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Posts Tagged ‘King Lear’

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
King Lear by William Shakespeare

“I’ve never known a better seaman, but as a man, he’s a snake. He doesn’t punish for discipline. He likes to see men crawl. Sometimes, I’d like to push his poison down his own throat.”
Lt. Fletcher Christian regarding Captain Bligh
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

One of the things that made Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty an unforgettable character was the way in which his chief qualities—cruelty and hardness—were stressed even to the point of having him order the continued flogging of a man who died under the lash.

The character who has no dominating trait or traits offers nothing of dramatic value. ‘One virtue, vice or passion ought to be shown in every man as predominating over all the rest.’ It is quite possible in real life that we do not always recognize people by their dominant characteristics, but it seems to be essential for the film writer to make his characters recognizable in this way. A novelist who has won great popular success is said, when writing the first draft of a novel, to give each character the name of an emotion he is expected to depict, such as Greed, Love, Jealousy, Peace. I think that the drama of many a film story would be strengthened if its author would keep in mind, while building it, the dominant emotion that is responsible for each plot actor’s reaction to events. Of course, you never tell your audience what emotion clutches your character. Let it see him in the throes of that emotion. It will not do to say that John Brown is obstinate. He must do something obstinately. If some explanation of a character must be given, let some other character do it.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

Writing default madman would not be a bad way to write characters—especially if you can get Anthony Hopkins to bring your writing to life.

P.S. And just to show there are always exceptions to the concept of not actually calling out a character’s emotions, here’s a scene from Inside Out. (Any day you can mix Pixar and Shakespeare is a good day for me.)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I also think you can learn to be a good writer. Like I was a bad writer, actively bad, and I willed myself to get better. I really tried to learn what are the building blocks of a good story. And I think often people who aren’t naturally good writers, you’re just intimidated because you feel like you have to be touched by an angel to be a good writer, but you just have to have taste on what’s interesting.”
Ira Glass

Ira Glass got a little heat recently after seeing the play King Lear and tweeting, “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” As others pointed out, including The New Yorker, Glass later backed down saying, “That was kind of an off-the-cuff thing to say that in the cold light of day, I’m not sure I can defend at all.”

But the man’s welcomed to his opinion. The United States is still a free country. It seems the more we talk about tolerance, the more intolerant we’re becoming. (Another way of saying it is, “we’re tolerant of everyone—as long as they think like us.”) Of course, it’s fair game for people to critique his critique, but at times the internet seems to be a giant funnel to make the smallest tweet an Middle eastern-size crisis.

While Shakespeare is more well-known than Glass (as more than one person online pointed out in their critique of Glass’s tweet) Glass’s work stand on its own. For more than 30 years he’s been writing for NPR and is most known as the producer and host for the radio program This American Life, which last year broadcast its 500th show. In 2009 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for outstanding contribution in public radio.

Shakespeare may have created some of best drama in history, but he never worked in radio, had a the top-rated  iTunes podcast or spoke at Google headquarters like Glass has accomplished . Granted those options weren’t around 400 years ago, but I’d like to think the stage is big enough for both storytellers.

“There is a thing in writing that I feel I had to learn on my own that I’m surprised isn’t taught in school, and that is people don’t teach story structure properly in school. I think that when we’re all taught how to write, like we’re taught topic sentences—we’re taught the way that you would write an essay with topic sentences at the top of the paragraph, and then you fill out the paragraphs, and that basically was learning to write in school. But in fact, there’s a structure of telling a story that’s more effective than that, that I feel I had to learn by reading and by trial and error and whatever, which is much more anecdote based. So for example, the stories on our show the structure of them is really built around plot and ideas.  And it’s a very traditional kind of story structure where you just want to think through the sequences of actions where one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next. So really you want to break down wherever is going to happen into this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.  And the advantage of having forward motion is that it inherently creates suspense because you wonder what’s going to happen next. And so you hold people’s attention because simply moving forward action, it’s like you create suspense and you can do it with the most banal story possible, or the most everyday story…It’s so much more mesmerizing than topic sentences, because you’re utilizing something that’s so primal in us because you can create suspense.”
Ira Glass Q&A at Google

P.S. Perhaps the best thing about Glass’s tweet is some people were asking, “Who’s Ira Glass?” Which if Glass was a marketing genius was a great move. As of a month ago This American Life left Public Radio International and is now independently distributed. Cara Buckley wrote in the NY Times,  “Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It’s the equivalent of Radiohead’s releasing its own album ‘In Rainbows,’ or Louis C. K.’s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show. It’s the kind of move that can signal radical changes in the public radio firmament, with National Public Radio and other distributors wondering who, if anyone, may follow suit, and whether Mr. Glass will return if he fails.”

P.P.S. Glass also gave a giant boost to the career of writer David Sedaris by having him read The Santaland Diaries story on NPR back in the ’90s when Sedaris was still working odd jobs to make ends meet. Sedaris told the story of working as an elf at Macy’s one Christmas and said after that broadcast, “The telephone started ringing and it wouldn’t stop.”

Update: Apparently Glass attended the play King Lear in NYC with writer/director Judd Apatow and commedian/actress Amy Schumer so he could have easily said one of the humorist hacked his Twitter account regarding his Shakespeare tweets.

Related post:

Ira Glass on Storytelling
What’s Next?
“All stories are emotionally based.”
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Writing and House Cleaning (David Sedaris quote about one of his jobs)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) This guy loves Shakespeare.

Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug

                              

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Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

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Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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