Monthly Archives: March 2012

How to Keep your Story Moving

Momentum

Momentum

A story without momentum is in danger of being branded boring; at worst it implodes and disintegrates. In her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger gives us several suggestions of how to establish and enhance story momentum.

Story Momentum

Seger defines story momentum as that which causes one scene to lead inexorably to the next. Inexorably, because the relationship between scenes is one of cause and effect. There are, of course, other scenes, which serve the subplot, that are less tightly bound into the main plot, but in terms of the plot itself, a causal relationship between scenes should be the order of the day.

Witness

The end of act two in Witness provides a telling sequence of scenes in this regard: The young Amish boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas), identifies detective McFee (Danny Glover) as the murderer. This prescribes the next scene in which John Book (Harrison Ford) visits his boss to tell him of this, but is asked to keep it quiet. This causes John to return to his apartment, only to be shot at by McFee. John realises that his boss is one of the murderers. As a result, John picks up Rachael (Kelly McGillis), Samuel’s mother, and Samuel, and drives to the Amish farm to hide out. This initiates the next scene in which, as a result of his injury, John passes out. This, in turn, leads into the second act with John hiding out at the Amish farm, with Rachel looking after him.

Note how every scene described above is tightly related to the next. In future blogs, I shall have more to say about the specific structure of these causal scenes, and the important actions or beats within them called action points, but for now, I mention that the inciting incident and turning points, discussed at length in previous posts, are certainly cause-and-effect scenes.

In Summary

Story momentum is a result of scenes being causally related to each other, contributing to he main plot through-line. Interwoven with other “looser” scenes that comprise the subplot, they make for a story that has both forward momentum and variation in pace, tone, and subject matter.

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How to Get the Ball Rolling: Nine Story Templates

9 Story Templates

9 Story Templates

Much has been written, over the centuries, about what constitutes a good story. Each sage on the subject has had his or her own interpretation on how many story templates there are, and it is not the purpose of this post to go into the merits of each here. I do, however, want to suggest, for the sake of brevity and conciseness, that most stories can be accommodated within one of nine general types, or a mixture thereof. What I mean by this is that although the names, places, and finer grain of each individual story differ from those of the original, the basic structure of the narrative follows a similar pattern. Here are some influential stories that have so captured the imagination of the world that they have created story types:

1. Romeo and Juliet

Boy meets/wins/has girl, boy looses girl, or boy finds/doesn’t find girl: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle.

2. Faust

Selling your soul may bring short term riches and success, but there’s always a price to be paid, leading to ruin and damnation: Wall Street, Fatal Attraction.

3. Cinderella

Dreams do come true, despite initial setbacks from wicked or opposing forces: Rocky, Pretty Woman.

4. Circe

The spider and the fly; the victim and the manipulator; the temptress ensnaring the love-struck, or innocent victim, often seen in film noir: Body Heat, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

5. Orpheus

The theft of something precious, either lost, or taken away; the search to redeem it, and the tragedy or success which follows it: Rain Man.

6. Tristan

Stories about love triangles — man loves a woman, but he or she is already spoken for: Fatal Attraction.

7. Candide

The hero who won’t stay down; the innocent on a mission; naive optimism winning the day: Indiana Jones, Forrest Gump.

8. Achilles

The destruction, or endangerment of an otherwise good person, because of an inherent flaw: Superman, Othello, the protagonist in film noir.

9. Frankenstein

Man’s attempt to rise to the level of God, ending in tragedy and failure: Frankenstein; Icarus.

In Summary

All stories follow a pattern originating from source material. Mixing and varying material from these sources accounts for the structure of most stories being told today.

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How to Pace your Stories

Varying the Pace

Varying the Pace

By pacing I mean the overall flow and rhythm of your story: its climaxes, reliefs, pauses, highs and lows – the heartbeat of your tale. Every story needs to vary its pace if it is to give its audiences and readers a chance to catch their breath and reflect. Without this variation, your story would grow monotonous and dull.

Graphing the Pace

In other words the pace should not look like this:

Graph1

Graph1


It should look like this:
Graph2

Graph2


Although the ante is forever ramping up, you should allow for diminuendos in the buildup to your final climax.

Contrast

What this means in practical terms, is that your material should contain contrasts:

Short vs. long scenes
Information vs. mood scenes
Interior vs. exterior
Dialogue vs. non-dialogue
Dramatic vs. comic relief
Day vs. night
Slow vs. fast tempo scenes
Present vs. flashbacks

Of course, this can’t be a mechanical process – contrast for contrast’s sake in a “let’s take turns” approach. These contrasts have to fit the demands of the overall structure of your story – the turning points, pinches, midpoint, and so on. As nebulous as it is to say this, the timing and placement of these contrasts are best governed by feeling, or instinct. If you’ve written a highly tense scene that has brought audiences to breaking point, you might consider following it up with a calmer or lighter scene, sooner rather than later – comic relief following a dramatic scene, grants us, well, comic relief.

Another great tip for pacing within scenes, or scene sequences, is the old adage, enter late, and leave early. Although this is not possible for all scenes, the late-in early-out approach is particularly useful in the third act of your story when the pace culminates in the climactic scene.

In Summary

Pacing refers to the overall flow and rhythm of your narrative incidents. Handled well, it keeps the audience and readers hooked into the story through a series of contrasts in scene length, tempo, dialogue, interior/exterior, drama/action/comic relief, day/night, and time frame.

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How to Tighten Character Traits

Although I have written about character traits in this blog before, they are such an important part of the jig-saw puzzle of crafting intriguing and successful characters that they deserve another pass. In terms of storytelling, traits, we are reminded, are key aspects of a character, often with moral or ethical implications, that determine behavior, such as righteousness, cowardliness, generosity, stinginess, and so on.

Solving the Traits Puzzle

Solving the Traits Puzzle

The Essential Core

The key aspect to identifying and crafting character traits is that you choose only traits that represent the essential core of a particular character. Too many traits tend to work against each other and cause confusion. Too few, and the character becomes monochromatic and static. The essential core is a set of three or four traits, with at least one of which acts in counterpoint to the rest in order to create dynamism. The core informs your character’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, and allows for what, at first glance, appears to be “uncharacteristic” behaviour, which is later shown to be fitting, through the revelation of a hidden or suppressed trait.

Traits are Specific and Precise

When picking traits for your character ensure that you pick only those that describe her precisely and specifically. A particular combination of traits should be unique to that character, and no other. In the film, Heat, for example, Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro) share the traits of determination, cleverness, and pride in their work, but McCauley’s sense of independence (never have anything in your life that you can’t immediately walk away from) is overcome by his suppressed capacity to love. This differentiates him from Hanna, who seems incapable of true love. It drives McCauley to fall in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman), which, in turn, leads to his eventual capture and death and the hands of Hanna.

Traits are the Foundation of Good Dialogue and Action.

How do traits manifest themselves? Through your character’s dialogue, thoughts, and actions. Who, for example, can forget Bruce Banner’s core line in The Hulk: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!” Traits can also be traced through one character describing another, or through direct narration, as in the case of Nick Carraway’s description of Jay Gatsby’s “gift for wonder”, a trait that explains much of Gatsby’s appeal, and Carraway’s final approval of him, despite Gatsby’s questionable past (The Great Gatsby).

In Summary

An essential part of creating memorable characters is through a system of traits: Define three or four traits (one of which is in counterpoint to the rest) that best describe the essence of the characters; ensure the traits are specific and precise, and reveal them through action, dialogue, and narration (where appropriate).

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.