Saturday, January 31, 2015

Fairy Tales and Screenplays

You might think I’m going off on a Disney trip, but I’m not. Over the past few days I’ve been having an interesting email exchange with a friend on the long-established story structure for screenplays. 

He feels that structure is too limited and is what’s giving us many of the cliché movies (blockbusters) out in theaters today. And he’s correct in that thinking because if your brilliant screenplay does not follow the standard structure, no agent will even look at it. 

And most of us by now have figured out that structure. Some big change/decision after the first 10 minutes, a life altering choice. Then some solid time building up to the conclusion and after the climax, another 10 minutes or so of wrap up to show how wonderfully it all came together (that’s for the happy ending ones anyway) 

I’m oversimplifying things here, but that’s because the structure as taught in screenwriting is fairly basic and simple once you grasp it. 

But what I realized in my email exchange is that the structure has been ingrained in us from an early age, not through film, but through stories told to us as children. The tradition of fairy tales and folk tales goes back centuries in our collective memory, to become part of our collective subconscious, if you will.  

Literacy and sharing stories through the written word is still relatively new in our long human history. Before that we had oral traditions. Stories told to teach others. And of course to keep the attention of the audience there had to be difficult choices that drove the main character on. Tension built, the audience felt fear, excitement and finally relief once the hero was safe. Tears,laugher, fear; by feeling those intense emotions while listening to the story, the lesson of the story was often imprinted on the listener. That’s how you remembered the lesson. 

Hollywood continues that tradition. But, today, do we really still need that very rigid structure for screenplays to tell a compelling story an audience would want to see? 

Of course the protagonist will continue to need challenges and choices to spur him/her on, but that is true of every story. Even the ones we tell each other over coffee. The ones we remember are those that have difficult choices and satisfying endings. 

Little Red Riding Hood learned her lesson about strangers and made it home safe and sound. 

Cinderella was rewarded for her patience, suffering and hard work by going to the ball and meeting prince charming. 

The little mermaid learned a very painful lesson and made a dramatic final choice. Not the one Disney shows you … Hans Christian Anderson wasn’t into happy endings, but he did follow the prescribed structure. Look it up, but bring tissues. 

Monday, January 19, 2015


One thing many writers don’t really want to talk about is the dreaded rewriting. Why? Well, maybe we’d like you think that our wonderful stories spring fully fledged from our pens onto the paper. 

Not realistic, but a girl can dream. 

Out in the Dark, which will come out in the summer, was written a few years back. I let it sit after it got a bunch of rejections, but last summer I looked at it again and found some areas I could improve, some words I could change. And what do you know… the story is better. Even that first chapter that’s available online, has in fact changed for the better. 

I’m currently working on both more Fountain Pen tales, those are intense, so I take them slowly, one at a time, and I’m working on ‘In One Night’.  ‘In One Night’ is again historical fiction and I was trucking along nicely with it and had 100 pages written, but then I got stuck. 

I looked over the material, read it and reread it. Took out a pen and scribbled in the margins and then put the printout aside for a few months. It was not going where I wanted it to go, but I also didn’t know where I wanted it to go. 

Now I do. Initially it was the story about a family in Strasbourg, France during WWII and events played out at a small castle in the Vosges mountains nearby. A friend living in Strasbourg had sent me reams of research and information which I dutifully tried to fold into the story. But what was starting to happen was that I wasn’t writing the story I wanted to write, I was writing what I thought my friend was expecting me to write. 

Nothing stifles creativity like trying to live up to other’s expectations. It was no longer my story. 

So then, what did I want the story to be? What was I curious to learn and who were my favorite characters? I’ll tell you:

I want to write the family drama of a widowed father, trying to raise 5 children in a time of war and occupation, when French language and culture is systematically quashed under the occupier’s boot. A family of 4 teens and one 4-yr old. A family torn apart by divided loyalties and misguided beliefs and desires. A very human family with an overstressed father, who is no longer allowed to teach at the university unless he’ll teach in German. The two eldest children who don’t want to see that their new friends are wrong. The strong middle child, Thérèse, who sees more than she should and tries to save her family. The birth of the Hitler youth, and how many of the region’s children were sucked into it without realizing, until it was too late, what it stood for. 

That’s the story I want to write. What Professor Detweiler and his children go through, what Thérèse does and the difficult choices she must make. 

And that’s why I rewrite; to tell the story I want to know, and the story I want to share. 

Stay tuned!

Friday, January 9, 2015

January Book Review

The Abyss Beyond Dreams
By: Peter F. Hamilton

I was very much looking forward to reading this book. It promised to be another story in the Commonwealth series (Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained and the Void Trilogy came before). I looked forward to meeting up with familiar characters and in that sense I was not disappointed, however, in others I was a little. 

The story picks up a long time in the future and starts with one of the founders of the commonwealth, original inventor of the technology that pretty much opened the universe to humans, Nigel Sheldon, who is on a mission to bring back a sentient starship that landed eons ago on a planet in the void; that ever expanding danger to the known universe. 

The beginning of the book was great, the last 200 pages were great - except the bit about ‘to be continued’ - but the middle many hundreds of pages felt a little like a repackaging of some of the void trilogy but without the depth of character development or story development. 

There were distinct comparisons to be made between the Waterwalker in the void trilogy and Captain Slvasta in the Abyss beyond Dreams. And the Waterwalker was a far more sympathetic character, or perhaps he had a chance to be better developed. 

It’s not like the reading of this book was a total bust, I did enjoy it and I also enjoyed trying to figure out where the author would go and how he would resolve some of plot points set up early on. Also there are recurring themes of poor against rich, social justice vs. totalitarian regimes, revolution, and how absolute power affects individuals. All worthy subjects for scrutiny whether in fiction or fact. 

In the aggregate, assuming this series will also become a trilogy, it was less about the Captain and more about battling the void. If the second book continues along those lines, then I’ll forgive the middle 400 pages of this book and take it merely as background filler. 

Now to wait for the next book and to see if I can figure out where the story will go.