Category Archives: Story Design

Understanding the Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

The FabulaTHE fabula and syuzhet are two of the most basic and important narrative concepts writers have at their disposal, yet few know exactly what they mean.

The syuzhet is the story that unfolds on the page or screen. It contains all the gaps, obfuscations, and convolutions that render the hero’s experiences interesting to the reader and audience.

The fabula, by contrast, is the sequence of events readers and audiences piece together in their minds while the story unfolds in order to make sense of it.

The fabula as the global perspective of the story

Think of the fabula as the all-revealing, areal perspective of a story. It affords full discloser, offers no surprises and grants no unsolved puzzles. It is, what I call, ontologically replete.

The syuzhet, on the other hand, represents the subjective, ground-level discombobulation of the fabula, intended to generate the kaleidoscope of emotions that keep us engrossed. Arguably, the syuzhet contains the artistic fingerprints of its creators. It is the level where most of the art and craft happens.

Memento, for example, has an extremely convoluted syuzhet. The hero, who suffers from short term memory loss, has to constantly try to understand events that make no sense to him, since he has forgotten the intentions and motives that have preceded them. The creators of the film offer a story that unfolds from present to past in order to capture the disorientating subjective experience of the hero.

Most films, even conventional ones, routinely hide information from us in order to build suspense or interest, until the appropriate point of release. In Manchester by the Sea the reason the protagonist is unable to form relationships and seems content to remain in an abusive, low-paying job is explained through a series of flashbacks later in the film.

Other more ontologically complex films reveal information at a more formal level. The result is the existential surprises of the sort we see in films such as Donnie Darko, Vanilla Sky, Jacob’s ladder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many others. Such puzzle films present the audience with two or more levels of existential reality, making it harder to construct a sensible fabula from a stubbornly uncommunicative syuzhet.

In my own novel, The Level, the syuzhet withholds crucial ontological information from the readers, challenging them to build a coherent fabula before they can understand the meaning of the story.

The benefit of fabula construction lies at the initial stage of story-creation. In planning a complex tale it is best to build a comprehensible fabula before attempting to shift, hide, and surprise through an artful syuzhet. Failure to do so will leave writers as confused as the readers and audiences they are attempting to woo.

Summary

Construct a cogent and replete fabula before attempting to write a convoluted and artful syuzhet.

Are your Stories Plot or Character Driven?

Plot and character in Gladiator

Plot and Character: Russel Crow as Maximus in Gladiator

Students of writing often ask how character relates to plot. Which is more important, or at least, where should the emphasis fall?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than a European art film that concentrates more on character.

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because plot and character are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other?

How character affects plot

The following analogy is helpful: Plot is to character as a beam of light is to a prism passing through it. The prism refracts the flow of the plot.

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena?

Much more fitting is that Maximus pull the Emperor’s sword from his belly with his bare hands and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it.

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story is directed through the prism of character.

Where to Begin your Tale

Starting your tale

Lighting up your tale

How should your tale start? With a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or with a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters?

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings, Speed. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the story, the point of attack.

Interrogate your Tale

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is our genre? Are we writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when we know the answer to those questions can we know what note to strike in our opening.

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue.

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back.

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you need to strike in order to determine the precise starting point of your tale.

How to Write Great Loglines

Writing LoglinesIN ONE of my recent classes on storytelling I invited my screenwriting students to come up with three loglines, before choosing the best amongst them.

Some were more enticing than others. Fresher concepts, new angles on old ones, dangling questions that demanded answers.

Others, not so much.

The Essence of Loglines

When the dust had settled and the best loglines stood shoulder to shoulder one thing seemed obvious. They all foregrounded concrete, outer journey elements of the story while simultaneously revealing essential aspects of the inner journey – the reasons and explanation of why the hero acts in the way that he does.

Being loglines, they did not go overboard in fleshing this out. They provided just enough information to intrigue the reader.

Loglines and high concept have this in common: They allow the reader, in the words of Steven Spielberg, to hold the story in the palm of her hand – to glimpse, in one fell swoop, what the story is about – although high concept focuses on elements of uniqueness and originality far more than any ordinary logline.

So it is with any commercially viable story. Without a concrete, palpable plot in which the hero has to struggle in physically challenging spaces against a powerful villain to achieve his goal, there is no story to tell.

