Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure

Nuts & Bolts

Nuts & Bolts

For sometime now, I’ve been posting articles about such narrative elements as the introduction scene, the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the first and second pinches, the midpoint, realisation, decision, action, obligatory, and denouement scenes – in short, about the structural underpinnings of most stories. Of course, other linking and transitional scenes are dispersed in between these larger ones, but together, they coalesce to form a solid template for an entire tale. In this two-part post, I want to bring these elements together in order to present a snapshot of the overall shape of a typical story. What follows, then, is a simple, but useful summation of story structure:

Introduction Scene

With the exception of a medias res beginning (see past post), a typical story often starts with an introduction to the ordinary world of the Hero – this is the world before the initial disturbance. Here we learn about the Hero’s life and environment as it has existed for some time. This is our opportunity to get to know and empathise with the Hero in his or her natural habitat. In Unforgiven, for example, we see retired gunslinger and now struggling pig-farmer and widower, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), fighting to make ends meet in order to feed his two young children, and we begin to empathise with his plight.

Inciting Incident

Now, into this world, comes an unexpected opportunity, challenge, or threat, which disturbs the status-quo. The Hero may at first choose to ignore this event, or he/she may respond to it immediately. This is the inciting incident and is the event that kick-starts the story. In Unforgiven, the inciting incident occurs when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) asks William Munny to help hunt down and kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, an offer which Munny originally rejects, then decides to accept.

First Turning Point

The first turning point is a powerful structural event that spins the story around in a different direction; it avoids predictability and injects freshness into the tale. In The Matrix, the first turning point occurs when Neo (Keano Reeves) learns that the world he thought was real is actually a computer simulation, and that his body (and most other bodies) is slumbering inside a machine-constructed cocoon which continuously siphons energy from it. This new information necessarily changes the course of Neo’s life.

First Pinch

The first pinch typically occurs in the first half of act II, between the start of the act and the story’s midpoint. The pinch is a scene which reminds us of what’s at stake, thus helping to keep the longer act II on track. In The Matrix, a pinch occurs when Neo fails to leap successfully to an adjacent building and plummets to the ground. This reminds us that his training is not yet complete, but it also prompts us to ask whether Neo is indeed The One – the underlying question of the entire act and the story as a whole.

The Midpoint

The midpoint, also referred to as the moment of (moral) illumination (not to be confused with the realisation scene), occurs about halfway through act II, in effect, splitting this longest of the three acts into two units; in Braveheart, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), spends the initial part of the story avoiding involvement in the politics and troubles of his country. But at the midpoint, he receives a knighthood. This event, which is an outer manifestation of his acceptance of a moral duty to involve himself in the plight of his country – to help lead it to freedom from England – demarcates a change of attitude in Wallace. Henceforth, his actions, and the entire course of the story, will be informed by this moment of moral illumination.

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure concludes next week.

Summary

Story structure comprises of a set of must-have scenes that are interlinked by smaller transitional ones to form an overarching structure. Understanding the function and purpose of each scene provides the writer with a formal template for crafting a unique story at the level of content.

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How to Write Decision and Action Scenes

The Decision Scene in a story usually follows the Realisation Scene – the subject of last week’s post. The Action Scene, in turn, is most often preceded by the Decision Scene, forming a realisation-decision-action structure. Although this structure varies greatly in stories – other material might intervene – the scenes are causally connected.

Deciding

Deciding

The Decision Scene

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if the Relisation Scene leads directly into action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear abrupt and forced. Sandwiching a Decision Scene between realisation and action, avoids this error:

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo (Keano Reeves) decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the world of Agent Smith and the machines. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

Action

Action

The Action Scene

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

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The Realisation Scene

Moment of Illumination

Moment of Illumination

What is the Realisation Scene?

One way to approach writing from a structural perspective, is to understand the function of a number of must-have scenes in your story. One such scene is the Realisation Scene. In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger defines this important scene as ‘the moment when a character and/or the audience gets it’ – the ah-ha moment. It spins the story around in a different direction and is, therefore, also a structural turning point in the tale.

The Sixth Sense, The Fugitive, and The Green Mile

In The Sixth Sense, for example, this scene occurs when Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and the audience realise that he is dead. This changes the direction of the story in a major way. In The Fugitive, the Realisation Scene occurs when Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) perceives that Charlie Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) is behind his wife’s murder and the attempt to frame him for it. And in The Green Mile this scene occurs when Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) realises that John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) has a God-given power to heal.

After the Realisation Scene plays out, things cannot continue as they were. New plans have to be hatched and adjustments made in the light of new information. As in all well thought out structural turns, the effects is felt both at the level of plot, and on the level of character, causing the latter to grow or wilt depending on his or her strengths and weaknesses.

What’s Wrong With Mulholland Drive?

