June 24, 2020 |

How to build a character-driven narrative

How to build a character-driven narrative

First of all, allow me to say that I am not qualified to be giving my opinion on writing. I am not a “writer” by trade; but I am someone who often finds himself writing scripts because it’s a requirement of the job. This disclaimer isn’t a false sense of humility or an attempt to subjugate myself to the fantastic script writers that are both, in the ground and alive and still kicking. It follows a personal mantra that I will never truly claim any identity for myself, other than my name.  

What you’ve just read, is how I think. I’m a transparent person, and I speak and write in a way that holds the potential to create a feeling of discomfort in others. At times, my words can elicit a point of tension, a feeling of self-judgement that often expresses itself in rejection… in short, the catalyst for a chain reaction. To write a story that others respond to, you have to be interested in this kind of human psychology, the chain reaction that elicits unique emotion after a point of tension. I have dedicated myself to being a student of this for the rest of my life, and it has absolutely nothing to do with writing.  

A breakthrough moment came for me when I listened to the podcast “Scriptnotes”, episode 403, by John August and Craig Mazin, two well-established Hollywood writers. It’s a lovely and fun podcast in general, but this episode was based on a course August had taught. It synthesized everything I’d missed about the key to a good story. Hint… it’s not about structure. Structure is a reductionist method of post-writing analysis to fit a story into a prescribed box. An authentic script follows the characters, an inauthentic script follows the structure. That’s why we see so many gawd-awful films these days and read so many “stories” that make us practically pass out with boredom. The Hollywood machine has mostly driven out authors, and replaced them with profit-based formulas. It’s entirely inorganic.

A good character-driven narrative applies “inductive reasoning” rather than “deductive reasoning”: the specific to ascertain the general. When you hyper-focus your attention on the three-dimensionality of the character and place them at a point of tension, you will create a situation that is interesting to read, watch, or hear.

To avoid telling you, the writer… the god of your characters’ story… exactly what method to use to torture your characters, I will simply say do whatever you feel like. Writing structures can imprison our minds very easily. Try to focus on having an enjoyable writing experience, digging into the characters’ minds and what revelations you’d like them to have. To keep the structure simple you can think of it like this: They will go through the “Hegelian Dialectic” of 1) facing a problem, 2) having a reaction, and 3) coming to a solution. Another way of putting it, is to say: They live a certain way, they are forced out of that way (the point of tension) and they come to a conclusion as to what way they will now live their life—and it is different than before. It’s a new life that is more in balance with their true self, their higher self, occupying the world around them that they wish to be a part of. That change is referred to as the “catharsis.”

A final analogy that can apply to life would be to say that a character lives in a mindless “shallow breath” state. The character is triggered into fear, anger, rejection, pain, etc. and the heart flutters in panic. The character then remembers or is reminded to take a deep breath, and calm the heart, even though they initially resist. The inhale is the ascent to glory in the narrative, the exhale is the release, the catharsis.

Whether you are working on a script for a movie or working for a brand to develop something more “commercialized”…don’t forget to focus on this character-driven approach. Use whatever analogy resonates with you the most, but if you can keep yourself from too rigid an approach you will likely bear the most fruit. What’s more, you will have a lasting impact on your audience—whether it’s making them uncomfortable, making them think, or giving them a new perspective.

Credits: Seth Iliff, writer; Mihir Upadhyay via Pixabay, image.

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