Emma Coats recently tweeted 22 pithy Rules of Story based on her experience as a Pixar storyboard artist. To internalize Pixar’s wisdom in a personal way, I’m reviewing Faust: Love of the Damned through Emma’s craft / point of view.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
“Reality is up for grabs,” writes Balfour, scene journalist, our man on the street character in Faust. When he first writes it, it is an intellectual conceit. A clever line written by a clever man chasing the red carpet – a man who has never really lived, except inside his head. By the time Balfour and the readers reach the story’s final chapter, they have come on a long, strange and confrontational mindfreak – can they truly live these clever words now? Will it help them see the dawn beyond the final night of Creation?
Many thoughts, beliefs, passions, observations, fears, nightmares, ideals and more than a few slices of pop art reverence screamed to the surface in my collaboration with Mr. Tim Vigil over the pages and decades. But “Reality is up for grabs” sings to me tonight, badder than James Brown.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Woah, speaking of fears… losing my mental capacity before physical death has always loomed large on my lose-my-shit list. So, when John Jaspers (Patient #666) dares to cross M, he’s consigned to stew in his own acute pain and rage in incoherence in Bellevue. His dialogue hurt to write and Vigil’s images were laced with confusion, pain and fear — and I know many readers felt it, too. (Hopefully cathartically, not just ouch, like having your eyes and mouth sewn shit…)
He’ll never be normal, our psycho hero. But mental clarity will feel like a victory. If he can get there, and stay there.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Like most good comic stories, the stakes in Love of the Damned are high. Our Mephistopheles, the original bitter fallen angel, wants to Uncreate Creation, to have his revenge on his former beloved, God. He’s got a sick idea of love, to be sure.
But the funny thing about stories is, cosmically huge stakes are a given. It’s the intensely personal that matters. The small stakes are huge.
For John Jaspers, the stakes are personal – if not his soul, long ago sold, then the soul of Jade DeCamp, his psychiatrist, and an end to existential and physical death match wrestling with his father, M.
And what does the “Love” in Love of the Damned refer to, anyway? John and his doctor? John and his devil? The devil and the divine? Or… secrets lingering in climax and aftermath, later this year.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
Vigil and I did so many versions of the last 120 pages…. soon, you get to be the final arbiter. Sometimes he would challenge something I wrote – like the Devil’s Dam Claire and her filthy trash talk in untranslated German – and we would find a less distracting way to go. Sometimes I would point out something on the paneled page that could make the story work better visually – often letting me cut words that aren’t needed when the picture tells the story.
Maybe we had a few moments when we veered into fussing, but we added a short sequence to bridge two critical scenes at the last minute, for example, and that now reads as essential. And there is a page in the final issue that is in reality one of the first pages Tim ever designed and executed.
If I understand “Story is testing, not refining,” I don’t agree in this case – we did a lot of refining, especially compared to the more experimental, spontaneous Faust franchise stories we published monthly through Avatar in the 90s. “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” Emerson said that.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Nicely put. (Reminds me of Robert Mckee’s sage story decisions in Story – highly recommended.)
My partner and I hate coincidences, and try to head off temptation to use them as a crutch. Years ago we sat through a so-bad-it’s-funny horror shlocker where the antagonist met his end screaming, “Not the magic knife – It’s the only thing that can kill me!” (A clumsy way to kick a garbage script to the last page, introducing a magic knife in the final moments of the mess!)
Since then, if either Tim or I introduce coincidence, convenience or other just-too-easy plot cheats, the other will do him a favor, imitating bad acting spasms, wailing “Not the magic knife!”
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
An exercise worth trying. Next time.
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
I touched on John Jasper’s rage and anger over losing his mind, so let’s look at Jade DeCamp – a troubling character to approach because she’s counter-phobic, contradictory and in denial. She’s a healer, a psychiatrist, yet she seeks out, and becomes obsessed with damaged, dangerous people. Would she love her man if he were not a monster? How many of you can relate to that?
I can – though not to Faustian extremes. I identify with attraction to disorder and chaos. And, for most of my life, I’ve tried not to live that way. That’s Faust for you: primal therapy on paper since 1987.
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Most economical? Oh, you’re funny. My Faustian partner would say, “Less is less.”
Want “Less is More?” See where we tried that in our Not For Children Children’s Book™,The Littlest Bitch.