Tag Archives: Cash Anthony

Where the Action is (Cash Anthony)

Writing the dialogue for a screenplay, my favorite medium, has much in common with writing passages of dialogue in popular mainstream fiction. It’s sparser, and the layout is different, but the basic characteristics are the same — except in one important regard.

In both cases, the writer’s aim in dialogue is to illustrate character traits, or to trigger emotional responses, or to entertain, usually all three.

Note: it isn’t to convey information about a character’s backstory and relationships or to lecture the audience/reader with exposition that ought to come in gradually, elsewhere. Dialogue that departs from the present moment in the characters’ lives — where it steps outside that moment to tell the story, as if the speakers are aware of those looking in through the “fourth wall”, and they need to explain it all to them — that can be an real irritation. It amounts to talking to down to the audience/reader; and it bespeaks a writer who hasn’t taken the time find a subtle and imaginative way to get the same information across, if it’s even necessary to know it.

In today’s popular fiction, as in today’s screenplays, the idea is to show in the actions and reactions of the characters what they want, what they value, where the story is going and what the dialogue means.

In order to keep the tension going, the opposite approach is also useful: not to show or say what would be expected, as when a character fails to react. A trope of the horror genre is to give the audience information about the monster that makes it far more dangerous than previously known, information unknown to the hero or heroine–then to send the sympathetic characters on a maneuver certain to engage the monster at its worst. Patrons in movie theaters often shout a warning to them, so engaged are they in already knowing what could happen and hoping it won’t. When the audience knows, or wants to know, more about a character or situation than the world of the story reveals, this multi-layered subtext enhances the experience of the audience/reader as long as they can discover it for themselves. For the writer, it raises the quality of the work, holds attention, and keeps curiosity high about the next page.

Subtext permeates material written for a camera’s perspective, and it also colors popular fiction. Especially in comedy, it’s part of the game, part of the fun, to suss out clues to the hidden meanings and subtle dynamics of interchanges between characters. These clues often come in the form of body language, voice volume, personal “codes”, unconscious gestures, spatial positioning, and facial expressions.  And the nonverbal signals can work together, combining to repeat and emphasize or to shade and modify what is meant; or they can totally contradict the verbal message being sent.

Because the camera focuses so much on an actor’s face these days, writers who frequently watch contemporary movies have the benefit of seeing many different faces in extreme close-up. One can look back at the last fifty years of films and see that the camera has gotten ever closer to its subject, where a twitch of an eyebrow or the wink of an eye conveys something beneath the surface.  The best actors are masters of this, filling every moment they’re on screen with fascinating nuanced expressions. If these signals are supposed to be part of the “message” of a scene, the unspoken dialogue, one would think that a script would tell the director and actor to be sure it’s performed and captured correctly, yes?  Not so.

The important difference between popular prose fiction and screenplays is this: describing telltale nonverbal expressions and gestures belongs in the work of the fiction writer. But it must be eliminated from the work of the screenwriter!

“Don’t direct!” is a rule cited frequently to screenwriters. “Directing” here means stating exactly how a segment of dialogue is to be spoken, what the actor’s expression and gestures should be, and how the hearer is supposed to react. It can also mean saying where the camera is supposed to be and how the actors move.

In a screenplay where an actor, a studio gatekeeper or other in-house reader is expected to read and rate it, the writer can suggest attitudes and emotions in movements meant to show subtext underlying the characters’ behavior and expressions, but it must be done with an extremely light touch. Too much, and it steps on the toes of the director and the actors. They are all professionals, they have imagination and insights, and they will collaborate about how to play a scene, about what the writer’s words mean. They may even find a meaning the writer didn’t realize was there in the words on the page. Script readers are very sensitive to this.

Fiction writers get to ignore that rule. For them, the question becomes how to enrich and deepen passages of important dialogue by doing just that: directing the reader’s attention to the unspoken communication that helps them see and understand the scene.

Inserting a description of a character’s facial expressions is one way to suggest emotions and reactions, as well as to enhance the pacing of “talky” scenes. To break away from the face to a character’s movements or body language can detract from the intensity of some conversations; it can also read as “stagey” and artificial in the middle of an argument. How many times have we read scenes where conflict comes to the surface and one character “slams his hand down” on something, or “storms out of a room” or “slams a door”? But putting in a brief reference to a character’s facial movements keeps the intensity up.

Another reason to include facial expressions in passages of fictitious dialogue is that they can cure a problematic scene, if nothing else works, and even improve it. When a string of dialogue sans attribution threatens to get the reader confused, that confusion could be cleared up with “He said” and “She said.”  But it can also be erased by describing something about the face of the character who is speaking that is completely different from others in that scene.

