What Comes First, Character or Story?

Yes. On to the next blog post.

Okay, I’ll expand. This is a question that keeps being asked of writers over and over again. There is no easy answer. I think it depends on the writer and the inspiration. Art Holcome, in a GLAWS Special Speaker Event, approached the question this way: For every story, there is a best character to tell it. That character is the one that bests answers the central question to the story. Sometimes it may not be the obvious choice.

Say you are writing a detective story. The obvious choice would be the detective in charge. But maybe he isn’t the best choice, maybe it’s his quirky sidekick. Let’s say the theme of the story is horrors humans can inflict on other humans. The detective is a seasoned professional. He’s seen it all. He’s learned to keep his personal feelings and job separated. He’s not moved so much by what he sees on the job. The sidekick, however, is not so seasoned. Things he sees on the job upset him on a personal level. He has nightmares. He can’t sleep. He can’t believe people can be so cruel to each other. He is the character that is going to grow from this experience. Maybe he will learn to separate his feeling from his job. He might finally get that promotion he’s been wanting. Maybe he’ll just stop having nightmares. Or maybe he’ll find he’s really in the wrong line of work and find some other way to help others. One way or another, he will change. To the detective, it’s just another case.

Another way Art Holcome puts it is, who is the character you can torture the most? Who is the character who will suffer the most from the events in the story and will therefore have to change the most? The satisfaction in a story is in watching a character grow and learn.

But sometimes, you come up with a character first. Writer Christine Conradt spoke about that approach. She said if you start with the plot, there is only one way it can go. But if you start with a character, you can think of dozens of different situations to put that character in. If you start with a unique, original character, then it’s your job to find the best story to show off their uniqueness.

Sound familiar? It’s the way TV shows are created. You start out with a cast of characters that are going to be there throughout the season, but the plot is going to be different every week. You need the audience to fall in love with the characters. If they don’t, they won’t care what next week’s plot is.

Finally, there is the view that plot and character are two sides of the same coin. What you character experiences and what decisions they make drive the direction of the plot. And the plot drives your character to different experiences and decisions they have to make. In the end, no matter which you start with, the two will become intertwined. And the journey of your character will determine the destination of the plot.

Log Lines

What is a log line? Put simply, it is your elevator pitch. It is your story in three or four sentences. This is not an easy thing to do. You spend months, maybe even years, on your screenplay, then you have to compress it into three or four lines. It may not seem fair, but when you start sending out query letters to try to get representation, that’s all you get to represent your work.

Writing a query letter is an art in itself – but that’s for another time. But it all comes down to the log line. In as few words as possible, you have to catch the interest of your reader. You have to make your main character interesting, say what his goal is, and what are the obstacles in his way.

During my time in GLAWS, I have come across many methods of writing a log line. But the best exercise I have found so far is by writer Christine Conradt, the subject of my last blog post. She wrote this article for www.screeplayhowto.comm . In it, she gives the six elements that need to be in a good log line, then uses examples from her own screenplays. The direct link to this article is www.screenplayhowto.com/screenplay-blog/how-to-write-a-logline It’s short, but then again, so is a log line.

You can also see Ms. Conradt’s page at www.christineconradt.com

Hunting Artifacts

No need for a whip and gun, that’s not the kind of artifacts we’re hunting today. The artifacts I’m talking about are created in the rewrite process. They appear from one draft of you story to the next. Sometimes, as you edit your story, you may remove a character, an object or an event. Which means, that from that point on, you have to remove all references to what you removed or you end up with meaningless dialogue, scene description, or action.

For example, in the steampunk screenplay I’m working on, I had a running gag. I removed its origin. Then I had to go through the rest of the script to remove any reference to the gag because now the gag wouldn’t work. No one would understand what it meant. A friend of mine did a rewrite of his novel. He changed the focus of an inciting event that caused the Federal Government to get involved. Originally, the Federal Government and its agents were big players in the story. But now, the focus has shifted onto other characters and events. So now, when one character says to another, “You better watch out the Feds don’t find you”, it’s a meaningless statement. In fact, it’s confusing. Why would the Feds even be interested in him? Nothing in the story points to that being a concern.

