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The value of suffering

Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor

Copyright © 1994, 1997, Dorian Scott Cole

My favorite line from a movie comes when a writer is asked why he got married. He replies, "Because I'm a writer and I felt like I hadn't suffered enough yet." I was raised, in a rural community in the fifties and sixties where suffering was something to be endured and not complained about. In fact, showing emotion was generally considered out of place. Emotionalism from the Church pulpit, or from an insurance salesman tightening the screws, or even in a story was seen as very inappropriate. Feelings were better kept hidden.

I have woken slowly to the value of feelings. I recently asked a famous Russian playwright who lives and works near Moscow and produced some of his plays in the US, how he gets inspired to write. He replied that he walked the streets until he saw misery and got depressed. Then he sat down with his bottle of vodka and his typewriter and began to write. I was amazed that anyone could write when they were depressed. But the Russians have a grand tradition of emotional theater, and are disappointed if their emotions aren't touched. Is it any surprise that modern Method Acting sprang from this tradition, from the Russian Stanislavsky who put actors in touch with their feelings?

Do Characters Really Feel?

Is it really important? Doesn't the average viewer just want to escape from his own humdrum daily life, or life of troubles, with a little vicarious excitement? A little sexual titillation? If that were true, James Bond movies would fill the screen. Carried to extreme, computers could create action plots where two opposing machines crush each other to the last machine. But no one would care. Did Robocop have a heart? Yes. Did the Terminator have human values after all? Yes. Even in James Bond movies the spy falls in love. The movie that gets made touches on what it means to be human. 

Writing illustrates the human condition. Even Star Trek stories are about the human condition. Though set megamiles from earth, using science hardly imaginable, on a planet with creatures totally unfamiliar to us, Paramount still wants the stories to be about the human condition. One of their best series of storylines involved the android character Data and whether or not he was human. I think the writers could not have let him be declared a machine. The audience would not have stood for it; they even want Data, an Android with no feelings, to know what it means to be human.

Even in humor we want our characters to portray the human condition. Especially humor. Verbal gymnastics are funny for a while, but not for an entire film. I remember hearing Alan Alda say about the hit series, Mash, he wished they had delivered fewer one liners and taken time to be more serious. Better humor is based on laughing at the human condition and the situations we find ourselves in - laughing at life. What about horror thrillers? Definitely horror thrillers. Does Steven King instinctively know what scares the hell out of us by his own reservoir of feelings? Yes. If he didn't, he couldn't write it.

How do you rewrite movies and scenes so they touch on some aspect of humanity? Quick, name something that is human. Try an emotion. Try suffering. One common theme in all the world's religions is that suffering is basic to change - not that all life is suffering, there are very positive motivations as well - but most stories are about the struggle for change. Yet too often the story reflects only the kick and not the pain. 

Step One: Show The Pain

Take emotion out of the bottom drawer and put it with the action. In the movie, Unforgiven, Muny assassinates a man in cold blood. The man doesn't die immediately, and in a humanitarian gesture not typical of Muny, he allows the dying man to be given water. People suffer when they die, but Muny had always hidden from it in the past with drunkenness. This time he wasn't numbed by drink; he had changed. Neither is our prospective audience numbed to emotion, so the writer can't leave emotion out and expect the movie to grab.

If you identify with your characters, you can make them suffer. Or when they reach an impossible goal, you can make them blow the top off in celebration. The writer has to feel the character reaching for the goal and know that when he's reached it he's done something exceptional. 

I suspect many writers never identify at all with their characters. The characters are just puppets manipulated at will to make the story go this direction or that because the story needs action here and romance there. The character makes the right moves and it happens. But it has the same bogus impact as decaf coffee because it doesn't follow from character motivation. The character is actually lifeless, as in dead.

Step Two: Raise The Dead

The second step in rewriting is to identify those dead characters and give them a life. For example, why does Uncle Heathcliff suddenly decide to join forces with Nephew Philbert when for the last fifteen scenes he didn't seem to care? Without compelling motivation, it looks contrived. Why does Randy suddenly kiss Paulette when for the first half the story he hasn't noticed that she even existed? Because it was time for romance? The audience will be painfully aware something just happened for no reason at all.

Examine your own feelings: are you likely to root for some lifeless person whose only motivation is to make money and manipulate others? No. But on the other hand, would you connect with a man who was prevented from reaching his goal of being manager because of unscrupulous coworkers? He is now struck with a crippling illness that could be arrested if he had the money. He would get the money if he gets promoted to manager, but one of his coworkers also wants the manager job - the same scoundrel who stole his wife ten years ago. The good guy is a kind person who would treat the mistreated employees with respect if he becomes manager, that is, after he cleans house. We care about people who are like us, and we care even more when they are suffering..

Shallow characters, who have no purpose in life, who want nothing, have nothing to care about. There are no real obstacles for them to encounter. What is good and bad is just a point of view, and they are about as engaging as branches striking each other in the wind. The character needs to develop a life with roots in the community and family, and want things, just like real people. To breathe life into zombies, redefine your character giving him a past, a present, and a future. 

