My film journey – How I create my films – Part 8

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Hi readers

Today, we will be looking at the three act structure; beginning, middle and the end.

As touched upon in chapter 4,

Act 1 covers the introduction of our characters. Certainly our main characters. We find out who they are, what motivates them or not, and introduce a problem which has to be solved. End of Act 1

Act 2 How they go about solving the problem. A solution is found. End Act 2.

Act 3 This is actually the process by which they solve the problem.

So let’s examine these acts in more detail.

A typical screenplay would have 30 pages to cover Act 1. We are introduced to the hero, finding out about his or her situation, friends, family, work etc.and then the problem which must be resolved – which is usually laid bare almost simultaneously with the appearance of the characters’ nemesis. This does not always have to take human, or even alien form, it can be a crane shot of lava bubbling deep within a volcano, or an approaching hurricane, or even the first tentative signs of an earthquake. Stories, certainly novels, take longer to build this up, and I must confess that while writing my second novel, The Strongest Man Alive, it took a while. And here’s why; the problem – which revealed itself earlier on – was a symptom of the actions of our anti-hero. This meant that our protagonist, Nevadon, was following breadcrumbs on a voyage of discovery, and as there was going to be an element of surprise, it would not do to reveal the antagonist just yet. In the film Alien, the true revelation of the size and sheer hostility of their beast only manifested itself later, well past Act 1. But the problem in Act 1 to be solved other than how they were getting back home was how to deal with the creature which had attached itself to the character played by John Hurt. Personally I prefer this approach; it’s a bit of a guess work as to what foul deeds we will discover before the ultimate revelation of the enemy and showdown. Guess that’s why I love Predator so much. However, a very successful typical Act 1 structure is shown in a fantastic film where we see our hero and villain early on; size them up quickly and then it’s cat and mouse games all the way. For me not many films execute this with the precision and style that produced this visual treat and spawned its obvious sequels. What am I talking about? I’m talking about Die Hard. Once again it depends what kind of story you’re telling. Act 1 also gives us a chance to examine carefully the character traits of our hero – who should be likeable and relatable – and our antagonist, or the type of antagonist we will most likely be dealing with, depending on the crime scene laid out. It shows us their relationships, existing problems, and/or their existing hopes or aspirations before the problem is foisted upon them, unless it is part of their job of course. A typical screenplay would introduce us to a character who has a problem; divorced, drunk, depressed, dangerous, desperate. Of course the adjectives don’t all begin with “d” either. Our hero, who can be a child, might be a bit lonely, like in ET, or is fed up with their job, or society. The point is the hero cannot be a happy, contented, squeaky-clean goody two shoes. Not in film anyway. Apparently we don’t like to watch flawless characters. Not saying that my character didn’t have problems, but he was pretty average and reasonably happy when we are introduced to him. Once again stories tend to take a different path. A book at least some 500 to 1000 pages in length has the luxury of time to build up the character and chart his journey, as well as his friends, in a way in which a film cannot do. A typical film has to drive the story on very quickly. Certainly very quickly compared to a story.

Act 2 – The longest Act.

This is where all the fundamental elements are fused together. Taking what was established in Act 1, we build up the characters, their reactions to the problem, their steps to resolve it – and they may fail first time around – the problems may build or escalate, threatening them, their lives, or love lives or reputation, or even the world. And then when they are about to be captured, or killed or have almost lost all hope, then they have a Eureka moment. Like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, they discover a way to solve the problem. In his case, it’s the virus. In the Strongest Man alive, our hero not only discovers a problem, but while trying to solve it, stumbles upon another problem and then another. It’s escalating. These problems, these abandoned villages are all interlinked – they are all connected in some way. They are all part of a bigger problem. It’s not just a question of trying to find out what happened to all the villages of a town, but what happened to all the villages of all the other towns! And as the rumours begin to circulate about the culprit and the mysterious forbidden zone, he realises that he’s going to need help. As much as I enjoy a Superman, a Rambo or Commando storming or flying into a situation and single-handedly (or near enough single-handedly) wiping out the town full of bad guys and heading off into the sunset or sky, appropriate female in hand, I much prefer team work. For every fantastic John McClane or Man With No Name in a Fistful of Dollars, I much prefer The Magnificent Seven or A Team or Mission Impossible. Even the team in Predator. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always gravitated towards realism. Funny that, since I preferred Science Fiction stories to thrillers. But here’s the thing; when you have a team, you have two things. A numerical advantage, as any number greater than one has to be better than a sole warrior, and helps the odds of a mission being more successful, even if that sole warrior is talented. After all what’s he going to do if a virus comes and bites him on the ass? Can’t exactly bazooka the virus in your own body. Also, I love the fact that as individuals – never mind a commando or international rescue team – we all have our own talents and skills. Each person is good at something. And I think way back when, in Ghana, when I was first introduced to the sixties TV show, Mission Impossible. I loved the concept. Perhaps I subconsciously took inspiration from it. The A Team is basically an updated version it, except they are fleeing the government and have a guy who can fly and is nuts. Nevadon, our hero, began recruiting or being introduced to colourful characters, each of whom specialised in a particular set of skills. God, I sound like Liam Leeson in Taken.” I have a particular set of skills…” So our protagonist builds a team around him, and we see how he interacts with each of them and how they react to each other. Egos versus skills, and this brings up another important ingredient in this case that is Act 2; conflict. We have the large, ultimate conflict of our hero achieving his goal of destroying evil in whatever form; but then we have the smaller conflicts too. When I was studying screenplays, one of the first, most important things I learned was that no two characters can think alike. And yet I somehow knew this instinctively, based on the films I’d watched. This creates a dynamic, some tension. We will discuss this in further depth later. Nevadon has to ensure some harmony among his team; he needs them, but must manage them. His team is an alliance of various egos and concerns, but manages them he does in a task fraught with danger, on a journey filled with peril. And he is able to establish clearly the strengths and weakness of his principle team members. In this act he comes face to face with the challenges and final obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve his goal and emerge victorious.