As a writer, you need to know your story backwards and forwards. You need to know your characters back story, even if it doesn’t appear in your work. This is all good. It’s what you’re supposed to do. But sometimes, when you’re rewriting your work, you forget you’ve made a change. And a hundred pages later, you skim over a line that no longer makes sense. It makes sense to you because you know your story. But you forget that your reader now has no reference to this. It can be as big as changing the focus of your story, or a small as the color of someone’s shoes.

There’s an inverse to this as well. I wrote a scene where six of my characters were in an office discussing a problem. Halfway through the scene, my protagonist enters, has a few lines, then leaves. I rewrote the scene to shorten it. Six of my characters were in an office. My protagonist says a few lines and leaves. But wait a minute, I dropped where my protagonist enters. She just popped in. This was especially bad since it was crucial what she heard and what she didn’t hear.

Keep in mind what you have told your audience. That changes with every rewrite.

And if you still want a whip, that’s your personal business. I won’t judge.

Writing Scenes That don’t Exist


So after I wrote my last blog on Christine Conradt’s GLAWS presentation, I thought I’d check out her two articles in the two “Now Write” books.  In, “Now Write!  Screenwriting” she has an exercise called “The Scene That Doesn’t Exist”.  It is an exercise to help overcome writer’s block.  Basically, you take your two main characters and just put them in a scene you know won’t be in your screenplay.  She uses the example of a pizza parlor.  Then just see what happens, what they talk about, etc.  The idea is to get to know your characters better.  Sometimes they surprise you.

The thing is I often do this inadvertently.  I’m a nonlinear writer.  I jump around from scene to scene.  If I get stuck on one scene, I’ll jump to another scene further down the road.  When I started on my current steampunk script, I started at the beginning.  But there was a chase scene on a moving train that I really wanted to write.  So I wrote it, then I went back and built up to it.   I have a friend and fellow writer, Kristen Roach Harris ( Fireplace Girl on Krypton Radio’s “The Corsair’s Closet”) who cannot wrap her head around this style of writing.  She is a romance writer and she has to write from start to finish.  I have only ever written one script like that.

Actually, I had a professor at USC Cinema/Television who had us write the first twenty pages of our scripts first, then the last twenty pages.  Those are usually the easiest to write.  Most people know how their story is going to start and they know what the climactic scene is going to be.  It’s the stuff in the middle that gets hard.  At USC they would have us outline our stories, use index cards and other devices like that.  That never worked for me.  Now I think about a story I want to write – maybe for a couple of months.  I imagine scenes I want and develop characters and conflicts.  Then, when I have about 80% plotted out, I start writing.

But sometimes you do end up with a scene that will never be in the final script.  I wrote a scene where one of my protagonist’s brothers fancies my protagonist’s best friend.  He thinks no one has noticed, but everyone knows.  And when it comes out, he is embarrassed and tries to deny it.  I liked the scene because I wrote it with a very Monty Pythonish flavor.  But as I developed the story, I changed their relationship.  They fancy each other and everyone knows it.  No big deal.  So that scene can never be in the script.

So was that a waste of time?  No, I don’t think so.  It helped me develop his character and gave me practice in a particular style of comedy writing, a style which I intend to use with my protagonist’s love interest in the second part of the steampunk trilogy.  He is the straight-laced business type who’s brain flies out the window when he sees her.  This style of comedy is better suited for his character.  In the end, it’s all practicing your art.

How do you practice your art?

On a side note, in “Now Write!  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror”, Christine Conradt has a chapter on The Eleven Tenets of Fear.  But what caught my attention was the very first chapter of the book, “Where Does He Got Those Wonderful Ideas?  Making Speculative Fiction Speculative”.  Finally, about thirty five years later, my offence to that horribly titled film strip, “Where the Weird Ideas Cone From” is vindicated.

GLAWS Special Speaker Event:  Christine Conradt

Less than twenty-four hours ago as I write this, I was attending Christine Conradt’s presentation on Creating Strong Female Characters.  Going into this, my thought was, “how is creating a strong female character different than creating a strong male character?”  The answer is that it is not.  This lecture was more about gender biases and how to overcome them.

Every culture has its gender biases, and as writer’s we have them too.  A bias is a generalization we have about gender roles.  What is a male role and what is a female role.  If we create characters that fit into these generalizations, we aren’t creating anything  new or different.  As writer’s, it is our job to create characters (male and female) that go beyond these roles.  That’s how you create interesting characters.

