Sunday, October 28, 2007

A cool explanation of Buddhism

Saying of the week: "All of life builds up to and then radiates from a single
-- Milan Kundera

One of my loves in this life is the study and practice of Zen philosophy. While reading from Beyond The Sky and Earth, by Jamie Zeppa (a beautifully written book about living in Bhutan that I highly recommend to everyone) I came across the following description of Buddhism and was impressed at how she expresses complex ideas simply. Hope you like it.

The first of the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha claims that life is suffering. The second truth explains why. We suffer because the self desires, grasps, clings, is never satisfied, never happy, never free of its many illusions; we desire what we don’t have, and when we get it, we desire to hold on to it, and when we are sure we have it, we lose interest in it and desire something new. In our constant, blind striving for something more, something better, something new, something secure and permanent, we act in ways that hurt ourselves and others, and create bad karma, which leads to rebirth and therefore more suffering. Even if we manage to be content with what we have, we are still subject to old age, sickness and death, and so are our loved ones. The third truth says that we must end this ceaseless wanting and grasping if we want to end suffering. The final truth explains how – through th Noble Eightfold Path of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
The Buddha did not claim to be a deity. When asked about the creation of the universe and the existence of God, he refused to speculate. He was not offering a new religion but a way of seeing and living in the world. For me, though, one of the most interesting things about Buddhism is not that there is no all-powerful God who we must fall down and worship, but that there is no permanent self, no essence of self. It isn’t even clear among scholars if Buddhism accepts the idea of a soul, an immortal individual spirit. Separateness is an illusion. Nothing exists inherently on its own, independently of everything else, and a separate, permanent, inherently existing self is the biggest illusion of all. There is nothing we can point to and say, yes, this is the self. It is not the body or the mind, but a combination of conditions and circumstances and facilities. At the moment of death, these conditions and facilities break down, and only the karma generated by that life remains, determining the circumstances of the next rebirth.
This is a principal tenet of Buddhism, but the Buddha tells his disciples not to take his word for it. They are to analyze and search and test what he says for themselves. On his deathbed, he reminds them, “Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.” I am struck by this spirit of independent inquiry, by the fact that enlightenment is available to all, not through a priest or a church or divine intervention but through attention to the mind. In Buddhism, there is no devil, no external dark force – there is only your mind, and you must take responsibility for what you want and how you choose to get it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

What makes a good protagonist, and script outline

Saying of the week: "It has been said that "Common souls pay with what they do, nobler souls with that which they are. And Why? Because a profound nature awakens in us by their actions and words, by their very looks and manners." -- (unknown)

In reading an essay this week on the life and meaning of Jesus, by Lewis Mumford, I came across the following passage that made me think of what goes in to the make-up of a great protagonist. According to Mumford's interpretation of Jesus' lessons, a poor miserable sinner has a greater chance to attain righteousness and glory than the law abiding man with an unblemished virtue, because the very act of sinning causes, through humiliation and self-criticism, a change in behavior, which catapults one to higher states of grace. So a good protagonist is not without sin, without the ability to hurt others, but through internal strife, he grows from it.

Jesus undermined the knowledge of the learned, the pride of the powerful, the morals of the virtuous: he saw that sin and imperfection, with their self-humiliation and self-criticism, were far less dangerous to life than complacency; for sin might pave the way for an inward change which raised life to a higher pitch than unblemished virtue was capable of reaching. This inward change, the grace of the Holy Spirit as it was to be called, was all-important: repentance must precede regeneration. Mere willingness, mere rational efforts in themselves, could not bring about such a change: it needed the encouraging example of a living image, and that image was the personality of Jesus himself.
To know oneself, from his standpoint, was to realize the miserable failure of one's successes and the redeeming success of one's failures. The capacity to recognize one's inevitable shortcomings, to profit by every occasion of disintegration, was the only guarantee of continued self-development. That was a salutary doctrine for the heirs of a disintegrating civilization.

In the online writing group I subscribe to, there has been much discussion lately about form and whether writers plan out their stories (outline them) before writing them. Apparently many do not. They define an initial set of characters and a setting, and then give them a push (very much like the creation myth where God created the universe, Adam, and Eve, then stepped back to watch the fun evolve.) Still others fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, planning out every last comma before putting fingertips to keys. I fall in the middle, making a character sketch (1 to 3 pages) for each main character, and a loose outline (2 to 3 pages) of the general path they will take, what they will learn, and how they will change along the way. That freedom (to let the story just evolve) is the beauty of writing fiction novels and short stories. According to a scriptwriter friend of mine, script writing is much more ridged (if you want to sell it, that is.) The script should be no longer that 110 pages (1 page = 1 minute of film) and certain events must happen on or by a certain page number, or it is simply rejected because it doesn't follow the formula. He gave me the formula, an outline written by Blake Snyder that spells it out. I sometimes compare this to my novels to see how close I come to this plot outline (in a three hundred page novel I multiply the following outline page numbers by 3.) I don't use it to change my story, but I find it interesting to see how close I do come to the "Formula", and also to insure I have included all the elements of a good plot. The following is the outline exactly as it was given to me.

Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet:
Opening image (pg. 1)
· First impression of what the story is
· Sets the tone, mood, style
· Before and after snapshot to show thing that will change
Theme stated (pg. 5)
· First impression of what the story is
· Sets the tone, mood, style
· Before and after snapshot to show thing that will change
Set Up (pg. 1-10)
· Introduced or hinted every character
· Character tic (exhibit every behavior that need to be addressed later on)
· Show six things that need fixing
· Story thesis ….. before world, calm before the storm
Catalyst (pg. 12)
· An external event that changes everything - a call to action
· Often comes disguised as bad news
Debate (pg. 12-25)
· React to catalyst
· Pose a question of some kind
Break into 2 (pg. 25)
· Define Action
· Proactive choice made
· Introduce story antithesis
B-Story (pg. 30)
· Introduced subplot, carries the theme of the story
· Booster rocket helps smooth obvious A-story break
· New characters, fun-house version of act one
Fun and games (pg. 30-35)
· The promise of the premise
· What does this story have to offer me?
· Heart of the story
Midpoint (pg. 55)
· "up" - where the hero seemingly peaks (false victory)
· "down" - where the world collapses around hero (false defeat)
· stakes are raised (where fun and games are over)
Bad guys close in (pg. 55-75)
· getting serious
· all seems fine - bad guys are temporarily defeated
· We must be beaten and know it to get the lesson
Break to 3 (pg. 85)
· Solution, thanks to characters in B story
· External (A-story) and internal (B-story) meet and intertwine
· An idea to solve the problem has emerged
· The world of synthesis is at hand
Final (pg. 85-110)
· Where a new society is born
· Not enough for the hero to triumph, he must change the world
· Wrap it up - lesson learnt and applied
· Character tics are mastered
· A and B story end in triumph for the hero
· Turning over of the old world, creation of the new
· Hero leads based on what he experienced in the upside down world (antithetical world of act two)
Final image (pg. 110)
· Often opposite of opening imageProof that change has occurred and it's real