Monthly Archives: January 2012

How to Write Story Twists: The Craft of the Dramatic Beat

In these posts, I often talk about the large structural elements that make up the overall infrastructure of a story — the turning points, the mid point, and so on. These structures, important as they are, in that they steer and turn the narrative at crucial junctions, however, do not constitute the bulk of your story. The brick and mortar of your story lies in the details — in the large number of dramatic beats that makes up your scenes.

Dramatic beats

Dramatic beats

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions that make up a scene. In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character ambling around the room doesn’t constitute a dramatic beat; his spotting the gun under the table, which is to be used in the murder, does.

The question now arises: what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers glued to the page, and how can we best structure such beats?

For one, we can fashion them in a way which creates suspense, as has been mentioned in a previous post. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise. Or, we can do both.

Twists to Keep your Readers/Audience Interested.

A twist, by definition, contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming, rendering it fresh and unpredictable. Plan your scenes to contain at least some beats in which one or more of the following occurs:

1. A betrayal of trust.
2. A loss of resources.
3. A lie is uncovered.
4. A new problem arises.
5. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. Trust is betrayed.
8. A character swaps sides.
9. A plan goes wrong.
10.A new motive is revealed.

In Inglorious Basterds, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness drives one of the longest and most suspenseful scenes in the entire movie. At the start of the film, Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa insists on being introduced to each of the dairy farmer’s daughters individually, heightening the sense of implied threat. Although LaPadite (Denis Menochet) at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are, in fact, hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth out of him through a series of compliments, threats, and innuendoes.

The scene utilises some of the techniques mentioned above: a new motive is revealed — Landa did not come to LaPadite’s farm house to close the book on the case as he, at first, claims but to torture him and catch him out; a lie is uncovered — Landa is able to ferret the truth out of LaPadite; a new problem arises — LaPadite knows that if he continues hiding the Dreyfuses, his own family will be executed; a trust is betrayed and a character swaps sides — LaPadite is forced to betray the Dreyfuses; a plan goes wrong — LaPadite’s plan to hide the Dreyfuses under his floorboard misfires.

In Summary

Organising your scenes’ dramatic beats according to some of the above-mentioned suggestions is an effective way of ensuring that each scene contains enough twists to keep your readers and audience interested.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

How to Strengthen Your Climactic Scene

As has been mentioned in a previous post, scenes are composite clusters of dramatic action, which usually (but not always) occur within a unified spatial and temporal field — within a specific time and place. Each scene has a specific function to perform according to its location within the story. Scenes correspond to the structural units that have been the main subject of these posts — turning points, mid-point, the pinches, etc., but they can also be simpler, less powerful clusters — adjoining units acting as transitional bridges to more important and dramatic scenes. By identifying, naming, and studying the structure of each scene as a type in the films and literature we admire, we are able to apply the insights we gain in our own work.

The Climactic Scene

One example of an important scene type, arguably the most important of all, is the climax, also known as the must-have, or, do-or-die scene. This scene occurs when the protagonist is forced, or, chooses, to face the antagonist in a winner-take-all confrontation towards the end of the story. At the beginning of this scene the stakes are at their highest, the outcome uncertain, as is the theme and moral premise of the story. By the end of the scene good (in the form of the protagonist) either triumphs over or succumbs to evil (in the form of the antagonist), thus settling the theme and moral premise. The question now arises as to how we may ramp up the climactic scene in order to squeeze the most juice from it, knowing that a failed climax inevitably means a failed story. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Ask yourself these two questions:

1. What is the primary strength of your antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness/fear of your protagonist?

Now create a scene that plays to your protagonist’s chief weakness\fear, while promoting your antagonist’s primary strength. Additionally, ask yourself what setting best enhances the antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously increasing the chances of your protagonist’s failing?

The Matrix

In the film, The Matrix, for example, an important late confrontation between Neo and agent Smith takes place inside virtual space — Smith’s own world — a place where he holds the most advantage. At the end of a sustained fight sequence Smith shoots Neo, who, for all intents and purposes, dies. It is only when Trinity administers the kiss of life/love to him on the Nebuchadnezzar — in the real world — that Neo recovers and is able to defeat Smith inside the matrix.

In Summary

The climactic scene represents the dramatic highlight of your story. It pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a do-or-die confrontation whose outcome determines not only the moral premise and theme of your story but its ultimate success. Improve your writing by exploiting an appropriate setting that strengthens the antagonist while simultaneously weakening the protagonist.

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.

How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling

Effectively managing narrative perspective in story-telling is one of the most important and difficult skills to master. By perspective I mean the hierarchy of vantage points the writer adopts in relating the story to her audience or readers. There are three main levels of perspective: the author’s (she decides when, what and how much to reveal), the protagonist’s/characters’ (who act as if they have a life independent of the author’s), and the reader’s/audience’s (who interpret the story according to their own expectations). Most commonly, perspective is intimately tied to the protagonist’s point of view. Hence, in the absence of authorial or directorial declaration, what the protagonists sees and perceives to be truth is transmitted to the audience/reader as being true – until the revelation or point of schism. In the film The Matrix, for example, the audience is initially as unaware that the depicted world is an illusion as is Neo (Keano Reeves).

