Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sell Your Story Through Character Conflict

Tearing money

Conflict Sells

The noted teacher and dramatist, Lagos Egri, provides some sage advice on the subject of character conflict and how to sell your story premise and drive your story forward.

Remembering that the premise is a microscopic form of the story itself, Egri suggests we formulate our premise and start our story at a crisis point, which will be the turning point in our main character’s life.

In Ghosts, by Ibsen, for example, the basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation, which is the premise: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” Every action, every bit of dialogue, every conflict in the play, arises out of this premise.

Egri states that the correct way to start a story is to involve your main character in conflict. Conflict not only drives the story forward, but it is the quickest way of revealing character in the shortest time.

Forcing opposing characters together is the best way of establishing conflict. Opposing characters should be militant, passionate, and active about their positions. Egri calls this process orchestration.

For example:

Optimist vs. pessimist

Miser vs. spendthrift

Honest vs. dishonest

Loyal vs. disloyal

Believer vs. non-believer

Agapi vs. Erotas

Militantly opposing characters make conflict inevitable. Two perfectly orchestrated characters will oppose, or, perhaps, even destroy each, other depending on circumstances, turning your story into a page turner.

Although opposing characters form the foundation of any good story, you should, before you start, determine why one simply cannot walk out on the other, while the conflict rages. Determine the precise nature of the unbreakable bond that keeps them together until the climax: is it revenge, hate, jealousy, pain?

Lastly, remembering that the premise is a microscopic form of the story itself, you should formulate your premise at a crisis point, which will be the turning point in your main character’s life.

Summary

Pit two actively opposing types of characters against one another—characters that are forced together in an unbreakable union, and as they struggle to break their bonds, they will spontaneously generate rising conflict and create the story in the process.

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Writing Characters that Sell

Money flying

Successful Characters:

At the end of his chapter on character development (Writing Screenplays that Sell), Michael Hauge offers the following useful summary:

According to the Hollywood screenwriting guru, there are three facets to character: physical makeup, personality and background.

In order to create character identification and sympathy, Hauge suggests variously placing your lead in jeopardy, making her likable, introducing her to your audience early, making her powerful, witty, or good at her job, positioning her in a familiar setting, and granting her familiar flaws and foibles.

Ensure originality by performing adequate research on specific individuals whose lives seem authentic, unique, and interesting; go against cliche by altering the physical makeup, background and personality to make your character less predictable. Pair her up with an opposite or contrasting character and cast her, in your imagination, assigning her role to an actor that is best suited to the part.

Remember that there are two levels of character motivation: outer motivation, which is the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story, and, inner motivation which is the reason she strives for the goal in the first place—the why to the what and how.

The sources of conflict are outer conflict—conflict between other characters and nature, and, inner conflict—conflict between warring aspects within the character herself.

The four categories of primary characters are: hero or protagonist, whose motivation drives the plot, the nemesis or antagonist who tries to prevent the hero from achieving the goal, the reflection or guardian who most supports the protagonist, and the romance character, who, according to Hauge, alternatively supports and quarrels with the hero.

Secondary characters are created as needed, in order to provide additional plot support, add obstacles, bring relief, humour, depth and texture to your story.

Summary

This post summarises suggestions for developing successful characters for your stories.

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How to Fix Your Story with Archetypes

Greek statues

Archetypes:

In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of which vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue his goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships.

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially such argument sagas as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong?

Do your characters drift?

Identity your characters in terms of function to see if they belong to one or other archetype. Re-examine their function in your story. Are they doing their job as per their definition?

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that, perhaps, is the subject of another article.

Summary

Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.

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How to Outline Your Story

Coloured post-it

Outlining Your Story:

Whether you’re a pantser or a pedantic outliner (I’m somewhat of an in-betweener), I believe that having an overall snapshot of your story raises its potential quality and lessens the time it takes to write it.

Here is the process I am currently following to outline my post apocalyptic novel, The Land Below.

I start by writing down my story’s premise. The story premise is a sentence, sometimes referred to as the logline by screenwriters, which captures the essence of your story—what is unique, but believable about it, highlights its major twists and turns, and ties the inner and outer journeys together, in part, through the knot of the moral premise, or theme.

I next tackle the outer journey. This is the what and how of your story. It defines the goal that the protagonist strives to gain by the end of the story. The goal, determined at the first turning point, is then kicked around by the midpoint and the second turning point, and is attained, or not, at the end of the final, must-have confrontation with the antagonist. Here I ensure that I have three or four major incidents in mind, including the inciting incident.

The inner journey, by contrast, is why the outer journey happens the way it does. It tries to explain the protagonist’s mental and emotional states and the decisions he takes that lead to the actions at the level of the outer journey. It also shows how and why the character changes during the story. It is a blow by blow explanation, of, at least, the turning points and the midpoint. It forces the writer to consider the reasons why the protagonist acts in the way that he does. I ensure that I have written a paragraph or two on the inner journey prior to starting the actual writing of my story.

The theme/ending: In the words of Lagos Egri, “The ending proves the theme.” Is your protagonist a good guy who manages to overcome the antagonist and save the world and win the heart of the girl he loves? If so, your theme may well be: Good guys carry the day. I always know the theme of my story before I begin to write it.

Lastly, I make sure I know who the main characters of my story will be. Each will represent a point of view and will drive the plot forward. A protagonist? Certainly. An antagonist? Check. A love interest? Yes. A mentor? A sidekick? I think of my characters in terms of the function they have to perform in the overall story argument. The details, the flesh and blood stuff, I build, from a series of traits and incidents, as I go along…

…so, while on the subject, back to outlining The Land Below!

Summary

The story premise, as well as the outer and inner journeys, the theme and ending, and cast of characters, are important elements to consider prior to commencing the writing your story.

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How Marketable is Your Film Genre?

Dancing couple

Is the Musical Dead?

Understanding the importance of the genre of your screenplay is essential in determining whether your story gets sold. The popularity of certain film genres is in a constant state of flux with regards to Hollywood studios. According to screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge, some genres are currently hard to sell. If your story concept falls within one of those, your effort to acquire seed money from a major studio, will be that much harder.

Here, then, in increasing order of acceptability, are some of the genres in question:

Musicals in the mold of Oklahoma are almost impossible to sell. Feature-Length, MTV-inspired, Flashdance type movies, however, are not.

Westerns are currently a difficult sell, unless a big name director gets behind the project, as are period films, meaning anything pre-1970s, followed by biographies, and science fiction—due to the high budgets associated with this latter genre. Here, again, the attachment of a specific director to the project can make all the difference—as The Terminator, Aliens and Avatar directed by James Cameron, have clearly proven.

Perhaps the most acceptable of these financially-jittery genres is the horror film, especially if independent financing is sought.

Of course, in stating the above, I do not mean to say that films belonging to these genres never get made; only that they are not favoured by the big studios, off the bat.

By contrast, genres representing action adventure, suspense thriller, love story, comedy, drama or any combination thereof, tends to be viewed as a strong commodity by Hollywood. If your script belongs to any of those last genres, its marketability quotient is high.

Summary

Certain genres are easier to market to studios, and independent producers, than others. Choosing a poplar genre maximises the chance of a first-time writer achieving success.

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