Monthly Archives: December 2013

How to Interrogate Your Story

20 Questions

20 Questions:

To ensure that your story is on track, complete the first draft of your novel or screenplay, then answer the following questions (drawn from Lagos Egri’s superlative work on dramatic writing).

1. What is your story’s premise? For example: “Unswerving integrity delivers from disgrace.” That defines the moral premise/theme of your story.
2. What is your protagonist’s goal? What does your protagonist want, more than anything?
3. What is your protagonist’s compulsive, 100% trait?
4. What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.
5. Why is the character insecure about this condition? How did he or she develop that insecurity about the condition?
6. How did the character develop the condition about which he is insecure? What is this injury for which the character has a compulsive drive to escape? Backstory here. Provide a specific event or series of events that explain how he developed the condition. Those events caused a chain of reaction/action/reaction. Tell the tale.
7. What is the crisis that upsets the status quo? How does it affect the protagonist?
Why is the protagonist dissatisfied?
8. What is the dire necessity that spurs the protagonist to action and keeps him relentless to reach his goal? This is something that threatens his special insecurity.
9. How does hesitation to take action threaten to worsen the protagonist’s situation?
10. What decision will he make or action will he take to change things? This is his point of attack, the decision or action that starts the conflict.
11. Is the protagonist fighting for or against the status quo? Does he want to keep things the way they are, or change them because they’ve become intolerable?
12. Who is your antagonist? He must be diametrically and militantly opposed to the protagonist.
13. Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist and his goal? What is the antagonist’s motivation?
14. What is the point of 1) contradiction and 2) conflict between them?
15. What is the unbreakable bond between the protagonist and antagonist? What is so much at stake that they can’t leave each other? Multiple reasons are good.
16. What is the wrong step the protagonist makes that starts the crisis?
17. How does this decision create another problem?
18. What does the protagonist do to rectify this new problem?
19. How does this response create another, worse, problem?
20. How does the final crisis, conflict, and resolution prove your premise?

Summary

Satisfactorily answering the set of twenty questions listed above will help to keep your characters and story on track.

How to Use Coincidence in Stories

Two butterflies

Coincidence?

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search, stories are a different kettle of fish. Here, the reader or audience expects the material to be adroitly planned and crafted. A series of coincidences is viewed for what it is: laziness on the part of the writer.

In Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough, and has it launch or end the story as part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point.

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive.

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive.

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, spins on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

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Avoiding Repetition in Stories

Repeating pipes

Avoiding Repetition:

Repetition through dialogue or action in films and novels—other than as an attempt to hook, or link lines so that they flow more rhythmically, is, at best, tedious, or, at worst, amateurish.

In his book, Screenwriting, Richard Walters uses the film, Yentle, to illustrate this point. The film starts with a prologue informing us that in the Eastern Europe of the time, education was meant for men only. Moments later, a bookseller rides a cart through the streets advertising “scholarly books for men! Romantic novels for women!”

When Yentle gets to town she finds and peruses the bookseller’s books, studying a scholarly tome in particular. Upon seeing this, the bookseller snatches the book from her and reminds her, and us, that such books are meant for men only. She should seek out romantic books instead.

This sort of repetition is condescending, implying that we are incapable of getting the point the first time around.

Repetition is, of course, acceptable, but only if it is not repetitive. This is not as contradictory as it sounds.

In Rashomon, four observers relate the same event, but here each version differs in the detail from the others, adding a unique and intriguing quality to the recounting. Although this is an exceptional rendition of a technique that examines the nature of human perception and truth itself, there are other techniques that emphasise existing information whilst avoiding repetition.

In Unforgiven, we learn that the sherrif, Little Bill, is a tough antagonist to Clint Eastwood’s William Manny. In seeking to elevate the stature of the sherrif, the writer has one of the deputies underline his toughness by assuring the others that Little Bill is scared of no one, having survived a tough education in the mean streets of Kansas. This inflection adds to Little Bill’s ruthless reputation, rather than simply repeating pre-existing information.

Summary

Repeating information already provided to an audience or reader is condescending and unnecessary, except when it is specifically rendered as emphasis.

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How to Merge Story Strands

Traffic sign

Merging Journeys

In seeking to find an effective way to highlight the unity that exists between the outer and inner journey in a story, both in my own writing, as well as in my teaching, it struck me that the structural pivots in a tale (the inciting incident, the turning points, the midpoint) precisely provide for such an opportunity. They are the knots that tie the outer and inner strands of the tale together.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts the beat-by-beat occurrence of external events as the Hero struggles against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the girl, or the boxing championship, rescuing the kidnapped victim, and so on.

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment or obfuscation, depending on the genre of the story, as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, achievements and setbacks.

The structural pivots combine an outer and inner event into a single motivated action. Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, ensure that your turning points, including your midpoint, describe external events of sufficient magnitude that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his current/evolving inner state.

Is it preferable, then, to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that question—either will do, just as long as both through-lines end up being tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength, just as he fights and wins a sword fight against the fop, the expert English swordsman, despite being outplayed at the end, again, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Braveheart, William Wallace accepts knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes the fight to the English. The knighthood ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection.

Summary

The major pivot points are the perfect place for the writer to ensure that the “why” merges with the “what” in her story. Such pivot points offer the perfect place for the inner and outer journeys to merge and support each other.

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3 Rules of Character

Three fingers

Constructing Character

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA reminds us that there are three fundamental rules for creating great characters:

1. Avoid stereotypes.
2. Inject some sympathetic aspect into even the most evil and despicable of your characters.
3. Force your characters, especially your protagonist, to change and grow throughout the tale.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are boring. Avoid them like the plague. The kind-hearted priest? Seen it. The hard drinking Irish cop? Seen that too. The pissed off police captain? Ditto.

A useful way to avoid stereotyping a character is to think of a type then present its opposite. Imagine a sheriff from the deep south who is not a bigot and a dimwit, but is bristling with intelligence and dignity, passionate about revealing the truth and delivering an even-handed justice. Or a nun who is a baseball fanatic and is a genius at game statistics.

Character Growth

Truly memorable characters start off in one place and end up in another. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman begins as an insensitive, selfish narcissist but ends up as a kind and wise father who puts the happiness of his child first. At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is innocent, principled, moral. By the end he is heartless, bereaved and soulless—a power hungry murderer of many, including his own brother.

Not every character needs to change, of course. Patton stays the same throughout the movie of the same name, although his character is challenged and is explained in a way that reveals to us why he is the way he is—an inflexible but powerful warrior to the last.

Sympathy

Well rounded, complex and conflicted characters are more absorbing than facile, boring ones. But with the interest that comes from lying, scheming and conniving comes the danger of characters becoming unlikable. It is, therefore, important to ensure that some aspect remains sympathetic to the reader or audience. If we don’t like our characters, especially the protagonist, we won’t like her story.

Oedipus murders his father then performs incest with his mother: horrific actions for a protagonist to indulge in. The writer, Sophocles, ensures that Oedipus remains sympathetic to his audience firstly by showing that Oedipus is unaware of the true facts of his coupling, and, secondly, by having him show deep and genuine remorse upon learning the truth.

In a Bridge on the River Kwai the Japanese commander of the prison camp is a cruel tyrant whose humanity still manages to peep through, if even once. He violates international laws, holds his prisoners in hot boxes, tortures and humiliates them, yet the writer portrays him as an unfortunate wretch who is tapped in a harsh command structure by permitting us to see him weep.

Summary

Well drawn characters are an indispensable part of successful story telling. Avoiding stereotypes, injecting character growth and creating sympathy are some of the ways of creating engaging characters.