The Point of Schism

The plot thickens when our point of view separates from the protagonist’s. Before this moment, we share the protagonist’s confusion, bewilderment, and surprise as events unfold. Here, our association with the protagonist is one of subjectivity and identification. After the point of schism, we see beyond this limited vision – we perceive the dangers and are made privy to the traps planned for him by the antagonist. I call this moment the point of schism – or a tear in perspective – and regard it as a narrative device whose importance is comparable to that of a turning point or mid-point. The insight afforded us at this moment increases the suspense we feel for the protagonist, since we see danger approaching more clearly than he does. An example of this in The Matrix is the meeting between agent Smith, and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) who offers to lead Neo and the others into a trap in exchange for being re-inserted back inside the matrix as “someone important”.

Reversing the Schism

Sometimes, however, the schism works in reverse order: the protagonist knows the truth while the audience doesn’t — in The Hunt for Red October, the audience believes that the defecting Russian submarine has been sunk by the Russian fleet, when in fact, it is a trick played on the Russians (and the audience) by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) in order to slip through the Russian net and seek asylum in the United States.

Simultaneous Revelation

Occasionally, the story’s true perspective — the perspective of the author — is revealed to both the audience/reader and the protagonist simultaneously. Here, the author withholds crucial information from us and the protagonist till the revelation. In the film The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, who is shot in the stomach by a disturbed patient at the beginning of the film, ostensibly attempts to help his young patient Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) to deal with problems arising from his ability to see dead people. His relationship with his wife continues to deteriorate as Crowe spends more and more time in his basement alone, and continues to treat Cole. The film, which is a master class in sleight-of-hand, reveals the biggest twist of all towards the end of the film when Crowe notices that his wedding ring in no longer on his finger but in his sleeping wife’s hand. We suddenly realize, along with Crowe, that it is he who has been dead all along as a result of having been shot in the stomach.

A Short Exercise

With reference to three films or novels you admire, answer the following questions:

Where is the point of schism in each?
Describe the type of schism.
What is the effect of the schism on the story and how could it have been done differently?

In Summary

Choosing precisely when, where, and how to introduce a schism in perspective, and what form it will take, requires an understanding of how it will change your story and what effect it will have on your readers and audience. A skillful use of schism is an essential aspect of accomplished writing.

Understanding Scene Construction

A scene is a story unit involving one or more dramatic beat(s). Much has been written about scene construction, but in today’s post, I want to highlight two important aspects: general function and function relative to story-position.

The general function of any scene is to provide the reader/audience with essential information in order to progress the story in a manner that is engaging and stylistically consistent with the rest of the work. Each scene, therefore, has a specific purpose. We realize that important scenes are nothing other than the structural units we’ve been referring to as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and on on. Hence, the function of the inciting incident scene is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, etc. Identifying scenes in this way highlights their function (described in numerous books and blogs), tells us where they belong in terms of story sequence, and allows us to map them along a path, which traces a beginning, middle, and end.

Pragmatics & Stylistics

What about the pragmatics of scene construction? A general rule is that most scenes should start late and finish early — meaning that a scene should be devoid of excess fat. It should fulfill its function and finish, allowing the next scene to perform its function and finish, and so on.

Scenes should also adhere to the generic stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information — the climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action or thriller genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other, again, in an appropriate setting.

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him.

In Summary

Scenes correspond to the structural units discussed in previous posts, and in innumerable books and blogs. Each scene has a specific task to perform and is located at a specific point within the overall story. Generic concerns influence the stylistics of scene creation — such as setting and type of conflict.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post on Mondays.

What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

This post come about as a result of a suggestion by Mark Landen, a regular contributor to this blog, that I say something about tone in story-telling, and its impact on narrative elements such as theme and plot.

First, a brief definition: By “tone” (or the slightly more imprecise, “mood”), I mean the moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude the writer/narrator adopts towards her material in narrating it. Tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is no coincidence that a description of tone corresponds to the overarching genre in story-telling; it is genre, more that setting, plot, or theme, that determines a story’s tone by inflecting the aforementioned elements. Hence, a similar setting in a musical such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or a classical horror such as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) can produce a disparate mood of levity and dread respectively, precisely because it is modulated by a difference in genre.

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is: not necessarily. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comefy can produce as viable, serious, and independent a theme as drama, or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and etherial ordering element, floating above the specific textural concerns of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, at the most quintessential level, tonal elements are not fashioned by plot itself, but by genre: The exploration of the going-on at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

In Summary

Although tone is deeply rooted in the generic demands of the tale, it is inflected by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards her story and her method of narrating it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

I post every Monday.