The audience settles. House lights dim. The curtain opens. The stage lights come up. On the stage, an opulent den. Big cushy leather chairs opposite an ornate desk. Well-stocked bookshelves along the wall. A globe on a stand. A character enters stage left. He reaches into his waistband and pulls out a revolver. He slides open the drawer and places the gun in, and slides it closed.
I guarantee you, from that moment on, everyone in the theater is focused on that drawer. The specter of it being within his reach charges every line of dialog with a subtext of impending confrontation. A normally innocent inquiry becomes a possible trigger to pull the trigger. “What did you do yesterday?” suddenly has a dark shade as the aura of the gun raises it to an interrogation tone.
It is the same as if a wife character learns she is pregnant but hides it from her loser husband. A husband who has lost his job and the family doesn’t know. The kid who flunked out but can’t tell his parents. The fiancée, who lost the engagement ring money at the racetrack. These too are guns in the drawer. They shape the trajectory of the dialogue and the character’s actions and responses to things.
Got it? Secrets. Below the text, subtext, charge the text. Now as a book coach I have found a very common error in most manuscripts is when the writer places the gun in the drawer, but it does not affect anything. Like it was never there. Secrets are prime character motivators. Secrets yield lies. Lies yield mistrust and mistrust yields suspense. All that takes a simple scene, sequence, or book and charges it with subtext.
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A booth at a diner in Jersey, the knee knocker seat on the LIRR, or on my lap sitting in a chaise on the beach in Puerto Rico, even in a hotel room at a writer’s conference. All these admittedly non-romantic settings in which I have penned much of my 6 published novels, 4 number ones, and three pending manuscripts, have one thing in common. A space that, beyond everything else, allowed me to write, compose, imagine, edit, polish, and author a manuscript. That space can best be visualized as a box with its four corners drawn from my left ear to the left edge of the screen and from the right side of the screen back to my right ear. Everything outside that “thought rectangle” dissolves away, goes out of focus, and becomes the comforting background lullaby that has underscored my “performance” whenever I wrote.
For me, when the idea is breaching in the birth canal, there’s an immediacy to getting it out, regardless of the purity or quiescence of wherever I happen to be. I have even knocked out a few paragraphs on my iPhone in the back of a funeral parlor during a wake. Even in my home, I may be out on the balcony, on the kitchen table, or with my laptop on a snack tray, usually with a TV, radio, or some other background noise that has accompanied my workspace all the way back to homework in elementary school.
I am lucky enough to have met and conversed with some of the most well-known and prolific authors on the planet or listened to them interviewed at writer’s conferences. Question 5 or 6 is always, “Do you have a place, or time or routine when you write?” and some have elaborate ceremonies and rituals and others the simple; “my desk every day from 10-2.” Some need a fresh pot of coffee or progressive jazz on the stereo, or in one very famous case, toke up on prodigious amounts of weed. (And he is at the very pinnacle of a successful author!)
Again, just last night, a vintage episode of the Dick Van Dyke show aired in black and white. The one where Rob, a head writer for a TV show, is driven to become a novelist. The setup is that he can’t get to writing because of all the domestic distractions of his suburban New Rochelle home, which are frustrating his efforts. The solution to the marital friction that this occurs results in a suggestion from his wife Laura that he go to a cabin in the woods for a few weeks and concentrate on his book. Well, of course, he winds up doing all kinds of foolish things which delay and get in the way of his writing. Finally admitting that it was him, not the setting, that is the problem, he puts the idea of being an author on the shelf having learned that his novel just wasn’t ready to come out yet.
I find that notion to be paramount amid all the reasons a writer can’t author. In my class, From Writer to Author, at the online Academy of Creative Skills.com, I address the ‘internal space’ that we need to create in order to satisfy that need to create.
Rob does write one thing in all those days, the only line he could manage, the dedication, to his wife expressing his love and admiration of her. His line after she reads it and does her trademark, “Oh, Rob…” he adds, “Now all I have to do is write a novel to hang on the end of it.”
Aw, 60’s TV, where everything works out in 28 minutes and 30 seconds, including commercials.
By the way, I wrote this at 6:30 in the morning, on a snack table, with the sun coming up over the skyline of New York splashing over the Hudson River to my right, – the iHeart radio from my iPhone on in the background.
