Mirror, mirror on the wall …

Who is the fairest of them all?  If you’re an actor, anyone with access to a good make-up artist.   We take for granted that the people on the small screens in our living rooms or on the big screens in our cinemas are wearing make-up.  They’ve got to look perfect for the camera.  That’s what’s the audience expects but is it what they need, when the character being portrayed should look more like the person next door.

More and more female actors are refusing to wear make-up.  Sarah Lancashire in the UK crime drama series, “Happy Valley” appears without foundation just like any middle-aged policewoman might do in real life, when there’s more important things than lip gloss, like finding the killer or preventing a murder.

As Sheila Hancock pointed out in the MailOnline recently, more and more women actors “hardly wear any make-up at all and that’s why it looks so real.” She goes on to say “the public won’t notice that.” And she’s right, they won’t, because if it’s a good drama, they’ll be concentrating on the film but subconsciously it will filter through the different layers of the story telling. It will have a greater impact on the audience, on their emotions, and on their empathy for the character and long after the lights have gone up in the cinema and the TV screen gone blank, a small spark will keep the memory of what they’ve seen alive.

We still need heroes today, to look up to and emulate, whether they’re fictional or not.  However, when those heroes are coated in layers of make-up, with not a hair or eyelash out of place, how can you have anything in common with them and therefore how can the story have any real meaning?  Good stories should ripple out into our lives.   It’s why we tell them.  To make sense of our lives, we need to identify with the characters and it’s so much easier to do that without a layer of slap in between.

 

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Good versus Bad

Ever got into an argument about a film you thought was great and everyone else in the pub thought was rubbish? And you couldn’t defend your opinion? When I first started thinking about writing for the screen, I’d watch loads of films but couldn’t understand why some of them worked and others didn’t. And you need to understand because pub debates are fuelled by alcohol but also mainly emotion that’s been aroused by what you’ve seen.

When I’m trying to discover why something doesn’t work in a film, I follow Paula Milne’s advice:

“Take a bad film and a good film – in your own estimation, not anyone else’s – and apply this to both. Watch the first 10 to 15 minutes, then switch if off and think: What do I know? What have I been told? What’s the agenda of the film,? What’s at stake?  Who are the characters? Do I care? And do that every 15 minutes or half an hour until the end of the film …”

You’re going to watch films you’ve already seen so you have to stay focused but you’ll enjoy the good ones even more and understand why they work and the bad ones don’t.

The rest of Paula Milne’s advice is at http://www.ideastap.com/IdeasMag/the-knowledge/paula-milne-screenwriter

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Right brain, left brain, no brainer.

Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was  supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types.  I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming.  Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level.  I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.

Smugness always comes before a fall.  Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain.  Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us

Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing.  The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one.   The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error.  Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything.  There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only.  He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit.  He couldn’t see the structure of his work.

So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains?    It depends how you write.  Do you have an outline or do you,  like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go?  If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline.  For anything other than a short story, I do.   If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!

It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there.    It’s helpful to know about structure –  a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.

And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot.  It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?

Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself.  Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end.  To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins  and what action causes it.  Happy whole-braining!

 

 

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Whose point of View?

 

First person has its draw backs.  You can only see what the protagonist/heroine sees unless you adopt a structure for your novel, where the reader can see subplots or the antagonist/baddie going about their business or you can use letters or diaries written by other characters.

But first person can be more memorable:  how much less dramatic would the following novel opening be, if it were in the third person?

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me”  “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.

It draws you like a sleep walker into the dream like  story and the sense of danger surrounding the heroine but even as you read it, you are the heroine, you are in danger.

When a character’s a strong individual, first person can work really well.

Veronica Roth is completely at ease in her heroine, Tris in “Divergent” and using the first person takes the reader straight into her life and her world.  No matter where she is, you move when she moves, you feel her fear, her pain, so effective is Roth’s style of writing. When she runs to board the train, you know exactly how her feet feel as she begins to jog alongside and you hear her thoughts as she has to increase her speed before she reaches up and clasps an outstretched hand.  You are Tris.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ heroine, Katniss is first person point of view as well, waiting  for the reader to step into her shoes. We’re inside her head, her feelings for Gale catch at our hearts, her love for her mother strikes a chord and as she fights for her life, we understand her choices in who she will save and who she must kill.

And if you’re still not convinced, Mslexia’s judges for their annual novel competition have just compiled their long list with comments on the factors that affected their decisions.  Amongst them was the following:

” … those written in the first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention.”

But in the end, it’s the character who chooses the voice, in that moment when they pop uninvited into your head.

 

 

 

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Who owns a writer?

Question:Who owns a writer?
Answer: The person who buys their work?

If you’re a famous writer, you can become a bit like a celebrity where everyone who reads a cheap rag thinks they own a piece of you.
But do writers owe anybody anything? You wrote something, someone bought it and liked it and wanted more and more.