Act 3 – The Resolution.

At this point, we have the final conflict based upon the analysis of the situation, sizing up the enemy, negotiating the best route to find the lost people, employing the strategic and tactical advantage they have. The outcome is by no means certain. Nevadon’s team come across unexpected opposition, the enemy reveals things they had not anticipated, threatening to dissolve the co-operation between them. Each man in Nevadon’s team finds himself stretched beyond belief, each Amazon finds themselves examining their conscious and self-belief, and all the while chaos rages around them. They get split up. Suddenly they are being influenced by events beyond their control rather than the other way round. Out of nowhere springs up multiple objectives, and each principle protagonist is assigned or finds themselves by fate in charge of one of the major goals. Each one knows that should he or she fail, then the overall mission fails. So interwoven are they. People need to be located and quickly, then rescued. A hostile environment has to be avoided, battles need to be fought, and the culprit vanquished. In this section all the elements come together, the culmination of Acts 1 and 2. The establishing of the characters, their fears, hope and dreams. The discovery of a problem and the journey involved in analysing this, and seeking out friends and solutions to deal with this – all elements leading to this one overall objective, split up into many. It is about the last half hour of a film – this is the final resolution. We know the characters, we know the villain, we know the goals of each, we have the location, we know the tools (or most) of each, and now for the final showdown. In The Strongest Man Alive, this takes place in a mountain in the forbidden zone; an environment which has all the natural advantages for the antagonist and raises the challenges of the protagonist. If there are traps, only the villain knows. Secret passages? The same. Loose dangerous footing among the rocks and ledges? You can be sure that the good guys will find out the hard way, and at a price. But it is here where we find out more about the strength and resolution of our heroes; here we discover what it takes to truly fight for your dreams, your aims, your mission, against all the odds. And the odds are indeed frightening. This becomes the clash of titans, and the winner takes all. And like Tolkien’s Return of the King, this is not a short engagement; every player has a great deal to win – or to lose. This is Act 3.

That was lesson 8.

    • My lesson 8
    • To make the final clash between the forces of the protagonist and antagonists really powerful, exciting and worthy of the time spent reaching this part of the story. All characters were going to be heavily involved in the drama and action in the final phase of their mission.
  • In the final resolution, we would still learn about our heroes, we would still discover things on both sides of the battle; we would be surprised and shocked; frightened and grateful, excited and filled with a sense of foreboding. But that at the end of the journey, at the end of Act 3, we would have a definitive and satisfying answer. There would be surprises, but the epic journey and mission would have been fully upheld by the way the final battles were fought, by the way the characters conducted themselves and the outcome, either way, would be logical and satisfying. Here is where the story finally ends.
  • Next week, in part 9 we shall consider in detail how to build the interest and objectives in the narrative.
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My film journey – How I create my films – Part 7

