Category Archives: Story Design

Metaphors in Stories

Visual Metaphors in The  Piano

Visual Metaphors in The Piano

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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.

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.