The Central Line: Giri/Haji

One of my favorite concepts we discuss in our rewrite workshops is the central line. I challenge writers to find a line of dialog in their script that reveals who the protagonist is. Sometimes they are surprised to discover these lines in their work because, in avoiding on-the-nose dialog, they didn’t set out to write anything so plainly stating the theme. In fact, when you try to force one of these lines in, it will probably come out clunky and reeking of writer’s convenience, rather than character need.

However, if you’ve done solid character work and are writing close to your character’s arcs and goals, the things that make your character tick often find a way into dialog without us even trying. Our subconscious writer brains make sure that key stuff comes out.

Sometimes, but not always, the protagonist’s central line is also the central line for the whole piece. This line of dialog expresses the story’s theme and often captures the author’s intent in writing the script at all. You can think of the central line as the story’s philosophical question–the question the script is asking of its viewers.

In the wonderfully written Netflix drama, Giri/Haji, a Tokyo cop is forced to track down his criminal brother in London before the Yakuza find him. Stakes are high; character goals are clear; and the restraint of both Japanese and British cultures makes for nuanced subtext and understated dialog throughout.

This is why I got goosebumps when, toward the end of the series, one character says to another, “We’re not bad people, we just did bad things.” The other responds, “Really, what’s the difference?” It hit me: that’s it! This is the central line, or philosophical question driving this piece: Is there a difference between bad people and bad actions? Do bad actions, however well intentioned, make us bad people? The exchange is earned in the turn of a scene so filled with desperation that it never feels on-the-nose. Giri/Haji, which translates as Duty/Shame, asks this question of its viewers beautifully and, over the course of the series, it gives us plenty of time to reflect and decide for ourselves. This is everything a well written script and a central line should do.

Can you find the central line in your script? Is it the same as the central line for your protagonist?

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The Queen’s Gambit: The Narrative Power of a Strong Character Arc

As we sat engrossed by the last episode of the marvelous Netflix limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, it hit me that one of the (many) reasons it succeeds is the strong character arc of protagonist Beth. Sure, the solid source material, the stellar acting, the mesmerizing production design, and understated directing help. But for me, from a writing perspective, the show works because of the strong character development.

*I warn you now: spoilers ahead*

Beth is a damaged orphan with an extraordinary talent struggling to find her way in the world. She discovers the bliss of sedatives and the intoxication of chess at the same time. Her loneliness is her armor and the pills her secret weapon as she spends her young life fighting her way up the ranks of the international chess world. Her addictions both fuel and hamper her progress. We know she cannot ultimately succeed in chess or in life as an addict, because that’s how humans work. Beth struggles to free herself from her addictions as they begin to cost her relationships.

In our classes, we look at each character we’re creating from several psychological points of view. Their “mask” is the way the world sees them, which is often not who they really are. Their “want” is what drives the character forward. Their “need” is often something the character isn’t even aware of, but we, as omnipotent writers, know it’s the thing that will allow the character to complete their journey—a missing piece of their heart. Their “strength” is something they tend to rely upon, but it won’t ultimately be the thing that wins the day for them, because relying on an existing strength doesn’t lead to character growth. Their “Achilles heel” is that unhelpful character trait that trips them up, and their “dark side” is who they might become if they indulge in temptation or give into that Achilles heel. The type of person they most admire, or envy, is who they desperately want to be—and will likely be at the end of the story. The potential to attain their “true self” is inside them, but something blocks it, usually an internal false narrative they have about themselves—a reason they think they’re unlovable, or a failure, or without talent.

Beth’s mask is that she doesn’t need anyone. It takes her nearly the whole series to admit even to herself that she’s desperate for a human connection she can trust. This is her deepest need. Her want is to be the best in the world (and the love she imagines that will bring her). Her strength is clearly her skill at chess, and her Achilles heel—her pill and alcohol addictions. Her dark side is that of a monster addict who scorches the world around her to feed herself. This is how she rationalizes being alone, and believes she is unlovable. She deeply envies those who have a team around them and people who care—family. She doesn’t imagine she’ll ever be that girl.

