Category Archives: Story Design

How to write the Story Climax

Story Climax in the Short novel - The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Story Climax in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

What is the Story Climax?

The climax is a scene, also known as the must-have scene, in which the Hero faces the greatest obstacle of all—the final confrontation with the antagonist or antagonistic forces—in which one side wins and the other loses.

The climax does the following: It resolves the main plot, it settles the theme of the story, and it addresses the transformation, or, its lack, of the Hero.

Syd Field states it more succinctly: “The Climax is the principle part of the story for which (…) all the machinery of planning and constructing has been set in motion (…).

In my short novel, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the climax occurs when the protagonist’s past collides with his present inside the eye of a category 5 cyclone in the north east coast of Australia’s Mission Beach. The protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, has to acknowledge a crucial truth about his past in order to survive. The synchronicity between his inner and outer turmoil forms a powerful and fitting climax to the story.

The climax, then, is the highest emotional peak of your story. It also resolves the final goal of the tale. The goal that was set in Act I has proven to be insufficient, while in Act II a more appropriate goal has been determined. It is only by the end of Act III, however, that the true goal is finally revealed. The climax ends in the Hero’s achieving, or, failing to achieve this true goal. This also determines the theme of the tale: For example, self sacrifice leads to victory, or, self sacrifice leads to defeat.

In his book, Screenwriting, story mentor, Raymond G. Frensham, gives an example from Act III of Witness which shows how these elements are integrated at the climax. By the end of Act III, John Book is less concerned about his own survival than he is about the survival of the Amish community and their values (goal change). John, in choosing to put down his gun and face the antagonist unarmed, unleashes the moral power of the Amish community, which defeats the antagonistic forces (Climax & Theme: good triumphs over evil.)

Summary

The story climax is arguably the most important scene in the story since it resolves crucial elements such as plot, change in the protagonist, and theme. Structuring the climax correctly, therefore, is one of the important skills a writer must master.

Story Twists and Dramatic Beats

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

.
.
.
.

IN THESE ARTICLES I often talk about the large pivotal elements that shape a story—the turning points, the pinches, the mid-point, and so on.

But these structures, important as they are, form only the macroscopic aspect of your story. The fuel that turns the engine over lies in the details, in the dramatic beats that make up your individual scenes.

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions or events that form the sinew of a scene.

In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character pacing around the room does not constitute a dramatic beat; spotting the dagger behind the curtain, which is to be used in the murder, does.

But what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers and audiences glued to their seats, and how can we best write them?

For one, we can craft them in a way that creates suspense. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise.

Or, we can do both.

Twisting your Dramatic Beats

A twist inevitably contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming. Include at least some beats in your scenes where one or more of the following occurs:

1. A lie is exposed.
2. A loss of resources occurs.
3. A trust is betrayed.
4. A new problem arises.
5. A plan goes wrong.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. A character swaps sides.
8. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
9. A new motive is revealed.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa’s reputation of ruthlessness drives one of the longest and most suspenseful scenes in the entire movie.

At the start of the film, Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa insists on being introduced to each of the dairy farmer’s daughters individually, heightening the suspense.

Although LaPadite at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are  hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth from him through a series of compliments, threats, and innuendoes.

The scene utilises some of the techniques mentioned above:

A new motive is revealed—Landa did not come to LaPadite’s farm house to close the book on the case as he at first claims, but to catch him out.

A lie is exposed—Landa is able to ferret the truth out of LaPadite.

A new problem arises—LaPadite knows that if he continues hiding the Dreyfuses his own family will be executed.

A trust is betrayed and a character swaps sides—LaPadite is forced to betray the Dreyfuses.

A plan goes wrong—LaPadite’s plan to hide the Dreyfuses under his floorboard is exposed.

Summary

Well-crafted dramatic beats contain enough twists to keep your readers and audiences interested in your story.

How the Inciting Incident Works in Stories

inciting incident in Shutter Island

Can you guess the inciting incident in Shutter Island?

I have mentioned in previous articles that the inciting incident is an initial narrative event that gets the story going.

In this post, I want to highlight two of its main functions—-to create momentum by moving us away from the ordinary world of the protagonist, and to keep us interested in the story by setting up the first turning point as a surprise.

The first turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly begins to unfold — the real start of the story. Stated in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, then, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that helps the writer set up events as a series of surprises.

In Shutter Island, police marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Auel, arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility.

When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident in Shutter Island

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is the psychotic delusion of a sick mind.

The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story—what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

Summary

The inciting incident kick-starts the story by pushing the protagonist past the ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point.