The point is important. If the reader can not see the physical arc of the story in a logline she will probably not be interested in reading the rest of the tale in order to reach its themes and concepts.

This is not to say that the inner journey is not of vital importance. Many of the greatest stories ever written had powerful inner journeys – Lord of the Rings, The Spire. But it is to say that the inner journey will only be of interest if the vehicle that carries it, the outer journey, is concrete and palpable.

The logline, “The Land Below is a post-apocalyptic story concerning a young orphan boy who embodies the themes of survival versus freedom,” is not as good as:

The Land Below is the story of a lowly orphan boy who secretly plots to escape his suffocating post-apocalyptic existence in a converted goldmine, knowing that if betrayed, he will be executed for fermenting resurrection against the social order.”

In the second logline the themes of survival and freedom are still present, but they emerge through the visceral and emotive use of concrete, palpable words such as “plots”, “suffocating”, “goldmine”, “betrayed,” “executed,” and “resurrection”. The logline allows us to hold the story in the palm of our hand.

Summary

Write effective loglines using concrete, emotive, and visceral language that creates a snapshot of your hero’s outer journey, while simultaneously hinting at his reasons for undertaking it.

What is the Hollywood Story Structure?

Hollywood signI am a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Story Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such stories as Hollywood stories), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage – sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea.

Commercial structure, then, orders an interconnected set of events about a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to an arrangement of interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing a difficult problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Making Your Character’s Actions Uniquely Appropriate

Appropriate Actions

Appropriate Actions in The Godfather

How does the writer determine which settings and actions are the most appropriate for the specific characters in a story?

In his book, The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing, UCLA Screenwriting professor, Richard Walter, calls this appropriateness integration. Integration refers to the unique suitability of events arising from the synchronous cooperation of all other story elements.

Appropriate Actions in Appropriate Settings

In The Godfather, for example, a wealthy man with a particular love of racehorses, defies the mafia. How should the writer craft his punishment? There are any number of gruesome ways to effect retribution. Burn him alive in his own house. Cut him up into little pieces starting with his fingers. But are these the most integrated, the most unique ways, given the man’s background and setting?

In the end the writer found a particularly diabolical punishment for the defiant man. In an unforgettably horrifying scene he had him wake up in his bed with the bleeding head of his prize racehorse under his blankets. Not a morally justifiable act, but one that uniquely fits the defies-us-and-be-punished-where it-hurts-the-most code of the Cosa Nostra.

In War Games, the young protagonist, a computer hacker, is being held by the military in an underground chamber. How should he attempt to escape? Through the air-vent system? Faking a spasm to get a guard inside and hit him over the head with a paperweight? These actions lack a unique fit.

Instead, the computer nerd records, on a miniature tape recorder, the sound key made by the unlocking of the electronically-controlled door and plays it back later to escape. His solution is both ingenious and unique to his circumstances and expertise. It integrates, in a fitting way, elements previously laid out in the story.

Integrating character, action and setting in this way, then, is an effective way of producing memorable and believable scenes.

Summary

Integration refers to the skill in crafting character action in settings that are uniquely appropriate to the story.

Writing Advice from Strunk and White

Writing adviceCONTINUING to mine Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style for writing advice, we learn that we should avoid verbosity and put statements in a positive form. That is, we should make finite assertions that avoid hesitant, ambiguous language – except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

So, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.”

Lastly, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant,” not “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”

All three examples expose the weakness in wordiness that specifically flows from the use of the word “not”. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.

Not honest is better expressed as dishonest. Not importanttrifling. Did not rememberforgot.

You get the idea.

Here is a passage taken from The Nostalgia of Time Travel that illustrates how concrete language, sparse in its use of negatives, can catapult the reader into the world of a character – even when the character is unsure of what he is witnessing:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse something small and white stuffed in between the branches of a jasmine bush at the bottom of the garden. A bird, perhaps, seeking shelter from the approaching cataclysm?