Strong character development usually maps directly to the story structure. In a three act structure, the first act establishes the character’s strength, weakness, want, and mask, and usually gives an indication of the other traits as well. The end of the first act launches them on their journey and sets the story in motion. In the case of a series, character development maps to the overall story as well as to each episode. Often, the first episode represents the first act of a series story arc. Duly, in the first episode Beth’s mother dies, landing her in an orphanage where she discovers both chess and pills, as well as her ally, Jolene. Her want is clear: she’ll spend the next few episodes pursuing her end-of-act-one goal of becoming a chess master and toying with rivals as she discovers her power. Her upward ascent is aided by her adoption by lonely housewife, Alma.

As Beth’s addiction competes with her conquering of the chess world, the series midpoint complication is the death of her adoptive mother in whom she found not a nurturer so much as a kindred spirit and rudder. Now, as a famous player of whom great things are expected, but also a girl not quite ready for the pressures of adulthood, she begins to slide to the series low point over several episodes. She’s alone again. Has she learned anything?

A character’s dark side and Achilles heel emerge as they move toward the low point that ends act two. Beth’s journey over the series follows this perfectly. Her dark side takes over as she uses and insults former rival-turned-lover, Harry. Initially dazzled by her interest since he knows he’s not the leading man type, he finally has the self-respect to see the truth of their relationship and sets a boundary, breaking his own heart and surprising her.

From there, even more desperate to be loved, she tries with another former rival and champion, the swaggering loner Benny, but he too sees that her heart isn’t truly open, and won’t let himself be dragged into her darkness. She’s now truly alone and adrift, in danger of sabotaging herself to a degree from which there will be no coming back.  

Following the low point, a character moves through a “dark night of the soul,” in which they face their worst fears and gather strength for the final challenge of act three. Here they have to set aside their strength, which is often a crutch, and reckon with what they want, laying the groundwork for their true need to be fulfilled in act three. Often a character must let go of what they think they want in order to become their true self.

In Beth’s dark night of the soul, her bestie from the orphanage, Jolene, breaks her walls down by helping her to grieve Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage janitor who taught Beth chess in the first place. He was the first person who believed in Beth and saw something special in her; he saw her as a person worthy of connection. On top of that, Jolene is willing to invest in Beth, because she believes in her too. This admission (on a subconscious level) that connections matter allows her to gear up for her final challenge of act three. As she contemplates facing her biggest rival, the Russian world champion, she realizes she must give up the pills and beat him with her own wit and skill if she is to ever respect herself the way her growing throngs of fans do. She must do more than live for herself; she has people counting on her.

In stories, you often find that if a protagonist lets go of what thought they wanted in order to obtain what they truly need (“letting go of the want to fulfill the need”), they end up with what they wanted too (“the want meets them in the end”). Here Beth flushes the pills she thinks she needs to win at chess and reaches out to Benny to make amends. She’s let go of her addition (“the want”) to attain human connection (“the need”). To her surprise, the guys are all there for her; Benny, Harry, and the rest of the chess world who cheered her rise at the start. Together they form a team that helps her work through strategies, the way she used to depend on the pills to do. She becomes a true champion on her own terms. Finally, she’s the kind of girl with a team in her corner, with the forever family she’s been missing her whole life. And in the end, her innate talent—the one she thought she needed pills to access—comes out all on its own.

The kind of character development in The Queen’s Gambit is what we teach in our Concept to Pages class, where we work with writers to identify the character elements and traits that produce a satisfying character arc that maps to a strong structure. That’s how stories create catharsis. The catharsis in Beth’s improbable journey have her series currently at number one on Netflix and chess board shortages predicted for this holiday season. Who knows, maybe the next Queen’s Gambit will come out of our January class.

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Scene Transitions: A Secret Weapon for Story Momentum

You may already know the fundamental ways of increasing momentum and tension in your script: get into scenes late and get out early; craft scenes around your protagonist’s pursuit of a goal; hold onto your central mystery as long as you can; and so on.

Another powerful way to increase the narrative flow of your story operates on a nearly subliminal level: Transitions! Like motifs, transitions are often not part of your initial draft. Nor should you slow down writing your first draft by trying to come up with them. Get those words on paper and worry about elevating them in your next draft. As you do, you can think about polish details like transitions.

