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Part II: Background and character

October 26, 2017

The three-act paradigm is fairly straightforward. But where Syd Field excels is in his descriptions of how the writer must know his characters. It’s not enough to say the character is smart or pretty or talented. This won’t do.

Hint: I am referring to some of the proposals I’ve read so far.

You’ve got to figure out what makes your characters tick. You have to know your characters’ emotions and needs. You must know your main character. Field says you must know your character from birth to the present moment. What has happened to this person over his lifetime? In my book I go back to Eroy’s childhood. It never came up in the trials, but it was important to show the reader who Eroy was, how he grew up. His mother shot and killed a woman at a bar when he was 11 years old, and his great grandmother raised him. He was not a talented thief. He always got caught. He always pleaded guilty. He did better in prison than he did in the free world,

Field offers some precise directions about how to develop a character. First he divides the main character’s life into professional, personal and private, and develops each aspect. Other characters need similar development.

But the key one is this: what is your character’s need? 

I keep thinking of the Stormtrooper in the latest Star Wars movie who doesn’t want to be one any more. The central character in Moonlight needs to come to terms with his homosexuality and what it means to be a man, living up to the image of the only man who showed him love as a boy.

Let’s use these to develop this story from Andrea Brown:

Chris Washington, a young African American photographer, and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage agree to take a trip to visit her parents in a remote area outside of the metropolitan area where they live. Her parents are not aware that Chris is black, which causes him to hesitate about the trip. Upon arrival to their secluded estate in the woods, Chris’s trepidation begins to ease up. Everyone including Rose’s mother, a psychiatrist, and her father, a neuro-surgeon, are warm and welcoming. As the weekend progresses, however, the pleasantries begin to wear off, and an unsettling threat arises when Chris finds out that this trip is part of a plot to kidnap black people and harvest their brains, skills, and talents. Once Chris comes to the realization that he’s been duped, he has to fight to get out of the estate alive.



Part I: A screenplay must have a structure

October 26, 2017

Syd Field’s book about screenplay writing has been around quite a while, as you can tell by the references to movies you probably haven’t seen. He rigidly adheres to a scheme of what happens:

Act I, pages 1-30, he calls the set up. In the set up we see the characters in their lives and activities. We see them going about their daily business. And then something happens, what screenwriters call “the inciting incident” that makes the story go forward. In the movie I am writing based on my book, the inciting incident happens in the first ten minutes when Eroy Brown, the convict, is taken to a remote part of the prison to get what inmates called an  attitude adjustment. At the end of the first act, two prison officials are dead and Eroy has been thrown in a cell with a gunshot wound to his foot.

Plot point 1 comes late in Act 1. It spins the story in a new direction. This happens when a lawyer who knows about prisons reads the first newspaper story and realizes that Eroy might be innocent, because the prison officials had no business with a gun in the prison. Maybe this was self defense.

Act II is the confrontation, pages 30 to 90. Field emphasizes the drama, the conflict, the obstacles. Eroy undergoes three trials, during which  his lawyers encounter obstacle after obstacle. In fictional films, writers invent the obstacles. But this is based on real life and there is no shortage of obstacles: lying witnesses, a hold-out juror, angry prosecutors. The state withholds fees to the lawyers because they are winning the case and the lead attorney has to sue be paid.

At the end of Act II comes another turning point that pushed the story along into

Act III, the resolution, pages 90 to 120. This may or may not be a dramatic resolution. Somebody dies. The bad guy is thwarted. Or some kind of understanding happens. Eroy is acquitted of murder and freed after a third trial,  but he ends up back in prison when he goes back to Waco and gets involved with old friends and heroin again. He spends a long time in prison, but a writer comes along and writes his story, and his old lawyer helps him get parole, because his story has been finally told. He wasn’t a murderer. He did what he did to survive.

Field says a writer can pour any story into this paradigm. But knowing the paradigm isn’t enough. You’ve got to know your characters and do your research.

Notice that the same three act structure occurs in the mythical structure, page 16.

Act One is Departure, Separation

Act Two is Descent, Initiation, Road of Trials

Act Three is Return



Reminder: Rough drafts due Nov. 2

October 19, 2017

Why so soon? Because you need feedback. Don’t put this off. Write a draft and if you can’t get all of it down, write some of it and write an outline, sketch. Know where you are going. Have a plan.

Next Week: Screenplay structure

October 19, 2017

See Syd Field.

Mythic Structure: Imitate, borrow, copy

October 19, 2017

As part of my mission to get you to imitate, we’ll spend some time on mythic structure tonight. Could mythic structure be useful for your story? You don’t know if you don’t seriously look at it and consider whether it can be adopted for your story. Consider, for example, Imani Cobb’s story about driving to Houston from Chicago with her mother only to meet Hurricane Harvey. It could be told by using some of the elements of mythic structure.

For example, the protagnonist leaves the ordinary world for a world that is strange and alien. That could be Dorothy going to Oz. Or Imani and her mother going from Chicago to Houston. Then there is the Call to Adventure: meeting Hurricane Harvey.

The Refusal of the Call. The mother wants to leave but can’t?

The Mentor. Can the mother be the wise old woman for the daughter? Can she prepare her daughter to meet the challenges of the new world she has entered?

Then Crossing the First Threshold. The tests and alliances. Where does the Pakistani room-mate fit in this?

Approach to the Inmost Cave. The preparations for meeting the dangers.

The Supreme Ordeal: the character survives, learns something, endures something.

Seizing the Sword: that is the wisdom that comes from the ordeal. It makes the hero of the story a wiser and different person. Maybe Imani sees her mother in a new way?

The mother leaves the daughter on her own in a strange new world. But the flood has receded.

One thing I notice is that the proposals are not revealing much emotional insight into the characters. You tend to give a couple of adjectives but no real answer as to why the character is the way she or he is.

