If you had to undertake the almost impossible task of condensing the existing wisdom for writing a good story into a single sentence, what would that sentence be?
Today’s writers have an advantage over those who have gone before them—access to a body of knowledge that has been extracted from the great exemplars of the past—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust, Dickens, William Golding and John Steinbeck, to name some of the few great writers I admire.
Then of course, in more recent times, we have the impressive list of screenwriters and filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, and many more.
The single sentence: What does your protagonist want and why can’t she or he have it?
An argument can be made that familiarity with great works has a trickle down effect; that we grow through osmosis, as it were. But is there one bit of wisdom, gleaned from the ‘encyopedia of writing’, one single instruction to keep on top of mind?
I would venture yes: What does your protagonist want, and why can’t he have it? This one sentence not only demands an answer for the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal; it also hints at the obstacle(s) that stand in his or her way.
Here are two examples of this at work.
A Roman general seeks to revenge his family’s slaughter but is imprisoned by Rome’s brutal emperor, Commodus, and forced to become a gladiator: Gladiator.
A group of friends reassemble in the small town where they first encountered and defeated an unspeakable evil to fight it off once again, but are weakened by the suicide of their friend and rising doubts of their mission: It Chapter Two.
You get the idea.
As a first step to writing a new story, try to conceive of the tale as a single sentence that states the goal and obstacles facing your protagonist. This will give you the spine of your tale.
In his book, Story, Robert McKee explains that the controlling idea of a story delivers to readers and audiences the true theme or ethical judgment of the tale—what the story is really about.
For writers, the controlling idea can help us keep the story on track by shining a spotlight on what actions and events to include or exclude from the story—actions and events that stay or stray from the intended path.
We‘ve talked about this controlling idea before, but under the nomenclature of The Moral Premise. What I like about McKee’s use of the phrase is the reminder that the story has to be constantly steered towards its destination.
McKee defines the controlling idea as having two components: Value and cause. Value identifies the positive or negative charge that arises as a result of the 3rd act’s climax. Cause gives the reason for this outcome. Value and cause, therefore, provide the central meaning of the tale.
“The controlling idea serves to keep your story on track.”
Because value can have a positive or negative charge, the outcome of the controlling idea, the value judgment, can only be delivered to the reader or audience at the end of the story. Importantly, though, the result has been prepared for by a series of actions undertaken by the protagonist in pursuit of his goal. The result of the climactic battle between the antagonist and protagonist towards the end of the third act delivers the writer’s final judgment on the moral or ethical status of the story. In the words of McKee, ‘value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.”
The final value, therefore, whether positive or negative, is the hard fought-for point of the entire tale.
In an up-ending crime story such as In the Heat of the Night, the writer’s judgment on the final value, might be: That even in a corrupt world (negative charge), it is possible to have justice restored (positive charge) through righteous and persistent action.
In a negatively charged love story-ending such as Dangerous Liaisons the controlling idea leads to a negative outcome: That passion, naively directed, leads to self-loathing and death.
All this sounds remarkably like the moral premise.
Summary The controlling idea is the ethical or moral point of the story. Scenes containing actions and events that stray from the path should be eliminated.
We’ve all heard about the importance of a powerful antagonist in stories.
An antagonist works against the protagonist to stop her from achieving the story goal. Together they form a dynamic pair whose ongoing battle forms the spine of the story.
We know that a well-written villain is clever and resourceful. He believes he is the hero of his own tale. He is often articulate, even eloquent, with a well-defined philosophy about life which motivates his actions and explains his loathing for the hero and her goal.
These characteristics emerge through his actions, but also through at least one great speech in which he explains to the hero, or another character, the depths of his villainous vision.
But it seemed to me that truly memorable antagonists needed something more – an extra ingredient that guaranteed their place in the annals of villainy. It was during one of my classes on writing that it struck me – great villains exhibit what may be described as a double, or triple dip. This is the moment when the character surprises the hero by diving even deeper into the pit of darkness.
“A deeply villainous antagonist should be the mainstay of any gripping story.”
In the TV series, Outlander, an English officer, Black Jack Randall, has already proven to be a ruthless and cruel man capable of rape and murder. But in a crucial scene in a later episode he reveals to us the depths of his wickedness.
He explains to his prisoner, Claire Fraser, the hero of the story, that the two hundred lashes, administered to a young Scot accused of stealing, were something beautiful, a work of art. We see the whipping as a flashback and flinch at the relentless violence of leather cutting into the torn, bleeding flesh of the young man – first dip.
