Monthly Archives: November 2012

Story Mentors: Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Robert McKee, Christian Vogler

Fist

The Power of Five

We are living in an age where information on just about any aspect of science or art is abundant. And so it is with writing. Sifting for relevance through this mountain of data, however, is now perhaps our biggest challenge. In an attempt to lighten this task, I offer a brief summary of five important writing mentors active in the Hollywood scene today.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, the five mentioned in this post adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the well known film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot, which entirely revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance – although even he employs a structural template in his use of the quest as a generic structure – but more of that later.

Syd Field

Simplifying for the sake of brevity, one may regard Syd Field’s contribution as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles. Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres. McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach in his thinking, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In A Hero’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale in terms of character function. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into their work. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

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How to Write Story Through Character

Chicken and eggs

The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, character or story? Does story lay the character, or character lay the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side of the fence, or, road, if you prefer. Despite the levity implicit in the metaphor, however, the topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

A Character’s Story

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer writing what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of character motivation. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story? The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing her scenes.

Scarab II

In my forthcoming science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously. In Scarab I, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react to rather than to initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character has allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.

In Summary

Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

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How to Generate Novel Story Ideas

Head in a labyrinth with light bulb

Generating New Story Ideas

How does one generate new and exciting ideas for one’s stories? This perennial and important question has had many answers. Listed below, are some of them:

Idea-Generating Techniques

— Use personal experience to spark new and authentic story ideas. This helps to add verisimilitude and uniqueness to any piece of creative writing because it is based on first-hand knowledge of real-life situations.

— Keep a file of newspaper and magazine articles and stories; also, short notes on television documentaries and programs that have caught your eye. Use them to kick-start your thinking on a related subject.

— Use a notebook or digital device to document interesting bits of conversation, behaviour, dreams, personal encounters, dress codes.

— Explore new ideas by brainstorming a subject with colleges and friends. Free-associate fundamental aspects of that subject by introducing nouns and verbs not usually associated with it. Note the new relationships that emerge. Those may spark new ways of looking at old ideas.

— Ask that powerful idea-generating question:’What if…’. Combine it with an unexpected or opposing idea. If, for example, your subject is about a paid soldier of fortune, you could start by asking: What if a hardened mercenary is asked to assassinate a businesswoman who turns out to be his son’s wife who is pregnant with his child?

— Mind-map a subject or idea by writing down its core meaning in the middle of a blank page or screen. Create a series of associated ideas in bubbles around that core idea and draw links from one to the other. Again, try thinking laterally by linking unrelated ideas together and see what that sparks.

— When writing a scene, make it multidimensional by exploring it with all five of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. Note the dominate sense operating within the scene then replay it in your imagination, using a different sense. Note how it changes your approach to writing the scene.

Summary

There are many ways to generate new ideas for stories. Personal experience, keeping files and notebooks, brainstorming with others, using the what-if question, mind-mapping, strongly projecting one’s self into an imagined scenario by applying all five senses to it, are just some of them.

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How to Write the Moral Premise

Jesus and people

The Moral Premise

What is a story really about? By this, I don’t mean the causal chain of events that comprise the outer journey. I mean the inner core that projects these outer events and motivates the inner journey. One way to understand the essence of a story is to determine its moral premise or as I sometimes prefer to refer to it as: the pilot premise. This is the deepest layer of the story, without which, the tale is rendered rudderless.

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams makes a compelling case for the moral premise being that which explains and determines the direction and flow of events in a story. He claims that stories with a strong moral premise tend to do well at the box office. He sites films such as Starwars and Braveheart as examples of this. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides us to write a story that stays on track.

So what form does this premise take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of the premise. In a film such as The Matrix, for example, part of the premise might be: humanity’s strength (reflected in a special individual–Neo), driven by love, leads to victory. This statement allows the writers to reflect Neo’s outer journey from a novice stumbling over his own feet to an accomplished leader with supernatural abilities (inside the matrix) with aplomb.

This first part on its own, however, can’t describe Agent Smith’s journey from mastery to crushing defeat at the hands of Neo. That aspect of the journey requires an additional part: non-human constructs, under programed instructions to control unruly elements in the matrix, are doomed to failure. It can be simplified even further: love (a human quality) leads to victory but an absence of love leads to defeat.

This second part of the premise guides the writers to chart Agent Smith’s journey as it clashes with Neo’s. The complete moral premise, then, represents the genetic code for a story that describes the entire inner and outer journey of a film such as The Matrix. It takes the form: X leads to victory, but minus X leads to defeat. Working out both sides of the moral premise beforehand, therefore, allows us to keep our story on course.

Summary

The moral premise comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the genetic code of any story: one part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the moral premise in mind allows you to craft a story that stays 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.