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Hi readers

Today we are looking at Antagonists. Who are they? Well they are the main characters in opposition to the heroes of the story. You might recognise them by the white cats they tend to stroke on their secret island base, their maniacal laughter which is joined by their henchmen, their ransom demands on the police or threats to innocent people; perhaps they have a tendency to wear black, and might even have a mask and sound asthmatic, or else they might be seen escaping from a bank robbery, or a murder, or chasing innocents while brandishing a cleaver. That’s when the story tends to be “based on earth” of course, and could include dodgy lawyers, sadists, accountants or Gordon Gecko type species of human. They also tend to love guns and all things nuclear, like we love tea and cakes. And when you see them with cases of white powder, trust me, it’s not sugar. As stated previously, my next story was going to be plot-driven. My good characters were going on an adventure and were going to be equipped with some real talent, and for that reason by default the antagonist was going to be a real badass. My next story was going to merge historical fact with fiction. As there was going to be a strong fantasy element, I wanted some grounding in reality. A trading ship deep in the Mediterranean in the 19th century had run into some vicious weather, which caused great tidal waves. Consequently the ship was cast aside like discarded debris and found itself drifting to a place as yet undiscovered. Some say that Atlantis was real, only it is now submerged, and we know that there are all kinds of theories about the Bermuda triangle. Even the pyramids have their alien-origin fans. Point being that if it is historical, unexplained, or contains an air of mystery or seeds of doubt, who’s to say what exactly happened? And that’s the premise I used to introduce us to a fantastic place. Once again Alice was going down the rabbit hole, this time via water. The working title of my next story was The Strongest Man Alive, and was going to be as much influenced by Greek mythology as much as the fantasy films I had seen. And that meant that my antagonist was someone who could compete with the strongest man. You see, I realised early on, that my hero could only be as good as the villain was bad, and to have a really good story, there had to be real conflict. I mean if your hero, after many months and chapters (in the case of a book) finally catches up to the villain, or antagonist, and we have the final climatic scene or chapter, where there’s going to be this great clash, and the badass whips out his giant meat cleaver, we’re going to say, “Wow. This is gonna be good.” But if by contrast the hero then suddenly whips out a pistol, all loaded and ready to go, finger on the trigger, we might as well say, “oh crap. I’ve spent a week reading this and after 600 pages the hero solves it in a single shot, bang!” What kind of anti-climax is that? The longest foreplay ever, and I wake up the following morning and say, “is that it?””
While working on my second story, I knew that as the characters and the story developed, I was steadily building the climax, and for that reason, my antagonist was going to be really powerful, really mean. And we had to really, really hate him (or her). The villain was going to make our hero suffer, and work incredibly hard just to keep up, much less defeat him. At this point in time, my villain was not fully formed yet, but this much I knew: he – in this case – was going to at least be equal in size and wisdom to our hero. But he would have an edge – his syncophants, his henchmen. And our guy would have to go through serious challenges to outwit him, physically and mentally to overcome his diabolical scheme. And that was going to be my challenge. How does one compete with the strongest man? Well if you’re Marvel Studios, and your guy has powers developed by a special serum; then your bad guy must have something similar if not more powerful. My hero was going to develop superhuman strength like Hercules and Excalibur all rolled into one. Therefore there had to be some sorcery to seriously empower the antagonist. But not only would the villain match and exceed the powers of our hero, but he would have a whole army to boot. And I knew then, that this was going to be a good story. We have a serious villain. “The strongest man alive” was not set in modern times, so there were no guns. And it wouldn’t have made a difference. However if it did, and say our hero had a Kalashnikov, then trust me, his opponent would have an M16, an Uzi and a bazooka. Not only that, but standing behind him would be an army of gun-toting thugs. As a book, this would not end with one sentence. The final conflict was going to be superb. And long too – to justify the patience of the reader, and the trials undertaken by the characters. And by making our villain so formidable, I had just upped the ante, given our hero more to consider in order to outwit his foe and destroy his schemes, and also I had stretched the arc of the story. This would involve more elements, and as I wrote, the Strongest Man alive began to evolve from a single cell small story to a multi-cell novella. And I was barely out of chapter 3!

That was lesson 7.

  • My lesson 7
  • By making the antagonists really powerful, our hero must therefore rise to the challenge, and have or must develop skills or means by which the evil can be defeated. And this was going to impact heavily on the direction the story was taking, as well as the characters involved.
  • Knowing that we have a powerful villain meant that the trials of the hero would be greater and therefore lengthen the time the hero takes to stop the antagonist, and by default increase the adventures we were undertaking. Next week, in part 8 we shall consider The Three Act Structure, continuing the story of my creative film journey.
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My film journey – How I create my films – Part 6

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Hi readers

I have a personal philosophy.