And they liked it because you created a whole make believe world they could lose themselves in, with a host of characters they could identify with, with magical powers they could use to solve any difficulty they came up against – it was their escape route from a world that was challenging and stressful and didn’t appreciate them. And most of us can identify with that.

And then one day the books stop. But hey, the writer’s produced a play with the same characters, the saga continues. You don’t go to see the play, well it’s in London and anyway you don’t go to the theatre but they’ve published the play. So off you go and buy it and then all your excited anticipation turns to dust. It’s not a book, it’s a play. Well yes, that’s what it says on the label.

Then just as you went in hordes to buy that writer’s books, now you descend on Twitter to lambaste that poor writer. One irate fan even suggests that “she owes me a book!”

J. K. Rowling doesn’t owe anybody anything. She had an idea, made a decision about how to deliver it and carried her decision out with the help of a playwright and director. There was never any secrecy about it; it was on the television news and in the papers.

If all of this furore highlights anything, it’s the ignorance of the different formats of dramatic writing – just because you like the Harry Potter movies doesn’t mean you’d be able to enjoy one of their scripts.

The irony of all this is the Harry Potter series of books is rightly credited with increasing readership amongst children but judging by the level of English displayed by the irate tweeters, it’s done nothing to improve their literacy – grammatical errors, misspellings and their inability to read labels! It’s a pity Harry Potter’s magic wand couldn’t fix any of that.

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Adapting screenplays and novels

On a writing forum recently, someone asked a question about why novelisations of television dramas and films were always so badly written. The answer is they were written by screenwriters, who aren’t used to writing description or thoughts and feelings.

Film scripts are economical – they have to be. The dialogue and the plot are in the hands of the director and actors and they bring it to life in how they react and interact. At most a screenplay will be 120 pages long – a novel can be as long as the market and the story requires.

Writing a novel from a screenplay needs a completely different set of tools and skills than the screenplay requires. Fewer characters, perhaps fewer locations in the screenplay but the novel allows as many characters as the reader can deal with, because the brain takes in the information differently. The novelist isn’t hampered by budgetary constraints either – characters can go to Mars, travel back 500 years and as long as the reader believes them, the cost is the same as placing their story in the 21st century in a supermarket.

There was a trend in the 80’s for books the size of doorstops with so many characters there were lists of them at the beginning, to help the reader identify who was who. It seemed like people had forgotten that the human brain could only hold so much information and keeping it simple worked. When stories originated they were drawn on a cave wall long before they were spoken – woolly mammoth and man with spear – job done. Even when storytellers gathered around campfires, there were likely only a few characters, if that, in their tales – look at the traditional stories:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel.  Walt Disney and Pixar might have had a problem with their multi character casts.

There are some on-line blogs that start off talking about adapting a screenplay into a novel but half way through drift into talking about the reverse process, which has been the accepted trend for years.  Advice is that you choose the major characters from the novel and the stand out scenes and write your script around them, keeping in mind the end of the story.   You can turn this advice around for the reverse process but you could end up with a scaffold of empty rooms through which the characters move.  Adapting a screenplay to a novel is like moving to a different country and setting up home there.  To be able to write well in both mediums is a formidable talent – as Graham Greene displayed in The Third Man, both screenplay and novel.

Prose has to paint pictures for the reader and this is something that screenwriters aren’t used to doing.  The script is a tool to produce the entertainment, the novel is the entertainment.

 

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When Rock and Roll came to Liverpool

Yesterday was a black day for all the people who voted Remain, because the majority of the British people who voted, did so to Leave the European Union.  It’s understandable that many are concerned for the future and their jobs that they are worried will disappear as will the EU funding that’s supported countless enterprises and projects.

But this is not a political blog.  It’s a blog about reflection and also hope – this particular entry found its inspiration in a Face Book post  when a distraught Remainer complained that the British were ungrateful for the EU funding that had supported so many creative projects, although we have contributed our share to the communal purse.  I know there is wide spread concern in the creative industries for a future without this support or European co-operation/partnership.    We should remember, however, that Britain has been spectacularly creative in the past and we can continue to be so in the future.   Political institutions do not control what goes on in our heads or our imaginations and talent will eventually succeed.   Artists will always find ways round barriers and across borders.   It is too early to say – “we are doomed” – the politicians may think there is a line drawn in the sand but soft breezes and gentle tides can change all that, when there is mutual benefit.  Art, in its conceptual stage, does not need huge funds.  Europe may close its doors but there is the rest of the world.

In the mid 20th century, one of the greatest revolutions in music took place in a north west English port against all odds, without  EU funding, though industrial decline and social deprivation would have made it a shoe-in for such if it had existed.  However, it was Liverpool’s sea links with  America, from where Scouse sailors returned with records of a new kind of music and guitars, (mostly smuggled, hard-to-come-by in post war Britain) that created something that spoke not just to Liverpool and then the UK but to the rest of the world.    If we could do it then, we can do it now.  Have hope, faith and create.

And anyway, twelve gold stars on Ringo’s bass drum –  would never have worked.

 

 

 

 

 

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