Transitions can be visual: we end one scene on a coffee cup and start the next scene on a coffee cup. (That can be a match cut too.) They can be aural: a scene ends on a tea pot whistle, and the next scene starts on a train whistle. They can be aural to visual: a character mentions waves, and the next scene starts on a shot of the ocean. And of course vice versa, visual to aural: a character picks up a flute, and the next scene begins with flute music. They can also be situational with something like one party scene transitioning into another, or the opposite: a party scene transitioning into the aftermath of the party.

In each case, the writer slides the reader/viewer’s mind along a story that flows like a river, leaving no time for the reader to disengage from the current. Strong transitions keep us right in the moment. They make it feel like the story is moving faster, because our minds never stop to question the end of one scene or how we got into the next.

Visual transitions

keep the eye engaged

In television, the show Archer is a masterclass in transitions. It consistently cuts from dialog in one scene that is seemingly answered (in an absurd and unrelated way) by the opening line of the next scene. In film, a famous example is the bone thrown by the ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which match-cuts to become a futuristic space satellite in the following scene. Instead of a jarring 4-million-year leap, that cut communicates “evolution.” Where have you seen transitions done well?

In your script, look for colors, visuals, sounds, and situations where you can smoothly transition your scenes from one to the next. Details like these can make the difference in your script being read as an amateur effort or a polished professional piece.

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Motif! Adding Depth To Your Script With Key Details

You’re feeling good about your latest script draft. You’ve crafted a strong story structure and compelling character arcs. But there’s something missing that you can’t put your finger on. A little je ne sais quoi.

Threading in a motif–a recurring thematic element–can be the difference between a solid script and a script that stands out.

Consider French Kiss** (as I often do) starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, from the romcom heyday of the 90s. I teach this film in our Concept to Pages class as an example of excellent story structure and character arc, because it’s all there and extremely well developed. But it’s got the details too.

In the film, Kate learns that her picture-perfect fiancé has met the woman of his dreams in Paris, upending her Perfect Life Plan, so she sets out to win him back. Due to a deep-seated fear of flying, Kate hadn’t wanted to go to Paris in the first place. Once there, she refuses to be charmed by the city; its joie de vivre is not her thing. On a more external level, she refuses to be charmed by roguish jewel thief, Luc, who for entirely selfish reasons, agrees to help her in her quest. There is one thing though: she would like to see the Eiffel Tower.

The Tower represents joy, love, and what’s right in front of her but somehow out of reach. Throughout her misadventures with Luc in Paris, she has several near misses seeing the Tower. Once, it disappears between buildings as they drive; once in the wee hours its lights go out just as she turns to look. These are not scenes, just quick beats nestled in larger events on the A storyline. The script would have been perfectly fine without them. But they give it one more layer of depth.

The satisfying payoff to this motif comes near the midpoint when Kate has hopped a train to Nice in pursuit of her fiancé. She’s coming into her own power, no longer being played by Luc, and starting to see the charm in all this French cheese. To underscore this character shift, she finally sees the Tower as the train leaves Paris. She savors the vision, shushing Luc; she’s earned this. It’s a beautiful and wordless moment, and it shows us she’s growing.

Later in the third act, Kate teases Luc with a limp Eiffel Tower novelty toy. It is another small beat in a larger scene that signifies she’s grown into a confident woman, no longer a desperate singleton who would follow a cheating fiancé halfway across the world. And it shows that screenwriter Adam Brooks was having fun writing this.

The Eiffel Tower motif in French Kiss could have easily been left out, but its appearance through the story underscores Kate’s journey and makes the script shine that much brighter.

Other examples of motifs include birds representing freedom in Aladdin and power in The Lord of the Rings, and mirrors in Hitchcock films representing a character’s split personalities. Motifs can also be aural like the bells in It’s a Wonderful Lifesymbolizing an angel getting their wings, and therefore joy or a goal accomplished.

Consider what motifs might enhance the telling of your story. What could add a visual or sonic through line to your script? You may be able to think of details like these while you’re in your outline phase. For me, motifs are polish that happen in a rewrite.