“Truth is all about perception”

What seems true for one person may not necessarily be true for another. Our behaviours are predicated on our beliefs, culture, even what the news tells us, or our source of news. Even long-held beliefs in science can alter over decades, and for some the results of statistics and science may simply depend on what side of the political fence you’re on, or who’s paying for the research, or who’s paying the so-called experts.

Today we are turning our attention to Protagonists and Goals.

In the Star Wars film Obi Wan explained to Luke Skywalker that his father was killed by a young Jedi who was Darth Vadar. That’s simple enough, right? Right.

In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke – our protagonist – discovers that Darth Vadar is his father. While watching this, I gasped. Thank God I wasn’t swallowing a nice blueberry muffin at the time! I do wonder if it could have been prudent to have a disclaimer, “all viewers are advised not to eat during the run-time, as the revelation may cause a chocking hazard!” You ever hear the expression, it’s hard to swallow that story? I rest my case. Okayy…so we have some sort of family issue here……okay….I’ll buy that…

In Return of the Jedi, when asked why he wasn’t told about this, Obi Wan’s reply to Luke was, “the man I trained was Annakin, and when he succumbed to the Dark Side, he became Darth Vadar. So in a sense, what I told you is true, from a certain point of view!” He then goes on to say, “you are going to find out that many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view”

“Whoah!!….slow down horsey. Did he actually just say that?” My brain was going nuts. My mouth opened. Don’t think it got permission from my brain first. “What crap is this?” I mean it’s like saying, “Your father was killed by a drunk man, who was known as “Oi”, because that’s all he said. Then you find out that your father was the drunk man. Really? I mean, was he schizoid too? Come on, work with me here. How far do you take it? “Sorry folks, but you adults are mass killers of children and infants. I remember you used to be called baby Sue, but that poor child was killed by a teenager called Susan who wore tattoos. And that teenager was totally wiped out by this old greying pensioner. You bastards!

And yet….in some ways it’s actually true. Not the last bit, of course, but the principle. Truth is about perception. And how a young person sees love at the age of 18 is different to how they perceive it at 80. So what does this have to do with Protagonists and Goals? Everything.

In the Strongest Man Alive, the goal of my protagonist was to discover why a town was completely abandoned. In his journey of discovery, he discovered more abandoned towns and learned the source of this phenomena. In order to solve this problem he had to travel to a specific part of the world, on a journey fraught with perils. The ultimate goal was to reach a forbidden region and defeat the cause of the world’s disaster.

In the afore-mentioned case, Luke’s dilemma is actually, strangely, Shakespearian. A kind of King Lear mingled with Othello. You have to kill this man. He’s a bad man. He killed your old man! And you are the protagonist. This is your goal. Then you discover that this baddie is your flesh-and-blood Dad. Wow! Talk about your family reunion! And indeed that part of how Luke Skywalker deals with his mission is beautifully character-driven. It’s just not in him, given his nature, his background, how he grew up, as well as his environment. But here’s the thing. Like an orphan discovering his Dad exists, Luke’s perception of his father potentially puts the whole mission in jeopardy.His perception is that his Dad is really, deep down a good person. His soul just needs to be saved. He can turn back to the good side. If it were up to Obi, he’d just out take his lightsabre and go kill that mother…. Except Obi’s now playing the galactic harp. And if you still haven’t seen the film from last century, and had planned to do so, sorry for the spoilers. And by the way, what planet are you from?

That was lesson 6.

  • My lesson 6
  • Protagonists must have clearly defined goals to steer the story in a meaningful, logical and ultimately satisfying conclusion. Otherwise, it’s like playing football without the goal post. Where does it end?
  • Next week, in part 7 we shall consider Antagonists, continuing the story of my creative film journey. 
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My film journey – How I create my films – Part 5

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Hi readers

What do Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott and Tim Burton have in common? Besides being film directors? Well, they each have a signature, a distinctive imprint, a brand, if you like. Without critically analysing it, you can almost always tell a Tim Burton movie, or a Woody Allen movie. Scorsese and Ridley Scott are known for certain types of films, and the imprint is still there. But there are others too…Stephen Spielburg, George Lucas, Cecil B DeMille, James Cameron, Luc Besson, Akira Kurosawa and of course Alfred Hitchcock. More often than not, you can guess the director of a film simply by watching it without the credits. And that leads me onto our theme today: Character-Driven Stories vs Plot-Driven Stories.

So let’s break it down.

Traditionally most novels tend to be character-driven. We are introduced to a character, or characters, their backstory, their fears, passions, and motivations. We go inside their minds, see their point of view, hear them talk, narrate the entire novel, enter their world of dreams, and subconsciousness. Sometimes, it’s almost Zen-like. It’s all going on in their innermost thoughts. Generally the things resolved are relatively quiet things, more realistic and relatable. We certainly recognise their struggle and their environment.

