This feeling carries us through a story. We buy emotionally. On page one, in the first few minutes of the movie — we buy in. We get turned on. We want to fuck.
Doesn’t matter what kind of story. It’s the feeling. That sense of drawing forward. Because we’ve seen something in there that’s mysterious, or vulnerable, or heroic — something small starting down the road to getting big. We get turned on. We want to fuck.
I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.
A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.
I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.
These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.
Act 1: Motif: Bloodshed.
Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.
Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.
Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.
Act 5: Motif: Innards.
You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.
When my Iraq pilot ends, I want the audience to be different.
They’ll be different because they shifted. Because the characters shift. The audience identifies with the characters, forms a bond with them that pulls them up and down through the piece, changes them as the character changes.
Stories help us feel what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. They give us the gift of empathy, the gift of identifying from a different direction. A woman walks away identifying as a man.
You help your characters shift by making the powers that oppose them overwhelming. The more acute the opposition, the more we’ll feel the urgency of the situation, and the more vital and primal the bond we’ll form. That person struggles. I struggle. I understand how that person feels. A man walks away identifying as a woman.
In my pilot, male soldiers discover they have to work with women during active combat, and they feel dragged down, challenged, threatened, unsafe. The female soldiers feel unprepared, untrained, unwelcome, unsupported.
Most of them experience a shift. If the piece works, the audience identifies with them at the start and shifts along with them.
By the end, the characters circle near the feeling –
We are all women. And we are all men.
If the story works, my audience will feel that too.
Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.
Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.
No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.
With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.
If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?
The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.
The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.
I was watching this show that had a character with a damaged, gravelly voice. But they didn’t explain it at first, and I thought it was great. It was subtle, textured storytelling. Because it opened up this little mystery within the show that could have lead in many different directions — but the point is it was sticky. It was another little surface to grab our attention, to make us think and wonder and fill in our own explanations. It was a little hook that didn’t matter that much at all, but it did, because it added up to the whole. Immediately I was like “huh, this battle-hardened commander guy has a ruined voice. Is that typical? Was he gassed in Vietnam? Do years of being exposed to the toxins of war do that to your voice? Is that supposed to symbolize the character?” A tiny moment lead me down a long path.
Then later, one of the voice-guy’s soldiers: “What happened to your voice?” “Throat cancer.” “Were you a smoker?” “Nope. Just lucky I guess.”
Clunk. They solved the mystery for us, instead of leaving it for us to do. They explained too much. They acted as journalists, rather than storytellers.
Here are ten different ways they could have handled that information better (not to be used in combination):
1. Never explain the character’s voice. This is the boldest choice, and one that probably wouldn’t fly with the network. But it’s most interesting because it allows us to fill in the gaps. When no explanation is given, the possibilities we come up with are far more dramatic than reality.
2. The character drops frequent references to throat cancer in a conscious manner. When this guy says something like “those insurgents are gonna feel like they just had chemo rammed down their throats” we’ll get it.
3. The character makes reference to throat cancer in an unconscious manner. Voice-guy would be talking about the situation and say something like “they’re like parasites that invade the organism. You don’t even know they’re there. You’ve always got to be on patrol.” We catch a reaction shot on the men to see if this registers on any of them — see them glancing at his throat, and wondering what happened to him.
4. Voice-guy speaks in a manner that really strains his voice. Juxtapose with other characters wondering if you can get throat cancer from the toxic chemicals associated with war. Never explicitly link the two, because that’s dull.
5. Voice-guy’s wife seems very concerned about his health. We don’t know why, or don’t find out why until she reveals it bit by bit.
6. Voice-guy takes medicine compulsively — or someone has to remind him to.
7. Voice-guy seems hyper-aware of certain elements in the environment that non-cancer survivors wouldn’t be aware of. Like, ducking below clouds of toxic smoke.
8. Take the other tack as the one above — voice-guy seems to have a death wish. He’s a Marine and he resents any reminders of his mortality. He rushes head-on into the fray, cancer be damned. Little reminders of his illness crop up, however, like his damaged voice and other physical reminders — getting winded, being unable to stand long periods — that tell us SOMETHING IS WRONG without having to say “I have cancer.” We get it.
