UltraRob

About UltraRob

Rob is a teacher, writer and entertainer based in London, Ontario, Canada. He is a teacher at Fanshawe College, Head of Wiseman Educational Services, Organizer of the Forest City Go Club and the founder/producer of the Kung Fu Action Theatre audio drama production group. He is married to his beautiful wife Connie, and owned by his dog Winston.

What Writers can learn from Animators and Comic Artists

Recently I did a post looking at the ideas of a writing guru called Eric Edson where   among other things he made the statement that characters in movies only have four emotional states- Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared. Edson’s view was that these are the most common emotions used in film because they’re the most visual ones and easiest for the audience to understand.

In the discussion that followed in the comments, my friend Don pointed out that there are many other visual emotions that appear on film, and that there is even a whole profession which spends a great deal of time studying human facial expression and body language- animators!

So, this sent me on a little research jaunt to see what I could find, since I have over the years regularly seen animators and comic artists do up sheets of standard expressions and emotional states for characters. What I found was the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge sheet by Nancy Lorenz.

25_essential_expressions_by_red

This sheet has been used since its release by multitudes of artists to explore how their characters express emotional states, and prepare their casts before going into production. So clearly, Edson was a little off, there are more emotional states that can appear on camera than just four, although in fairness to Edson a lot of them are variants of the core four he mentions with different levels of intensity involved. It’s also missing some emotional states like “curious”, so the list is hardly complete.

The point here is that writers could also use this approach to not only think about how each of their unique characters express these emotions, but also to think about which emotional state their characters will enter scenes with and which they will leave with, which are usually not the same ones. Each scene should have consequences, and those consequences are usually reflected in the change of emotional states of the characters involved. Controlling the shifting emotional states of the main characters is one of the things which gives stories a sense of flow, and creates an emotional journey for the audience to go on with the characters.

Also, while I was hunting for the emotions expressions sheets, I came across a few others that writers might find useful as well. Animators and Comic Artists spend a lot of time thinking about body language, which is an area where many Writers are often a bit weak since they’re not visual thinkers. You will constantly see writers having their characters only do just the most basic of body language gestures because they really don’t know any more or how to present it to the audience. Many writers get away with this or find ways around it, but like most things in writing the more elements you have control over the better you can express your story’s key ideas.

One of these is the Body Language Meme, which was meant to be an expanded full body version of the Facial Expressions challenge by Deviantart User ReincarnatedParano, which you can see in action below:

body_language_meme___envy__by_endling-d4zaey1

 

Then there is the 25 Smiles Challenge by Zerinity, which gets much more specific about the types of smiles characters use.

expressionslucasflat_by_blackdahlia-daidqtt

 

So, as you can see, there’s a lot more body language out there than smiles and nods, and having a good repertoire of ways to express your characters emotions besides through dialog can only make you a better writer. They say somewhere between 50% and 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so the better you get at using non-verbal cues in your writing, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and enthrall your audience.

By the way, if you’re not sure how to employ the above, you might find these Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson (no relation) to be useful. 🙂

Rob

P.S. Click on the sheet creator’s names to go to the blank original sheets, and the sample images to go to the pages of the sample artists.

 

DNA Podcast 044 – Musical Brains

Escucha_musica

In this episode, Don and Rob are joined by their friend Richard Moule to discuss music and how it affects us. The trio explore the physical processes behind our reactions and interactions with music and discuss how music and humans evolved together over time. The three also delve into music as soundtrack, and discuss the ways in which moviemakers use music to control and shape the emotions of the audience. All this, and  why John Williams owes Gustav Holst royalties is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Eric Edson’s Screenwriting Tips

One of my favorite YouTube channels is one called Film Courage, which is a channel basically dedicated to interviewing screenwriters and screenwriting teachers. There are some fantastic interviews on there if you’re interested in writing in general, but especially screenwriting.

Case in point this interview with writing teacher Eric Edson 12 Useful Tools To Help Beginning Screenwriters Write A Better Screenplay.

Now, the title is total click bait, in that Edson really doesn’t offer anything resembling tools in this video except in the broadest sense. He opens with a semi-controversial statement that plot and story are the same thing and calls anyone who disagrees idiots (which some like John Truby and Martin Scorsese would argue with, but it comes down to definitions) and then goes on to offer some random screenwriting tips. Among these are some pithy observations that I think are worth talking about.

The first one is that main characters in film should always have one of four broad goals:

  • Win
  • Stop
  • Escape
  • Retrieve

His reasoning for those categories is that main characters in film need an easily identifiable goal that includes a physical endpoint that the audience can visually see. Are there more possible goals? Yes. But these are all things that can happen up on the screen in front of the audience’s eyes, which Edson argues makes them the perfect goals for visual storytelling.