Traditionally most films are plot-driven. We are introduced to characters, some outlandish, but we seldom enter their minds, we rarely examine their thought process. Being a visual medium, I guess it is hard to depict the deep conflicting thought processes in one’s brain, so I guess that’s where voice-over kicks in. But it is a clumsy mechanism really. And all this internal goings-on are not so hot visually either. Certainly not when compared to a novel, or even a graphic novel. No, with most films we are introduced to larger than life baddies, white cat in hand, swords, laser guns and beautiful people, against a backdrop of stunning locations, action, explosions, alien worlds, and fantastic stunts.

But it’s not always as rigid or clear cut as that; neither for films nor for novels.
While writing “Away with the Wind”, when asked about my preference, I would have said, “plot-driven”. No time for retrospection or brain analysis. Do we need to find out about the different thought processes or subsconcious ideas floating around? Honestly, who needs them when that mother of a dragon can burn out Tokyo in such a dramatic fashion. Check out the molars on that monstrosity! Who wants to take time off to go and examine that creature’s brain? Really?

Creatively fed on a diet of comics, TV and sci-fi books, for me it was all about the big threat, the big action set pieces in sprawling, dystopian universes with fantastic weapons, glorious modes of transport, time machines, and even more fantastic women. And yet, “Away with the Wind”, my first story was actually character-driven. The people were quiet, understated and remained so, until the threat from the unusual weather. For it was about the town folk, and their response to a natural, if highly unusual, phenomenon. What moved the story were the behaviour and actions, or reactions driven by their fears, aspirations, ambition and personalities.

Character-driven director: Woody Allen. In short, lots of talking heads, real people, witty dialogue, relatively few locations, most often in one city. You recognise these people. The final resolution is nice.

Plot-driven director: James Cameron. In short, lots of dead bodies, aliens, robots and larger than life heroes shooting up a storm, standard dialogue, massive locations, most often across the globe or in other worlds or universes, not already owned by George Lucas. Here the final resolution is noisy. Just ask Michael Bay.

But I love them both; the directors, Allen and Cameron, and each aspect that drives their stories.

The best, I believe combines both, and books generally tend to do both better in my opinion.

Perhaps the main difference is the result of an equation; the level of action versus the level of character introspection, development and growth. Is it mainly about the globe trotting, time-travelling, explosion-filled adventure and action, or is it mainly about the people, their lives and routines, needing to make or adjust to the threat that is upon them. Or the threat that their mind thinks is upon them. One tends to be loud and fast paced, breath-taking even, while the other tends to be quieter, but no less dramatic, with a scarcity of aliens, robots or bald men with cats. Unless of course it is for example about a balding widower, perhaps in his sixties or seventies, seeking love and hanging onto his wife’s cat for comfort. He could visit the park each day, remembering the time when his wife was alive and their routines, and while feeding some birds, clutches fluffy Tabitha in remembrance of his dearly departed. He thinks deeply, his innermost thoughts competing with his emotional turmoil, struggling to find the meaning of life now that he is alone. A beautiful character-driven story. A humble man, his simple quest is to try to find love again, perhaps in a local library, perhaps in a park. But if he looks quietly up at the sky, gazing at the clouds in wistful contemplation, and then all of a sudden the clouds part, and aliens ships arrive zapping everything in their path, and the poor bugger is fleeing with heads exploding around him, you know this is not character driven!

In character-driven tales the goal of the main character or characters is relatively simple. They seek love, solace, understanding, redemption, forgiveness or personal achievement. They are trying to survive with a terminal illness or in a hostile place with scarce resources, be it a prison, an isolated cabin or a deserted island. It is about the people and their interactions with one another. More often than not, this is done in a thoughtful, realistic manner, people wrestling with the angst of teenage emotions, a job loss, family conflicts, their own contradictory beliefs and the morality of life. Indeed what action or external drama that exists is generally subordinate to the main focus of our character or protagonist. Here is a simple example: A middle-aged single woman, who has never felt belonged or indeed loved suddenly discovers that she was actually adopted. So she seeks out to find her true parents with very little money, travelling from one town to the next. At some point in her long journey, she learns that only her biological Dad is currently alive, but that like her real mum, he is dying of cancer. She has only a few days to find him, and find out the truth about her past in the hope of a reunion and an understanding of who she is, and why she was abandoned. I just made that up. Done well, this emotional journey could end up being a tear-jerker. As a film, I assure you – you would not need 3D glasses.

