Category Archives: Story Design

A Good Plot Entails Cause and Effect

The Good Plot in Stories

The Good Plot in Stories

EVERY good story needs a good plot.

The English novelist E. M. Foster defined plot as a series of causally linked events. One of the surest ways to strengthen your plot, therefore, is to ensure that your scenes are tied together through cause and effect.

Aristotle referred to this important aspect of a story as unity. He believed that if a scene makes no difference to the characters of a story then it has no place being in it. Unity, or causality, is fundamental to the well-written tale.

What is Good Plot, Anyway?

‘The father died and then his wife died’ is not a plot because although the two events follow upon each other they are not causally linked. ‘The father died and then his wife died of sorrow’, however, is a plot because the first event causes the second.

Plot is at its strongest when it stems from a character’s goals, needs, wishes and desires pitted against those of an opposing character or force.

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, the hero’s desire to explore the world beyond the confines of his underground existence drives the plot. It explains his actions and reactions to events around him.

Fledgling writers sometimes believe that a series of action-packed scenes makes for gripping viewing or reading – that pace and action is what people want from a story.

Although this may be partly true, it is not all that people want from a tale. If characters have no higher purpose other than to beat each other up, if scenes provide no new information, if scenes fail to deepen or explain character, or if characters survive only to repeat the same action in a different setting, they will fail to generate plot because of a lack of consequence.

Linking scenes through cause and effect in order to show that actions have repercussions, therefore, is indispensable in generating a good plot.

Summary

A good plot is generated through linked scenes that are driven by characters with conflicting goals, wants, needs and desires.

Elements of a Great Story

Herman Melville, master of the great story

Herman Melville is the author of the great story of Moby Dick

Well-crafted writing occurs when the writer is able to integrate narrative elements so that each element functions perfectly, and in its place, to produce the symphony that constitutes a great story.

True geniuses, as opposed to talented writers, do so spontaneously without continuously having to think about the inherited machinery of their craft since their work so often breaks the mold, forming a new blueprint from which additional instances are generated.

In his influential 1962 Writer’s Digest article, Are Writers Born or Made, Jack Kerouac writes:

“Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.”

The good news is that once we have mastered the techniques, once those neuron pathways have become entrenched through practice, we too can fulfill the requirements needed for a great story.

The truth is that for most writers the fluency and depth that are the hallmarks of a great story stem from the countless of hours spent cultivating their craft.

Elements of a Great Story

Take the relationship between the protagonist’s weakest trait and the climax of the story, for example. Could you tell me what that relationship is? And could you use that understanding to write a well-crafted ending worthy of being called the climax of the story?

Asking these questions might lead you to say that since your protagonist’s weakness is that he suffers from arachnophobia, it might be best to have him face his antagonist in a chamber filled with spiders, an antagonist, who, by the way, happens to love spiders – breeds them, keeps them as pets.

The scales of the final confrontation, even with other factors not withstanding, are now tilted even more in the antagonist’s favour. Tension is higher as readers and audiences fear for our hero’s fate.

But what then might cause our hero to defeat his nemesis? This can’t be forced lest our protagonist appear to be a marionette at the mercy of the plot.

Well, how about checking through his list of positive traits for a clue? His rediscovery of some half-forgotten talent? His ability to fight blindfolded, developed through a childhood spent sword fighting with his brother, perhaps? Add to that a talent for hitting small targets from a distance acquired through flinging stones at coke cans, again, as a boy?

Might he not knock out the light in the chamber, grabbing the advantage from his adversary while simultaneously avoiding seeing the spiders?

This example, simplistic as it is, does illustrate how thinking about character traits in an integrated way might put us on the path to finding a fitting context for those traits to operate in—in this case the climax.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I use precisely this integration technique at the story’s climax to allow Benjamin’s backstory and his unrelenting love for his family to generate a fitting but surprising response to the life-threatening challenge presented to him by tropical cyclone Yasi.

Summary

Learn to integrate the various narrative components to produce a story that is well-crafted.

Integration in Storytelling

Integrated storytelling

Integration in storytelling

I have written many articles on the craft of storytelling over the years.

Certainly, the web is chock-a-block with free and paid advice on the subject in the form of more articles, books, and courses.

Given the availability of this learning material and the willingness of students of writing to read it, we should all be absolute masters of the craft.

So, why aren’t we?

The truth is that much of the material presented in books and courses lacks a pointed approach to the storytelling craft, a focus on effective integration of the various story elements.

Yes, we learn that stories comprise of a three, four, or five act structure. And yes, we are told what an inciting incident, a turning point, a character trait, and the theme, are.

But do we truly understand, at a deep, almost subconscious level, how they work together to produce a successful screenplay or novel?

Without an intimate and near replete understanding of how one narrative component flows into another to produce a network that is bigger than its parts, we will always fall short of mastering our craft.

