Category Archives: Story Design

World Building in Stories

World Building via Dean Kontz

Dean Kontz explores world building in his book, Writing Popular Fiction

In his book, Writing Popular Fiction Dean Koontz offers writers useful advice on a number of aspects that go into writing a well-crafted story.

In this post, I want briefly to look at one aspect of the writer’s toolkit à la Koontz: World building markers of near-future worlds (as opposed to words set in the far-distant future.)

Writing about our world, as opposed to writing about a completely alien planet, is more difficult because not everything can be made up; our crystal-ball gazing has to ring true. Near-future worlds have to contain enough extrapolated but recognisable elements to convince us of the verisimilitude of such worlds.

World building requires the ability to predict then project the outcome of trends and defining issues, or, at least, the ability to sound convincing.

Here are some markers, suggested by Koontz, to get you thinking.

Getting started on world building:

Moral Codes

What is considered acceptable today, wasn’t mildly acceptable, even in the West, a few decades ago. One only has to look at the issue of gay rights to realise the extent of the shifts currently underway.

Domestic Politics

Will current political systems still be defined by polarities seen in countries such as the Untied States (Democratic/Republican), Australia, and the UK (Labour/Liberal)?

World Politics

Will the U.S. continue exist as a dominant power? Will Russia or China? Or, will a new power have risen to prominence. Brazil perhaps?

Religion

Will the U.S. remain predominantly Christian, or will another religion rise to displace it? Perhaps science will eventually weaken religion to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant? Or perhaps the reverse is true: the resurgence of monolithic religion?

Personal Lives

This is, perhaps, the most important and detailed category.

How will our homes change? Our clothes, music, transportation? What types of food will we eat? Will marriage still exist as an institution? Will the number of children be limited by the sate? Will the smoking of cannabis be legalised? Will the moon and Mars harbour human colonies? Will space travel be made accessible to common folks? Will cancer, dementia, disease in general, be cured or will new diseases arise?

These are some of the categories, which, Koontz suggests, are useful in helping the writer to sketch in the background of a world that is both familiar and strange—a world that allows one’s characters to live and breathe in the imagination of the reader.

Summary

In thinking about world building of near futures, concentrate on key markers that define a society. This post suggests what some of those markers might be.

How crisis leads to the story climax

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

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WHAT is the story crisis and how is it related to the story climax?

This post traces variations of this most important relationship.

The story climax is generally preceded by a crisis resulting from a dilemma in which the Protagonist faces a final life-changing decision. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

In some stories the crisis may be spatially and temporarily separated from the climax, although they are intimately linked in filmic time and space.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she finally gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Although crunch decisions  and climactic action usually follow closely together towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic events to occupy different spatial and temporal settings. They should always, however, feel as if they are inexorably linked.

Crisis and climax in Kramer vs Kramer

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

Summary

The crisis forces the Protagonist to take a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

The Dramatic Question in Stories

The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham

The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham

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IN a previous article I discussed how each act in a story is driven by a question it needs to answer. In the first act of The Matrix that question is: What is the matrix? In the second: Is Neo The One? And in the third: Can Neo defeat agent Smith and his cronies?

But just as there are questions that frame each act, so there are questions that frame each episode and each season of a television series.

 

 

The Dramatic Question in a TV Series

In Gotham, the first season’s overall question is: Who will win the mob war, and how will that affect Jim Gordon’s attempt to clean up the city, as he continues to solve specific crimes, while the overall series question is: How does Bruce Wane’s attempt to find the killer of his parents shape his transformation into the Batman?

Each episode typically features a villain-of-the week and is driven by the dramatic question: How is this villain to be defeated? But the episode must also acknowledge the season’s question: How does the defeat of the villain affect the mob war? The death of the witness to the Wane’s murder, for example, would impact the entire series question — not that Cat is about to be killed off by the writers.

The dramatic question also applies, with minor adjustments, to a book series.

A book series, too, asks at least two overall questions. In my book series, The Land Below, the first novel’s dramatic question is: Will Paulie make it to the surface? In a future book, The Land Above, the question might be: How does Paulie, and his companions, survive the horrors that lurk on the surface?

Each story in a series, then, is governed by several interlocking questions that not only drive a specific episode, but help keep the entire series on track.