I felt after “Away With The Wind” that I had achieved something I never could. Yes I was proud. But not too proud. For what it was, I thought it was okay. While good, the resolution wasn’t perhaps as complete as I would have liked. But it was only the beginning. Much later, when I returned to London in 1984, I embarked on my second story.

Between the time of my first story and the beginning of my next, I had experienced adventures in Ghana. I had also witnessed adventures on the big screen. I had seen a man fly, I had observed Moses part the Red Sea, and between Space Operas, had witnessed films for whom the definition of army was one muscle-bound guy, packing guns like extra appendages. So what would be the driving force of my next short story? It was a no-brainer. We were going on an adventure, yes sir. This is what I was excited about. This was going to be my next project, and I was going to carry my 5 years’ experience in Ghana around my waist like Batman’s utility belt.

I now wanted my characters to experience the whole range of adventures I had been through, no doubt helped by the influence of films, the latter being a visual harpoon that had penetrated the bland creative iceberg that had been my viewing experience until then. As much as I had physically matured, my characters too would do so, and in the process face different, greater challenges. No longer content to have them struggle to survive, I wanted them to strive to save others. It was time for action. It was time for a plot -driven story. This time around they might save a city, perhaps the world – or even the universe!

That was lesson 5.

  • My lesson 5 
  • Next week, in part 6 we shall examine protagonists and goals, continuing the story of my creative film journey.
  • Building on my experiences and knowledge as the driving force Finding and writing about new things which excited me. Challenging myself with a different style to story-telling
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My film journey – How I create my films – Part 4

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Hi readers

In Part 4, we will be looking at storylines.

What is a good storyline?

Action, Adventure, Romance, Revenge, Ambition, Murder or Ghost stories?

When I was younger and started being creative, I saw my new world as a fantasy one. Of course it helped that my new home was exotic, and that my mum gave my sisters and I quite a number of comics as well as science fiction and fantasy books.

When I think back, my best description of my experience was that I actually “saw” the stories in books more so than I read them. Visually, they were stunning. Yes, I read the words, but my brain processed them, assembled the letters, gathered the sentences, and shoved them on the conveyer belt. Out they came. Oh, I was reading all right, but my eyes were seeing the finished product leaping off the pages. Which is why I eventually gravitated towards screenwriting. The books I read brought characters to life.

People can quote film stars, pop stars, and sports legends. Long before that even interested me, I could proudly say I knew of Robert Silverberg, Clifford D Simak, Robert A. Heinlein, Asimov or Richard Matheson, the latter of whom was responsible for the fantastic novel, “I am Legend”, thereafter adapted into films starring Charlton Heston and Will Smith. Trust me, the novel is better.

Honestly what kind of a teenager was I? Here is an example of a conversation, which could quite easily have happened, although the first part is true. “Do you know Michael Jackson?” “He’s part of the Jackson Five, isn’t he?” I replied. (This question was asked by my best friend. At that time I wasn’t aware Mr Jackson had actually gone solo then. This was in the early eighties) “Did you see his Moonwalk?” “No, but do you like stuff by Robert A. Heinlein?” “Robert who?”

Yes, I really was a stranger in a strange land.

For me a good story was one which had interesting characters. Characters which were influenced by their environment, as well as the people within their world. A story about a couple of people chatting in a room about social politics would never do it for me. For one, I wasn’t that interested in politics at the time – I could barely spell it – and also what would be the climax? A raging argument! Someone swearing and storming out the room? Really? Give me a fire-breathing dragon anyday! Let’s gather a motley crew of vagabonds in some weird cloud-city, kit them out with some really cool cleavers, swords and superpowers and sit back while they storm the skies in elegant machines, dashing through time zones and making total mince-meat out of grotesque aliens! Now that’s a story.

Okay, so I wasn’t your average Shakespearen.

We are told about the 3 act structure, even though at the time I knew it purely on an instinctual level.

Act 1 covers the introduction of our characters. Certainly our main characters. We find out who they are, what motivates them or not, and introduce a problem which has to be solved. End of Act 1

Act 2 How they go about solving the problem. A solution is found. End Act 2.

Act 3 This is actually the process by which they solve the problem.

We will cover this in more detail later, but essentially this is the classic structure for any storyline.

In “Away with the Wind”, our characters who are living in an isolated town encounter a problem which brings all relevant parties together. There are serious discussions and arguments, different personalities vying for attention and influence. The town is in danger. A storm is literally brewing. All indications are that with the unusual weather approaching, there would soon be a catastrophy of biblical proportions. How to deal with this?