Randall then seems to relent. He admits to Claire that he is filled with self-loathing for the man he has become, giving her hope that he will free her, and also, bolstering her cherished belief that any man is capable of redemption. But, suddenly, he turns and punches her in the gut, driving their air from her lungs. She falls to the ground gasping – second dip.
As if that’s not enough, he orders his reluctant soldier to kick her while she lies gasping on the floor, describing the kicking of a woman as something liberating – third dip.
These actions don’t only represent plunges into physical cruelty. They are an attempt to crush the spirit of the person they are directed against – Claire believes that Black Jack Randall can be saved. He proves to her he can’t. This isn’t only a physical blow, but also is a blow against her Christian belief in the ultimate Salvation of Man.
It is this triple-dip, combined with a relentless desire to destroy his enemy’s spirit that makes Black Jack Randall a truly memorable villain.
Villainous antagonists are driven by a relentless desire not only to crush the hero’s body but his or her spirit, too.
In this article on age-related categories drawn from Linda Seger’s book, Advanced Screenwriting, I examine themes related to old age and end-of-life.
As we enter old age we feel a pressing need to reconcile our past deeds with our conscience. We seek to resolve past hurts, overcome alienation, heal relationships, deal with regret. On Golden Pond, tells the story of three generations of characters who meet in order to reconcile with one another. In Magnolia, the dying father recognises that in order to affirm his own integrity he has to reconcile with his son.
In my own novel, The Land Below, the aging Troubadour, wracked by guilt for having kept a painful secret from his grandson, Paulie, chooses a climactic moment to reveal the truth about his lineage.
“Old age and end-of-life themes necessarily entail protagonists who pursue different goals to those of their younger counterparts.”
But as the prospect of death creeps ever closer, another issue gains prominence. Linda Seger relates her observations in a nursing home for the aged where she noticed two basic types of reactions from people close to death – anger and mellow acceptance.
There were those who felt that they had somehow been cheated out of living a better life, or that life had somehow passed them by. These were issues that they had not resolved earlier in life and that were now coming home to roost.
Then there were people who seemed to accept the end of their lives with a mellow acquiescence and a deep gratitude for having participated in life’s adventure at all.
Although some stories, such as Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, deal with the subject of death and reconciliation in an insightful way, there is generally a dearth of stories featuring this last stage of one’s life – certainly in film. This could be a rich source to explore in the future, especially for a population that increasingly is achieving longer lifespans.
The point to stress, as Erik Erikson indicates, is that if we fail to deal with life’s themes at the time they occur they will continue to fester, under the surface, until we do.
In Dead Poet’s Society, Todd is forced to resolve issues of self-esteem, identity, integrity, and belonging because he never resolved these issues as a teenager. In Rain Man, Charlie, who carries with him the pain of a childhood in which he felt he didn’t belong, has to reconcile issues of achievement and success juxtaposed against the need for intimacy and integrity before he can resolve his inner conflict.
A character who is dying, then, may be forced to face unresolved issues at the time he is least equipped to do so.
Confronting past, unresolved conflicts in our old age is the last great task to be performed in life and in stories.
Teenage themes is the second in a series of articles dealing with age-specific stories, drawn from Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting.
Seger asserts that almost all teenage stories deal with the notion of identity, since our teens and early twenties are driven by our need to discover ourselves – who are we, what we want to do, or be, when we grow up.
“Teenage Themes relate to age-specific concerns in a story.”
A teen-orientated story typically explores the themes of sexual identity (Risky Business, Boys Don’t Cry), discovering love (Titanic), finding one’s creative self in a conformist society, securing one’s individuality in a culture that often prescribes who you are or might become (Room with a View, The Cinder House Rules).
In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie, the book’s protagonist, who is nearing the end of his teens, refuses to accept the dictates of the Governor and Senators who insist that life on the surface of the world is unlivable and that one should not, under any circumstances, spread rumours to the contrary.
Fighting against these dictates, Paulie rejects his social status as a lowly orphan when he develops feelings for the Governor’s daughter and ends up becoming the leader of a band of teenagers seeking to escape the suffocating confines of the Land Below.
Paulie, in effect, redefines his place in society. But in doing so he threatens the Governor’s grip on the closely controlled subterranean world. It is this conflict between the freedom to choose and the impulse to control, rooted in the opposing needs of the protagonist (Paulie) and antagonist (Governor, et al.) that creates the plot of the story.