There has been criticism lately that there is a lack of strong women characters is film.  Ms. Conradt mentioned that there is actually a test to determine if a film has strong female characters:  The Bechdel Test.  The test goes as follows:  1)  Are there two named female characters? 2) Do they talk to each other?  3) Do they talk about something other than men?  Wikipeda has a comprehensive article about this test http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test .  But for now, think about it.  If two women in a film don’t talk about anything other than men, how deep can their characters be?  You may think that is obvious.  If two character only talk about one subject throughout a whole story, how believable can those characters be?  How three dimensional?  Yet most films, according to Conradt and the Wikipeda article fail this test.  And in failing, these films make less money than those that pass the test.

So why do these films keep being made?  Partly because of the bias producers have.  Some feel that the female character can’t save the male character.  It makes the male look weak.  But that’s the wrong attitude.   If you have to make the male character weak to make the female character look strong, then you’re doing it wrong.

Conradt covered a myriad of other topics.  Some of them were obstacles writers have to overcome, history of gender roles, helpful and harmful generalizations, and overcoming the feminism trap.  Conradt’s powerpoint  presentation is available at www.writersstore.com .  I would also suggest you look up her website www.christineconradt.com .  She has published articles she has written, movie reviews from a story structure standpoint and offers small group seminars and script consulting.  You can also check out her Facebook page.

As for the lack of strong women characters in films, I’m not so sure.  America Ferrera, Astrid of “How to Train Your Dragon”, has expressed similar concerns.  But there is her character in “How to Train Your Dragon 2”.  And while her character is not as central as it was in the first movie, Hiccup’s mother, Valka, is.  Then there is Anna and Elsa from “Frozen”, and Katniss from “The Hunger Games” movies.

Maybe it’s just the movies I see.  What do you think?

Perfecting Your Premise

Back in September of last year, GLAWS’ monthly speaker event featured writer Art Holcomb.  Mr. Holcomb has been a writer for fourty five years working in film, television, theater and comic books. The topic of this event:  Perfecting Your Premise in Ten Solid Steps.  Here is an outline from my notes of that meeting

  1. Find something only you can write.  This means something from your unique perspective, knowledge or insight.  Most stories fail right at this level.  Hollywood wants something unique.  They don’t want another Harry Potter unless it’s written by J. K. Rowling.
  2. Mine all the possibilities that you can out of your idea.  Figure out what it is that you have.  Is it a movie, novel or television series?  Each medium has its limitations and strengths.  And writing in each medium requires different skill sets.  Whatever it is you have, you must have the matching skill set for it.  If you don’t, set it aside for now.  Just because you don’t have a certain skill set now, doesn’t mean you won’t have it in the future.
  3. What is the design principle of the model?  Each genre has its rules.  For example, a mystery is search for the truth.  Horror is about defeating a monster, and often defining what is human and what is not.  Science fiction is about creating a better world – and often how that can go wrong.  But all stories must answer the following questions:  Who am I?  Why am I here? And what happens next?
  4. What do you get first, story or character?  For every story there is a best character to tell it.  Which character is best suited to answer the central question?  Or as Art Holcomb put it, what character can you torture the most?  The satisfaction in a story is in watching your character grow and learn.  You want your character to get to the “I can’t, but I must” moment.
  5. Stories are about conflict.  What is the central conflict of the story?  Conflict is the clenching and releasing of tension.  Conflict is the vehicle of the story.
  6. Single cause and effect pathway.  You have to be able to see what the character goes through and where it will end.  Plot is the skeleton of the story.  Story is everything else on it.
  7. The single most important part of the story is the change in your character.   A writer pulls away all the layers until the true character is revealed.  Only when your character is the most vulnerable is he the most powerful.  Your character has to be a martyr at the end.  “I don’t care what happens, I have to do what is right.”
  8. The character must make a moral choice.  That is you as the writer talking through your character.
  9. Is your character appealing?  A relatable character is not 100% perfect.  Not 100% good or 100% evil.  Make them quirky.  Make them strange.  Everyone has an irrational fear.  Give your character one.
  10. Send your work out.  This is probably the most important one and the one that takes the most courage.  Your work doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t send it out to an agent, editor, publisher or studio.  Your success as a writer depends on your body of work, not a single story.  What one agent doesn’t like, another one might.  And if an agent does like one of your works, he may ask the golden question, “What else do you have?”  You should always have at least three stories:  One completed, one in the works and the idea for your next story.

How does your story stand up to these guidelines?