If you’re ready to polish, check out our next Writing is Rewriting course.

**It has recently been brought to my attention that this film is not available for streaming in the US which is a crime. All fans of rom coms, Kevin Kline, or Meg Ryan should write a strongly worded letter to Amazon Prime.

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (film) - Wikipedia

When I first saw this film starring a breaking out Ben Wishaw, I was duly intoxicated. Perfume: The Story of A Murderer was adapted from the 1985 novel in 2006. As the years have passed, it’s remained in my memory as an enchanting dark fairy tale often brought up in tones of reverie with writer friends. 

We watched it again and I am pained to say it does not hold up. 

Now Jean-Baptiste’s pursuit of capturing scent struck a wholly different chord. I watched as the would-be perfumer, desperate to truly trap the scent of a women, becomes a serial killer stripping women of their scent and their life. Now all I could see was the women. They were mere props and incidental damage in this Poor Unfortunate White Man’s pursuit of his personal greatness; his art. The women have no agency, no names, no value beyond what he extracts. 

His first murder occurs because he follows a woman whose scent enraptures him and when he doesn’t understand how to speak to her like a human, she screams and he silences her – oops, suffocates her. But it’s OK because he had a rough childhood and we know he’s special. Who was she? JP later extracts women’s scents by killing them after an uppity prostitute tries to assert a boundary with him. She demands consent and he kills her. This was getting really uncomfortable. 

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer | Netflix

The film posits that only pretty, young girls have worth because that is all JP chooses. So beauty has a smell? It also posits that this smell is so powerful, it can take over a town and, by extension, mankind. JP learns in the end that it was not the smell at all, but the promise of love he’d been enchanted by and he hadn’t understood that because he had such a Poor Unfortunate Childhood and was Special. So the upshot is: none of the women had to die at all, oops! And really, once he understands the extraction method, none of them would have had to die anyway if he’d just gotten consent. But that requires conversation and valuing women as humans. And hey, as long as a Special White Man accomplishes his dream, right?

As I watched this film a second time, the breathtaking cinematography drew me in again. And Ben’s great performance. And I found myself mortified that I hadn’t seen all these issues before; that I had bought into the dream, as intoxicated as JP. That is the scary part. We have been so conditioned to rally behind the dream of the Special White Man, we will overlook the cost paid by the women in his way. I am glad we’re waking up. 

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Consistent Character

One thing I talk about with writers is the importance of doing background development work on your characters. This helps ensure they behave consistently throughout your story, run by the fears, hopes, and dreams that shaped them. As the story turns, they can shift and grow, but there still needs to be some internal consistency to how they behave.

For example, a cruel character can learn kindness but it would be inconsistent for them to show it through the same actions that a sweetly generous character might. They’ll show it in their own way.

In one of our non-typical services, I’m helping a novelist client query agents and managers. We’ve created a compelling pitch with different topics and elements we can pull from to customize each query we send.

My client and I were on our usual video call last week looking over the latest batch of names in her spreadsheet when a familiar name made my stomach knot. The name was too unique. It had to be her.

My client noticed my sudden snort. “What?”

“I went to high school with her,” I said.

“Oh, great!” my client enthused. “So we have an in with her.”

“Nooooooo,” I breathed. “She was awful to me.”

“Oh, well then screw her,” my client’s chin went up. “We’ll find another.”

“No, no,” I hedged. “A lot of time has passed since then. We’ve all changed, right? She wasn’t outright cruel to me. She just wasn’t nice. Never missed a chance at a snarky barb. She assumed she was smarter than everyone – heck, maybe she was, look at her cool publishing job – but she never missed a chance to lord her intelligence over us. She was a snob.”

I looked at the agent’s photo. Sure enough, it was her. Same haircut as in high school. Same face but with maturity on it. A blouse I liked and would have worn myself. “You know what,” I went on, “reading her bio, she does seem like a good fit for your book. It’s silly to not take a chance because of old pettiness. Maybe she has changed. She has to have, right? We all have.”

“OK,” my client nodded. “If you’re comfortable with it, we’ll do it.”

