Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Second Journey (Cash Anthony)

Notes on “character arc”

It’s been more than 10 years since I found “The Hero’s Journey,” by Chris Vogel, as I was looking for writing resources. For many writers, especially screenwriters, it’s one of those books on story structure that are essential references for this craft, the substance of which become ingrained in your mind as part of your writing toolbox.

Chris is a wonderful guy, a frequent speaker at film festivals and a presenter at screenwriting seminars, as well as a former studio ‘reader’ who had to cover two or three hundred scripts a week. Nowadays, he’s a story consultant who’s known for demonstrating how most of the classics of western literature hew to a certain structure that satisfies our need for epic stories. He worked closely with the producers of The Lion King, for example, and he still coaches writers and consults on scripts.

After I read “The Hero’s Journey,” I could see why it was hugely popular, and also why some writers complain that Chris seems to demand that they use his formula if they want to sell their screenplays to Hollywood. I could understand, too, why I had heard people talk about how tiresome and uninteresting movies had become, where such a structure was used yet again. (Chris actually “demands” no such thing, and the people who greenlight studio films these days are not English or comparative lit majors, they’re mainly accountants, which may explain why they keep getting stuck in a rut.) Then other story analysts, such as John Truby and Michael Hauge, came forward with other methods by which writers could improve their screenplays, and these methods had their moments of fame. I studied them all.

By coincidence, my deepening interest in story structure as a writer coincided with a much-needed look at “character” as a concept for actors on a stage. I was directing a play in which a group of men had to show how their characters changed with respect to racial prejudice, each one moving through a character arc that we had to help the audience see and hear and accept as temporarily ‘real’. Understanding and being able to convey to my actors how to start in one place and end up somewhere else wasn’t a theoretical pastime, for the audience members wouldn’t laugh or get a tear in their eye if we didn’t engage their emotions through an authentic conflict that each character faced. The importance of this journey for each one was shown through the relationships known to the audience, each character’s physical movement, and their vocal subtext–knowing what the lines meant in the context of the character’s life, and thus how and when to say them.

We made it through a month-long run of the play with only one revolt (some of the actors ‘got it’ more than others). Soon after that, as I put my writer’s cap back on, I found that Chris Vogel and Michael Hauge were about to begin teaching together, and the topic of their new seminar was “the Hero’s TWO Journeys.” They intended to show how today’s classic stories, as told in movies, consist of characters who change across time from one point of view to another, and what kind of change it is when we speak about “a character arc”. In epic stories, stories that we tell again and again and remember, it occurs by virtue of creating a journey undertaken on the surface, for a clearly visible objective, that is also exactly the best way to show the inner journey needed by the main character, at the same time. That the two stories must intertwine.

I had a huge smile when this seminar ended! It was exactly the answer I had been looking for, just at the time when I needed to put it all together, to get past a formula, or a pattern, or a series of rules. It was a way to understand that there was no limit on the number of stories that people would want to read, even if they dealt with the same issues that we explored via story since the days of the cavemen and the deer they carved in stone, deep inside a dark cave.

Now I see that the hero’s outer objective in a story changes depending on genre, setting, or the original story idea. But his inner objective is almost always going to be “a small step for a man,” a slight shift of perspective, a recognition of past blindness versus a new insight, a more open attitude toward community and a shift to higher-than-selfish values.

This allowed me to see that there are an infinite number of shifts in attitude and perspective that can underlie a character’s interior journey; for each of us makes tiny steps with respect to so many aspects of living in society. Dilemmas arise about where the limits are in almost every aspect of life. I need only pick one that I want to explore, and then come up with the human ‘wrappings’ that illustrate what is blocking or preventing this one shift. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

The events in the hero’s exterior journey bring the inner problem to light again and again; and if I want to use the Rule of Three, then only when he’s already tried to solve it and failed twice will an insight occur that will allow him to change, to take a leap of faith along his inner journey, and thus change his methods or understand his mistakes. It’s a familiar structure, because we’ve heard it in stories told us since infancy.

Since we all know how it feels to face a dilemma, to refuse to see the obvious because of an unrecognized prejudice or assumption, to stick to constricting habits or attitudes, to allow the low expectations of others to shape our fate—the list of internalized conflict and negativity and pain to remark upon can go on and on—as writers we can find many problems to give our characters, to set up a layer of conflict that interests, even compels a reader to ask “What’s going to happen to him next? What will he choose?”

Since it’s often—usually—extremely difficult for individuals to stop believing that their unsuccessful interior models will work, even fictitious characters require some time and several hard lessons before the way forward is clear. Depending on the genre and audience, a hero may find the exterior objective just that much too hard to reach at the end of the story, but he or she can truly be satisfied with having reached a new perspective that’s far more valuable.

Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in “A Death in Texas”, “Dead and Breakfast”, “A Box of Texas Chocolates”, “Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks”, “Underground Texas”, and “Deadly Diversions”. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.

