Invisible Ink

McDonald, Brian

The steps 1.) Once upon a time ______________________________________ 2.) And every day _________________________________________ 3.) Until one day _________________________________________ 4.) And because of this ____________________________________ 5.) And because of this ___________________________________ 6.) Until finally ___________________________________________ 7.) And ever since that day

Remember, when you create a story, you must let the audience know the reality of your story. It’s your world. “A duck walks into a bar and orders a rum and Coke.” That joke starts by giving you a major character and letting you know the reality. Notice that when a joke starts with a duck walking into a bar, no one says, “That’s ridiculous!” They accept it because it’s the first thing they are told. Whatever your “talking duck” is, let people know right away.

Act 2 is your longest act and makes up the body of your story. This act is usually split in two. I like to call this split the fulcrum. Because act 2 is so long, it can be difficult to keep an audience engrossed. It helps to cut it in half. In Billy Wilder’s classic noir film, Double Indemnity, a woman and her lover decide to kill the woman’s husband for the insurance money. In the first half of act 2 they plan the murder. At the fulcrum, they carry out their plan and in the second half of act 2 the focus becomes: Will they get away with this crime?

A wise man speaks because he has something to say; a fool because he has to say something

What is an armature, then, when talking about story craft? It is what you want to say with your piece.

My friend had nothing to say about competition. “Competition” is not a theme. A theme (or armature) might be, “Competition is sometimes a necessary evil.” Or, “Competition leads to self-destruction.” Saying that your theme is competition is like saying your theme is “red.” It really says nothing at all.

One way to look at your armature is what is called, in children’s fables, “the moral.” The armature is your point. Your story is sculpted around this point.

With King Midas, the storyteller wanted to teach people that some things were more important than money. What were his tasks as a writer? First, he had to create a character who was greedy. Then he needed to set up a situation wherein the character gets what he wants. Then he needed to turn this wish into something that would teach the character a lesson. Everything in this story is designed to make the writer’s point. This should be true of your work as well.

There is an old piece of advice usually given to someone about to give a speech: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. This is no different for storytellers.

I don’t believe that audiences care much about the genre of a story; they just want to be moved in some way. And they respond over and over again to stories with an armature.

When listening to a joke, we all know there will be some unexpected twist and that everything preceding the punch line is a necessary part of the joke. We understand that the punch line can only use elements previously introduced. More accurately, the punch line must use elements previously introduced—otherwise, why introduce them?

Again, we see that the Scarecrow has a plan, but we also see that the Tin Man has a heart because he tears up. And the Lion gets a chance to show his courage in the face of fear. By the time we get to the end of The Wizard of Oz, we know (at least, subconsciously) that the foursome of the Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy already have what they’ve been seeking. We, as an audience, were able to figure it out, and with that comes satisfaction. This almost happens on a subconscious level. This is what is meant by dramatization. It is showing rather than telling. We know that those things to which we have an emotional connection stick with us better than those for which we have none. Dramatization is a way to get your intellectual ideas across to your audience emotionally.

Don’t give me logic, give me emotion.

Near the middle of the film, before the audience knows that the planet is, indeed, Earth, there is a courtroom scene. You see, the sentient apes of this world have discovered that Taylor (Charlton Heston) can speak. Humans on this world are mute. The courtroom scene takes place following this discovery. Up till then, Taylor had been kept in a cage. There is no logical reason to have this scene in a courtroom. Why not have the scene at Taylor’s cage? It all goes back to the armature that Man is a violent and self-destructive creature. This scene, thematically, is about putting humanity on trial.

it is no mistake that this scene immediately follows the discovery that Taylor possesses speech. Just being human, it seems, is a crime. It is a beautifully crafted scene that abandons logic for theme to support its armature.

Going back to The Wizard of Oz, all three of Dorothy’s companions are clones.They, like she, are looking for something they already have. Having clones is a way of dramatizing ideas;

John Steinbeck uses a cast of clones in his novel Of Mice and Men. The armature of that story is that people need companionship. It is dramatized as well as stated. If it has been awhile since you’ve read it, I suggest you reread it soon. It is amazingly well-crafted. He knows what he wants to say and says it over and over again in different ways. And he does give you an intellectual idea on an emotional level.

How do I know that I’m not reading all of this into the story? One way to know is the repetition of the armature. It is dramatized over and over again. The scene where they shoot the old man’s dog is a well-written scene, but what makes it great is that it nails home the armature using emotion to do so.

I read or see stories all the time in which characters say wise things and the audience nods knowingly, but it means nothing if the structural elements of the story don’t back it up.