I smiled, enjoying this high road.

In our going for “100 NOs” as a measure of our outreach efforts, we’ve gotten some very kindly worded rejections. Sure, the agents who decided my client’s book wasn’t for them probably all took the same cursory glance and hit send on their “no thank you” form letter. But it says something to us about the value of our efforts that those form letters were composed in kindness, clearly intending to let writers down easy. It doesn’t cost them anything to be kind, right?

After a week or so, my client texted me. “Guess what, we heard from your high school friend!” I knew it was a no. She forwarded me the email. It was a terse, bloodless single line: “I’m not interested in this.” No time, no effort, no kindness.

My client called and we laughed together. There she was; the same girl she’d been in high school. Consistent in her actions, just like a well-written character. I appreciate that. She clearly hasn’t gotten to the part of her story where she gets to shift and grow but as all stories share the same basic structure, I believe it’s coming.

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Ford v Ferrari and Character Desperation

I have always been a car girl. In my childhood bedroom there was nary a Barbie or baby doll in sight, but I had a killer collection of Hot Wheels. As an adult, I consider the 1965 AC Shelby Cobra the holy grail of collectible sports cars. A blue one with white stripes is on my someday-maybe dream list. So I knew I would love Ford v Ferrari for the cars alone. The thrum of the engines had me grinning from the opening credits. However, under all the high-octane fun, there is a well structured script—a titanium chassis, if you will.

We ask our writers: in what way is your character desperate at the start of the story? In this film every character starts Act One desperate in some way. Legendary driver and designer Carroll Shelby is forced to retire after a heart attack, and is on the edge of suffering another at any moment. Genius but “difficult” driver Ken Miles is barely paying the bills when the IRS shuts down his auto shop to collect back taxes. Henry Ford II is desperate to turn around Ford’s decline. Lee Iacocca is desperate to impress Henry and keep his job.

The stakes are high for everyone and that creates strong narrative momentum that opens the throttle on this story. The characters’ needs and wants all collide in a beautifully messy, fast-paced script. Its beating heart is the relationship between Shelby and Miles. Throughout the story, the characters consistently make high-stakes decisions, from which there is no turning back. At one point Shelby bets his whole company on Miles winning a huge race. Not only does this have us leaning forward for the whole race, it shows an important development in the internal relationship between the characters; a moment when one chooses to trust the other no matter what.

Of course, Ford v Ferrari is based on a true story, so there is the additional challenge of picking the right elements and being able to let go of “what really happened.” Did Shelby really bet the company on Miles’ ability? I don’t know, and ultimately I don’t care. It was a great choice in the service of increasing the stakes and accelerating the narrative momentum. It made me care more deeply about these characters. In another moment, Miles is left off the team he expected to lead, and listens to the race from home. In real life, Miles was on the team, but forced to share the drive with also-legendary Bruce McLaren. For the movie, leaving Miles at home was a much stronger choice. It breaks our hearts, and makes us root for him all the more in the next sequence. Sometimes the literal truth has to take a back seat to the most effective way of telling the emotional truth of a story.

So I ask you: How is your character desperate at the start of your story? The best answer will create high stakes for your character, whether internal or external. Or ideally, both.

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Made In Italy – In Search of Stakes

“You haven’t seen Made in Italy?” one of our Orvieto alums gasped. I know. I’m a cliche. I love Italy to the point I married an Italian; I have my citizenship; and we run our annual screenwriting retreats there. I must devour every film about Italy, right? Or every film about an Anglo finding themselves in Italy because, let’s be honest, that is the dream.

I hadn’t seen this currently streaming Liam Neeson starrer about a man and his son slowly reconnecting while prepping the family vacation home in Tuscany for sale. It should have been right up my alley. So we watched it. And truth be told, the scenery did make me pine with physical pain, because we can’t go there this year. But pretty views and a wonderful Liam aren’t enough.

As I pondered why the film hadn’t been a home run, a few things came to me. The structure was a bit all over the place. It gets off to a tidy start with the inciting incident in the first moments of the film. But that’s followed by the point of no return by minute nine–usually this is the end of act one, often 20-30 minutes into a film. Uh oh, I thought. What are we going to do for the next 80 minutes? Well, we’re going to have feelings in pretty places, the B story.