Occasionally, however, this moment of illumination is not immediately evident, something that Seger sees as a weakness. In Mulholland Drive, for example, Seger suggests that the audience needs an ah-ha moment, right before the Betty/Diane character kills herself, in order to grant the audience clarity. Whether this is true or not for a multiform film such as Mulholland Drive (Lynch would probably argue that he purposely chose obfuscation to deepen the sense of the unknowable), the fact remains that the Realisation Scene, in most conventional stories, is useful in helping to organise the plot around a central moment of illumination that changes the way the audience and the protagonist view the way forward, and as such, is a valuable addition to the writer’s tool kit.

Summary

The Realisation Scene comprises of an an-ha moment in which the audience and the protagonist understand the true nature of the dilemma. This is a game changer and alters the way the protagonist pursues the goal from that moment on.

Author Interview

For an expanded discussion of some of my views on writing, as well as one or two other matters, kindly visit: http://thorstonewell.com/2012/07/08/stavros-halvatzis-interview/

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Understanding Genre

Genre

Genre

Genre is a paradigm of shared characteristics conspiring to create a pliable mould that informs the work being poured into it. For a writer, it is a recipe for creating a story based on commonalities. I say commonalities, because stories within a certain genre, say, the Western, contain a number of shared elements, such as characters packing six-guns, riding horses, and drinking in saloons. Location, dress, props, and time period are important indicators of genre. Science fiction stories, for example might entail the use of non-existing gadgets, exotic creatures in equally exotic apparel, and perhaps other worldly locations, or at least, transformed or foreign spaces. I say ‘might’ and ‘pliable’, because none of these characteristics are set in stone. In the Science Fiction Western, Cowboys and Aliens, for example, alien spaceships and cowboys are juxtaposed unexpectedly, dispensing with a typical requirement for a futuristic time-line.

Genres Evolve

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genetic code – their characteristics, to future generations. But because there is a requirement of novelty or originality, the code is never exactly the same, but contains new inflections, which, if successful, are added to the existing genre and passed on to the next iteration. We see this evolution in the Western Hero, for example, where the protagonist of old, played by the likes of John Wayne, goes from being a tough but straight-laced man representing conservative values, to the ambivalent and racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, and finally, to the unequivocal anti-hero of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven – a man with a violent past, a killer of women and children, who, nonetheless, expresses love for his dead wife, and whom we root for by the end of the film.

Mixing Genres

Things become at once more exciting and complicated when we mix Genres. Certain mixtures are common – Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Love Stories such as Out of Sight. Some mixtures are even more exotic, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story that was concocted decades ago, yet still remains fresh.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide the expectations of audiences and readers, as much as writers, by referencing past stories of similar ilk. Genre helps audiences and readers choose a story as much as it helps inform the story itself. Good stories inject new and unexpected elements, which help to keep the material fresh.

Summary

Genres are a groups of shared characteristics that survive form story to story – albeit with new elements and variations that are intended to keep the material fresh. Genres not only assist the reader or audience in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blue-print to emulate, extend, and adapt.

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Dramatic Structure: The Power of Three

Three Act Structure

Three Act Structure

We often refer to classic Hollywood screenplays as having a three act structure — the arrangement of a story around three pieces of narrative real-estate — but the root of this idea lies with Aristotle, and his notion that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This arrangement lies at the basis of almost all the traditional dramatic structure in storytelling, including the novel.

The Function of Each Act

Each act has a specific structural function to perform, which it does by organising the pace and depth of the information it releases to the reader or audience.

Act I

The function of act I is to set-up the story. It does this by establishing the main characters, time-period, and setting in which the story unfolds, and defining the goal, and the conflict which arises from the pursuit of the goal. This act, which contains the inciting incident — an event that sets it all in motion, sets the protagonist on his/her way to achieve the goal.

The act also defines the first step in examining the theme of the story. In The Matrix, for example, that question is whether human ingenuity, spiritual strength, self belief, and endurance, can defeat the seemingly impervious strength of the Machine world.

Act II

Act II is primarily concerned with developing the seeds that have been sown in the first act. This act deepens the conflict resulting from obstacles to the goal, while simultaneously developing the protagonist, and other characters, in response to these obstacles. This act is balanced by the mid-point, a moment in the story in which the protagonist considers whether or not to throw in the towel and turn back from the goal in the face of mounting difficulties. This decision is encouraged by an event which reveals a secret truth about the protagonist — some hidden strength or quality which equips him or her to face the challenges ahead with renewed resources.

The act continues to probe the thematic question, although it does not yet provide an answer to it. In The Matrix example, the answer to the final outcome of the battle between man and machine see-saws through many iterations, and remains unresolved. Act II is the longest, most intricate, and complicated part of the story.

Act III

Act III typically pays-off, and resolves, through the denouement, the questions and puzzles set up by the previous two acts. It answers the main dramatic question of whether the Hero will succeed in attaining his/her goal. The third act also settles the theme. If the theme of The Matrix is about whether or not self-sacrifice serves the greater good, the third movie in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, settles it in the affirmative, as a result of the final conflict.

Summary

A three act structure allows the writer to craft a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. All three acts have their own function to perform. They collaborate to produce the theme of the story, as a result of the final conflict in the third act.

Invitation

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.