By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 11, 2017
We said a few posts ago that sometimes we, as writers, have to tart real life up.
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker on the evaporator farm on Tatooine
Real life is too ordinary.
It’s too interior.
It’s too boring.
We have to heighten the drama, ramp up the stakes. Otherwise readers won’t care.
But how, exactly, do we perform this wizardry?
Do we just dream up wild stuff—sex, violence, zombies—and hurl it into the stew willy-nilly?
How do we know what’s appropriate?
How can we tell when we’ve gone too far?
The answer brings me back to my favorite subject: theme.
The principle is:
We may fictionalize but only on-theme.
I was watching the movie Midnight Special (2016) last night. Have you seen it? It’s good. The film stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. The plot follows a young boy who possesses mysterious powers as he flees apocalyptic cultists and the NSA, protected by his father. I won’t spoil the climax for you except to say that it is wildly fictionalized … and it works completely.
Because the filmmakers fictionalized on-theme.
Midnight Special is about a father’s love for his son and the passage the father must endure to face ultimate separation. That’s the core. That’s what the story’s really about.
Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in “Midnight Special”
An alternative version could have been told very simply: a special young boy gets sick and dies, despite heroic efforts to save him by his father and mother. Perhaps that was the real story from which Midnight Special evolved.
The filmmakers ramped up the tale’s power by making the boy special special special, i.e. possessed of powers that can bring satellites down out of the sky and cause the entire US government to chase him halfway across the country.
We may fictionalize all we want, as long as we stay on-theme.
When Ernest Hemingway gave Jake Barnes, his fictional protagonist in The Sun Also Rises, an emasculating war wound, he was heightening reality indeed. But that heightened reality was 100% on-theme.
The theme of The Sun Also Rises is the soul-devastation that the horrors of WWI wreaked upon Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” contemporaries. Hence the wound.
There’s a storytelling axiom in Hollywood:
If horses can fly, you’ve got a story. If everything can fly, you’ve got a mess.
When we fictionalize on-theme, we heighten the drama legitimately. When we make sh*t up off-theme, we just produce craziness.
The first principle we talked about in this series was
Make the internal external
Or put another way
Make the invisible visible.
We can make ourselves cowboys or princesses or private eyes as long as that external story is on-theme with our real-life internal one.
What was Rocky but Sylvester Stallone’s fictionalized-on-theme rendition of his own struggles as an unknown trying to get noticed in the movie biz?
What was Luke Skywalker’s journey from the evaporator farm on Tatooine to saving the galaxy as a Jedi knight, except George Lucas’ own odyssey from his boyhood in Modesto, California to entertainment immortality? For that matter, what was American Grafitti?
Fictionalize as much as you want, but keep it on-theme.
By Callie Oettinger | Published: January 6, 2017
I started off 2017 digging into two publishing rabbit holes.
The first one is related to a guy named Paine. He wrote a pamphlet that went viral a few hundred years ago and is still being read today.
Not long after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Thomas Paine hit U.S. soil. He worked, got political at pubs, and wrote. Paine toiled away on a series of letters to be run in local newspapers. After finding himself way over word count for letters, he decided to publish a pamphlet instead, titled “Common Sense.”
Here’s what your high school teacher didn’t share about “Common Sense” and Paine:
When it came time to publish, Paine went to a printer/publisher/bookseller — a guy named Robert Bell. Bell struck a deal with Paine. He’d print the pamphlet, help promote it, and then split the profits with Paine. If there weren’t any profits, Paine would “make good” with Bell on the printing. Kind of a mash-up of today’s traditional and self-publishing worlds.
Bell printed the pamphlet and then advertised it in local newspapers. Demand increased and “Common Sense” took off. Its popularity lead Paine to add an index and other commentary in advance of the next print run.
Before the reprint, however, Paine heard about the death of General Montgomery and the struggles in the north, and decided to buy mittens for the soldiers. It was winter. They were in camps. No heaters. So . . . Off Paine went to Bell, to obtain his share of the profits.
