Monthly Archives: October 2012

And the Secret to Writing a Good Story Is…

Babies Kissing

Secret Ingredient

What does it take to write a good story? The facile answer is: many things – maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on. But is there one element without which your story would be significantly weaker? When I joined Elmo de Witt Films in the early nineties as that company’s resident screenwriter, the experienced South African director gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been mulling over ever since: a story that doesn’t solicit emotion is headed for failure or, at best, obscurity.

Emotion and Story: Why should we Care?

A story filled with events and characters who leave us cold, leaves us cold, period. It may be filled with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy. But, who cares? If you want to write about any of those, publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or deliver a talk at the local philosophical society. A story is, of course, capable of transmitting deep, world-changing ideas, but only if we care enough about the events and characters in the story to delve deeper into the text and ferret such ideas out.

Caring about Fictional Characters and their Situation

So how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we foster and nourish throughout our writing careers. It doesn’t come overnight. The centuries are littered with tomes addressing the subject, and countless of modern-day blog posts, including mine, proffer aspects of the craft. Needless to say that any blog on effective character creation rests on a similar foundation – the use of emotion to draw us into our characters’ lives. Without wishing to diminish the depth and complexity of the subject, I offer one way, out of a myriad of others, which may assist you in kick-starting your thinking on how to approach the challenge of creating characters that we care about: Make your character (1) a worthy/interesting/caring person (2) who finds herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune/peril, which (3) worsens as the story progresses. This is the first step in creating empathy for your character, and therefore, in getting to know and care for her.

Summary

One of the most important requirements of a successful story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.

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How to Design Your Cast

Cast Design

Cast Design

Having a well-rounded protagonist is of little value unless you surround her with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story. Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise–the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types to choose from:

Protagonist

The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments.

Antagonist

The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make her more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine herself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

Each character should stay within his or her character type for the duration of the story. Changing types midway through the story causes confusion and weakens impact.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite.

Summary

Character types are a way of interrogating your story premise by exploring it from several angles–through the eyes of each character. Although opinions differ about the ideal number of such types, the four types discussed above typically define the lower limit.

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Plot & Subplot – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Coin

Two Sides of the Coin

We all know that a story comprises of a plot and subplot. But what precisely is the relationship of one to the other? This is an important subject and one that warrants restating.

For the Love of Love

A useful way to see this relationship is to think of the plot as the outer journey the Hero undertakes in order to achieve the goal and save the day, and the subplot as the inner journey that unfolds in concert with it – in many ways the subplot provides some of the major motivation for the outer journey.

The Matrix

The Hero’s love interest, his/her relationship with friends and family, for example, provide some of the reasons the Hero typically risks life and limb to save the day. In The Matrix, Neo’s outer journey is to defeat these antagonistic forces that keep mankind slumbering in a false virtual world.

Neo’s inner journey is to realise that he is indeed the one person who can defeat the agents and machines and save mankind – a realisation that is a prerequisite for aquiring the power needed to perform this difficult task. His friendship with Morpheus and the rest of the crew, and the love he and Trinity feel for each other, personalise Neo’s outer journey and make it immediate.

Often, the inner and outer journeys intersect in one powerful scene. In The Matrix, Neo dies at the hands of agent Smith but is brought back to life through Trinity’s love for him – symbolised by a kiss.

Summary

The plot and subplot work together to create a cohesive story. The plot describes the outer journey while the subplot provides much of the motivation for it.

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How to Write Your Second Draft

The Rewrite

The Rewrite

We’ve all heard the adage: writing is to rewriting. But what precisely does this mean? How do you go from the first draft to the final one? Indeed, can there ever be a final draft – in the sense of aesthetic completeness? Opinions vary about the number of rewrites and edits a work needs to go through in order to fulfill its potential, but one thing’s for sure: at least one draft ought to address the structural integrity of your story.

The Deep Rewrite

One of the first things I check after the first draft has been completed is whether or not the main narrative structures are doing what they’re supposed to be doing precisely where they are supposed to be doing it. Checking on the use of appropriate vocabulary, sentence construction, grammar, spelling, and the like, come under the corrections and polishing draft and typically occur after the main furniture has been checked and, if necessary, rearranged. What does this checking and rearranging of furniture involve, exactly?

Narrative Elements

After allowing the first draft to simmer for a few weeks so you can come at it afresh, locate and examine the main structural entities in your story:

Do you have an introduction to the ordinary world?

Next, find your inciting incident. Does it indeed “incite” your story? Could another incident have been more effective?

Locate your first turning point at the end of the first act. Does it set the main goal of the story in a way that is related to the inciting incident but is sufficiently stronger and moves in a different direction to it?

Locate the second turning point next. Does it turn the story around in an unexpected way, adjusting, while, at the same time, preserving the overall goal set at the first turning point?

Check the midpoint next. What event forces the Hero to face her/his inner conflict and decide between quitting or going on, against stiffer opposition?

Pinch one and two are checked next. Does your longer second act contain at least two supporting scenes or scene sequences on either side of the midpoint that reiterate and reinforce the pursuit of the goal?

Examine the confrontational scene in your third act between your Hero and antagonist. Is it set in an environment which favours the antagonist and disadvantages your Hero, thus upping the tension and stakes?

Look at your resolution scene. Does it indeed resolve the issues posed by the dramatic questions of the first, second, and third acts?

Finally, check your theme – the theme can only emerge after the outcome of the final conflict has been decided: do good guys finish first, or does evil prevail? Is the answer what you had intended when you wrote the first draft? If not, could the story be improved if you allowed it to end differently, despite your original intentions? Remember the creative process has a life of its own. Sometimes it’s easier to follow the muse than to ignore her.

Summary

The second draft involves determining whether the main structural elements need adjusting and repositioning. Do they occur in the proper sequence? Do they do function according to their designation? Would allowing for some unplanned, muse-inspired change to one or more structural elements benefit the story in an unexpected way?

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Structuring Act I, etc.

Building Structure

Building Structure

In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”

Pilot Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.

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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.