Over the course of this blog I have mentioned GLAWS, the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Society, of which I am a member.  GLAWS is a great organization of peers helping peers and professionals mentoring aspiring writers.  I am in one of their screenwriting critique groups which meets at Los Angeles Valley College.  They have critique groups for virtually every kind of writing.  They also have monthly Special Events which are free to the public, usually held Saturdays at the Palms-Rancho Park Library in Los Angeles.  And they have three yearly Writer’s Conferences.  You can check that all out at www.glaws.org

At last year’s Loscon, I caught up with the president of GLAWS, Tony N. Tadaro, after one of the various writing panels held at the convention.  I interviewed him for our radio show, The Corsair’s Closet, on Krypton Radio, and asked him what GLAWS is and how it can help aspiring writers.  Below is the link to that episode of The Corsair’s Closet.  The interview starts about a quarter of the way in.  The rest of the show was a review of Loscon.


The 100% Character

Back in USC Cinema/Television we had a professor that would talk about the 100% Character.   That is a character that will do ANYTHING to achieve his goal.  This kind of character is either extra dangerous or extra courageous, depending on whether it’s the protagonist or antagonist.

The best example I can think of is Kahn from “Star Trek:  the Wrath of Kahn.”  Kahn was stranded on Ceti Alpha Four by Kirk back on the original series.  Then Ceti Alpha Three crashed into its sun, changing the orbit of Four, making it inhospitable.  More than half of Kahn’s people died, including his wife.  When Starfleet accidently finds them, all he wants is revenge on Kirk.  At one point, one of his people points out that they have a starship and the Genesis device, they can go anywhere in the universe and make their own paradise.  But that isn’t enough for Kahn.  He wants to kill Kirk.  Even the well being of his own people doesn’t matter anymore.  In the end, with his ship about to explode, he would rather take Kirk with him than be rescued.

Ripley from ALIENS is another example.  Once she and the Marines find Newt, she promises to protect her.  And she means it.  She will practically take over the platoon, fight off face huggers and even face her biggest nightmare – ALIENS – to get Newt back.  She will also do anything to ensure the ALIENS never reach Earth.

Sometimes it a character’s growth into a 100% character that is the driving force of the story.  Take, for example, Tony Stark, Iron Man, in the Marvel Avengers franchise.  He starts out as a self-centered playboy who becomes a super hero through his scientific genius.  But it is not until the Avengers movie that he becomes a real hero.  Captain America challenges him:  Would he do ANYTHING to save the lives of other people?  Would he make the ultimate sacrifice?  In the end he does.  He is willing to sacrifice himself in order to save New York from an atomic missle.  He is subsequently rescued by the other Avengers, but the point is he was willing to make the sacrifice.

But wait a minute.  Let’s go back to “Star Trek:  The Wrath of Kahn”.  There’s another 100% character there, Mr. Spock.  In the end, Spock sacrifices himself to save Kirk and the Enterprise.  He would do anything to save the Enterprise and Kirk.  100% characters don’t always have to sacrifice themselves – but it’s a good way to demonstrate it.

And then in Star Trek 3, Spock comes back and from then on nobody really dies in Science Fiction.  Thank you, Mr. Spock.

What would your character do to achieve his goal?

Where the Weird Ideas Come From

When I was a senior in high school, I was in AP English.  Once in a while our teacher, Mr. John Durand, would get a new piece of educational material to look at and comment on.  He would then pass it to some of us to look at and rate.  One of them was a film strip (anyone remember those?) entitled, “Where the Weird Ideas Come From”.

It was a film strip about science fiction.  First off, I was offended that science fiction was considered a bunch of “weird ideas”.  I still am.  Why is speculative fiction, in and of itself, “weird’?  Let’s see, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”:   submarine that attacks ships from below the surface, that’ll never happen.  “Master of the World”:  a flying ship that attacks from above.  That could never happen either.  Of course, the earliest submarines were used in the Civil War.   And Ferdinand Count Von Zeppelin studied the use of hot air balloons in the Civil War before going back to Germany.

So where did these “weird” ideas come from?  Looks like speculating on current events to me.  Is that weird?  If so, then I guess we don’t have to worry about a nuclear winter caused by a nuclear war.  After all, that’s just a weird idea.  And as Sting put it, “It’s a good thing the Russians love their children, too.”