In addition to the expressions that pass across a character’s face, writers can use the observation that people touch their faces unconsciously all the time. How and how often varies according to culture and age, providing the opportunity for comedy again. These movements can also hint that something lies below the surface, beneath the apparent dynamics of a situation that is not what it seems.

Scientists working with facial recognition software, law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and artists like painters or sculptors all see a face in its parts as well as in its totality. The eyebrows can distort a face into a scowl, or they can lift with delight. The nose can wrinkle with distaste or disgust (two different emotions) as well as moving to lift one nostril only, as part of a sneer. Without changing anything else on a “neutral” facial palette, one zone of expression can express a wide range of meanings via subtle changes in muscle tension and shape.

This gives a fiction writer a huge number of options. Descriptions of characters need not be dumped into an introductory paragraph, all at once, but can be teased out via all the nonverbal communication that ensues naturally in a scene, including facial expressions.

For the screenwriter, the script has to be so good that the reader’s emotional responses can be predicted, so good that the pleasure of reading this particular script begins at once and doesn’t stop until “Fade Out”, with the reader happily imagining how the lines will sound and perhaps even imagining how specific actors will play the best roles.

Screenwriters and writers of popular fiction would both do well to remember how, with a camera so close to the actor’s face, it becomes a tapestry of movement. It’s really where the action is now.

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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Final Twist Author Writers Panel – Delving into the World of Writing

Hosted by the:

Barbara Bush Library
Earl Elliot Room

6817 Cypress Dr.

Spring, TX  77379

Saturday, July 25, 2015
10:30am – 12:30pm

Join us Saturday morning for a glimpse into the world of writing from members of The Final Twist Writers, a Houston-based writers’ group dedicated to supporting our authors, providing mentors for aspiring writers, and promoting reading.
This is a wonderful opportunity for aspiring writers to gain knowledge from writers in different genres, writing with co-authors, information from self-published authors and to receive some writing tips. There will also be a drawing for a gift card to a local bookstore.

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Writing for the marketplace—Part 2 (Cash Anthony)

What distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction, if it isn’t sales and popularity?

One of the distinguishing characteristics of literary fiction is that stories of this ilk may not have happy endings. The characters may not be likable, but the reader will get to know a great deal about them and their internal struggles. The writer will attempt to shed light on the human condition by creating vivid settings and circumstances, and by showing what relationships set inside them or against them reveal about the characters’ lives.

A second distinction that identifies literary fiction appears to be the presence of the writer’s “voice,” a writing style that is unique and memorable. Writing that feels fresh, that engenders an emotional response in the reader as the story explores symbolic and even metaphysical themes is more likely to qualify as literary fiction. Experiments with language and structure are not unusual, as the writer may provide a glimpse into another world and other kinds of relationships where even the rules of language have changed.

This is the point at which literary fiction may cross a line and become magical realism; but instead of focusing on the issue of whether a magical place could exist, the reader suspends disbelief willingly in order to learn how it affects the people who live there.

In the world of fiction readers as opposed to created worlds, there are purists lurking who so desire to elevate the consciousness of their friends, family, and other targets that they set aside time in which only well-regarded works—of literary fiction— may be discussed. Groups of such folk gather periodically all over Houston for just this purpose, though they hide their true intentions beneath benign phrases such as “book club.”

In assemblies where lofty intercourse is so highly valued, book club members actually present opinions about the writing, characters, and story arcs of the monthly selection—and may even be called upon to defend their opinions in polite debate (college English Lit, indeed, except with better wine and adult-style noshes). Knowing their preference for worthwhile pursuits, a Controller of the Book List helps members select each month’s book; but the options include only literary fiction. The Controller (and the members) disdain Travis McGee and the boat he sailed in on, as well as most authors who still breathe.

There are some happy exceptions in the world of book clubs, though, where the readers are encouraged to bounce back and forth between classics and commercial fiction, and where lively debates about the character’s choices, the writer’s voice, and his intentions still occur. Living authors visit these book clubs to tease the readers with contrary interpretations and with the promise of another story to come. Most of my writer friends like these better, as it’s hard to compete with any corpse of renown.

My work is “commercial,” by necessity of the format I’ve chosen, which is the screenplay. But isn’t everyone’s? I have learned that I must keep testing my initial story concept for its commercial potential, or else my work may wander into the category of “hobby,” and that isn’t how I view it. I take it seriously enough to continue to write, read, study, compare, test, and expose it for critique, in the hope of improving it…which means making it more readable. More—literary.

Even though it sounds somehow more serious or substantial to be a writer of literary fiction, I know by now that Hollywood loves a screenplay that clearly fits a popular genre. In fact, many wonderful books, award-winning books, have been adapted for film with unprofitable and uninspiring results because they are too literary. From the Latin littera, meaning—letters that one reads. Letters, not diary entries.