A storyteller should know why every character in their story exists. They should not be there just to “flesh out the world,” as I often hear my students say.

Sunset Boulevard, Wilder had character Joe Gillis, an out-ofwork Hollywood screenwriter, sell out for a little security and become the kept man of an older ex-movie star. He becomes her pet. In fact, when they first meet, the pet chimp of the has-been star has just died. It is no mistake that following this Joe Gillis moves into the woman’s home. At one point in the film she dresses Joe in a tux—sometimes called a monkey suit. Through the ritual pain of being a kept man Joe Gillis learns that having a swimming pool isn’t worth selling out his principles.

Shirley MacLaine plays a woman who is having an affair with one of the aforementioned executives. This idea of selling out, or prostituting oneself, hits hard when the executive, not having time to buy a Christmas present for his mistress, hands Shirley a hundred dollar bill as a gift. It is through the ritual pain of being made to feel cheap that Shirley learns to respect herself enough to be with a man who will commit to her fully.

Because change is never easy, and is resisted, it is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible. You must back them into a corner and force them to change. Make it as painful as you can. Bring them to the brink of physical or emotional death if you possibly can. Your protagonists will be measured by the size of their struggle, so don’t pull any punches.

A character always knows what he wants, but hardly ever what he needs. In the end, the character usually gets close to what he wants and chooses the need instead

Let’s revisit our friend, King Midas. If all the king wants is gold, then as a storyteller creating that story, one would have to find a way to put Midas in hell, to take him to the underworld. The storyteller granted the King his wish that everything Midas touched turned to gold. It wasn’t long before King Midas realized that this blessing was a curse when he changed his beloved daughter into gold. Midas learns that some things are more precious than gold. A trip to one’s personal hell changes one.

In the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey wishes he had never been born. In his personal hell, he is granted the chance to see what the world would be like without him, and it’s not a pretty place.

“Of all the gin joints in all the world she had to walk into mine,” goes Bogart’s famous line from the film Casablanca. He says this because the woman he was in love with, and wants to forget, has just come into his world. This is his personal hell.

This is one of the simplest ways to apply invisible ink to your work, but it will yield powerful results. It is a simple way to find out what your story needs to be about. Find that thing that your character would rather die than do and make them do it.

According to Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, gave up one of his eyes and was speared to a tree for nine days in order to gain wisdom. Attaining wisdom is never easy.

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone starts off as a virtuous man—a war hero, no less. When he tells his fiancée, Kay, about his family’s criminal behavior, he tells her, “That’s my family, Kay, not me.” He is above all of this. What is the ritual pain that begins his change? His father is shot. Michael may not approve of his family’s business, but he does care for them. His change is slow at first. First, he protects his father while the men who shot him try to finish him off. As an audience we can understand that. Who wouldn’t protect someone they love from killers? Then Michael decides he wants to kill the men who shot his father. When he does kill them, it is not justice, it is revenge. Michael’s father was not killed, only wounded. That might not make much difference in some story realities, but it does in this one. We know that because in the opening scene Michael’s own father tells us so. He defines the difference between justice and revenge when a man comes to him asking him to kill the two men who nearly raped his daughter.

Because the scene with Don Corleone and Bonasera is the first scene in the film, it becomes invisible ink. The audience has no idea that this scene will help them understand the rest of the film. Like all forms of invisible ink, it works on a subconscious level.

The other adults are in a panic—they try to distract the boy and calm the man down, but he’s having none of it. Surprisingly, the boy ignores the man’s drunken rant. But the man just gets louder and more obnoxious. (We, the audience, know something bad will happen, but the storytellers drag this scene out an agonizingly long time. They understood that promising conflict was a powerful form of invisible ink.)

What does it mean to tell the truth when writing fiction? For one thing, it is not about facts. Storytellers are not concerned with facts, just truth. Sometimes facts can even get in the way of the truth.

Remember in Big when Tom Hanks has gotten his wish and has become an adult? Remember his first night away from home in the sleazy hotel? He cried. This is a comedy, right? But when Hanks cries in that scene, nobody’s laughing. In fact, it’s painful to watch. The filmmakers played the truth of the scene.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has a great example of truth in it. There is a scene in which a scary opponent who dazzles us with dangerous-looking swordsmanship, confronts Indiana Jones. I remember sitting in the theater on the edge of my seat, expecting an exciting action sequence. But instead, Indy calmly pulls out his gun and shoots the man dead. Anyone who saw that in the theater remembers the uproar of laughter that followed. Why was it so funny? It was the truth. It was the most logical thing for Indiana to do.

he is preparing for a sexual escapade by washing his genitals in the tub. Few of us would admit to doing such a thing in public, but a theater full of people will howl with the laughter of recognition. The film was raw with the honesty of human behavior. Most writers are afraid to put something so personal down on paper.