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In a previous blog post, I spoke of empathetic love connectors to the reader and used the classic film Citizen Kane as a reference. Well, here’s another little gem for authors coming from the genius writing duo of H.J Mankowitz and Orson Welles. I believe they are teaching all writers by channeling this lesson through the words of their character, Rawlston.
I like the simple thing notion. Because simple means common, and usually common is not complicated because it is innate to us, simple. So, when building a Character follow what Rawlston (Mankowitz and Welles) instructs us. After all, they made a movie that many call the greatest movie of all time, all around a simple thing. Rosebud!
As we authors fill out a Character it’s always good to investigate the family. We are all shaped both positively and negatively by our familial connections, experiences, and memories. As we grow up with impressionable open minds, the right thing said by a relative can lead us down a righteous and successful path, or to prison. The beauty of enhancing Character profiles with family-borne aspects is that you can thank or get even with the people in your family. Just joking, but I have used a Character’s family member many times to explain, rationalize or put a finer point on a Character’s predilection without needless expository verbiage. Often, it’s not a whole in-depth bio but sometimes it’s just a line, “My Uncle Joe was like that.” Or a longer description of a brother who died in Iraq as a prime motivator to enlist. These baked-in memories and trajectories are indelible and can be stated in the story or kept to yourself as a personality subtext that is never revealed to the reader but guides you where to place the character on their arc.
In my own life, I have a formula that describes my emotional, practical, and psychological makeup. I find it’s true in everything I do; from being a director on a set, a senior Vice President, an entrepreneur, or an uncle. When I am at my best, all cylinders running at 100%, and I am in touch with the universe and tapping into a white-light energy source that almost guarantees that I can handle anything and usually make it better for all concerned. When I am in that state, I feel that I am 60% my mom, 30% my dad, and 10% ESP. When I am producing, my mom can charm a Teamster out of charging me meal penalties. When I am running a business, my dad can stand up to competition and people who wish you no good. When I am authoring, directing, or helping someone through a rough patch in their lives, then ESP (or it could be my great grandparents, or some guardian angel,) sends me a notion, a spark, or sometimes a smack on the head to ask about, or bring into the situation something random, out of the box, that opens a new door to a character, or it may point me to a course of action for a person to ponder, or for me whether to cut the blue or the red wire.
Now, I can’t prove that to anyone, but I know when I am in that ‘zone.’ When I am operating at just that right balance from the positive results I get. The whole point of this is that we are the cake our families put in the oven, what happens later is either the icing on top or the grit from falling on the kitchen floor. This should also be true of your Characters; they didn’t just pop out of the turnip patch. They can be shaped by their family for better or worse. For further proof simply look at the wholesale employment of therapists and psychiatrists who, in most cases, deal with replanting, pruning, or dealing with the fruit of a person’s family tree.
Obviously, we all have our own family stories, joys, and tragedies from our lives. This little treatise is by no means exhaustive but just a little nudge to suggest that sometimes the fruit of the family tree, whether it is juicy or rotted, could be just the thing you need to motivate your story, plot, character, conflict, or resolution.
Today we celebrate a giant in the world of literature. J.R. Tolkien was a super achiever. He was a very accomplished fellow. An academic and expert on language analysis. But it helps all aspiring writers to remember that as brilliant as he was, he too had to face a blank page at some point. And although he did it with a full mind, that blank page was the first challenge that every author faces. His expertise in fantasy world-building eventually came down to word choice and story structure. Same as every other author, from the beginning of civilization, has had to contend. So, the next Tolkien could be out there right now, with their facial features filled in by the light of a blank screen or the light reflecting off a blank page.
I am sitting in the reflection of a screen in the aftermath of sending off my next novel, Aquasapien, to my publisher. An 87,000-word dive into a genre that J.R. Tolkien pioneered; world-building. In my case, not middle earth, but contemporary earth. Not Hobbits, but an evolutionary offshoot of homo sapiens, evolved and adapted to earth’s other environment through genetic anomalies. Resulting in attributes and capacities enable them to achieve and perform incredible feats. It also makes them a target. And hence my tail… oops, er, tale.
Yesterday was James Patterson’s birthday. He is a monster author. And why not? I know where he came from. Same place I did. Advertising. We both were creatives in the New York ad biz. I understand the approach to story that comes from the discipline to get a message out in only 75 words or less. Thirty seconds of broadcast time that educates, motivates, and ends with a call to action, while wrapped around a USP device.