Summary

Sketching in the dramatic question for a series, season, or episode, prior to commencing the actual writing of the screenplay or book, is the first step in mapping out the direction of your story and its characters.

Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity in Writing

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

If brevity, clarity, simplicity are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is full of laconic one-liners that crisply capture the essence of the characters.

Who can forget the Sundance Kid’s film-defining line: “I’ll do anything you want me to but I won’t watch you die.”

Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short.

Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, there’s nowhere better.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays: the use of verbs that capture the essence of character in the action block, and the use of metaphor in character descriptions.

Here are three examples of weak verbs:

1. Benjamin looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he frown, gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

2. Claire enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Claire enter the room? Does she stride, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

3. Olivia stands waiting.

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care.

Brevity, clarity, simplicity at work

Consider this character description from one of my stories:

I started with: “SAMUEL is big and muscular, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “SAMUEL is built like an earthmoving truck, but can turn on a dime.”

or…

“A well-dressed John Flyn pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“John Flyin pads into the room, a panther in an Armani suit.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Use brevity, clarity, simplicity in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

The Story Ending

Story Ending in The Matrix

Story Ending in The Matrix

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FLEDGLING writers are often told that they should know the story ending before they start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind.

But why should this be the case? What’s so important about the story ending?

Think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, it confirms its theme – its raison d’être.

The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, is only proved as a result of the final showdown between the hero and his nemesis at the end of a story: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly themed stories.

How the Story Ending Shapes the Tale

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, shapes the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further influences the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining the dots , then, will result in an interesting zigzagging line which climbs upwards to a powerful ending.

Summary

Crafting the story ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.

Story Structure and Strong Emotion

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

ONE of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.

Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale—to keep the rope tight.

There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see these twists coming, or seem the as comprising the story’s underlying architecture.

Hiding structure through strong emotion.

One of the better ways to hide structure is through the adroit use of powerful emotions. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.

Story structure should be hidden behind strong emotion if we are to avoid the accusation of predictable and formulaic writing.

In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.

We are dealt a double blow. We feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. Emotions run high. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.

I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.

Summary

Hide the underlying structure of your story behind strong emotion that is motivated and timely.

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.

The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento

The fabula and syuzhet in Memento

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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers and audiences. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

How to write a great story hook

Skyfall hook

Skyfall contains an early action hook

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IN A PREVIOUS post I talked about the importance of a strong first image in a story.

In this post I want to suggest four of the most useful and popular starts employed by skilled writers to hook their audiences into their stories from the get-go.

Hook types:

Action: This type of opening immediately propels us into the hurly burly of the tale. It is devoid of static moments or a slackening in intensity or pace. Movies such as Speed and Die Hard are renowned for this kind of action early on in the first act.

A great opening will hook the audience from the get-go.

Shock: This opening typically highlights the formidable powers of the antagonist and emphasises the danger this presents to the protagonist. The explicit sex scene in Basic Instinct, for example, demonstrates the antagonist’s ability to use sex to manipulate the men around her, culminating in a shocking murder.

Contrasting Characters: These openings immediately highlight the differences and incongruities between two lead characters. This helps to sustain interest throughout the entire story. In Lethal Weapon Riggs is a suicidal special forces cop whose crazy tactics conflict with the traditional approach of aging cop, Murdoch, who just wants to retire in one piece and with the minimum of fuss. Their contrasting styles, generate endless entertaining banter between them and helps to drive the entire movie.

Twist: These openings mislead the audience into believing one thing, only to discover that quite the opposite is true. In The Matrix the lead character, Neo, is introduced as a hacker and drug merchant. We soon discover, however, that he is potentially the saviour of humanity.

Summary

Action, shock, contrasting characters, and twist openings are just four types of starts used by writers to hook audiences.

How to Write Page Turners

Scarab and page turners

Page turners: Scarab earned its status when it held its best seller slot on Amazon for over two years

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WRITERS strive to write page turners every time they set fingers on a keyboard, stories that keeps us wanting more.

But how is this achieved?

Often, the trick to writing page turners is to create anticipation in the minds of the readers by raising questions that desperately need answering.

Eight questions to pose in writing page turners:

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 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. We worry or wonder 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, raise 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

Page turners raise several of the following questions—-a prediction, a Hobson’s choice, a bait or hook, invisible influences, an unsolved mystery, a cliffhanger, anticipatory dialogue, or apprehension caused by genre.