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Themed Anthologies (Mark H. Phillips)

The Final Twist, a group of Houston writers, has produced a themed anthology each year for the past seven years. The first two anthologies were mystery collections: Dead and Breakfast (2007) set in the wonderful world of Texas Bed & Breakfasts, and A Death in Texas (2008) which got rave reviews. A Box of Texas Chocolates (2009) was our group’s first multi-genre collection—our best seller yet and an award winner (New England Book Festival). It was followed by Twice-Twisted Tales of Texas (2010), a multi-genre collection featuring distinctively Texan landmarks. Underground Texas (2011), featured tales dealing literally or metaphorically with the underground. Deadly Diversions (2012) features hobby and pastime themed stories, while Dead of Night (soon to be published in 2013) stretched our group by dealing with the macabre and occult. The themed anthology process is getting so streamlined that we plan to release a second anthology later this year, a multi-genre collection that features recipes.

Themed anthologies are a great way to get stories published. Such collections allow for targeted marketing. Our book launch for our most successful collection, A Box of Texas Chocolates, was held in a chocolate store just prior to Valentine’s Day. Consignment deals allowed us to display Dead and Breakfast in actual Bed and Breakfast establishments, targeting an audience already interested in our theme. Similar marketing was possible with Twice-Twisted Tales of Texas—tourists could visit a famous landmark and then visit the gift store and buy a short story collection containing a story built around the attraction they had just explored.

Themed anthologies are also an effective spur to creativity, as well as a way to pull a writing group together. The Final Twist prides itself on ushering beginning writers into the profession. Many novice writers have problems with writer’s block or coming up with ideas. A theme helps focus their efforts. During peer-editing they can see the disparate ways other writers handle the same theme. This also brings the group together. Instead of every member off working on their isolated project, editing develops a synergy based on the entire group working on similar stories. Sometimes rules have to be laid down to keep the stories diverse—not all of the recipe stories can involve poison for instance. Our group has been fortunate in finding the proper balance between using the synergy of all working around a common theme and getting a very wide diversity of content.

So far, we’ve also been lucky in reaching easy consensus on our themes. The brainstorming sessions are both raucous and fun. Everyone understands that the theme has to be broad—we want the most diversity and creativity possible within the connecting theme. Texas Underground was inclusive enough to allow both stories that take place literally underground and stories that explore sub rosa clandestine Texan culture. A Box of Texas Chocolates was a multi-genre collection of short stories all having to do with Texas and chocolate (it also helped that a significant majority of the members are chocoholics). There were mystery, suspense, romance, fantasy, and science fiction stories. Dead of Night will feature both literal monsters in macabre occult stories as well as stories containing serial killers and other metaphorical monsters.

Another factor in the success of our anthologies is the thorough professionalism of my fellow Final Twist members. Our writing group is all about getting material out there to our readers. We work on generating, peer-editing, publishing, and promoting our stories. It also helps that our members can produce with a hard deadline in place. Most of us are primarily novelists. Short stories are a refreshing change of pace, an opportunity to keep our fans aware that we are still writing, but never an excuse to stop working on our novels. Usually stories are produced and first-round edited within a sixty day window. If your group members cannot be depended upon to produce quality material in that sort of time frame, themed anthologies could turn into a prolonged nightmare. You have to leave time to pull the project together, get it ready for the publisher, the inevitable last round edits, contracts, cover design issues, promotional engagements, blog tours, etc. Naturally everyone in the group has to be willing to pitch in; otherwise some poor soul will end up saddled with all that work and never get their own novel finished.

If you are looking for a way to make your writing group more productive I can recommend themed anthologies. Just don’t use the title that I’m still trying to get my group to accept: Texas Chili Cook-off Winners and Their Rip-Roaring Tales.

We’d like to share our award winner with one of you. To enter the drawing, hop on over to our publisher’s website, read about the different stories in A Box of Texas Chocolates, then come back here and use the comments to tell us your favorites. Each person leaving a comment will be entered in the prize drawing (one entry per person) and the winner announced here next week – so check back to see if you’ve won!

If you want to be among the first to know who won, come visit the authors at Katy Budget Books on February 9 from 1-3PM. You can register a second entry in the drawing for A Box of Texas Chocolates, register for a second drawing (it’s a surprise), visit with the writers, and of course, shop for books at this wonderful store. You may even choose to be one of the first to own the latest anthology – Deadly Diversions.

Mark H. Phillips has been writing stories and political tracts for as long as he can remember, submitting stories to a magazine at the age of twelve. He grew up in Central Illinois, and holds several degrees in Philosophy. Mark met his wife, Charlotte, ten years ago, and later discovered they shared a passion for writing – they are collaborating on books and short stories – their first novel is Hacksaw. He’s currently teaching pre-calculus, politial philosophy, and the theory of knowledge. He’s been a member of Houston Scriptwriters for three years, and is a member of Sisters in Crime and The Final Twist. His short stories appear in the Final Twist anthologies: A Death in TexasA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted Tales of Texas Landmarks, Underground Texas, and the upcoming Deadly Diversions.

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