One of science fiction’s strongest uses is in allegory.  Let’s look a classic Star Trek the original series.  “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield” and “Devil in the Dark” were about prejudice.  “Balance of Terror” was about the cold war.   This show was produced in the late ‘60s.  Where do you think these ideas came from?

So what about more modern science fiction?   “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Bionic Woman”:  aren’t we trying to make bionic limbs for amputees?  “2001:  A Space Odyssey”, “I, Robot”, “A.I.”:  aren’t we working on artificial intelligence?  The ALIEN franchise, “ET”, even “Galaxy Quest”:  aren’t we looking for signs of life out in space?

And how many times have these “weird” ideas turned around and become reality?  The submarine, the airplane, the artificial limb.  Even your smart phone can do more than Captain Kirk’s communicator and fits in your pocket.  How about the sliding door at your supermarket?  Once a group of university engineers asked Star Trek how they got the doors to open automatically when someone approached them.  The production company had to answer that it was two stage hands off camera.

I think the only people who still think of all this as “weird ideas” are hard core mundanes (people who aren’t into science fiction at all).   But with science fiction now in the mainstream, they are few and far between.

Where do your “weird ideas” come from?

Thanks For Nothing, You Useless Reptile

With “How to Train You Dragon 2” out, my wife and I pulled out our DVD of the first movie.  After watching it, we watched the deleted scenes.  Since I’m in the process of editing my own script, it occurred to me that the deleted scenes are a good study in rewriting.  Pick your favorite DVD and watch the deleted scenes.  Try to figure out why they were deleted.  The usual reasons are for pace, cutting down screen time, and getting rid of information that’s not needed.

In Dragon 1, there was a scene that changed and shortened.  It was voice recorded and storyboarded, but never made it to the final CGI version.  In it Hiccup is working with Gobber in the blacksmith shop.  It start with some dialogue that was moved to another scene.  Then Gobber starts talking about how Hiccup has a crush on Astrid.  Then Astrid stops by to get her axe sharpened and Gobber pushes them together.  We see that she’s a tough, no nonsense Viking.  While Hiccup sharpens her axe – and has trouble lifting it – she sees his drawings of a dragon net catapult.  By the end, we see that she has no interest in Hiccup and goes off to train with the other young Vikings.

So why was this scene cut?  Let’s look at it.  In the final version of the film, we are introduced to Astrid by Hiccup’s voiceover.  In a dreamy voice he says, “Astrid….”.  That tells us all we need to know about how Hiccup feels about Astrid.  We also see how tough she is.  And finally, in the very next scene, we see Hiccup’s dragon net catapult in action.  There is no need to see the drawings.  It’s all about getting the information to the audience in the most efficient, logical and dramatic way.  Seeing the catapult is more dramatic than seeing drawings of it.

I’m struggling with the same thing in my steampunk script.  I’ve already taken fifteen pages, rewrote it to cut out two scenes and got it down to ten pages.  In the process, I got rid of one character we will never see again and spent more time between my protagonist and her mother, which is where the real conflict is.

There was also a famous deleted scene in the movie ALIENS, one that was actually filmed.  Shortly after Ripley is found in space and revived, Burk brings her information about her daughter.  Ripley left her daughter on Earth when she was six years old, planning to be back in a couple of months.  But then her crew gets killed off by an ALIEN and she gets stuck in suspended animation for over sixty years.  In the meantime, her daughter grows up and dies of old age.  Ripley has completely missed her daughter’s entire life and this leaves her with an unfulfilled maternal instinct.  You can see how this maternal instinct is then transferred to Newt, a little girl they find on the colony planet who is the only survivor of an ALIEN attack.

Personally, I wish they had left the scene in.  But is it really necessary?  No.  Ripley is the only civilian woman on the rescue team.  The rest are hardened Marines.  So it’s understandable that Ripley is the only one who reaches out to Newt in a maternal way.  She and Newt are also the only ones who have survived an ALIEN attack, so they have that in common as well.  So while the deleted scene is moving, it’s not really necessary to the emotional connection Ripley forms with Newt.

Most people see a movie once in the theater, or rent it.  Fans of a film buy the DVD or Blu-Ray.  That’s why the discs have deleted scenes, extended versions and director’s cuts.  Fans want to see more of their favorite characters and they don’t mind if the pace of the movie slows down a bit.

What scenes do you wish would have stayed in your favorite film?  What scene do you need to cut from yours?