Figuring out how a character’s background shaped him, is sometimes called the story behind the story. I am convinced, for example, that my father was shaped by the death of his older brother during World War II. He never talked about his brother much, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t miss him. That is a terrible wound. My father was a wounded man his whole life. It took me a long time reading stories to understand him. What is the wound your character bears? That’s sometimes called the story within the story.


Write by using models: Imitation

October 19, 2017

I urge you not to make up your own form for writing your narrative. Instead, imitate.

Find parallel stories. “The One Left Behind” is a good model for the standard feature form, because it starts as late as possible, digs into the background of the character’s problem (he wants to die because he’s never felt the same since his twin brother died), and then goes back to the beginning and goes forward to his death.

Essentially, the story ends where it began, but by the end of the story we know why it ends that way.

How about Romeo Brown’s story of his sudden illness? It’s a compelling story and stories about baffling illnesses are often written.

Here’s a story about how difficult it is to get a diagnosis right.

It focuses on a study of diagnoses that doctors have to give, sometimes on the spur of the moment.

Much of the media coverage of this study focused on how lousy these symptom checkers are. But Ateev Mehrotra, the lead author on the study, made a different observation. “It made me realize just how hard this task is. What we are asking symptom checkers to do is an extremely difficult task,” he said.

His words make me reflect on my overwhelming day in clinic. Each and every patient presented a wide chasm of possibilities that could be nothing, or something, or something horrible. Was the patient with no energy just not getting enough sleep? Or was she anemic, hypothyroid, depressed, suffering from pancreatic cancer or experiencing domestic violence? Was the patient with muscle aches having a medication side effect or exhibiting the onset of a systemic inflammatory disease? Did the gentleman with abdominal twinges have vascular compromise to his intestines, or was he a hypochondriac or taking a weight loss concoction he had purchased on the Internet?

Romeo could as his doctors about their uncertainties.  Here’ a New Yorker story about missed diagnosis,  

The New York Times magazine  has a whole series on difficulty diagnoses. 

Romeo could write a very interesting story not only about what happened to him, but the struggle to figure out what it was. The suspense and the anxiety would be part of the story. And the story is not over yet.  How will it end?


Write the narrative proposal as a narrative, not an essay

October 19, 2017

The narrative proposal must be written as a narrative, not an essay. I am looking for (and most readers are, too) a story, not an essay. Show us the character in action. What is Sonny Messiah (I believe she goes by Messiah-Jiles) doing to reinvent herself and her company? Tell us what she is doing, not why you think it is important. Let her talk. Tell me how you are going to do this project. This cries out for the standard feature form.

Working Title: The Reinvention of Sonny Messiah-Jiles

Opening: start as late as possible. Messiah-Jules decides to go digital. What makes her do this? What are the numbers like? (That is, the money?) Identify the critical moment in which she decides to make a change. Get her to explain it. What is her strategy to fight back? Get that in the opening.

Deepen the background. What has been going on in journalism for the last dozen years or so? Get her to tell you what happened. Give examples of stories that are not told.  Give examples of the competition she is facing. How is she going to resist those forces? Connect what happened to her to what happened to small black papers all over the country. What’s going on at the Forward Times, for example. And other papers in Houston. Have any of them folded?  (Not shuttered.)

Once you have shown that her problems are part of a general trend,  go back to her origins, to her beginning,  and write a chronology of her business life. Bring it back to the present time.


Taking Back the Narrative

Storytelling has been key in the advancement of the human race. Before things were written, traditions were passed down orally. Generations of fables, and expressions have been carried over time, shaping the way we see ourselves as people, and the way that we see the world around us. Telling stories is integral in shaping any culture, but especially the cultures of those that have been marginalized and oftentimes forgotten by the mainstream powers that be. That’s why, it’s extremely important to be able to have storytellers that carry the torch for all cultures, so that stories aren’t lost in the shuffle. If others are allowed to tell your story, you don’t have any bearing on how the story ends, or how it’s viewed, and that’s why it’s important to take back the narrative. THIS IS AN ESSAY OPENING, NOT A NARRATIVE OPENING In many ways, black storytellers have been key to keeping black culture moving forward, from the very first black newspaper, The Freedom’s Journal, to more modern Black owned publications like Blavity. Now, however, there are more and more stories being squelched, in a time when stories are coming in at a fever pitch. With the 24 hour news cycle, sensationalism is at a premium, and with storytellers consistently bowing to those who finance the networks they are employed by, storytelling has lost a bit of its integrity. That’s not the case for black owned publications like Sunny SONNY NOT SUNNY Messiah’s Defender Media Network. Sonny is a trailblazer, and one of a small handful of black newspaper publishers in the city of Houston who are fighting to regain the standing that their publications once had in the community. Now, with information at their fingertips, their old and potential customers are finding their stories elsewhere, which is making it difficult to keep them from shuddering. SHUTTERING? Now, Sonny, and other black publishers like her are fighting to find ways to remain relevant in a digital age, and a time when their product, and unique perspective is needed most.


In a time where storytelling in the black community is needed most, a publisher seeks to regain her standing in the world of media.

One Word Story Description:


Some Narrative Proposals to discuss

October 12, 2017

A BrownTaking Back The Narrative – Berryhill

Turner T Draft Proposal

Dukes Journey_to_remember

Frye Shayla proposal


Howard Narrative Proposal-

Boutty War and Music

Cobbs I Weather the Storm

Casablanca a summary of a movie

October 11, 2017

If you see this before tomorrow night, listen to the first few minutes of the Terry Gross interview  when she summarizes the classic 1941 movie,  “Casablanca.” Think of it as a model for a proposal.

And notice that the original title for  “Casablanca” is “Everybody Goes to Rick’s.”