Different people propose different solutions, but for one family, with three generations, and a heritage that speaks powerfully to their sense of belonging, who they are and their sense of destiny, there is only the one, tragic solution. To migrate, before it is too late.

And so the story unfolds. They escape from the relative comfort of their home to a world whose destination is out of sight. A family escaping from the wrath of the devastating tonadoes, bringing in its wake a series of dusty storm cyclones, threatening to consume everything in its path, and all the while gaining on them as they run as fast as they can, belongings in hand, into the dusty, chaotic abyss before them. (Vehicles no longer operational) And they flee not knowing if they can outrun the raging climatic monster behind them, not knowing what lies ahead, not knowing if they do survive and reach a town, whether that would be deserted, and whether there would be any food left.

Can you see how my journey into Ghana and my living there influenced this first story?

Okay, so it didn’t have wizards, witchcraft or fire-breathing monstrosities, but give me a break. This was my first story, you know. All that magic and sorcery mayhem would emerge later, much later in further stories, which would eventually help lead me onto the path of film-making.

Back then it was enough that there was a storyline with characters we liked and could relate to; a storyline whose characters influenced and were in turn influenced by their world. Their status and heritage had made an impact on their world which they helped create and were loathe to abandon. They were influenced by external forces, in this case, the onset of extreme weather of biblical proportions. The use of the word biblical is no coincidence. You cannot live in Ghana and be ignorant of the Bible or its influence; neither its weather, nor its diverse characters.

That was lesson 4.

  • My lesson 4
  • Yet there was a degree of ambition in my tale. No talking heads here. No political discussion. Simply writing a story about a family moving from London to Ghana, and being treated differently just wouldn’t cut it. Besides, that wasn’t a story; that was a biography. And at this point, I’m concentrating on fiction stories. Next week, in part 5, we shall examine stories driven by characters against stories driven by plot.
  • So my first story, “Away With the Wind”, was simple, with real life influences, dramatic and contained characters and situations anyone could relate to.
  • The story was about the things I knew; the things that fascinated and interested me. Characters were introduced, there was a problem – in this case, life threatening – and they had to come together to find a solution. In creating my first story, I tried to keep it simple.
  • Next week, in part 5, we shall examine stories driven by characters against stories driven by plot.
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My film journey – How I create my films – Part 3

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Hi readers

Today, we are going to look at character development.

When I started to write “Away with the Wind” I felt I had an innate knowledge of character. At the time, I did not look too deeply into it, but was mindful of certain things.

What makes a character? Can a character change?

In my new world, out in the glorious sunshine, I came across a lot of characters. People with different skill sets, diverse attitudes, people who had their own way of walking, talking, laughing, and engaging with others.

During that time, two things stood out for me. One of them was simply the title of another story I knew nothing about, “Stranger in a strange land”, and secondly, a place my sisters and I referred to as Earth 2.

So what does this have to do with character development?

First of all I was aware of being unique; everyone seemed to want to see me, talk to me, smile at me, or simply stare at me. I was either a pop star – and not aware of it – or a goldfish in a bowl! I didn’t even have to open my mouth and let the cockney run free…oh, no.

Just walking in my khaki shorts did it. Kids by the road, all stopped and stared. Fashion icons, eat your heart out!

But seriously, what was this? Something wrong with my shorts? My legs all wobbly or something?

On the outside I was smiling all the time – would be terribly rude not to – and all the while the last thing I wanted to do was smile. My bloody jaws ached. I wanted to look each visitor or stranger in the eye and say, “yes I know I’m from the UK, but I look like you – so enough with the staring. And by the way, I’m not being rude, this is me in my natural and neutral state. But now I have to keep smiling all the time, and I’m fed up with it. So, it’s nice to meet you, I like you too, but can I go now?”

What kind of character was I turning into? A smiling hypocrite?

Was that really me? Was that really what I was becoming? A stranger in a strange land?

On the outside, a perfectly jovial young lad, but on the inside a different person altogether, fed up with all the attention, just wanting to blend in. In some ways, I was actually learning to act.

Of course there were lots of other characters out there too. I’d never seen a disabled person attend the same school as able-bodied people, much less arrive in a wheelchair. Face and upper torso was normal, feet the size of an infant. No big deal. Just a kid in the class. No one uttered a word. Great.

I open my mouth however, and it’s all eyes on me. “It speaks! And in a funny accent too!” Where are you from? Mars….