B story is critical to a film’s success. The emotional journey is the heart of the film. But it has got to hang from a strong A story–the external narrative that provides the protagonist’s main goal. Consider the romcom classic You’ve Got Mail (a remake of the delightful Shop Around the Corner). What you remember is the B story: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks fall in love by getting to know each other via email, until they realize in person that they are business rivals. You may not remember the A story: they are business rivals because she has an independent bookstore that his big book store conglomerate wants to take over. Clearly, the A and B stories are tied together, as they should be, but the B Story is what you remember. However, without that strong, clear A story, it would just be a film about people having feelings in emails and in bookstores.

In Made in Italy, the A story is there. It’s just never really anchored in what’s going on. This is due in part to stakes. We understand what the protagonist stands to gain (positive stakes) if he accomplishes his goal. If he sells the house he can use the money to buy the art gallery that he feels will make him a success. Do you really need an art gallery? As goals go, this doesn’t feel particularly relatable. But the larger issue is the lack of negative stakes. What will he lose if he doesn’t accomplish this goal? He won’t have an art gallery. Well, OK. I feel for you, bro. But we still get the sense he’ll be fine. So the pursuit of his goal doesn’t feel particularly urgent or important. And frankly, who wouldn’t rather have a beautiful house in Tuscany? I mean, again, that’s THE dream, right? (I’m not biased; you’re biased!)

The story becomes more muddled as they try to give both main characters (father and son) complete story arcs which strangely results in the dark night of the soul occurring before the low point. (The dark night is a reflective period before the final challenge that is usually earned as a result of the low point.) And of course, you can see the ending coming a mile away, but it’s still what you hope will happen (because, like I said, that’s the dream). The protagonist gives up what he wants to find what he needs. Classic. If the stakes had been higher getting there, it would have been more satisfying.

All this makes me wish the writers had worked on their story structure and outlines a bit more, as we do in our Concept to Pages classes! And hopefully again someday soon in Orvieto. See the movie for some easygoing Tuscan beauty that will make you smile. And Liam Neeson. It’s like slipping into a comfy pair of Italian sweat pants. Just don’t expect a revelatory story or an airtight structure.

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Character Is Plot

I was recently sent a script by a friend. She was being offered the opportunity to direct it, but she knew something wasn’t quite working. I read it and the issue was immediately clear.

The story was flat; the dialog was on the nose and wooden; the formatting and grammar were a mess—all the basic mistakes newbie writers make. While I tried to set aside my own frustration over why undercooked scripts by undertrained writers sometimes get greenlit, my friend called to ask for my thoughts. She spoke of engaging themes and her excitement over the potential social commentary. “That’s all great,” I said, “but none of that is on the page.”

The main issue: there was no character development. It was obvious that the writer set out to exorcise demons from a negative personal experience, rather than to tell a well-crafted story. As I’ve discussed previously, that sort of approach leads to two-dimensional antagonists that aren’t worth your protagonist’s time. Further, when we base protagonists on ourselves, we forget to do the character work that allows us to get some distance and objectivity, which are crucial to making choices that best serve the story. We think we don’t have to do the work because: don’t we know this character well enough already? You might be surprised.

What is your protagonist’s worst fear? What is their core wound? What are their greatest hopes? What do they most admire in others? What do they need most? How is that different from what they think they want? These are just some of the questions that help you build textured characters. When we base characters on ourselves, these may be questions we’re not ready to answer. That will show on the page.

When we build antagonists out of someone we’re angry with, the flatness can be even worse. We need to take the time to understand what motivates people we don’t like, if we’re going to put them in our screenplay.