Eventually, I believe, every writer hopes that there will be a large audience for his or her stories. The moment will come when that writer will make the right neural connection between something that is interesting enough to write about it, characters that will entertain and intrigue a significant group of others, and an engrossing way to get the story across.

Lee Jessup, former director of ScriptShark.com, is a career coach for screenwriters. She advises, “Choosing your next project, be it a spec screenplay, a TV pilot or a television spec, should not only be a creative decision; it should, in a perfect, business-savvy world, represent a strategic decision as well.”

In choosing my latest project, I’m finally seeing the light.  I’m seeing the audience lining up at the box office, and this time I’m paying attention to who they are and what they say about what they expect to see. If a movie of mine is also deemed a work of literary genius—so much the better, I admit. But it’ll be quite good enough if they tell their friends, “Don’t miss it!”

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 TexasDead and BreakfastA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted 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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Writing for the marketplace—Part 1 (Cash Anthony)

Who knows the difference between “literary fiction” and the other kind? Show of hands? Not many readers, and most of them are probably also writers or English majors.

Well, what is literary fiction? Moira Allen, blogging at Writing-World.com, approaches the question by stating first what it’s not: it’s not “genre” or mainstream fiction, which includes romance, mystery, thriller, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. Others attempt but fail to clarify by saying that literary fiction is reading required in “college English classes” as opposed to books found in “the grocery checkout line.” [The Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, by Jane Friedman].

One of the primary differences between literary fiction and genre fiction is that the emphasis in mainstream fiction is on plot, as opposed to character. In one editor’s opinion, “I don’t think mainstream fiction…takes as many risks with character, form, subject matter, or style as literary fiction, because its primary concern is the market place.” [Beth Alvarado, fiction editor for CUTTHROAT: A Journal of the Arts.]] Yet plot is clearly not a dispensable element in any story, for “Beautiful writing needs some glue to hold it together,” says Ronna Winegold, a senior fiction editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Since plot is, for many writers, the crucible that reveals character, the difference is surely one of degree. This makes for a distinction without a difference and further fails to clarify the issue.

If you are trying to meet submission requirements for a publisher, for example, a statement in the guidelines that the editors seek “character-driven” stories” that confront a “moral dilemma” would seem to allow almost any good story to come in. Insofar as style is also an important factor, a writing style only becomes apparent when the reader begins to experience what is on the page. This sets up a Catch-22 situation, for the writer is trying to persuade the reader to pick up that page, to begin with.

Why is it important for writers to know about literary fiction, anyway? Well, being the author of a story published by a leading literary magazine can help new writers raise their profiles. Some litmags have been introducing successful writers for decades. If they have liked a story, book publishers take note that the novel which follows merits a look.

Thus the writer of literary fiction—or of that hybrid known as “literary genre fiction”!—has higher hurdles to leap. He or she must do more during a pitch than simply tell what happens on a narrative level; more is required to entice an agent or editor to take a look at work that purports to reach inside, melt pre-conceived notions, and touch the reader’s heart.

In genre fiction and other popular storytelling modes today—which include movies, streaming Internet webisodes, and interactive games—this empathy-driven identification with the story’s symbols is manipulated to attract and incite a huge number of fans to share a common illusion of experience. In literary fiction, the writer must command all that and more. What makes the work transcendent is that the reader becomes more interested, and more invested, in the character’s psychological world, and what this reveals about human nature, than in the plot.

Is literary fiction more difficult to sell? Editors indicate that they’re looking for the same thing that mainstream or genre editors want: “a new voice,” “fiction that communicates ideas, concepts, or feelings that transcend the structural elements of the story,” and definitely “nothing predictable.”

What causes editors at literary magazines to reject a story? There are many reasons, including “Unsuitable for the magazine,” “Too much cleverness,” “Stereotypical plots,” “Lack of texture,” “Stories that have not been thought out. “If this sounds suspiciously like a checklist that an editor of any genre would have, Regina Williams, editor and publisher of The Storyteller Magazine, gives another familiar piece of advice: “Read the guidelines. Edit more than once. Keep writing.

She also advises writers, “Never give up. Even the most well-known authors have gotten rejection letters.”
The reality is that any writer’s first task, after typing “The End,” is to sell the story and convince the buyer (the agent, the editor, the publisher, the producer) that it is worth promoting to the world at large, and that it will become popular. Thus there must be some criteria other than large sales and wide popularity that writers and editors use to tell whether a story is a piece of literary fiction, a hybrid, a genre piece, or a wannabe.

A subsequent blog will focus on what those other criteria might be.

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 TexasDead and BreakfastA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted 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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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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