Monthly Archives: December 2012

Understanding the Story Climax

Explosion

Story Climax

Although I’ve touched on a story’s climax before, it is such an important narrative segment, that it deserves revisiting.

What is the Story Climax?

Syd Field states that “The Climax is the principle part of the story for which (…) all the machinery of planning and constructing has been set in motion (…). The climax is a scene, (also known as the must-have scene), in which the Hero faces the greatest obstacle of all – the final confrontation with the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, in which one side wins and the other looses. The climax brings together the following elements: it resolves the main plot, it settles the theme of the story, and it addresses the transformation (or, lack there of) of the Hero.

The climax is the highest emotional peak of your story. It also resolves the final goal of the tale. In Act I, the goal that is set is found to be insufficient or fake, while in Act II a more appropriate goal is determined. At the end of Act III, however, the true, or, concealed, goal is uncovered. The climax ends in the Hero’s achieving, or, failing to achieve this true goal. This also determines the theme of the tale: For example – self sacrifice leads to victory, or, self sacrifice leads to defeat.

Knowing the climax of your story as you write gives you a target to aim at since you can now ask and answer the question, at each stage of the process, of how each scene helps you to set up your story climax. If it doesn’t, cull the scene and write one that does.

In his book, Screenwriting, Story mentor, Raymond G Frensham, gives an example from Act III of Witness which shows how these elements are integrated at the climax. By the end of Act III, John Book (Harrison Ford) is less concerned about his own survival than he is about the survival of the Amish community and their values (goal change). John, in choosing to put down his gun and face the antagonist unarmed, unleashes the moral power of the Amish community, which defeats the antagonistic forces (Climax & Theme: good triumphs over evil.)

Summary

The climax is, perhaps, the most important scene in the story since it resolves several elements, such as, plot, change in the protagonist, and theme. Structuring the climax correctly, therefore, is one of the important skills a writer must master.

How to Create a Strong Dramatic Premise

Lightbulb figureA great story premise lies at the core of most successful stories. Of course, an excellent premise that is not rendered effectively through good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, a sense of verisimilitude, and the like, can’t carry the tale on its own, but it is a good place to start.

What follows below are four simple guidelines for coming up with a winning premise that maximises your chances of writing a successful story.

1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:

Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts proved it.

2. Insure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:

Here’s and example: A pedantic and inflexible hospital director’s daughter is abducted by an ex-surgeon who has been struck off the register for malpractice and whose child failed to qualify for a liver transplant and died as a consequence. (Set-up)

This is intriguing, but it’s not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:

The hospital director is told by the kidnapper to find a liver for his own daughter, who has had hers removed by the kidnapper and is being kept alive by machines, within two days, or she’ll be allowed to die.

3. The concept must evoke dramatic questions:

In this example, such questions are indeed evoked: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper live up to his word? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?

4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:

Steven Spielberg defined high-concept as a short pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire movie/story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. In the above example, we know the kind of story we’re in for. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know the type (genre) of story we’re about to experience.

Summary

The story premise is a short description of the entire story in its essential form. Coming up with a premise that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions beyond itself, affords the writer a blueprint for writing a successful story.

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Managing Story Conflict

Wrestling match

Dramatic Conflict

We’ve heard again and again that conflict between characters is what drives our stories forward; that without conflict, the story stalls like a truck that has run out of fuel.

But what precisely are the guidelines to creating strong conflict? The list that follows, although by no means replete, should prove a useful starting point in upping the ante in your stories.

Checklist

1. Is more than one character pursuing a similar goal or avoiding a similar problem?

2. Does the conflict affect the protagonists’ inner and outer goals?

3. Is the main conflict the most interesting and compelling it can be?

4. Can a deadline force an action or decision that is less than the best?

5. Can a “solution” actually cause a worsening of the situation?

6. Can you implement the opposition to the threat in a more dangerous, powerful way?

7. Is there something or someone, apart from the protagonist, keeping the protagonist from achieving his/her goal?

8. Are there conflicting goals among the minor characters that can increase the conflict between them?

Doubtlessly, you may add to this list, but that, at least, is a good start.

Summary

Conflict is the lifeblood of all drama. Using two or more of these techniques mentioned above in specific scenes should result in a ramping up of conflict in your stories.

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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.

Story Crisis & Climax

Scream

Crisis & Climax

What is the story crisis and how is it related to the climax? This post traces three variations of this most important relationship.

Crisis & Climax Back-To-Back

The climax of a story is generally preceded by a dilemma for the Protagonist in which a final life-changing decision has to be made. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

Crisis & Climax Stretched-Out

In other stories, however, the climax stretches out across several scenes with its own beats, its own build-up. In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Crisis & Climax Separated Out

Although crisis-decisions and climactic action usually occur within the same location and within a short time interval towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic processes to occupy different spatial and temporal settings, although, in this instance, they should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

In Summary

The crisis leads to the Protagonist taking a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

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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.

How to Orchestrate Story Rhythm

Orchestra conductor

Story Rhythm

In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to manage story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.

Story Rhythm

Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge. This can happen within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us, for example, that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.

If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.

Irony as Climax

If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other. McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal/desire to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony. Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).

Summary

Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. This, of course, need not be on a scene-by-scene basis. Correlation can exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.