Category Archives: Story Design

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.

How to Twist Your Story’s Spine

Twist the lightningTHE twist is an important moment in any story. Indeed, I often think of a story’s spine as a zig-zagging line that resembles a thunderbolt thrown down by Zeus. It has energy and surprise encoded into its very structure.

And so it ought to.

But how do twists work? How many of them are there, and what, exactly, is a twist anyway?

The short answer is that the twist is a sudden turn in the hero’s path to the goal so that it now points in a new direction, based on the significance of new information that confronts him.

Here is one list of events that may be regarded as twists:

There’s a Twist in the Tale

1. An unexpected problem derails the hero’s path to the goal.
2. The hero loses an important resource.
3. A sidekick or supporter switches sides.
4. A lie is revealed.
5. A past mistake resurfaces to muddy the waters.
6. The trust in an important ally is lost.
7. An alternative plan emerges to rival the existing one.
8. The hero loses faith in his ability to achieve the goal.

When a twist is severe enough to cause a total change in the original plan, such as an unexpected problem derailing the hero’s path to the goal, then that twist is a turning point – one of the two turning points that occur in Syd Field’s rendition of the three-act story structure.

In my novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie’s discovery that the mysterious machine which supplies power to his underground city has no moving parts, is certainly a twist in the tale it, but it falls short of being a turning point that pivots the story in a different direction.

In The Matrix, however, Neo’s realisation that his life has been nothing more than a simulation fed into his slumbering bran, is a major turning point that spins the story into the second act of this extraordinary movie.

Further, a twist such as the hero’s losing faith in his ability to achieve his goal represents a temporary deviation or pause in his journey. It does not reach the magnitude of a turning point, but is a good candidate for a mid-point, where, typically, the hero questions his strength and ability to pursue the goal.

Other twists, such as a lie being revealed, or a sidekick changing sides, represent deflections to the established path but do not necessarily constitute a derailment.

Although no one can predetermine the precise number of twists in your story beforehand (except for the two major turning points) use twists liberally to create a story shape that is interesting and unpredictable.

Summary

Twist and turn your story to help keep your readers and audiences engaged.

Writing Powerful Scenes

Power ScenesIN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about the general design mechanics of scenes. What sorts of functions must occur in a scene to make it effective – especially a pivotal scene such as one containing a turning point? And how are these functions grouped together?

I find it helpful to organise functions into separate layers. The first two are straight forward. On one level scenes must showcase actions such as the hero’s response to some challenge laid down before him. Actions comprise the so-called outer journey – the plot.

But on an underlying level scenes must also support the plot by showing that the hero’s actions are consistent with his inner journey. In other words, that his motivation arises naturally from his values, beliefs, background.

Additionally, the hero must show personal growth. He must exhibit an ability to learn from the mistakes he makes in pursuing his goal, if he is finally to achieve it.

Involving Readers and Audiences in Your Scenes

These two levels in a scene are indispensable to each other. They really make up a single dramatic unit – action and its motivational core. But there is another layer we can add to a pivotal scene to make it even more effective. We can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.

If we, as an audience, are aware of something that the hero is not, such as that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, then we generate tension which is dissipated only when the hero learns this himself.

Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.

In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.

Not all scenes and genres are susceptible to this sort of treatment. Sprinkled here and there, however, the technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps our readers and audiences engrossed.

Summary

Reveal more information to your readers and audiences than is known to your protagonist in specific scenes in your story to help spike up the tension.

How to Generate High Concept Ideas in Stories

IdeasAS a teacher and writer I am often asked to give advice about generating ideas for a screenplay or novel.

What sorts of things should the writer look for in a concept to maximise its chance for commercial success?

In the absence of a crystal ball, use High Concept. Here are some of its components:

Ideas Checklist

1. Ensure your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One (The POTUS is held hostage on his plane, 12 Monkeys – a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

2. Set your story in a unique or interesting environment – Hart’s War (Nazi concentration camp), Red Corner (Red China).

3. Pick the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemma: John Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Pick a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursue. Memento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

Of course, a hit depends on your getting so many other factors right too, but using these suggestions does enhance the commercial potential of your story idea.

I take my own advice in my own stories. Here’s a short description of my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to posses it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The Level was my second novel:

“A man, suffering from amnesia, wakes up in a pitch-black room, tied to what feels like a wooden chair. He discovers he is being held captive in a derelict insane asylum stalked by inmates who are determined to kill him. Help comes in the form of a beautiful, mysterious woman dressed in a black burka who offers to show him the way out, if only he can remember who he truly is.”

Both ideas draw on high concept and make for intriguing reading.

Summary

Use High Concept to make your story ideas more commercial.