Several decades after World War II, color movie footage of Hitler was discovered. Some people thought it shouldn’t be shown because it humanized a monster. But that is what makes Hitler a monster—he was a human being, not some creature from outer space. It makes a much stronger point not to shy away from that fact. It means if we are not careful, we may produce another monster.

Masculine traits are anything that moves the story forward externally. For example, Character A, a policeman, finds out that the murderer in the case he’s investigating is another cop. That is a masculine element. The murdering cop is Character A’s best friend and once risked his life to save Character A. This is a female element. It is the balance of these two elements that creates dramatic tension and keeps an audience interested. It keeps their brains working: What is Character A going to do? It creates depth.

Actors, dancers, visual artists, poets, playwrights, English and literature majors tend to fall more on the feminine side of things, regardless of their gender. These people tend to put a lot more emphasis on character, the beauty of words, scenery, mood, and theme. Plot is seen by many of these people as cheap. Films and books that are more feminine usually do better among critics and intellectuals, but seldom bring in a wide audience. They are often called “character- driven.” Critics will often believe that these stories are too “smart” for the masses. Too cerebral, they might say.

If you aren’t trying to speak to an audience, why bother to write it down?

the masculine conflict only forces the hero to deal with his feminine conflict. It is the external pressure that makes a diamond of a lump of coal.

More than likely, you will be drawn toward one over the other. Be careful of this; it will not serve you well to give into the things you already do well. If you go through the ritual pain of doing the very thing you don’t want to do, you will become a better writer. You will ascend.

Your responsibility as a storyteller is to be a good teacher, not a good preacher.

I believe that thinking of stories in genre terms only makes one think of how stories are different from one another instead of what they all have in common. Good drama doesn’t understand the boundaries of genre. It doesn’t care if someone rides a horse, a car, or a spaceship, as long as you care about the rider.

Genre is irrelevant to the dramatist. A dramatist should only be concerned with drama. If one genre can help you tell your story better than another, use it. No genre is better or worse than another.

Mr. Serling knew something the executives didn’t. “I knew I could have Martians say things that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t,”

Subtext is all in the setup. Once you establish that two characters hate each other, for instance, all you need to do is put them in the same room together and have them talk about the weather—the audience will do most of your work for you.

When you write dialogue, or anything else, think of yourself as a puppeteer. You are hiding under the table; you don’t want anyone to be thinking of you. You want their attention on the puppet. Once they are thinking of you, you’ve lost them. This does not mean you can’t have a character say witty, funny, smart, profound things, but it had better be the character talking, not you.

frightening experiences in our own lives can be funny in the retelling because we have a superior position over our past selves. We know everything turned out okay.

Richard Dreyfuss is in his truck at night and he is lost. He stops his car in the middle of the road to check his map. Behind him, we see a pair of headlights drive up. Dreyfuss waves the car around. The driver goes around Dreyfuss’s truck. Very shortly after, the scene is repeated almost exactly. Dreyfuss is stopped and looking at his map when a pair of headlights drives up. Without looking up from his map, Dreyfuss waves the car around. Unbeknownst to him the lights behind the truck rise vertically. (Good use of superior position, by the way.) It’s a creepy scene. It works so well because we saw the previous headlights behave in a normal fashion, so now we have a comparison for what is normal and what is strange.

Here’s the problem: Because Albert Brooks decides to live with his mother, the conflict feels forced. The two have great, hilarious disagreements. They drive each other crazy, but one is always aware that Albert could leave anytime he wants. This takes the edge off their comedic conflict. I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t he just leave?” It isn’t honest. Tell the truth, remember?

“If there is something wrong with the third act, it is really in the first act.”

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. —Thomas Mann

Respect your audience. It’s not their job to “get it”; it’s your job to communicate it to them.

Understand that you are only as good as you are today, and don’t beat yourself up. You’ll get better.

Notice how the analyst does not mention the quality of the film’s story when he speculates on the film’s poor reception.

The idea that one could view a story through the lens of objectivity is so foreign to some that they don’t even know it is a possibility. But if you are to master this craft, that is what you must strive to do. When you read a sentence and find a misspelled word or grammar mistake, do you think for an instant that it might just be your opinion? You probably don’t. That’s because you understand the language and its rules. When you are speaking with someone who has only rudimentary skills in your language, you can tell immediately, just as you will soon be able to do with the language of drama.