Monthly Archives: April 2012

Plot and Subplot: Several Strands, One Yarn

Image of yarn

Many Strands, One Yarn

We know that plot and subplot form the basis of all stories. What may be somewhat less obvious, however, is the precise relationship that exists between the two. How are these narrative elements knitted together, and what patterns do they form in stories? It may be useful to answer these questions in the following way: If plot is primarily concerned with the outer journey — the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal, the subplot(s) supports this journey by exploring its motivation, whether it concerns love, hate, generosity, revenge, or the like, and additionally tends to highlight theme, symbol, and the moral framework of the tale — the inner journey. In a finely crafted story, plot and subplot are woven together into a seamless whole.

The Role of Genre

Action-driven stories tend to spend more time on plot, although subplot is never ignored. Even frenetically paced films like Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol contain scenes which explore material centered on emotional content: Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), for example, is wracked with guilt over having failed to protect Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife from being killed in Budapest. This frames many of his actions and his refusal to remain with the team at the film’s conclusion. We later learn that Hunt’s wife is very much alive and that Hunt has known this all along but has kept it secret in order to protect her. This sort of inner layering forms part of the story’s subplot.

The Piano

Art-cinema inflected films, by contrast, tend to emphasize subplot over plot. In The Piano, for example, the plot, involves Ada’s (Holly Hunter) attempt to get back her piano and thus regain her “voice” and self-expression. The new owner of the piano, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is obsessed with Ada, promises to returns the instrument to her in exchange for piano lessons and sex. This thread of lust, obsession, and Ada’s own awakening sexual passion, overshadows the plot, primarily because the action is diminutive in comparison to the spectacle found in Action/Adventure films. By contrast, it is the subplot that contains the large and tempestuous emotions that drive the story forward.

Retaining Plot Prominence

In some genres, such as the conventional Love Story, plot and subplot may even occasionally appear to merge, becoming difficult to pry apart. Here, the “love” thread, which typically provides part of the protagonist’s inner motivation/subplot in the Action/Adventure genres, now becomes the outer goal (plot), itself. This genre typically centers around the attempt of lovers to get/stay together despite mounting obstacles. Strengthening the outer obstacles may prevent the subplot from usurping the role of the plot.

In Summary

The normal function of the subplot(s) is to support, motivate, and highlight the inner concerns of the plot by exploring the relationships and emotions of the protagonist and other characters through one or several story strands. Occasionally, and depending on genre, subplots appear to usurp the plot.

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Plants and Pay-Offs: Unearthing Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

In a previous post I discussed the importance of foreshadowing, suggesting that the term covers a wide variety of narrative elements, including theme and symbol — elements that one might best describe as meta-narrative, that is, a layer of significance that sits above, or at the base of a story and does not necessarily participate directly in the plot.

In this post, I want to focus exclusively on narrative elements that create foreshadowing, yet are very much part of the plot — actions and objects that participate directly in the story. It may be best to describe this sort of foreshadowing as planting and paying-off to differentiate it, for the sake of precision, from foreshadowing though theme and symbol.

Planting for the Pay-Off

In writing, every narrative action ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in screenwriting, which uses fewer pages to tell the story than are afforded a novel. If the writer plants a gun in a scene, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion. In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can fight back. In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s (Jim Carrey) dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee, setting up the pay-off later in the plot, when it crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

Where is the best place to put plants and pay-offs? A plant should remain innocuous and be situated at a natural and believable point along the story spine — as part of the story’s natural development. Its pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

In Summary

Plants and pay-offs deal with specific elements in the plot. The main characteristic of a plant is that it should appear innocuous, while a pay-off should be delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.

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How to Develop Conflict in your Stories

Conflict

Conflict

We’ve often heard that conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories are bound to appear staid and static — lacking dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and thus rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how synchronising the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, to the external conflict makes for a gripping tale that stays on track.

Mounting Conflict

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the spine of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict which arises, should build on the previous one in terms of danger and intensity — both internally and externally. This means that the conflict is adjusted to suit — as the physical stakes change, so does the character’s internal response — fear/prejudice/courage/etc. The internal and external journeys continuously track each other, like partners in a dance. Additionally, obstacles which gives rise to conflict differ from previous ones in order to avoid monotony and repetition.