Foreshadowing in Stories

Foreshadowing in Jericho

Foreshadowing in Jericho


.
.
What is meant by foreshadowing?

It is the surreptitious hint in a story that will act as foundation to a pay-off or ‘ah-ha’ moment later on in the tale.

In writing, every narrative event ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in writing a screenplay, which uses fewer pages to tell the story, than in writing a novel.

If the writer intends to plant a knife in a scene in order to foreshadow an important event later on, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion.

Foreshadowing the Pay-Off

In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can retaliate. This is crucial in establishing the credibility of the character’s fight-back.

In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee. This action sets up the pay-off later on in the plot, when the canine crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

But how best to handle foreshadowing and its pay-off?

Firstly, foreshadowing should never draw attention to itself, but form part of the story’s natural development. Secondly, a pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

Summary

Foreshadowing and pay-offs are specific events in the plot that make story surprises more believable. Foreshadowing forms the justification for a later crucial event, without drawing attention to itself, while a pay-off is delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.

What makes a good story – revisited

Kramer vs Kramer is a prime example of a good story that engages through emotion

Kramer vs Kramer is a prime example of a good story that engages through emotion

What goes into writing a good story?

Many things—-maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on.

But is there one element in particular whose absence would make a story significantly weaker?

Yes.

A  story that fails to solicit emotion on the part of the reader or audience is headed for oblivion.

A story filled with characters who leave us cold is probably not worth writing. It may be overflowing with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy, but who cares? If your focus is more on such insights than the emotions in a story, go publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or give a talk at your local philosophical society. Your efforts might go down better there.

A story is, of course, capable of conveying deep, world-changing ideas, but only if the emotion in it causes us to care enough about the events and characters in the tale to delve deeper into the text in order to ferret out such ideas.

So, how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we must nurture throughout our writing careers. It does not come overnight.

Emotion makes for a good story

If I could give one bit of advice to kick-start the process it would be to make your lead characters worthy, interesting and caring people who find themselves in worsening situations of undeserved misfortune. This is the first step in creating empathy for your characters, and therefore, in wanting to get to know and care for them.

Summary

One of the most important requirements of a good story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.

Dramatic Irony in Stories

Dramatic Irony in Moulin Rouge

Dramatic Irony in Moulin Rouge

.
.
Dramatic irony typically occurs when the reader or audience, and at least one of the characters in a story are made privy to important information that the protagonist is unaware of, or presumes the opposite of what is known to be true.

Create dramatic Irony in your story by doing the following:

1. Show the reader or audience the kind of misunderstanding or deception that is being perpetrated. This could be intended or unintended.

2. Place the protagonist in that situation without revealing to her the information necessary for her to know she is being deceived.

3. Play the scene out, step by step, allowing the reader or audience to observe the protagonist suffering the consequences of events and actions, whilst thinking the situation to be precisely the opposite of what is actually happening.

Use dramatic irony to heighten the emotion in a scene or scene sequence.

In Moulin Rouge, Satin pretends not to love Christian. She does this to force him to leave her and so save his life, since Maharaja, the owner of the establishment, who wants her for himself, will kill him if he stays. Christian believes her and this causes him immense pain. The dramatic irony of these actions generates heightened emotion in the audience which perceives Satin’s motive as a selfless show of love.

Summary

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience as well as one or more character is made aware of the true nature of a situation while the protagonist is not. The effect on the reader and audience is to heighten emotion.

The Hero’s Journey in Stories

The hero’s journey in The Matrix

The hero’s journey in The Matrix

.
.
THE hero’s journey can be viewed as a composite of two sorts of paths through the story world.

The one is an outer journey that contains the physical events that play out in this world. The other is an inner journey that motivates the hero’s actions.

Think of the inner journey as the path that takes the hero to a state of higher knowledge and self-awareness. Only when he has achieved this state will his outer actions be of sufficient quality to defeat the antagonist in the external world.

Defining the hero’s journey in The Matrix

In The Matrix, Neo’s love interest, Trinity, and his relationship with his friends, provide some of the most important reasons he embarks on his outer journey.

His goal is to defeat the antagonistic forces that keep humanity slumbering in a virtual world. That is his outer journey.

But in order to complete his outer journey successfully he has to undertake an inner journey that will culminate in the realisation that he is the only one capable of defeating agent Smith and the machines. This march to self awareness is a prerequisite for wielding the power he needs to achieve success.

His friendship with Morpheus and his crew, and his love for Trinity, therefore, are spurs to Neo’s outer journey.

Often, the inner and outer journeys intersect in one powerful scene. In The Matrix, Neo dies at the hands of agent Smith only to be brought back to life through Trinity’s love, symbolised by a kiss.