Bell said there weren’t any profits.
No profits? How was that possible? There was a demand for a reprint, thus there had to be profits.
If this article was the movie Goodfellas, this would be the time to cue a voice-over from Ray Liotta, giving the full skinny on exactly how things went down. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 4, 2017
Remember when Michael Jordan got into trouble for referring to his teammates on the Chicago Bulls as “my supporting cast?”
William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”
He was, of course, only telling the truth. (Though Scotty Pippen, we must admit, has a right to be a little miffed.)
But back to you and me and our novels based on our real lives. What about our spouses and kids and bosses and friends and the other crazy characters we’re going to write about? They may not like to think of themselves this way, but ..
They are supporting characters in our story.
Putting their egos aside, the question becomes
How do we as writers portray these individuals?
Are we free to change them? Can we put dialogue into their mouths that the real-life personalities never said or would never say? Can we have them do things that they didn’t do or wouldn’t do in real life?
Yes, yes, and yes.
We said in an earlier post that you and I, crafting a fictional version of our real-life story, have to detach ourselves emotionally from our real selves (if we ourselves are the hero of the story we’re telling). We need to step back and gain perspective. We must be able to see our real-life self coolly and objectively, the way a stranger would see him or her. Then and only then can we write that character on the page.
Same for supporting characters.
Your mother Joann, as soon as you start to write about her, has ceased to be Joann. She is now “Joann.” Your feckless ex-husband Dwayne has now become “Dwayne.” (Or whatever name you choose to call him.)
Let’s return for a moment to my favorite subject: theme.
Flashing back to our basic principles of storytelling, we recall that
The protagonist embodies the theme.
And that principle’s corollary:
Every supporting character represents an aspect of the theme.
(By the way, this same principle applies not just to characters, but to animals, to inanimate objects, to Jack Nicholson’s sliced-up nose in Chinatown, and to William Holden’s six-gun in The Wild Bunch. None of these exists only as itself. Each represents an aspect of the theme.)
In The Knowledge, my cat Teaspoon (the fictional version of my real-life cat Mo) represented my character’s Muse. In other words, an aspect of the theme.
In The Knowledge, the city of New York represented the greater creative life, both internal and external, that I (my character, Stretch) was trying to learn to navigate. So did the city of London.
The fictional Nicolette represented a realized artist. She was the ideal that Stretch was trying to achieve. Again, an aspect of the theme.
The fictional Peter represented an artist who went too far into the potential insanity of the creative process. His fate stood for the dark side of this enterprise. Like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, he represented the fear Stretch had for his own future.
What about the real people upon whom these characters were based? Were they exactly as The Knowledge portrayed them?
The real woman upon whom Nicolette was based was a true, realized artist. But she never read me the Riot Act like she did in Chapter 32 in The Knowledge. Her diatribe in that chapter is a straight-up recital of the book’s theme. I, the writer, put those words into “Nicolette’s” mouth.
This is exactly what you have to do with your mom Joann and your ex-husband Dwayne.
What does “Joann” represent in your story? What aspect of the theme does “Dwayne” stand for? Should there be a scene where “Joann” dumps a platter of steaming spaghetti down the front of “Dwayne’s” trousers? Should “Dwayne” dive into the frigid waters of Sheepshead Bay to save “Joann” when she spills off the stern of your second husband’s fishing boat?
Yes, if the scenes mean something to the story. Yes, if they are on-theme. Yes, if what Joann represents and what Dwayne represents come together in that way as part of your story.
This is how a writer thinks.
This is how a writer structures a story.
The real Joann may be pissed off (or she may be delighted) by the Pasta Scene or the Sheepshead Bay Rescue. But that should be no concern to you, the writer. And it certainly won’t mean a thing to the reader.
You are telling a story about “yourself” and “Joann” and “Dwayne” and all the other nutty inhabitants of your own nutty life. Your fidelity is to that story—and to the fortunate strangers who will read it.
The real Joann and the real Dwayne? They’ll just have to get over it.