Let’s look at each.

Win– Technically, all movies have a character trying to “win” if the character has a goal, but in this case I think Edson is referring to a situation where there is a clear contest of some kind involved. This could be a naval engagement, making a relationship work, finding a killer, or trying to pass fifth grade, but there is a clear identifiable endpoint of victory involved. In a lot of ways, this is the catch-all category of the four.

Stop– The character wants to stop someone else from doing something or something from happening. This would be Armageddon, Independence Day, and even Star Wars: A New Hope could be considered a “stop” movie (since the goal is to stop the Death Star from wreaking havoc.)

Escape– The main character wants to escape from a bad situation. While there is a lot of bleed over with Stop, I guess the key here is that the main character isn’t trying to stop the opponent from achieving their goals, they’re just trying to get away from a situation. So this would include Titanic, Jurassic Park and Towering Inferno type disaster movies, but also include films about characters trying to get out of small town life, or kick a drug addiction. Their life sucks and they want out, however they can manage it.

Retrieve– The main character wants to get something (or someone) and bring it back. This could be personal (Apocalypse Now), physical (Raiders of the Lost Ark), emotional (rekindling a relationship), mental (finding lost knowledge), or even social (restoring a way of life). The key here is that the goal is simply to find something and then use it.

 

This ties in with Blake Snyder’s advice that a movie’s main character’s goal(s) should be primal in nature- something that human beings can all relate to because its part of our experience as people. Also, it’s very easy to visualize most of these goals, and they’re finite in nature, which gives structure to the story through the goal itself. (Once you win, stop, escape, or retrieve, the story is now over.)

On the flipside, this can lead to very simple stories where the main characters don’t have complex goals, but instead are acting like animals in a way. Yes, that lets us relate to them, but it also doesn’t go very far in plumbing the depths of the human experience. I mean, yes, you need to keep things simple in a two hour (or less) film, but this may be too simple at times.

 

Edson also argues that there are four emotions that characters display on screen:

  • Mad
  • Glad
  • Sad
  • Scared

These again being universal and easily identifiable emotions that audiences can react to and understand easily no matter who they are.  They are also strong emotions, so they’re more likely to resonate with the audience and make the scene more interesting while being easier for the actor to display. He says that each main character should enter a scene feeling one of these emotions and then leave it feeling another to show that change has happened in the scene.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with this list, and plan to think about it more and watch to see if that’s what’s happening in the films/tv I watch. What I can say is that there should be a fifth one on that list – Neutral – a state where a character is feeling no particular emotion at all. Sometimes character’s emotions aren’t strong, or are hidden from the audience, and this could be at the start of a scene or at the end of one. Of course, if your characters are always in neutral, it might be hard to get a reaction out of the audience, unless you have other supporting characters making up for it.

 

This is basically all I think is worth taking from this video. Edson follows this by trying to briefly discuss some Hero’s Journey archetypes, but slightly flubs them and if you want to know more about that go read Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey or Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (The Shapeshifter is not the Opponent, for example, they can be, but are often not the main opponent but a secondary one.)

Not one of Film Courage’s best videos (it mostly seems like a disguised pitch for Edson’s book), but it did have some interesting points I thought were worth noting. I’ll probably annotate some of their other videos in the future as well.

Rob

 

The S.P.I.N.E. of Every Good Story

SPINE-image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We know that stories exist because humans use them to learn from each other- they’re a teaching tool we use to pass knowledge and ideas between ourselves. Therefore, it will come as no shock to anyone that audiences must get something from a story to enjoy it. However, not every audience member wants the same thing, and not every good story offers the same things to its audience. That said, for a story to be successful with an audience, they must get at least one of five things (and preferably more than one) from a story, which can be remembered simply by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

Skills – If a story teaches the audience how to do something, whether it’s growing plants, judging wine, star-ship tactical combat, solving crossword puzzles, or how to get a good night’s sleep, then the audience will consider that story interesting.

Perspective – If a story offers a new way of seeing the world, or conversely, confirms or supports the way the audience already sees the world, then they will likely consider it interesting. In our lives, we only really know our own points of view, and stories let us see the world as others see it, that’s one of the wonderful parts about experiencing a story. On the flipside, we naturally want our own views of the world to be the correct ones, and stories that back up those views will resonate with an audience that wants those views to be true. (This might sound sinister to some, but most popular stories have a version of this buried inside them which acts as a comfort to the audience – “good will always triumph over evil”, “if you work hard you will succeed in life”, “there’s someone out there for everyone”, “there’s justice in this world”, etc.)