I winch myself up from the deckchair and trundle down the stairs. I wade through the garden and reach the spot. It is not a bird. It is a piece of cloth. A white handkerchief. I disentangle it from the branches, unfold it in my hands. There is a large “M” stitched in pink on the bottom right-hand corner. I press it to my face. The scent is unmistakable. This is Miranda’s handkerchief. It belongs to a set I had tailor-made for her as a gift. I’ve kept it in a shoebox alongside several other of Miranda’s personal items — a hair-clip, a broach, some letters we wrote to each other. I hardly ever open the box anymore. The encounter with the objects is too painful…”

In writing a story about nostalgia and regret I knew that I had to avoid using overly sentimental, indistinct language. I charged my sentences with punchy nouns and verbs as a safeguard.

Summary

Avoid using the negative case in your writing. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not. Do so with suitable nouns and verbs.

How Settings Support Plot in Stories

SettingsONE of the many ways to strengthen the dramatic impact of your stories is to place your characters in settings that variously generate harmony or tension among your characters.

In The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty points out that in Wuthering Heights, the somber, brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect setting for the fiery love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a player in the story as any of the characters.

In the film Witness John Book is a city detective recovering from a gunshot wound he received while attempting to shield Rachel, an Amish mother, and her son who has witnessed a homicide. In one incident the entire Amish neighborhood of the rural Pennsylvanian town, where most of the film plays out, takes part in the building of a barn – the men doing the building, the women supporting the men by making the food.

In understanding that this religious, rural community is an indispensable part of Rachel’s life, John correctly concludes that he and Rachel can never share a life – she is embedded in religious and rural values, he isn’t. Even when he sees her, naked to the waist washing dishes, desiring her, he is able to resist the temptation to be her lover. He knows he does not belong.

In my novel, The Land Below, the setting of a sealed underground goldmine is in counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to seek a better life on the surface. The plot to escape emerges inevitably from his dark, claustrophobic existence.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, place your characters in spaces that feed the plot and generate drama.

Summary

Place your story in settings that help to create conflict among your characters – settings that support some characters while opposing others.

Potent Language in Stories

Potent and moodySOME of the most potent writing advice comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially precious book, Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers who seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete number amongst the greatest – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is potent, in part, because their words render up pictures.

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known but nonetheless accomplished writer:

Potent Language

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of an environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the telling use of concrete and specific language. This language is not only useful in evoking an appropriate atmosphere in short stories and novels. It is also important when used adroitly in the ‘action block’ of screenplays, where brief, specific, and concrete language adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use specific, definite, and concrete language to write scenes that create mood and render up potent pictures in the minds of your readers.

Cooking Your Story

Cooking

Cooking

WRITING is much like cooking. You select your ingredients and mix them in a way that you hope will yield a satisfactory experience.

In teaching story structure I often talk about the importance of the turn, and how it helps to keep your readers engaged through the element of surprise. By definition, this involves revealing new information that your readers did not anticipate.

But apart from surprise, what other ingredients are baked into turns? How are turns related to one another, if at all? Here are three suggestions.

Cooking your story

The first thing to note is that a turn is most often caused by an unexpected obstacle in the protagonist’s path to the goal. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, is told that a woman who resembles his dead wife, Miranda, has been enquiring about him in the Australian resort town of Mission Beach. This comes out of left field for Benjamin and spins the story around in a different direction.

Secondly, each turn should occur at a higher pitch than the one preceding it. As the stakes mount, new challenges bring higher risks to the hero and his world. Staying with The Nostalgia of Time Travel: As if an approaching category-five cyclone and an impossible appearance by his dead wife are not enough, Benjamin is paid a ghostly visit by his long dead uncle, whom, he is convinced, he killed through a spiteful prank when he was a boy. The experience is enough to have Benjamin contemplate ending his life.

Thirdly, for most of the story, the hero’s response to these obstacles is insufficient to gain him the goal, until the final climax, when he can finally absorb and integrate the lessons stemming from his defeats. At the climax of Nostalgia, Benjamin is faced with a choice. He can give up on life and let the cyclone take him, as his uncle’s apparition will have him do, or he can integrate, into his current life, his new understanding of a secret his parents kept from him and let that steer him in a new direction.

Surprise, pitch, integration. These are three important ‘turn’ ingredients involved in the cooking of your word soup. Use them liberally to add spice to your stories.

Summary

Cooking in obstacles and rising stakes increases the tension in your story. Write the ‘ah-huh’ moment as your hero finally integrates his actions with the lessons learnt.