Storytelling skills from various sorts of fictional narratives, such as film and theatre, can be useful for writers of prose fiction. Gordy Hoffman recently ran a screenwriting workshop in Melbourne. The focus was feature film screenplays, but the same storytelling principles apply for writing novels. Gordy is an award winning screenwriter, former screenwriting professor at University of Southern California (USC), head of the BlueCat Screenplay Competition and brother of Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The way the workshops work is that a number of screenwriters submit the first 10 pages of a feature film screenplay which is read by Gordy and a group of workshop participants, then the screenwriters having their screenplay workshopped and the other participants get together around a big table with Gordy and discuss the work submitted.
Gordy began the workshop by explaining that, while he would offer his opinions on each piece, he encouraged a range of opinions from the workshop participants.
The first piece was read around the table with various workshop participants reading out the parts of different characters.
Gordy would start the discussion of each piece by highlighting the positives and the potential of the story. For example, he likened the first piece to Gone With The Wind, commenting on the epic and mythic qualities of the story, how it was rooted in a specific place and how this combined to lend a sense of gravity to the story. He discussed how the determination of Scarlett O’Hara and her attachment to the land of her family estate elevated her above coming across as simply childish. He described an epic story as a high stakes story which makes a deep connection with a reader or viewer, “not just something to fool a peruser.”
Then he would move onto what he thought did not work so well and offer his opinions on how those things might work better. At this point, the discussion would open up to the group and everyone would have an opportunity to discuss what worked for them or did not work so much for them, with the aim of giving the screenwriter ideas to take away and improve their screenplay.
Gordy’s Melbourne workshop ran from 9am-6pm and was a lot of fun. Some of the ideas that emerged from the discussions which prose writers might find useful are:
Provide enough establishing details for a reader to understand each character and their motivations as they are introduced, as this will elevate a reader’s emotional attachment to each character. However, do not overdo it and stall the pacing of your story.
Orienting readers: how much should a reader know?
‘Big scenes’ with major plot developments should not require explanation afterwards to make sense of them because, if a reader does not have enough detail to understand what has happened and what significance it has in the characters’ lives, the moment is lost on the reader. By the time the reader eventually pieces together what they read earlier, they are ‘not there emotionally with the character’ as the events are being shown. They are being confused in the earlier scene and told instead of shown in the later scene. A simple test to apply when revising your story or receiving feedback is, in Gordy’s words, “Does working to understand crowd out people’s ability to connect emotionally with the characters?”
The changing personalities of characters: handling ambiguities and apparent inconsistencies
A reader will accept ambiguities and apparent inconsistencies in a character’s personality, if done well. Having a character jump between inconsistent behaviour seems contrived, whereas showing a character act one way a number of times but having escalating reservations about it each time then acting a different way conveys a more realistic change in the character’s behaviour.
At what point in a character’s journey should they be introduced?
Decide what a character’s journey is in the context of your story and introduce them at the beginning of that journey. For example, in a story about a character getting over lost love and finding new love don’t introduce the character when they are ready to embrace new love. Introduce the character as they start on the journey but before they are ready to find and embrace what they are looking for.
Personal motivation versus role motivation
Ensure a character’s motivations for their actions derive from their personality and not from their role in the story.
Fully developed good guys AND fully developed bad guys: understand ALL your characters
Understand all your characters and portray them with the same level of detail and attention as you do your main character. If you create an opponent for your main character who opposes simply because they are the opponent or, if your understanding of that character’s justification to themselves for their actions are shallow reasons you consider to be poor justifications for their actions without understanding how that character arrived at that point and why they think and behave as they do, it will be difficult for a reader to treat the motivations for that character’s actions as genuinely deriving from their personality. A prime example is a political story where the writer identifies with a particular ‘side of politics’ and creates shallow caricatures of the characters on ‘the other side of politics.’ In Gordy’s words, “Love all your characters. Don’t judge or resent them. Understand them.”
Treat your character as a person from the start
The nature of much storytelling is that a main character tends undergo a positive transformation over the course of the story. Some writers find themselves creating characters as a cluster of bad traits at the start of their story to be humanised throughout the story as these traits are reversed. The problem is that without a coherent and engaging character early in the story to hook a reader’s interest and keep them reading readers may not even get to the end. Your character may have things they change about themselves over the course of a story but there should be much more tour character than the things they want to change.
Use the visual component of storytelling
Use your words to help ‘set up the world in pictures’ in a reader’s mind. Engaging a reader’s visual imagination will help them retain details.
Make your characters likable, relatable and/or understandable
If a reader does not feel a sense of connection, togetherness or admiration for a character, why would they take the time and effort to read a story about them?
Balancing complexity and clarity
Tell a simple story in a complicated way or a complicated story in a simple way, but telling a complicated story in a complicated way is likely to result in confusion.
Gordy Hoffman’s BlueCat Screenplay Competition website: www.bluecatscreenplay.com
The Australian Literature Review