Structuring Conflict

What follows a scene, or scenes containing mounting conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven, for example, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) decides to walk away from the job, which involves killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces, on his own, an entire saloon filled with men out to kill him. This situation has arisen as a result of a setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan who, himself, has been unjustly accused of murder — and Manny’s pledge to revenge Ned’s death.

Lastly, it is important to note that each conflict has a definite climax, leading directly to the setback: Manny’s shooting of one of the cowboys leads directly to the setback — Ned Logan’s death.

In Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

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Why Obstacles are Good for Stories: Directing Story Traffic

Obstacles

Obstacles

What is Story Traffic?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the development and structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, which should be as surprising as it is inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience/reader guessing, and inevitable, because it has been deftly prepared for by the writer. Another way to view turning points is as obstacles, blocking the way to the protagonist’s goal, forcing a change in direction.

What of the Midpoint?

Typically, a story contains a beginning, middle, and end, and therefore, two major turning points — one which introduces the middle section (or act ii,) and one which introduces the last section (or act iii). But because this middle section tends to be the longest, it often needs to be split further through the use of a midpoint, also discussed previous posts, in effect, creating two more sections. The midpoint, too, may be regarded as a turning point, with one proviso — that it presents the protagonist with a moral choice, a moment of illumination, which once accepted, changes him. Henceforth, the protagonist’s actions take on board this insight, for good or ill, and guide his actions to the story’s conclusion.

What specific forms, then, do turning points/obstacles take? I offer the following for your consideration:

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journeys respectively. In the best stories, they operate simultaneously. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has then to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has clearly more on his hands than the physical task alone.

Obstacle Types

Obstacles may stop the established external/internal flow of events dead in its tracks, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may reverse the flow completely, in a 180 degree about-turn. What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins.

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point and Source Code, to replay the story from the same starting point.

Deflection, or expansion, is by far the most common form of turning point/obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the overall parameters of the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s (Clint Eastwood) intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one, albeit in the same vain.

In Summary

Turning points introduce major new sections of your story by presenting new information that is as surprising as it is inevitable. There are three main types of turning point — dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

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How to Motivate Your Character

Much has been written, over time, on the importance of character and character development in stories, and rightly so. An engaging and convincing character, is, in my opinion, one of the most important elements in the well-crafted story. But if character is such an important part of your story, then it follows that what motivates character action is equally important. Readers and audiences need to know and understand precisely why it is that a character acts in the way that he or she does. Outer actions or events are convincing only if they are a fitting response flowing from the personality and circumstances that the character finds herself in.

Motivation

Motivation

The Two Sides of Motivation

In previous posts I’ve talked about the importance to a story of the inner and outer journeys of a character. If the outer journey describes the external movement of the tale — the “what” — the inner journey describes and explains the inner movement — the “why”. Although the two seem ostensibly different, they are inexorably bound together. They entail each other. So, another way to see motivation is as having an inner and outer dimension. Outer motivation operates at the level of the external goal. Here, a series of external events elicit actions from your characters. In the movie, Speed, for example, Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) has to keep the bus moving at a certain speed to ensure that a bomb inside it doesn’t go off. The reason why someone would risk one’s life to try and prevent this from happening, however, goes beyond external reasons — one’s job. It speaks to one’s moral make up, compassion, and commitment to others, and perhaps to one’s need for excitement — it cuts directly to the core of Jack Traven’s character.

Core Questions

In seeking to nail down your character’s motivation, it is helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

What is your character’s outer goal?
What is your character’s inner motivation (conscious or unconscious) for pursuing this goal?
What is your character willing to do/sacrifice to achieve this goal?
How does the goal change during the story, and how does this affect your character?
Is what is at stake for the character the highest it can be? (Higher stakes make for better stories).

Although these are by no means the only questions to be asked with regards character, they are a good way of sketching in the overall shape of a character arc. They also draw attention to the “what” (outer) and “why” (inner) aspects of your character’s actions — a requirement of any good story.

In Summary

Motivating your character’s actions is an essential part of effective storytelling. The outer goal is directly related to your character’s inner life and is motivated by her core concerns.

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