Having covered the most important narrative elements, often more than once, we will now turn our focus more sharply than ever before on the relations that exist between them.

Integrating your Storytelling Elements

For example, can you describe in detail the flows that constitute the relationship between theme and character? Or character and backstory? Or how the inciting incident is related to the first turning point in a story?

The answers to these and other questions are important if we are to achieve an integrated understanding of our craft.

If you’ve answered no to some of these questions, be sure to watch this space.

Catch you next week.

Summary

Integration refers to the deep level understanding in storytelling of the relations that exist between the narrative elements that form the structure of a story.

How to Make the Backstory Relevant to Plot and Character

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

I remember reading somewhere that in order to write a great character you first have to know that character’s backstory in great detail.

Only then, it was suggested, would you be in a position to know how the character ought to respond to certain situations. Only then can you think about developing the plot.

My gosh, how daunting. It’s like asking me to plow a large field with a spade. If I took that advice I’d never finish any story.

 

“The point is that the backstory is important only insofar as it sheds light on a character’s responses to the challenges posed by the plot.”

But how could we possibly know that in advance?

Yes, it might be interesting to note that your hero smokes cigarillos on his birthday if that quirk will enrich his character, but do I really need to know that he wore red scarves as a child if that observation might be of no significance to the story?

It shouldn’t be that complicated, folks.

Drilling Down to the Essentials of the Backstory

So, where does one begin looking for significant events in the backstory, especially when the story is not fully determined yet?

Let me tell you what works for me.

Because I sit halfway between being a pantser and a plotter, I begin with a sense of what my protagonist needs to achieve in the story—his goal.

Nothing too specific yet. Perhaps he needs to defeat an adversary from his past. Perhaps he needs to arrive at a certain destination at a specific time. I know he will encounter external obstacles in trying to do so, but I do not need to know exactly what they are yet.

I also know that I need to challenge his ability to achieve his goal by complicating his decision making process through a dilemma, or some inner flaw.

These clues come from thinking about the plot and character simultaneously, and in general terms—nothing too specific, at this time.

Let’s say my protagonist suffers from agoraphobia or is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

This immediately forces me to think about what incident in the past might have given rise to this condition. Such an incident is truly worthy of being part of the backstory.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, my protagonist’s addiction to smoking directly affects the plot of the story. Indeed, his desire to have one last pack of cigarettes before boarding the Sidney ferry with his wife is the chief cause of his predicament.

This realisation led me to sketch in some background regarding his smoking.

Thinking about your character’s goal and relating it to his positive and negative traits, then, encourages you to come up with that part of the backstory that sheds light on why your character might have those traits in the first place.

Think of this approach as a goal-trait-backstory triad of techniques that helps grow the story in a more integrated and economical way.

Summary

Find the story goal. Relate it to your protagonist’s flaws and traits. Come up with the backstory that explains them.

Dramatic Beats and Turning Points in Stories

A dramatic Beat and Turning PointsA dramatic beat is a small but significant knot of information in a story.

Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to spin the story in a different direction.

Consider the protagonist in a story getting ready to meet his fiancé at a restaurant. He opens the door to find his mother standing outside. She’s come for a visit. He politely informs her that her visit will have to wait as he is already late for his date. His mother leaves, somewhat disgruntled.

The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.

The number of beats can be as low as one or two in a short scene, to five or more in a longer one. There is, however, no set number. Importantly, the rate of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically has a slower rhythm than mainstream films and novels.

The Dramatic Beat and Turning Points

A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.

“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”

In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.

Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

Summary

The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.

Good Scenes – Essentials

Scenes and story thrust in Dances with Wolves

Scenes and story thrust in Dances with Wolves

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IN her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger reminds us that in reading through scene after scene in a conventional novel or film script, we occasionally observe that something feels off with the story.

At best, the tale seems to have grown limp. At worst, it has ground to a halt. Yet, when we think about each scene individually, there seems little wrong with any one of them. This can be particularly marked in a long story.

The problem, more often than not, lies in a scene being disconnected from the story by being merely descriptive and static.

“A good scene must, at the very least, contribute to the forward thrust of the story.”

Compare the intensity of films such as Schindler’s list and Dances with Wolves to The Last Emperor and Hope and Glory.

The last two films certainly contain their own magic, but they feel long and drawn out because they are filled with static and descriptive scenes rather than scenes that propel us inexorably towards a specific goal. Such scenes slacken a story because they lack outer and inner momentum.

Checking your Scenes

In trying to avoid this pitfall in your own writing, ask yourself five crucial questions, and make sure the answers are in the affirmative:

1. Is each scene absolutely essential in my story?
2. Does each scene drive my story forward?
3. Are most of my scenes cinematic – do they conjure up images in the minds of the readers?
4. Do most of my scenes involve ongoing character relationships?
5. Do I enter a scene late and leave early, after the point has been made?

