Monthly Archives: December 2011

How to Kick-Start your Story

In a previous post, I mentioned that the inciting incident is an early narrative event intended to get the story rolling. In this post, I want to expand on this important device by highlighting two of its main functions: the inciting incident creates forward momentum by tearing us away from the ordinary world. It also keeps us interested in the story by setting up the 1st turning point as a surprise. The 1st turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly commences — the real start of the story. Expressed in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, therefore, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that prevents the writer from showing her hand too early.

Shutter Island

In the film Shutter Island, Police Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Auel (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility. When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into possible unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is merely the insane imaginings of a psychotic mind. The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story: what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

In Summary

The function of the inciting incident is to kick-start the story by ushering the protagonist away from his ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point. In this sense, this narrative event may be regarded as a sort of mislead.

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How to Determine the Theme of your Story

Just about everyone knows that every story contains a theme. Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition. Also, a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art. Ask most people what exactly it is that they mean by “theme”, however, and the answers vary in inflection and precision from “mood” to “controlling idea”. It seems that theme means different things to different people. At the very least, its use, in the colloquial sense, is imprecise.

Yet, a deep understanding of theme is essential in crafting a story that stays on track. The definition I find most useful in my own writing stems from a combination of two strands of thought drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme is only clinched the end of the story, and that it implies a moral premise.

Why should the theme be clinched only at the end of the story? Because that’s when the final outcome of the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is determined.

Why should that involve a moral sense, or judgment? Because the antagonist represents the negative force, or, the existence of evil in the tale, while the protagonist represents the positive force, or, the presence of good. In simple terms, if the antagonist wins, we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins, we may have an up ending — good carries the day.

30 Days of Night

In the film 30 Days of Night, the isolated northern Alaskan town of Barrow is beset by a band of vampires intent on using the 30 days of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community. The sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the story’s protagonist, pits himself against Marlow (Danny Huston), the leader of the vampires, in order to help save the town, but clearly lacks the strength to defeat him. All seems lost, until Eben hatches a plan to bolster his own strength by infecting himself with tainted blood, turning himself into a vampire. Eben defeats Marlow only to expose himself purposely to sunlight and perish, ensuring that he never becomes a threat to humans.

The theme of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, may lead to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others — something that only emerges at the end of the film.

What is useful about isolating the theme in this way is that it grants one the ability to hold the essence of the story in the palm of one’s hand for scrutiny. This is crucial in keeping things on track, and for trouble-shooting potential problems.

In Summary

It is helpful to think of the theme as embodying a moral premise, which is clinched only at the end of the tale. Identifying your theme at the planing stage affords you the opportunity to see the essence of your story at glance and helps you to keep things on track.

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How to Deepen Character: Want vs. Need

In a previous post, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain traits at the expense of others. I suggested that the best way to manage this process is to make changes at specific structural junctions such as the inciting incident, first turning point, mid-point, and second turning point.

Another way to think of the character arc is in terms of a character’s awareness of her want vs. her need. Prior to the mid-point, or, the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. She mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because she has not yet discovered or acknowledged her need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, lies on the negative side of the spectrum.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and herself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story, no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means that the prominent traits motivating the character have been overshadowed by other less prominent traits. This change in the goal, or, in the path to the goal, illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

Blade Runner

In the film Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired blade runner, (a hunter of off-world synthetic humans) is persuaded to come out of retirement to hunt and kill a group of dangerous Nexus-6 Replicants, led by Roy (Rutger Hauer), who have landed on earth illegally. We later learn that they’ve come in search of their creator Tyrell, of the Tyrell Corporation. Their intent is to have him extend their lifespan which has been set at four years to prevent them from developing emotions and becoming a threat to humans. During his investigations, Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s personal assistant, Rachel, is herself a Replicant although she is is unaware of this fact. The plot thickens when Deckard falls in love with her and acts to protect her from harm.

Swapping Traits through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realize that what he wants — to get rid of Replicants, is not what he needs — to rise above his prejudice, and to keep Rachel alive. Ironically, during a fight to the finish, Deckard is rescued from falling to his death by Roy, the Replicant he has sought to kill. This act proves Replicants are capable of compassion, a trait that humans seem to have lost.

Deckard’s dominant trait of cold efficiency in tracking and killing Replicants is transcended by the traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In committing to protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker proves that he finally understands that what he wants is not necessarily what he needs. This change of heart clearly illustrates how traits work hand in hand with the story goal to adjust the outer journey — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

In Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to design change in terms of a start and end point. The want is driven by negative traits; the need, by positive ones. Approaching character design in these terms, not only grants you the tools to effectively shape your protagonist’s developmental arc, it also allows you to fashion the outer journey in a way that is consistent with inner growth and motivation.

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How to Create Dramatic Conflict in Your Stories

Conflict is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative causality and provides the juice of the tale. Conflict derives from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external.

Understanding Conflict Types

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone.

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club (conflict between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits).

Internal/external conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles.

The Matrix

The film The Matrix is a good example of how conflict is distributed amongst the three types. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), experiences tension between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept he is “The One” that he is able to resolve this conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith. His inner journey, therefore, is to accept the truth by choosing to believe. By contrast, Neo’s fight with Smith and the machines represents the story’s external conflict. Although this conflict is ostensibly inside the matrix, it does spill over into the real world, with real world consequences. Lastly, the internal/external conflict is a combination of the aforementioned.

At each stage of the journey, the two conflicting strands impede and deflect each other in a causal way, until the resolution. In The Matrix, Neo’s inner struggle to believe interacts with his outer struggle to defeat agent Smith, creating the internal/external conflict through-line. It is only when he syncs up his inner and outer life that he is able to achieve success. This through-line is the chief driver of the story.

In Summary

Conflict is the fuel that powers your story. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external. The last combines the inner and outer journey of the protagonist and constitutes the most important through-line of your story.

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