Importantly, then, the theme in any story steers the plot, turning it this way and that, as the protagonist continues to explore and test it until it is proven at end of the tale.
Teenage themes cluster around questions of who are we, what we want to do, or be, when we grow up.
What is meant by ’the gap’ in a story? And how can it help you create tension of your tale?
In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers a mechanism that allows the writer to structure character action in a way that adds to the tension. He calls this mechanism the gap.
The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the reader or audience.
From the protagonist’s point of view the path to the goal seem initially achievable and efficient. But as he or she initiates action to achieve it, the resistance of the world creates a tension which is proportional to the effort expended—like a rubber band that is being stretched form side to side.
“The gap refers to the tension between intention/expectation and result in character action.”
The more the effort the more resistance. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.
Back To The Future makes masterful use of gaps, especially in the scenes around the clock tower with Marty being unable to start the DeLorean, while the doc desperately tries to connect the power cable to the clock tower so it can capture the lightning that is destined to strike and send the car through time.
This constant expansion of the gap also changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.
Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.
A gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.
A gap creates tension between action and reaction, intention and result, as a by-product of the protagonist pursuing the goal.
A characterprofile helps you write compelling characters—the mainstay of any story.
Learning to write fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad.
There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to deploy a character profile prior to commencing the writing of your character(s).
In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.
The character profile check-list:
1. Basic Traits
Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.
2. Want vs. Need
What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.
3. Opposing Elements
Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Munny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Munny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.
4. Keeping Secrets
Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.
“A character profile pin-points the elements that will create the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude in that character.”
5. The Flaw
A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.
A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.
A character profile helps us write compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.
A dramatic beat is a small but significant bit of information in a story.
Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to turn the story in a different direction.
Consider the example of a protagonist who is about to leave his flat to meet his fiancé at a restaurant only to have his mother arrive unannounced to visit him. He politely informs her that he is late for his date. She leaves, feeling disgruntled.
The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.
The number of beats in a scene can be as few as one or two in shorter scene, to five or more in a longer ones—though there is no set number. Importantly, the number of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically have fewer beats resulting in a slower rhythm than do mainstream films and novels.
A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.
“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”
In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.
Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.
The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points, by contrast, are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.
Producers and publishers have limited time at their disposal. They continuously receive requests to read new work, most of which they eventually reject. The one-page proposal is designed to capture their attention at a glance.
Think of the one page proposal as a selling document designed to hook the reader through the power and originality of your story idea—it doesn’t necessarily have to tell the whole story. The intention of this document is to impress the reader enough to have her request the fuller treatment, or, the first draft of your story. A proposal, therefore, must not be confused with a one page synopsis in that it isn’t designed to summarise the entire story. Rather, a proposal ought to fit on a single side of A4 paper or, on a single screen, and contain a lot of white space—in other words, appear uncluttered and be easy to read.
”The one-page proposal is a marketing document intend to interest agents, publishers, and producers in a story.”
Most importantly, the one-page proposal ought to:
1. Contain a powerful log-line.
2. Propel the reader into imagining the entire project. It should set up the location, period, mood, and genre of the story. The more vivid and engaging the description contained in the proposal, the better the chance that it will hook and ignite the reader’s interest in it.
3. Identify the target audience/ reader
4. Contain the main story question—e.g. Will Maverick and his team of ace pilots succeed in bombing a foreign country’s unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant? (Top Gun: Maverick.) In the case of a movie or television script proposal: Reveal if any production elements that are already attached, such as actors, director, producer, or, are interested in the project.
The one-page proposal is intended to create interest in your project without taking up too much time. A successful proposal results in the agent, publisher, or producer asking for the treatment or first draft of your story.
Writer’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another.
It happened to me while I was writing what was to become my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One moment I’m conjuring up a storm—plot twists, colourful characters, and the like—only to suddenly grind to a halt. Next thing I know a month has passed without my having added anything more to my story. My muse had left the building. Heck, she’d left the planet!
I had succumbed to writer’s block.
But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of your story.
They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.
Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery.
So, what to do?
You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis.
Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain enough momentum.
“Writer’s block will inflict us all at some time or another. The trick is to never give in to inertia and the sense of hopelessness it engenders.”
So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.
Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on.
Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned.
Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.
Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road.
And don’t be too surprised if a kilometer or two along you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about how she’d skipped orbit for a while but is now back and eager to inspire.
Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time.