9. Voice-guy lectures his men about not smoking and looking after their health. He even mentions that he never smoked, but that’s not the only thing you have to worry about.
10. Voice-guy envies a guy his age/rank who is in perfect health. We see that there is no reason for him to have a damaged voice. We see him feel the loss of his perfect health. We see him lose the attention and respect of his troops as he feels unable to speak to them. We intuit that he has a disease.
These may be too oblique, depending on the piece. But there are many ways the information could have been delivered that would have held our attention and kept us guessing. Telling us outright helps us change the channel.
We watch for the mystery. All stories have a mystery. Sometimes we don’t notice because the mystery sucks.
Love stories — The mystery is who is going to love who in the end, and why? There should be genuine doubt about who is going to wind up together, and why, and how. If there isn’t, you’re writing porn. We should care about this mystery — this is the pleasure of love stories. See Jane Austen.
Dramas — The mystery here lies in who the characters really are versus who they say they are and who they think they are — see Mad Men — or in us making discoveries about the character’s world at the same time she does. The protagonist is in trouble — how is she going to get herself out of it?
Crime/Thrillers/Action/Sci Fi — These have mystery built in, or they should. How are we going to solve this big fucking problem? What’s really going on here? Good to have competing mysteries — say, the overarching mystery of the situation and the mysteries of characters’ identities and the mysteries of love stories. As for the overarching mystery, see my joke’s on them post — the joke is always on the main characters, and the mystery here is figuring out how to get them out from under the punchline.
Our mission as detectives is to solve the mystery — by finding out what happens next. If the story doesn’t compel us on this journey, doesn’t send us racing to the finish, we need to shave clutter and bulk up clues and foreshadow and raise the stakes so that nothing matters more than solving this big, interesting mess.
Here’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction: fiction evokes emotion. Non-fiction conveys information.
As storytellers, we side with fiction.
Even if you write articles or blog posts or biographies or State Department briefings, you convey information by transporting your reader emotionally. You sacrifice telling them everything in favor of telling them enough, in the right way, so they’ll be moved. Or engaged. Or entertained.
Here’s what got me thinking about this: I put aside the pilot for a few days because I wanted to do a quick pass on this novel before sending it to some people. I cut and resisted cutting and finally realized that in fiction — if it doesn’t follow the emotional throughline, it doesn’t belong there. No matter how interesting or informative or important-seeming or beautifully written — if the writing doesn’t build to the emotional whole, it must be cut.
All stories are fiction.
The purpose of story is not to inform. It’s to transport. We don’t engage the heart and senses when we fill someone in on everything they need to know. If it’s important, they’ll get it because it comes attached to something a character cares about. Descriptions of place don’t matter, but a character might be devastated then notice her vicinity in a way that echoes what she’s feeling. That’s the only way that descriptions of place matter: how they reflect our insides.
We’re not reading travel guides. We’re reading metaphor guides, travel guides inward. This is the function of story.
Had a dream where my back was turned and someone stole my couch, coffee table and computer.
Wrote in my journal: “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.”
This line resonated with me. I’ve been working on a pilot about Iraq that’s affecting me deeply. I felt this line spoke to my experience writing this pilot and what I imagine to be soldiers’ experiences over there.
I decided to develop a scene where my female combat soldiers are outside the wire for the first time with their Marine comrades. The Marines leave them to guard the Humvee while they rip apart a house to find an insurgent. Iraqis create a diversion on the street, distracting the females just long enough for the Iraqis to steal something big — haven’t figured out what yet. A weapon, something significant. Maybe even the translator they were guarding.
When the Marines return to find they’ve lost something their first day on the job, the females are humiliated (though they shouldn’t be considering they were never trained for missions outside the wire). The main character says some version of that line from my journal later to her girls — “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.” In the end, this line might be too on the nose, and it’s certainly awkward as written in my journal, but for now it stands as an emotional placeholder — a way to go deep.
The scene rings early on in the script as a warning bell for what they’re going to lose on the inside.