Step three: make them live longer so they can suffer more

One of my wife's favorite sayings is, "If you complain, God makes you live longer." Does your character die half way through without a complaint even though he is present until the end? Lacking specific motivation, the character dances frenetically to page sixty, then drags his own corpse to the end of the story, unaware he expired back there somewhere. Chances are you didn't care enough about the character to bring him to a good ending. To fix it, start looking for clues why you don't care for the character. Chances are you'll find it in character motivation. 

It might be you have an unappealing character. Redraw your character so he is someone you care about - either love or hate. It could also be you just aren't interested in the story. I have difficulty writing stories about injustice and reprisal. I get the story started then lose interest - other kinds of stories appeal to me.

The opposite also happens. The story doesn't get going until page sixty because it took that long for the writer to identify with his characters. The answer to that is to set the first sixty pages aside and begin writing fresh. The good stuff will come back to you and the character has enough life now to present a challenge.

Step four: who cares?

If your character is good, when you look at the halfway point in the story, do you really care how it ends? Have you written a compelling story or just a movie? Does your story have purpose? Does it tell us something about life? If not, maybe that's why you have no interest in it - it really doesn't make any difference to anyone, including your character - and you need to clarify what your story is about. The best way to fix this is to get in tune with your characters and find out what they want. Work on the character profile some more. Write a scene where one character shares with another why he is alive and what he wants from life, and how he got that way. (Set that scene aside and don't use it in the script; they don't play well.) Characters usually determine what a story is about and drive the story to its conclusion. 

Step five: be decisive

Another frequent problem is the character never really decides to do anything. He just wanders through the script and no one knows how motivated he is. He supposedly worked up a thirst, but it was a weak one and he's just going to satisfy it sip at a time. Yuk! Chinese water torture. Like a thirsty man crawling across a desert, the protagonist must work up a strong thirst for change and be driven to a decision. Tension should mount to the bursting point, then the character removes his glasses and puts on his Superman cape. We know he's finally had a belly full and he's not going to take it anymore.

The point where a character makes a decision has to be identifiable by an actor. An actor looks meticulously for decision points so he knows how to direct his action. His entire persona will change once he has reached a decision point. He may have been tense and tortured but compliant one moment, then becomes irate and forceful the next. But the character who moves from scene to scene with no emotional change and no decisions commands no attention and gives an actor nothing to work with. 

The decision point has to be especially well developed for the turning point at the end of part one. Everything that happens in part one should be pushing the protagonist to the point he must make a decision to do something about it. In every scene the character should suffer more intensely than the scene before until he can't stand it anymore and has to do something. 

These five steps should help you identify the dead and breathe life into them. Most of these problems have to do with lack of character motivation because the character has no life. If they have no life, don't care about anything, then they can't suffer. But suffering is only one emotion to work with. Lovers fall more deeply in love, or fight the feeling, until one decides to do something about it. He chases her and part two begins. An athlete may reject hard workouts until he goes down in bitter defeat. He decides to try harder - part two begins and he finds the obstacles to success are just beginning. A cop may find compelling reasons to become more and more absorbed in a case until he realizes it's an obsession he can't give up and part two begins. A woman discovers she loves criminal law, but each day finds it more difficult to get into law school until it seems only an elusive dream. But she commits to the dream, leaving her job and only income, and part two begins.

When we get tired of wrestling with others, or God, or with our own conscience, we change.  This is a negative aspect of life.  I like to think we are (or can be) free agents and control our own destiny to do whatever is fulfilling, and good for the world.  But I know most of us spend a lot of time on the negative aspect.  John Labier in "Modern Madness" states "...the major civilizations throughout history ... (view) ... misery and suffering as a product of how we live: an inevitable byproduct of a life dominated by greed, self-centeredness, childish resentment, dependency, and the like."  These things are not strictly defined as psychological problems (narcissism is not "sickness"), but as spiritual problems.  We do, I think, generally recognize them as relationship problems.  Kunkel thought that when suffering reached desparation, only then was the person able to respond.  Rollo May considers suffering to be the most creative force in nature, which allows the counselor to redirect the sufferer into constructive channels.  I'm not a therapist, so I only know how this works as a parent and as a person.  I'm damned stubborn, but it works on me. 

I use this point of view extensively in writing. With characters in stories, I make them suffer until they come to a crisis.  (I learned this in crisis counseling and alternative to jail programs.)  The problem becomes big enough that they have to address it.  That's the beginning of the story.  I often use material things (symbols) to reveal their inner thoughts and feelings.  Next, their suffering (problems, obstacles) escalate until they reach a final climactic battle.  At that point they have to discover the inner resources to win the battle.  This reflects real life, but is an oversimplification.  Life is seldom linear and the point of suffering seldom seems to have a specific goal, except when it's brought on by our errant behavior (and I seldom suffer as much as I earn for that). 

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