Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Just tell me a story about a guy who. . .

In looking over previous posts, I wonder if I’ve put too much emphasis on the elements of a scene and slighted the importance of character.  Even though I don’t write screenplays, I love the late Blake Snyder’s guide to screenwriting, “Save the Cat!” for his insistence that a movie (for “movie,” substitute “any fiction”) has to be about someone.  As he credited his father with saying, “Tell me a story about a guy who. . .”  Of course, it doesn’t have to a literal guy.  It can be a woman, a child, or as we fantasy and science fiction writers know, a sentient robot – any character that you and your readers can identify with.

I also sympathize with Snyder for admitting that he usually got an idea first and then had to come up with a lead character to carry that theme.  So where does a writer – you, for instance – come up with a character to match those story elements you drew from your ideas folder?  For novels, I use a seven-phase, multipage character worksheet I got in a creative writing class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, although I don’t know its ultimate source.  It starts with the character’s ethnic background and ends with a description of what the character will become over the course of the book.

I don’t usually do quite as much for short stories.  But for any fictional characters, I add my secret ingredient – a long, lonely, boring drive with nothing to do except converse with them.  The last conversation occurred during a trip to a destination several counties away.  Somewhere I’ve been so many times I could drive it in my sleep.  But your conversation doesn’t have to happen during a drive.  You could be gardening.  Or doing housework.  Or just daydreaming and goofing off.  Whatever it is, seriously, schedule some time alone with your characters, a date, if you want to think of it that way.  A few hours isn’t too much to ask them to spend with you before a word hits the page.  Only don’t tell your friends you’re dating a sentient robot.

(Although Snyder died in 2009, his website is still out there along with lots of dishing, including a site that says the real way to write a screenplay is to start with, gasp, the character.  Whatever – just tell me a story about a guy who. . . .)

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