Monthly Archives: December 2014

How the Hero Sells the Plot

Girl and man spying on eachother

Plot and Character:

A hero’s transformational arc is the moral and ethical backbone of many memorable stories. Handled well, it validates the hero’s actions and helps to sell the plot. But crafting an effective transformational arc often proves difficult for new and inexperienced writers.

After all, what exactly changes in the hero? What causes the change? How does this affect the plot? These are some of the most pressing concerns writers face when working with the hero’s transformational arc.

Let’s look at each in turn.

1. What changes in the hero? Typically heroes are good people who have lost their way or have not found it yet. They have potential. They are eminently redeemable.

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage prefers promoting the war effort behind studio cameras rather than taking the fight to the alien enemy in the field. He is smart, determined, good at his job, but he is also a coward. His transformation is from cowardliness to courage.

2. What causes the change? Change comes when external events trigger the hero’s positive character traits.

In The Matrix Neo is obsessed with a central question: What is the Matrix? He is intelligent, strong, and inquisitive, but lacks the self-belief to implement the answers he receives. But when agent Smith threatens to wipe out all resistance and enslave humanity forever, Neo allows Trinity’s kiss to bring him back from the dead and defeat the sentient program.

3. How does this affect the plot? Character growth supports the plot by motivating and explaining the hero’s actions.

The plot arises when the hero pursues a goal but is prevented by his nemesis from achieving it. It is only when he fulfills his potential that he is able to adjust his strategy, defeat his nemesis, and achieve success. The hero’s transformation from cowardliness to courage, self-doubt to self-belief, from ignorance to knowledge, therefore, affects the quality of his actions and the direction of the plot.

Answering a series of questions, such as those posed above, then, is one way of understanding the relation between your hero’s developmental arc and the plot.

Summary

A skillful interweaving of character development and plot is essential to the quality and success of any story.

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Image: Bill Strain
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The Hero’s Journey

Man and camel in silhouette on a dune

Journey to the light

A student recently asked me how he could bolster the credibility of his hero’s actions in a story he’d written.

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, he could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Assuming your hero’s decisions and actions respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc.

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats.

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis.

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie your hero’s actions to her developmental arc to ensure her inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

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Image: Manoj Kengudelu
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How Good is Your Story’s Title?

A film titling kit

Choosing Titles

In today’s competitive market a writer, especially an indie writer, needs to keep her eye on at least two balls – writing skills and marketing.

It isn’t enough that you’ve written a great first novel or screenplay. You need to generate interest in it.

The belief that a good writer will be recognised in time may be overly optimistic. For every writer that succeeds many others don’t. The truth is that wide-spread recognition, if it comes at all, has to be actively pursued, coaxed, massaged, grown.

Entering competitions, doing readings of your work, building a large online presence, giving guest lectures at book clubs and colleges, can help. But what you really need to do to get your new novel or screenplay noticed is grab the reader’s attention with a great title followed by a captivating logline or blurb.

I have discussed loglines and blurbs elsewhere on my blog. Today I want to look at the importance of a story’s title. Not only is the title a hint of what your story is about, it is an indispensable marketing tool, too.

I asked a friend of mine, an avid reviewer of kindle books, how she picks which story to read first amongst the many others she receives each day. She told me she lets the title and book cover do that for her.

When I worked for Elmo de Witt Films, one of my tasks was to look out for promising screenplays. There were always dozens of them in a pile on my desk waiting to be read. The ones that caught my eye first were always screenplays with great titles.

A great title ticks one or more of the following boxes:

It points to a genre.
It hints at the story behind it.
It has emotional content.
It is not the name of a character.
It sets up a question, hints at a puzzle, intrigues one in some way.

Titles such as, Rich and Famous, Gladiator, The Madness of King George, and Alien leave us in no doubt as to what the story is about. Others, such as Blade Runner, sound so cool and compelling they make us want to know more.

But titles such as K-Pax, The Island, August Rush?

Not so good.

Emma may have worked for Jane Austen way back then, but names of (unknown) people don’t generally make for good titles.

I typically come up with twenty or more titles for a new book or screenplay and ask family, friends, and students to pick their favourite from the list, before making my final choice. I consider it time well spent.

Summary

Choosing a compelling, eyes-catching title for your story is the first small step in getting your novel or screenplay noticed.

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image: Davidd
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The Measure of Success

Money signs and instrument

How do you measure success?

Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth. No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

Chances are if your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. If not, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Insulate yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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Image: Bill Brooks
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Personal Reflections on Story Structure

Silhouette of a butterfly on a flower

Butterflies in the Dark

Writers like to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal.

I recently met a fellow writer queuing to cash a check from Amazon, like I was. We got to talking and, there and then, became friends. We now share ideas and suggestions via email, when meeting at the local bookstore isn’t possible.

Last week I ran into a novelist at the dairy section of a supermarket. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking how my views on the subject have cured over time.

It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who first suggested to me story structure could be studied, and one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it.

“Without an understanding of structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing,” he told me. That was way back in the early 90s. Sadly, Elmo passed away in 2011, but I still remember his words clearly.

My initial reaction was unfavourable. I had graduated from university and film school with degrees in English Language and Literature and a Higher Diploma in the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.

But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk, waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head.

I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I was, after all, the resident screenwriter of Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know a thing about Syd Field, and later, Christian Vogler, Michael Hague, John Truby, Linda Seger, and others? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.

Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it. Not glibly, but deeply and innocently. Its nuances. Its nooks and crannies. That’s what constitutes integrity.

I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework with impunity I found I didn’t want to. I found my understanding of structure had freed me from the vagaries of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate on the magic of character, theme, symbol, and story content.

Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective, and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure.

This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.

That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too?

Summary

One of the most valuable lessons South African filmmaker Elmo de Witt taught me is an appreciation of story structure.

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Image: Marsel Minga
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