And it wasn’t hard to find other characters, from those bearing particular physical traits, such as a woman struggling with elephantiasis to urchins, and personalities ranging from the guy with the biggest laugh in the room to the quiet studious type, from the energetic women running the market stalls to the street sellers plying their trade balancing their whole stock on their heads, and weaving majestically among the bustling traffic. The place was a cacophony of hoots, laughter, cackles and wails, as life was condensed in that one market and street. There were infants carried on backs, some sleeping, others not, a range of blaring music, Christian slogans everywhere, with dust rising up from the road, as the sun beamed down on a life that only altered its tempo, once the sun decided to set. And when darkness fell, the lamps, lanterns and candles flickered to life with the emergence of noisy crickets and predatory mosquitoes. Even the place had a character of its own.

“Earth 2” came about when my sisters and I were walking along a busy stretch of road. It was blindingly bright, noisy, teeming with life. There were barking dogs, shuffling goats, squawking chickens, crawling ants, buzzing flies – you name it. It was all there. No chance for peace. Then, not so much going off a beaten track, but simply stepping through a wall and into what seems like a gigantic park, all the sounds disappeared! It was cooler among the trees. Here was another place that was tranquil, as though the wall was deceptively soundproof. It was incredible, and the whole place was permeated with greenery. Not the yellow, sunbaked brightness we were exposed to a moment ago. People ambled about silently. Here was another world. We called it Earth 2. Here I could be calm, my character could relax in silence. This calmness reflected another side of my personality. This new environment was affecting me.

I knew then I had my characters, myself included.

That was lesson 3.

  • My lesson 3
  • The story was going to have a person who is not what he seems, feeling isolated. The story would feature people who were energetic, happy, sad, and ill. The characters would be influenced by their environment, and with all these elements you had the potential for conflict and adventure. This was going to drive my story.
  • Next week, in part 4 I shall go into storylines, continuing the story of my creative film journey.
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My film journey – How I create my films – Part 2

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Hi readers

In Part 1, I began the exploration for my film journey, which properly began in 2000.

But it all started off with a simple story.

My new environment gave me inspiration to start being creative, and that’s when I put pen to paper. I took into account my own experiences, friends and people I knew, or had encountered no matter how briefly.

Three things struck me as soon as I arrived in Ghana.

The intense glare of the sunshine. The friendliness of everyone. The pervading influence of religion.

Of course as I mentioned before, I still had that “Gone with the Wind” idea running around in my head. Except that there was hardly a breeze about, unless you happened to be by the beach.

But I was determined to write my story. What exactly was it going to be about?

I took my first cue from my own experience. Travelling from London to Ghana.

In six or so hours, my family left the Winter of Discontent and arrived in the Sunshine of Promise. The contrast was amazing in so many ways. Only in Ghana, did I notice the weather. Ironic really. In Britain, it’s no big deal to go through 3 or 4 seasons in a day, but somehow, I tended only to remember cloudy skies and rainy days, with the occasional special guest appearance by Mr Sunshine.

If the sunshine in Britain was a bit humble, like a man with his bowler hat on, not given to brashness or blowing one’s trumpet, quite happy to quietly reveal his innate personality and skill in nice easy-to-digest fragments, then in Ghana this was the Loverman! No bowler hats here, oh no! This dude was packing personality by the bucketload, shedding his clothes and flashing his personality like it was going out of fashion! No quite, blissful sunrays seeping gently through the clouds. The sunshine here was full on, and busting to cook something, anything. And more often than not, it was my skin!

People were amicable. Big time. Never had I seen so many smiling, jubilant faces, all welcoming, all-encompassing in their generosity. These were definitely different characters. Oh there had always been generous friendly people, as there are anywhere, but here it was different.

Was it due to us, being different, coming from London; was it due in part to an appreciation of life given the relative discrepancy in wealth, or was it due to religion?

Religion, or more specifically, quotes from the Bible existed like the never-ending palm trees that swayed defiantly in the face of intense heat, biblical downpours during the rainy season and the yearly Harmattan winds that cascaded in from the North.

You got the quotes and references to God from the mouths of infants and adults alike, it was part of the lexicon, “yes, I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing” Psalm verses crawled along the body of virtually every public transport bus or van or vendor outlet. It was like God had his own advertising agency, and every available quote, chapter and verse was going to be seen wherever possible.

That was lesson 2.

  • My lesson 2
  • The story was going to involve people travelling. The story would feature powerful weather, or different types of weather. It would include elements of the divine, or superstition.
  • Write about your experiences and your surroundings; people, places and incidents.
  • Next week, in part 3 I shall go into character development, continuing the story of my creative film journey.
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