We shook hands once, at a Borders conference when my first book and his 14,345th title was coming out. I exaggerate, but like I said he’s a monster. But in point of fact, he’s a brand! Good for him!
I spend a lot of time helping good writers to become authors. Ultimately the next stop after author is BRAND. And if your brand gets big enough, your style can take a back seat. You may continue it or freely move around the literary Ouija board, without fear of rejection because your brand sells the book. He has been successful in many genres: romance novels, historical fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and science fiction.
But for the rest of us mere mortals, hammering out 85,000 words or so, into a compelling, satisfying manuscript is the immediate task before us, on the way to potentially becoming a brand. To that end it helps to find the common ground with those whose names are above the title, we all face the blank page. We all have no idea if what we are composing will be a great symphony or a one hit wonder. Branding aside, every book stands alone, even those in a series. So how to succeed in authoring a novel? I believe the answer is…
“I guess I write four or five hours a day, but I do it seven days a week. It’s very disciplined, yes, but it’s joy for me.” – James Patterson
That’s one more thing that I share with Mr. Patterson, and I am sure with nearly every successful author, we both consider writing a joy. Finding joy, is the key to facing that page, working out the plot, defining and building character and tying out the resolution of a brilliant conflict. Sheer Joy!
I can’t teach Joy. But when I see it in a student, I know we are more than halfway along to a better, manuscript. In a word, the whole process becomes a… joy!
Oh, one more thing, the New York Ad shop where I was a creative director/senior VP for 40 years, was Sid Paterson Advertising. No relation, and only one ‘T.’
It is good to remember that all Characters should possess some level of love. An easy way to identify this is to ask; who or what would they sacrifice it all for? The landmark movie Citizen Kane had strong Character-love connections. I believe this empathetic connection to the audience is one of the reasons that keeps the film on most critics’ top ten list. The love connection that impressed me most in the story, was an older man who recollects a girl he saw on the ferry once in his youth. He then admits there isn’t a month that goes by that he doesn’t think of her, he doesn’t even know her name, but he has carried her with him through the years, every month!
Kane’s love, his clumsy attempts at buying love, forcing it to be a part of his life, are the tragic aspects of his love/empathy connection. These serve as setups to his ultimate love mystery, the last word he uttered on this mortal coil, “Rosebud.”
All these years later, since my first view of “Citizen Kane” on the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 in the ’60s, the scene in that movie that hardly a month goes by that I don’t think of is that old man, carrying that girl into old age. Here is that little sequence, brilliantly written by H.J. Mankowitz and Orson Welles: Bernstein is the seasoned citizen, Kane’s chairman of the board being interviewed by Thompson, the young reporter who is trying to unravel the Rosebud mystery.
I have been in the company of some of the most famous and Highest Net Worth Individuals on the planet. In unguarded moments of candor, they eventually get down to what they really want, (when they seem to have everything a human could ever want) namely, to be in love with someone. Sometimes it’s generic; just the need to feel that way about someone, sometimes it was specific, a person.
At moments like that, you just know that somewhere in the world, a million times over, some hard-working couple, struggling to make ends meet, facing the vicissitudes of life are holding hands and each other in their hearts. Each feeling like they are the lucky one in the relationship to have found the other.
In my new book, I pay homage to this notion in a subplot where the sexiest actress in Hollywood, the one with the sex tape released on the internet, and two academy award nominations, tries but fails to seduce the husband of my pregnant protagonist. In that unusual, for her, outcome, (she always gets any man she chooses to act stupidly;) she has a life-changing event. One that she admits, “we only play at in movies” but she never believed actually existed; a love and commitment to one another which survives above all else.
That’s worth all the money in the world, and is invaluable when building your Character’s empathetic attraction. In my online novel writing course, From Writer to Author, I teach a lesson on building empathetic characters. I’m proud to announce that my course is now open for enrollment! Find out more at academyofcreativeskills.com or by clicking on the image below!
Editor’s Note: The actor Everett Stone, who played Bernstein, didn’t let the typo in the script pastrol stop him from saying, parasol. Proving that empathy is often more important than grammar. This is a good “first draft” lesson to would-be authors everywhere.