be different if you let them find their way there, rather than driving them there yourself.
Study how character change impacts plot – Back to school! – pick up those books/articles, listen/watch those interviews with your favourite authors. Keep learning your craft!
Be persistent – Unless you want your characters to give up, don’t you give up learning and understanding them, so together you build the best story you can.
One of my favourite movies is Lethal Weapon and the introduction to the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh is one of the best there is.
We discover that Riggs has nothing left to live for and wants to die. We discover that Murtaugh has a family he wants to live for and worries that he might die if he isn’t careful.
The tension between these two characters and their motivations are what we watch. The plot line almost becomes something that just moves them from one place to another.
We see them rubbing the edges off each other.
They will only survive to the end of the story by doing it together. Murtaugh has to take chances and Riggs has to have something to live for.
Just writing those last couple of paragraphs reminds me I need to keep going back to point 4!
Let me know how your characters are going and what you have done to improve them.
You hit a wall. You lose the thread. A character doesn’t follow the plot line you have carefully constructed for them.
I’m sure it happens to artists and musicians also.
As a writer you normally do two things.
First, you give up; thus proving that you probably aren’t really good enough to be a writer after all. Second, you become belligerent and try and force the character, or plot, into fitting into the shape you created for it.
I’ve done both.
But, more recently, I’ve been learning there is a third way.
And it is easier than the other two.
You just close the notebook or electronic file and open up a new one.
Then, every now and again, let your creative mind wander back to the project and see if anything new occurs to you.
Let me give you an example.
I will call the project White Ladder.
White Ladder started with an image of two old men talking in a room one evening. They see a news clip of a new movie actress wowing audiences. It turns out that one of the men knew her mother.
That image and about 400 words, of mostly dialogue, was over 20 years ago.
It just never got past that initial stage.
A couple of years ago I heard a radio programme which focused on particular musicians and their defining albums. They played some of the songs and talked about the inspirations and processes of making the albums.
The one I listened to was David Gray, talking about his album White Ladder.
Suddenly that image of the two men talking came back to me and a variation on the theme started to form, energised by the words and mood of David Gray’s album.
The plot line was now dictated by the titles of each of the tracks on the album and the mood set by, often, just one line of the lyrics.
I don’t usually plan. I am a pantser by trade.
A couple of weeks of looking back at the plot line then led me to open up a project on Scrivener and start putting words on the page.
74,428 words later I stalled. I was at the three-quarters finished stage.
The two main characters had not followed the plot line and were all out refusing to do so.
I huffed and puffed and threatened to delete them, but they knew I was bluffing. So I gave them the cold shoulder for about six weeks. It turned out they were more patient than me.
So I took a key idea from within the project and tried to write the story from that perspective instead.
That was good for 34,149 words. Then the plot line decided not to follow the original plot I had carefully conceived. The two main characters waited patiently on the street they were walking, looking at me, waiting for me to make a decision.
I now had the word count of a full length novel, but three-quarters and one-quarter of the same story in two versions.
Dust gathered on both versions. Apart from reworking the whole plot into a series of ten short stories, telling the story from the perspectives of different characters.
I think I got that idea from Patrick Gale and his fantastic book Notes from an Exhibition.
Dust still gathers.
I know this story will be finished, because it keeps tapping on the door of my creative studio, reminding me that it is still there.
But in not finishing White Ladder (yet!) I have learnt a lot.
I have learnt that one simple scene will eventually become a full story if you wait long enough.
I have devised a story plot three different ways.
I have 108,000+ words of writing practice, which will eventually be a finished novel.
I have learnt to be patient with myself.
I haven’t failed because the book isn’t completed.
If you have read any of my other posts then you already know that I am a fan of Podcasts and Audiobooks. Today, I revisited one of my favourite Ray Bradbury novels in F451, with a great audio version narrated by Tim Robbins.
One of the many things which struck me this time around was just how quickly Bradbury gets the story moving.
After a quick page or so of describing the Fireman Guy Montag doing his job and returning to the Fire Station we – along with the protagonist – are confronted with Clarisse McClellan.
I wondered if this was where Thomas Harris got his inspiration for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. I also couldn’t shift the image of Julie Christie as Clarisse in Truffaut’s cinematic version from 1966.
Back to the novel and Clarisse starts to question Guy Montag and his profession as a Fireman, musing on the possibility that Firemen used to put out fires not start them.
Bradbury moves so fast here. How did she pick him out? Was she waiting for him? What made her think that he was different? The strong opening imagery of Montag now confronted with an alternative possibility takes just six pages.
Montag returns home to find his wife has attempted suicide and we become aware that his life, and the life of the society we have been dropped into, is not positive or healthy. Like Hamlet we realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Is Montag mad? Suffering from a disease spread by the very things he burns? Or like Hamlet, is he the only sane person in a cast of the mad or those who do not even realise they are just as trapped as he is?
Within fourteen pages, pretty much everything is set for the rest of the story.
Within twenty-three pages we have met the Mechanical Hound, which Montag is convinced doesn’t like him, and Captain Beatty, who we don’t trust the moment he explains that the Hound doesn’t think anything that ‘they’ don’t want it to.
Main character. Catalyst character asking questions. Difficult home life/relationship. What will pursue the Main character. The Antagonist.
. . . Why didn’t you achieve what you planned to during this last week?
And my Saturday Answer is . . .
. . . Stuff and illness. The latter is pretty straight forward. I netted myself some rogue bug which seems to have effected absolutely no one else within my close proximity. The former is a mixture of changed plans, plans no one told me about, disruptions and interruptions, lack of focus, distractions and other attractions.
None of this forms any meaningful excuse but is just what it is. It was up to me to work my way through all of this and still produce.
I am even more of the opinion that a shed at the bottom of the garden is a good idea, but have you seen how much sheds, worthy of creative endeavours at the bottom of the garden can cost? I think I can afford a bivy-bag underneath a bush.
However, I am writing something new and it seems to be going okay. I’ve gone back to the Lee Child method of plot development and it feels good. I’m especially happy with the fact that each seen is essential – I haven’t written a bunch of nice scenes which aren’t really necessary – and the plot is moving quickly along, with each of the characters asking questions. Well, that’s how I see it anyway?
A few other things which can wait for the Sunday Reflection, so catch you tomorrow!
One piece of writing advice is to destroy your tv.
You’re a writer of books, so read ’em and write ’em.
TV was invented to distract you and allow advertising to sell you stuff.
So that should be enough for why not to TV.
So Why to TV?
Plot and Characters in a story arc.
Most tv series don’t give you much more, other than a great source of material for building ‘cliffhangers’ into your chapter endings.
Watch how each episode is finished. How does it wrap the events of that episode but how does it inform on what went on in previous episode plots or signal something yet to come.
What character relationships are there and how do they develop?
Not everything needs to make sense. A lot of TV shows don’t even try to explain shifts in scenes or seemingly impossible plot points – they just know you want a conclusion to that episodes situation and to see how the relationships between the key characters is furthered.
Perhaps you don’t need to fret over all of those details which were giving you sleepless nights after all.