Category Archives: Story Design

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.

Improving your logline and synopsis

Synopsis and The Matrix
.
You’ve finally written that logline for your story and generated a synopsis from it as a first step to writing your novel or screenplay.

But how do you go about improving both the logline and synopsis, prior to commencing the writing of the actual work itself? How do you write something as good as The Matrix?

 

The quality of a story is reflected in the quality of its logline and synopsis.

Ask yourself: Does your logline contain an effective set-up and pay-off? If not, seek to improve it.

Next, run through the basic structure of your story. Consider whether you can improve on any of the events, actions, and motivations that occur, especially at the major pivotal points:

How captivating is your introduction to the ordinary world or the inciting incident? Do we know what the story is about by the first third of Act I? How surprising is the first turning point at the end of Act I? Does your protagonist weigh the pros and cons of continuing his struggle at the mid-point? Does his struggle take a turn for the worse at the second turning point towards the end of Act II? How strong is the crisis leading to the final climax? How rewarding is the resolution?

Search for scenes that seem weak, flat, or uninteresting, then strengthen them. Specifically, consider if your setup and payoff are sharp and unique enough? Are there enough twists and surprises to hold our attention? Is the mislead and reveal as surprising and fitting as it can be?

Focusing on the pivotal scenes allows you to target your improvements where they count the most.

Summary

Improve your logline by making it more unique. Strengthen your synopsis by ensuring that the actions, motivations, and events that occur at the pivotal points are the best they can be.

Three Act Structure

Three act structure

Syd Field was a big proponent of the three act structure


.
.
IN his book The Screen Writer’s Workbook, Syd Field points out that each act in a three act structure story performs a specific function and answers a dramatic question.

The three act structure

The first act establishes the world of the protagonist and foreshadows his conflicts, as well as determining his purpose in the story world. The dramatic question of the first act is: What is the protagonist’s initial challenge that compels him to embark on a struggle to achieve the story goal?

The second act is characterised by mounting conflict. This act pits the protagonist against the antagonist by placing both in a situation of mounting attrition, forcing the protagonist to adapt his skills and face his inner weaknesses.

The second act is typically double the length of the first, and is propped up by a midpoint—the moment in which the protagonist decides on whether to give up on his goal, or press on against mounting obstacles. To go forward he has to dig deep to find his inner strength.

Ironically, the protagonist’s dogged determination to attain the goal in the second act increases the deadly opposition against him. The dramatic question of this act is: How does the protagonist keep his head above water in a rising tide of obstacles?

The third act is characterised by the story climax and resolution. It contains the must-have scene: The final clash between the protagonist and antagonist. The outcome of this clash yields the theme of the story.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s encounter with the ghosts of his past who represent the secret knowledge rooted in his subconscious gives rise to the perfect inner storm. His realisation about who he truly is changes his life forever. The dramatic question of the third act is: Will Benjamin discover the truth about his past. The theme is: Seek, persist, and you shall find.

Summary

A story typically comprises of a three act structure. Each act answers a specific dramatic question.

Metaphors in Stories

Visual Metaphors in The  Piano

Visual Metaphors in The Piano

.

IN his book, On Writing, Sol Stein, suggests that writers can enrich their stories through resonance — the sense that something has significance beyond its physical boundary.

‘My name is Ishmael and I hail from Bethlehem’, for example, evokes a religious tone, through biblical resonance.

Visual metaphors involving objects, places and actions connote something over and above their denotative aspect – they carry ideas that resonate with readers and audiences. They typically form part of an image system that supports the story’s hidden meaning while simultaneously being part of the mise-en-scène.

Visual metaphors take many forms: the breaking of a chain may represent the onset of freedom; a broken mirror might represent the theme of illusion and deception, or a shattered persona.

Examples of visual metaphors

Shakespeare often uses visual metaphors to suggest the story’s deeper meaning – a tormented soul surrounded by rain, thunder, and lightning as in King Lear; the murder of a king causing imbalance in nature – as in Macbeth, where horses are reported to have eaten each other.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the category five cyclone that threatens the protagonist’s life is not only a physical phenomenon. It is also a metaphor for the inner storm that forces him to choose between life and death.