Information – If a story offers the audience knowledge about a subject they’re not familiar with, they will consider it interesting. This is different from Skills in that it isn’t teaching the audience how to do something, but giving them information about a topic or topics. This can be history, culture, fashion, sports, nature, geophysics, religion, and everything in between. If the audience is interested in this topic, or made to be interested in it by the presentation of the story, then they’ll stick with it.

Novelty – If the story offers the audience something new or that they haven’t seen before, they will consider it interesting. This can be any aspect of the story from way its told (character, plot, setting, style, structure, etc) to the content (skills, perspective, information) that is new to the audience. Give them something they don’t know, they haven’t seen done, or they haven’t seen done this way, and they’ll be on board.

Emotion – If a story can make the audience feel something, then they will find it interesting. (Although not always enjoyable.) All good stories should make the audience feel something at some point, and certain kinds of stories are even built around producing specific kinds of emotion. (Horror, Thriller, Romance, Erotica, Comedy, Tragedy, etc) If you can elicit emotions from your audience, and its emotions they want to feel ), then they’ll stick with it.

Not every story will contain all five of these things, nor all five things in the same ratios, but if you want an audience to think of a story as being “good” you’ll probably want to think about which ones your story is offering and in what ways. Obviously, not all stories teach the audience how to do something, but most do offer some new information. Similarly, not every audience wants novelty, or at least a lot of it, as sometimes a familiar story gives them comfort and new things can sometimes be challenging.

The key is that the more you’re aware of these elements, and how you’re using them, the better your story can be because you can control and shape them to get the results you want as opposed to just guessing how to satisfy your audience.

Rob

DNA PODCAST 043 – POST APOCALYPTIC RPGS

apocalyptic-374208_1920

In this episode, Don and Rob are joined again by their friend Chad to discuss Post-Apocalyptic (Tabletop) Role Playing Games. The three discuss the different ways in which an RPG can be Post-Apocalyptic, the importance of post-apocalyptic hygiene, and then go through the history of the Post-Apocalyptic gaming genre with side trips into movies, anime and pop-culture. All this, and why The Flintstones is a post-apocalyptic setting, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 042 – DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS

D&D

In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by fellow gamer Jack Ward to discuss the granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying- Dungeons and Dragons. The intrepid trio throw on their adventuring gear and delve deep into the many editions of D&D while sharing their thoughts on how D&D became a cultural fixture in our society.  All this, and why you need to roll for initiative right now!… are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 041 – REMAKES, SEQUELS AND REBOOTS. OH MY!

SDCC13_-_Robocop_(9348030116)

In this episode, Don and Rob sit down to discuss the issues involved with remakes, prequels, sequels and reboots, and why at best they’re a tough act to pull off well, and at worst they’re totally awful. Along the way, they delve into the nature of story itself and how stories reflect the writers and society. All that, and why the Ice Cream Man was an important figure in Star Wars lore (at least according to Don), is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 040 – MISTER KITTY’S STUPID COMICS

stupidcoverslogo

In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by Shain and Dave from Misterkitty.org to talk about their ongoing Stupid Comics project where they showcase some of the most awful and unique pieces of comic book art visited upon mankind. Along the way, the four talk about the pair’s Mister Kitty’s Lo-Fi Landfill audio project, really really oldschool anime, whether Archie is really comics or not, and the demise of local culture. All this, and how to make friends in high school using Omaha the Cat Dancer, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

New Random Story Generators

So, using my very limited HTML programming skills, I’ve put together not one, but two random generators for writers who are looking for a little inspiration to use.

The Random Scene Generator gives you a pair of people who are naturally in opposition to each other and a verb which defines the scene they’re in. I wrote this a number of years ago for use by my scriptwriting students as part of an assignment they do, but naturally anyone can use it. This is especially good for generating ideas for short one act plays or films.

The Random Action Adventure Plot Generator gives you a full 18 point plot outline for an action adventure novel, script, or other story. It is based on the Quintessential Basic Plot Outline by Dixon Kinquade and works surprisingly well. You could easily use it to generate a fast outline for a pulp adventure novel, spy novel, or action film.

Enjoy!

Rob

DNA Podcast 039 – Bad Movies We Love

Plan_9_Alternative_poster

In this episode, Don and Rob are joined by their friend Chad to talk about the movies that they know are awful, but can’t help but have soft spots in their hearts for. This journey takes the trio from classic 50’s monster movies, to the heights of 80s cheese and the depths of Asia’s cinematic vaults. Thrill to Chad’s love of Ed Wood! Stare in shock at Don’s encyclopedic knowledge of 80’s horror! Wonder at Rob’s passion for backwoods monsters! All this, and Don’s dramatic twist surprise that Rob and Chad didn’t see coming, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.