One of the secrets of screenwriting is that character is plot. The character-building work generates necessary story points: not only does it ensure decisions that any character makes are believable and organic, but it also provides a blueprint for a screenplay. If I know a character’s worst fear is being unloved, then most likely at the low point of the story, she should face a situation where she is unloved. How she decides to cope with that gives me the final challenge of act three. If I know her goal is to exact revenge on someone who hurt her, then I also know that at that low point, she needs to be far away from accomplishing that. Now I can tie her potential failure to reach her goal to her emotional fear of being unloved. This gives me a chance of writing a scene that pops off the page with gut-wrenching authenticity, and one that is absolutely necessary in the flow of the story. On the other hand, if I decide what my plot points are before I’ve done the character-building work, my story will feel like reportage rather than a strong arc we are completely invested in following. It will be as dull as a list of events in a high school history textbook, dry and lifeless.

At the end of our talk, my friend was armed with an arsenal of questions to take into her meeting with that writer. How the writer deals with her questions will define the quality of the project. If they’re willing, that script might truly become the wonderful story my friend envisions.

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Art Sale

When I was 6 or 7, I decided to hold an art sale. I loved coloring. I was good at it. Why not make some money at it? I sat down with crayons and paper and made a whole series of drawings. Enough for a gallery show. There were dogs, and horses, and ladybugs. Mountains, and houses, and flowers. Sailboats for my dad. And I distinctly remember one KITT from Knight Rider. The pictures themselves were not enough. For that special finishing touch, I went across the street and helped myself to a bunch of the small rocks covering the neighbor’s yard. They were smooth and white and perfect for coloring. I made matching paperweights for every masterpiece I had created. Genius. Finally, I made signs reading “ART SALE TODAY” and posted them all over the neighborhood.

I sat with my pictures spread over our front lawn, each held down by its special rock. And I waited for the sales to roll in. Who would not want such a beautiful thing? A picture AND matching paperweight? So thoughtful. There was much to choose from. Art for every taste. And each piece was only ten cents!

After a while a woman came by, parked her Seventies mega-sedan and got out. To my young eyes she seemed old and bloated, but she could have been a fit middle-aged woman for all I know. “This isn’t an art sale!” she growled at me. “I was looking for real art. You shouldn’t lie to people this way. What do you think you’re doing?” I sat in shock while she huffed back to her car, slammed the door and drove off.

I didn’t know mine was not real art. I didn’t know there were rules. I didn’t know sharing my pictures was in fact wrong—especially hoping to be paid for it. I quietly gathered up my papers and stones and scuttled back into the house. I didn’t tell my parents. What was there to say? I had clearly done a bad thing. It was better if they didn’t know.

Today it seems astonishing to me that someone would speak to a child that way. My adult self wants to rage up out of my tiny child body and punch that woman square in her hateful mouth. “How dare you speak to me that way?” Another adult in me realizes she must have been a truly miserable person, or had been having a desperately bad day to have taken her hurts out on a child. “Do you need help today?”

And yet another adult self in me remembers the other part the wounded child overlooks: before that cruel woman, there had been another woman who had come by and laughed in delight. She’d paid her ten cents and chosen a flower picture. I cannot remember what she looked like. But I remember the cruel woman clear as day.

I wish someone had told that little girl that it’s perfectly natural for what we create to appeal to some and not to others. What a valuable lesson to have learned so young. I wish I had held onto the delight of the first woman and dismissed the ugliness of the second.

We have all been shut down in our creativity at one time or another, in one way or another; an ill-timed criticism, a failed audition, being passed over for inclusion in a show or journal, disappointing sales. I’ve had every single one of those. And yet there is still a side of me—a version of that little girl—who sits down to create every day. Why?

Because I still need to create. I still need to say, “Hey world, here is how I see things,” and hope that my view resonates with some. I have called myself a writer for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until recently, when I flashed back to that art sale memory, that I realized for an equally long time I’ve said, “I can’t draw.” I call myself a creative person, but an artist? That’s always been too presumptuous. Can I draw? Am I an artist? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. But I do know I should see for myself, instead of letting an angry woman from decades ago decide.

For some of us, creating is an instinctive need, and if we don’t, we feel bottled up and unfulfilled. My guess is that you, too, yearn for your voice to be heard, or you wouldn’t be reading this. I just started drawing lessons. I walked into the art supply store and said, “Sell me the stuff you’d sell a kid just beginning.” I felt the same giddy zing I’d felt that day I gathered my neighbor’s stones for coloring. (Sorry, Mrs. Owens!)

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