There are other articles in this website that provide more replete checklists, but the questions mentioned above are some of the most crucial.

Summary

Run your scenes through a checklist to ensure that they fulfill their essential functions within your story.

How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood

The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

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ALL great stories have a moral premise – a deep structure that shapes the narrative from below the surface of the novel or film.

The moral premise is why writers write stories. It is the expression of cause and effect seen from an ethical and moral perspective.

“The Moral Premise exists at a level below the plot, shaping narrative actions and their consequences according to its own internal logic.”

Some of the writers have only a vague notion of their moral premise upon commencing their stories. They know there will be good characters, evil characters and in-between characters, and they leave it at that, choosing, rather, to concentrate on the machinations of the plot. After all, the plot is where all the visceral, sticky, fun stuff happens.

Yet, the moral premise is inherent in every story whether we consciously put it there or not. It should, therefore, be as much a part of our conscious intent as the plot. Ignoring it may result in our thinking we are writing one sort of story while we are really writing another.

Even more importantly, the moral premise helps us understand the reason our protagonist acts in the way that he does. It helps us craft the trajectory of the story.

The Moral Premise in There will be Blood

In There Will Be Blood we follow the consequences of what happens when Daniel Plainview, a man with no scruples or morals, gains wealth and power through oil. His initial charitable act of adopting the son of one of his workers who has been killed in a drilling accident, soon gives way to relentless self-interest.

He sends the boy away because he has become deaf in yet another drilling accident and is now a burden to his operations. The boy later returns, but as Plainview sinks deeper into the mire he becomes incapable of maintaining friendships or family bonds.

He murders the man who has claimed to be his long-lost half-brother when he discovers he is an imposter. He rejects his adopted son when he learns that he wants to make his own way in the oil business. And finally, he murders Eli Sunday, the evangelist with whom he has been butting heads over land and oil.

If we take the moral premise of the film to be that the pursuit of wealth and power, at the expense of love and family, leads to loneliness and defeat, we can place each scene in the story along a trajectory that finally ends in Plainview lying drunk in the bowling alley in his home – bloodied, spent, alone. In a sense, he is as dead as the body of Eli Sunday sprawled next to him – the man he has just murdered with a bowling pin.

Summary

The moral premise guides the writer in identifying and placing narrative incidents along a trajectory in a story.

Character Action and Character Dialogue

Clint Eastwood: Quintessential Minimalist Character Action

Clint Eastwood – Quintessential Character Action in the Spaghetti Western

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DIALOGUE, as I have often stated in my classes and articles, is an important part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, reveals character, and, at its best, draws us into the minds of the story’s characters.

But, sometimes, scenes are better served through action alone.

When Character Action Trumps Dialogue

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind. Here the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence, from ape to spacefaring humanity, is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

And who can forget the laconic style of the Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gun slinger whose draw is lightning fast?

As he faces off against man after man, willing them to draw, tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, unflinching gazes, twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns, and the like. No need for dialogue here.

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggest that he is disconnected from the world.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very existence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

An absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on character action and its significance.

Plausible Surprises in Stories – How Not to Telegraph Your Punches

Surprises

Narrative Surprises

WHAT are narrative surprises and how should one go about structuring them?

If story structure could be represented by a line drawn on a sheet of paper it would look like a connected series of zig-zags spun around three or four radical turns at the major plot points. These zig-zags and turns represent surprises of various strengths.

Telegraphing your punches eliminates surprises. It makes your stories predictable – not a good thing. In his book, Film Scriptwriting, Dwight. V Swain reminds us that what we need in our stories is development that is unanticipated but logical. Or, as I often say in my own classes, to have development that is unexpected yet plausible.

Plausible Surprises

One way to achieve this is to set up an anticipated line of action then, in the words of Swain, pull a different rabbit out of the hat.

But you can’t cheat. Surprises must spring from the connective tissue of your story – they can’t feel inauthentic or forced.

Suppose that your hero has encountered numerous obstacles in order to sneak into the room where his girlfriend is supposedly waiting for him. He struggles up along the drainpipe outside the house and finally reaches her open window. The room is in darkness. He climbs inside, and, panting with passion and fatigue, he tiptoes to the figure lying on the bed. The bedside light goes on to reveal that the figure is not his girlfriend but her mother.

This sort of surprise might not necessarily rise to the level of a turning point, but it does constitute a zig-zag in the story’s path. Providing it has been allowed for by your earlier setup, this kind of twist will help keep your story unpredictable.

Summary

To keep your stories fresh and unpredictable lead your readers and audiences in one direction then surprise them with plausible but unanticipated twists in another.

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.