One of the most famous visual metaphors in film is the eating scene in Tom Jones. Seemingly about eating, the scene is really about sex – the spontaneity, rebelliousness, naughtiness of the carnal act inherent in the excitement of going after the wrong woman. It is a metaphor for sexually devouring a lover’s body.

When Baines (Harvey Keitel) painstakingly dusts the instrument, in The Piano, he is not just cleaning an object. His actions represent the caresses he wishes to bestow on his lover.

To work well visual metaphors need to be carefully constructed. Consuming a salad would not work as well as chewing on flesh and bone. Dusting the piano with a rag would not be as effective as a naked Baines cleaning the instrument with his shirt. The setting and detail of metaphors are crucial to their nuance and meaning.

Summary

A visual metaphor creates resonance by pointing to layers of meaning beneath the surface of a story.

Story Structure

Story structure and Scarab

The Scarab series of novels strongly adhere to story structure

ONE of the most effective things novice screenwriters and novelists can do to improve their craft quickly is to learn as much as they can about story structure.

Happily the information is freely available in sites such as mine and in many others. Books and courses on the subject, too, number in the thousands.

So what is story structure?

Story structure refers to the overall shape of a story comprising of events arranged into scenes.

A fitting structure emerges when the right scenes occur in the right place, at the right time, to solicit maximum audience or reader engagement.

Laying out Story Structure

Typically, a well structured story comprises of three acts—a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning establishes the setting, situation, characters and their motivations, and, chiefly, the protagonist’s goal.

The middle expands and complicates the obstacles placed in the path of achieving that goal.

The end resolves the question of whether or not the goal can be achieved, most typically, against a background of mounting tension and pace, resulting in a crisis, its climax and resolution.

Having grouped your scenes into the three sections that form a beginning, middle and end, answer the following questions:

Do your scenes:

Add to or detract from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal?
Accelerate the pace of the story?
Create conflict?
Contribute to the overall rhythm of the story—fast scenes ought to be followed or preceded by slower ones and tense ones with lighter/humorous ones?
Create anticipation/tension?
Surprise the reader/audience?
Foreshadow important events?
Sustain curiosity?
Contribute to character development?
Place the protagonist in jeopardy?

If the answer to these questions is mostly “yes”, then you are probably on your way to writing a successful story.

Summary

Story structure refers to a finite number of scenes arranged into three acts so that they facilitate the creation of suspense, verisimilitude, and impact in a story.

How to Save your Story Ending

Your story and GladiatorIN his influential book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
offers an approach to writing your story that comprises of a beat sheet of fifteen dramatic units.

They are:

1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-Up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into Two
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into Three
14. Finale
15. Final Image

 

Blake Snyder’s story structure is solid, but there is a possible weakness in the gap between the Break into Three and Finale. The danger is that the sudden reversal of fortunes may appear too abrupt to be credible.

The Break into Three shows the hero at his lowest ebb. But the Finale typically shows the hero in a last ditch attempt to try again. It is the most vulnerable point of the Hollywood ending – the moment when your story, which cannot allow the protagonist to fail, turns the tables on the antagonist.

How can we prevent this last twist from appearing forced?

Making your story ending more credible

In Gladiator, the lowest moment occurs when Maximus finds himself on his knees in the arena, nursing an earlier wound, swordless, and pierced by the Emperor’s blade. His efforts to avenge his murdered family and save Rome from the clutches of the madman seem to have failed.

How does he go from defeat to victory in the space of a beat?

The answer lies in Maximus’ physical strength, his love for his family, and his loyalty to Rome. This grants him the strength to pull the Emperor’s sword out of his own body and turn it against the Emperor himself, ending the tyrant’s life.

The twist seems believable because it marries the theme of the story (that integrity and moral fortitude will trump lascivious greed) to Maximums’ character arc. We find it fitting that the strong and noble Maximus, who has given his life to the service of Rome, should find the strength to rid his country of its incestuous ruler by sacrificing his own life.

Summary

Tie your hero’s lowest moment to his character arc and to the theme of your story to allow the audience to experience the ending as fitting rather than forced and formulaic.