Summary

The inner journey provides the explanation for the hero’s actions that comprise his outer journey.

Writing a strong story ending

Strong story ending in Unforgiven

Unforgiven has a strong story ending


A strong story ending is essential to the success of your tale and is the result of deliberate planning from the very start of your manuscript.

Here are five suggestions for writing such an ending:

1. Play up the reputation of the protagonist, and even more so, the antagonist

Stories are about the protagonist and antagonist involved in a life and death struggle of some sort. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the stakes and leads to a more engaging and tense ending.

In Unforgiven, William Munny, the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Later he is described by the Kid as being “the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Bill Daggett, is described by a deputy as being utterly fearless. He is seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

A truly memorable story ending is as surprising as it is inevitable. Foreshadowing it, therefore, has to be subtly crafted so as not to show its hand.

2. Cast doubt about the outcome of the final confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift direction

Introducing twists which thwart our expectations, causes us to worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who can fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Increase the suspense around the final confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might result in his own death. He tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s doubts about the outcome of the confrontation increases our suspense even more.

5. Have the final confrontation play out in the antagonist’s stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair weakens the protagonist’s ability to prevail. Munny faces Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies and henchmen. This stacks the deck against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

A powerful ending increases the tension in the story by making the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist seem unlikely.

Fine Tuning the Story Climax

Story Climax in The Matrix

Story Climax in The Matrix

ARGUABLY the most important scene in any tale is the story climax, also known as the must-have-scene.

This scene, which occurs towards the end of the story, pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a winner-take-all confrontation. Here the stakes are at their highest, the outcome at its most uncertain, the moral premise of the story undecided.

How to improve the story climax

The question arises as to how we may improve on this crucially important scene, knowing that a failed climax inevitably means a failed story. Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

1. What is the primary strength of your antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness or fear of your protagonist?

Create a scene that plays up your protagonist’s chief weakness, while highlighting your antagonist’s primary strength. Additionally, place the confrontation in a setting that enhances the antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously decreasing them for your protagonist.

In The Matrix, a powerful confrontation between Neo and agent Smith takes place inside the virtual world — agent Smith’s territory where he holds the advantage. At the end of a sustained fight sequence Smith shoots Neo, and seemingly kills him. It is only when Trinity administers the kiss of love to Neo on the Nebuchadnezzar, back in the real world, that Neo recovers and is able to defeat Smith inside the matrix – the real climax of the film.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel the antagonistic forces are a category five cyclone and Benjamin Vlahos’s guilt over the death of his wife. The climactic scene occurs when the ghosts from his past emerge from the great funnel of the storm to confront him on the shores of Mission Beach. Stripped bare if all delusion he has to decide whether he wants to forgive himself or yield his life to the fury of the storm.

Summary

The story climax is the dramatic highlight of your tale. It pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a final confrontation whose outcome determines both the moral premise and the ultimate success of your story.

Plot Types In Stories

Adventure as one of the plot types in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Adventure as one of the plot types in Raiders of the Lost Ark

.
.
.
HOW many plot types are there in stories? Opinions differ, but here are twelve suggestions to get you going:

A sprinkling of Plot types

1. The Adventure: The Hero travels to exotic lands and experiences extraordinary events—typically in search of some sort of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well: Raiders of the Lost Arc.

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by following her to the ends of the earth if needs be: Taken.

3. The Redemption: The hero has to free himself from the internal and external consequences of a past action through atonement. This usually involves gaining insight about his past through a series of increasingly challenging actions: The Nostalgia of a Time Travel, Atonement.

4. The Quest: The protagonist goes on a journey to acquire or protect something of great value. The story usually describes the character’s vicissitudes and ultimate growth during this journey: Lord of the Rings.

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It usually involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth and redemption through a sacrificial act: Dangerous Liaisons.

6. The Revenge/Payback: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist: Unforgiven, The Count of Monte Christo.

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked in together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person: Face Off.

8. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away: Escape Plan, The Shawshank Redemption.

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously outgunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person. It can be a force of nature which threatens the life of the protagonist. Deep Impact, Twister.

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution: The Great Train Robbery, Ocean’s Eleven.

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story. It invites us to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death: Sherlock Holmes.

12. The Chase: In this type of plot the pursuit drives the events and character relationships. For tension to be maintained the chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased: World War Z, The Fugitive.

What kind of plot type drives your story? Is it a mix of several, perhaps? Determining your plot type(s) will help guide the development of your characters and action.

Summary

Plot types help you write your story by setting up certain requirements and expectations. This article suggests twelve such types.