Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nobody Ever Asked Me To:

#3: Help adolescents scale incredible heights

The young lady, a college sophomore, stood there looking up - way up - at Arnold Schwarzenegger. He shook her hand, while she shook all over. You see, she had only seen celebrities on TV or in the movies. Not live. Not like this. Never actually introduced to one of the biggest.

And I had a major role to play in that moment.

When I was hired a number of years before by a large, national youth development organization, my duties were basically entry-level management of scholarships and grants.

Little did I know that in just a few years I would be introducing a young college student to The Terminator.

See, at the start, the job was not at all exciting. But in those early days, I looked around the place, got to know some people and started understanding what the other jobs there entailed. After a couple of years I found myself part of a team which trained teens to meet with and tell their stories to high-level corporate CEOs, as well as become national role models for the entire youth program.

And it was a whole lot of fun. How? Two reasons. 1) I developed and presented the public speaking and story-telling trainings, and 2) the teens were fantastic, bright, energetic, fascinating and a joy to work with. They made our team proud, because they all consistently rose to meet the challenges we tossed their way. And they were always incredibly grateful to us for the opportunities to do some pretty amazing stuff.

Like consult with some of the biggest CEOs of corporate America. Like speak to audiences of 2000 at a time. Like play tennis against the President on the White House courts.

And meet Arnold when he was Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

The youth organization recognized my efforts and rewarded me for them. Actually, no. That's not true.

The organization basically ignored that part of my job at performance review time. I got raises, but they were based on the other, more managerial parts of my job. My boss even once told me "I let you do the other things because I know you have a good time doing them." Not, I heard him intimate, because I show any aptitude for it or deliver a much-needed service to the organization.

In fact, a couple of us were criticized for what we were trying to do with these teens at the national level, as they thought it brought too much attention to ourselves. I came to realize that, if you show you're having too much fun in your job, people will resent you for it.

However, nothing, not even money, can replace my memory of that college sophomore, shaking (but smiling), looking up at Arnold that one afternoon - and the story she took back to the rest of the office.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
Part II: The People

#1: Knock Down, Drag Out

The next time you watch a movie, pay close attention to the main character. Notice how he is always on the go. How she might be sitting at a desk for just a moment, only to spring up out of his chair and leave the room. How many times have you watched a movie or tv show and asked the characters "why did you go into that room - you knew the killer was in there waiting for you!"

Something I learned in one of the screenwriting seminars I attended over the past few years: characters in movies differ from real life people in one main respect: when given the choice between "throwing a punch" or letting something pass, the character will throw the punch.

Now let's take that real life person you find you need to write about. Chances are very good that his or her life matches our own - distinctly lacking in chances to throw a punch.

That's when you have to dig a little deeper. Expand your idea of what "throwing a punch" is. Our lives, and those of our constituents, abound with actions that can be construed as a bit more dramatic, when put up against an opponent. Getting that second opinion from another doctor. Returning that latte because it's "just not right." Running for the subway train as the doors close. Asking that certain person out to lunch.

Dramatic characters are all about "wants." It's something they share with us - and why we find them so compelling. Often a story is all about a person (or character) wanting something - and going after it. That's where the essence of the story lies. In the character's want.

A teacher wanting his students to learn (or behave) - and the punches he throws to affect this change. That's compelling. A teacher working with well-behaved academic achievers? Not so compelling. That's why the end credits come when the teacher's gotten what he wants. We don't want to watch even ten minutes of non-dramatic classroom learning. That's the reason so many movie sequels fail. They really aren't sequels, they're the original movie character having to go after her want all over again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
Part 1: The Language (continued)

#4: Ying or Yang?

Sometimes the most effective way of figuring out what something is, is to figure out what it isn't. That way, you can hone in on your subject.

However, this could hamper your storytelling.

I've often used the "negative" in describing what I see. The simplest example would be describing something at night. I might begin by saying "the room was devoid of light" or "the streetlights were all out." But I'm never satisfied with that description, because it makes the reader do too much work. And I'd rather have the reader bounce along in the story than stopping to figure things out.

So, I'll recast certain descriptions in a "positive" way. Instead of saying "devoid of light" I'll use "Darkness threatens to eat up the small square of light the moon casts on the floor." (Hey, we're talking dramatic effect here!) The "streetlights are out" segment will become "the only light on the street came from his flashlight."

Casting things in the negative stops the reader and makes him or her imagine first the alternate, which must then be removed. For "a room devoid of light" the reader must first imagine the room "with light" and then turn the lights off.

I'd much rather go ahead into the room and turn the lights off for you.