Monthly Archives: March 2013

How to Improve your Outline

Hand drawing

Improving Your Outline:

So, you’ve come up with a logline for your story and proceeded to generate an outline from it (see earlier posts). How do you go about improving your outline, prior to commencing the actual writing of your script or novel? Here are some suggestions, chosen for their effectiveness from a myriad of others, to help you with this very important step:

Improving your Logline

Consider your logline carefully:

Is it as unique and intriguing as it can be?
Does it contain a set-up and pay-off that is the best as it can be?

If not, seek to improve it by brainstorming the ideas behind it.

Getting the Story Structure Right

Examine the basic structure of your story. Consider whether you can improve any of the events and actions that occur specifically at the main structural junctions:

The opening
The inciting incident
Do we know what the story is about by the first third of the Act I
The first turning point at the end of Act I
The mid-point
The second turning point at the end of Act II
The crisis
The climax
The resolution

Identify Weaknesses in your Story

Search for sections that seem weak, flat, or uninteresting. Specifically, consider:

Is your setup and payoff sharp and unique enough?
Are there enough twists and surprises in between the main structural beats to hold our attention?
Is the mislead and reveal as surprising and fitting as it can be?

Focusing on specific structural and pivotal junctions allows you to target your improvements where they counts the most.

Summary

Seek to better your outline by lifting the overall standard of your logline and the actions and events that occur at the main structural junction points of your story. Also improve the quality of your setup and payoff, the various story twists, and your mislead and reveal.

Invitation

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How to Make Your Stories Compelling

Guy staring

Compelling Narrative

Most, if not all, writers strive to write interesting and compelling stories. Such stories are real page turners; they keep us glued to our books, Kindles, or screens, till the very end of the tale. But how is such interest achieved, in terms of specific techniques? Below, are some of the traits you must be aware of in order to make your stories more compelling.

Eight Traits of Compelling Stories

1. A Prediction: Knowing that something has been predicted for the future creates tension in the reader or audience. Will the prediction come true or not?

2. Hobson’s Choice: None of the two choices offer a true solution, but we still wonder which one will be chosen.

3. The Bait or Hook: Something unexpected and compelling occurs which holds our undivided attention.

4. The Invisible Influence: There is something or someone influencing events but it/he/she/it remains unknown to us.

5. Unsolved Mystery: In his course on screenwriting, Hal Croasmun mentions that every mystery contains three aspects, of which one or two remain unknown till the end—what happened, who did it, and how did it happen? In trying to discover the answer to one or more of these question, keeps us glued to the story.

6. The Cliffhanger: This is an unexpected end or twist to a scene or chapter. We need to know the answer, so we keep reading or watching.

7. Anticipation Created by Dialogue: Something is mentioned by a character or characters which causes us to anticipate a future event—to worry, or wander about it.

8. Apprehension Caused by Genre: In a tragedy, for example, we have certain expectations about the end of the story. Other genres, such as Noir, also contain expectations about the behaviour of the femme fatale, or the moral health of the protagonist.

Although this list is by no means replete, it is a start to get you thinking.

Summary

Including some of the following—a prediction, Hobson’s choice, a bait or hook, an invisible influence, an unsolved mystery, a cliffhanger, anticipatory dialogue, or genre apprehension in your stories will make them more compelling.

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The Basics of Scene Description

Building blocks

Description Basics:

In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen.

Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function. A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer, actor, and so on, how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light and move through the set. The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.

Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.

Three Levels of Description

For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:

A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.

B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.

C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.

The Basics of Scene Description

Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.

1. Describe your scenes in the present tense.

2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.

3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.

4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.

5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words evoke more about the character than I could say in one rambling paragraph.

Summary

Descriptions in a screenplay function as instructions for making scenes; they also help to draw in the reader through their vividness, brevity, and appropriateness.

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How to Upgrade your Story Idea

Girl with light over head

Idea-to-Concept

How do you come up with a story concept that’s potentially a winner? In other words, how do you take an idea and turn it into a concept that causes movie producers or book publishers to sit up and take notice?

Start with the Basic Idea

Let’s say you have an idea for a story that goes something like this:

A story about the dangers of DNA experimentation.

Or

A story about a psychopath who skins young girls alive.

Or

A story about a man who keeps ending up in extraordinary situations.

Put the ideas in a “What-if format”:

1. What if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong?

2. What if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations?

3. What if a psychopath, who skins young girls alive, keeps evading the police?

The Magic of Modifiers

Modifiers are specific techniques used to trigger or inspire an improvement to the story idea. Listed below are some of the most important ones:

1. Take the idea to an extreme level.
2. Collide two opposites together.
3. Raise the stakes.
4. Make the environment unique.
5. Ensure you have the most appropriate main character.
6. Ensure you have special inter-character relationships
7. Include a unique dilemma.
8. Ensure it has a powerful twist.
9. Change the sex, age, race, nationality, species.
10.Change the norm.
11.Ensure your plot includes a fascinating plan or strategy.

Here are three examples of modifiers used to improve a story idea:

If we apply Modifier 1 to our first example, (what if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong), we might end up with a story about a theme-park full of prehistoric animals grown from the DNA acquired from the blood of mosquitos preserved in raisin—Jurassic Park.

Applying Modifier 2 to example 2 (what if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations), we could end up with a story about a simple-minded man who accidentally acquires wealth and becomes part of the most important political events of the 1960’s—Forrest Gump.

Applying Modifier 6 to example 3 (what if a psychopath, who skins young girls alive, keeps evading the police), might inspire us to come up with a story about a young female FBI agent who enlists the help of a brilliant cannibalistic psychiatrist who agrees to help her in exchange for playing mind-games with her—Silence of the Lambs.

As an exercise, try applying the remaining modifiers to some of your existing story ideas.

Summary

Taking an ordinary idea, putting it in a what-if format, and applying a modifier to it, often helps to lift it up to the level of an inspired story concept worthy of being turned into a book or movie.

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.