Your story is one joke. Even if it lasts 10 seasons. It’s one joke. At least — it should be if your Prius is running on all fuel cells. Whether you’re writing comedy or drama, your entire premise boils down to “. . . but the joke’s on them.” Where “them” = your main characters.
The joke isn’t necessarily funny. But it has that thing that all jokes share: surprise. We start in one world, and we wind up in another, with the old world blown up in our face. That’s what a joke is. When it’s short and tight and sharp, it’s funny. When it depends on context and character, it’s dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is what happens when we know more than the characters do — because we know them better than they know themselves. Because we perceive something in the situation they don’t. Because we’ve picked up clues they’ve missed. So the joke is on them: they strive, struggle, blithely unaware of what’s about to happen. And we enjoy it. Because when we know more than they do, tension builds as we watch them struggle to find out what we know — because the joke’s on them. And we win. We’re in the superior position.
Dramatic irony happens when a character doesn’t know he’s in a joke, and he’s surprised by the punchline.
Dramatic irony is the joke your character finds least funny right now. Because we want them to suffer. Because that’s what we find funny — or alarming — or affecting — or profound.
Your character may run into variations of the same joke over and over, or she may live out the consequences of the joke slowly over the course of the story. The joke must be clear, and your entire story must boil down to this one joke. To test this, see if you can answer “how is the joke on them?” about your story. Here are some examples:
People survive a plane crash only to fight for their lives against mysterious Others who force them to confront their past lives. (LOST) (joke’s on them.)
A boss loves his office like family but taints everything in it with his incompetence. (THE OFFICE) (joke’s on him — and the other people in his office.)
Humans create a race of machines who now want to destroy them. (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) (joke’s on them.)
These are TV examples, but it works for all stories.
Distill your story to its essential joke — ask how is this situation a joke on them? — and then repeat that same joke on a larger and larger scale, with greater consequences, until you reach your conclusion or 100th episode. Here’s my post on how to tell a joke.
Telling jokes keeps you tight and light on your feet. And it’s fun. Try it.
You confront someone you want to be in business with — you pitch them your idea — they spark to it or they don’t — and you move forward. Emotionally. Because you’ve stretched. You’ve sent yourself the message that you stand your ground. You’re not the kind who backs down from a fight.
You confront yourself every time you sit down to write. Confront everything you don’t like inside you. You’ve got the balls to sit there with it, stay there, dredge it up and display it for the world.
You confront the possibility of your own failure, every time you hesitate. Every time you don’t know what to say or how to say it.
You force your characters to confront each other. Conflict is confrontation — whether your character confronts another or confronts himself. These confrontations are the gears that grip and pull us through the wheels of drama. Or — you build a story around a character avoiding a confrontation. We anticipate the character confronting herself — or being confronted.
You confront loved ones — friends and family and significant others — and let them know where you start and they stop. You confront them to let them know how much space you need, and unstructured time, and uncluttered thinking to be able to produce. You have a duty to protect your instrument. No matter how much they need you, you need you — to refill the well, to nourish the senses, to spark, to feel alive. Sometimes this looks like being lazy, being selfish, jerking off, staring into space. If you don’t do these things — and if you don’t confront the people who want to soak up your time and keep you from doing them — your creative life dies — and that’s when confronting yourself at the keyboard becomes so difficult. It’s not difficult because you’re a bad writer or because you’re not brave: it’s difficult because you failed at this earlier confrontation — guarding your creative space. Or confronting the emotional truth inside you. If you’re uncomfortable with your emotional junk, that’s a confrontation you’re avoiding, and it’s standing in the way of your writing. It will show up in your writing as cliche, flatness, dullness — and it will show up as resistance to writing at all. Because the keyboard will feel like a confrontation with yourself.
Confrontations are positive, not negative. Confrontations are how we find out what’s going on. We force subtext into text. We clarify our situation and act more efficiently and productively once we have all the information at hand. We ask questions, of ourselves and others, then we reevaluate and move forward. Without confrontation — in our writing and in our lives — we remain stuck and frozen and distanced. Confrontation connects us.