Category Archives: Story Design

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.

Writing with Style

Writing with styleONE of the first things we notice about a writer is her style – the way she arranges the flow of words on paper, indeed, the way she chooses specific words over a myriad of others.

In Elements of Style, Strunk and White point out that style reveals not only the spirit of the writer, but very often, her identity too. Style contributes to her ‘voice’ – her attitude towards her characters, the world and its ideology.

A matter of Style

By way of example here are two passages by two great writers on the subject of languor. The first is quintessential Faulkner:

“He did not still feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in the supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body’s pleasure instead of the body thrall to time’s headlong course.”

Now Hemingway:

“Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurich. He would go to sleep while he waited.”

The difference in style is striking, yet both passages are effective. The first is loquacious, almost verbose. It underpins the subject matter by evoking slowness, inactivity. The second is brief, laconic, yet its very brevity communicates Manuel’s languor through the truncated, sluggish drift of his thoughts.

How, then, does the new writer develop her own style?

Discovering what sort of writing appeals to you the most might be a first step. Giving yourself time to find and develop your individual voice through trail and error is another. The journey is long and hard, as the saying goes, but the rewards are worthwhile – work that is memorable and unique.

Synopsis

Find you own writing style by identifying and immersing yourself in works you admire. Then put your head down and write.

Asking and Answering the Central Story Question

The central questionThe first act of a story performs several central functions. Syd Field refers to this act as being governed by the setting-up process. It introduces readers and audiences to the world of the characters and their roles in it. It contains the inciting incident and the first turning point. It establishes the mood and genre.

But it also poses the central question the story must answer by the end of act three. This is something that the writer might easily neglect to emphasise in the hurly-burly of setting up the tracks the story needs to ride on.

Asking and Answering the Central Question

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger writes that once the central question is raised, usually within the first fifteen minutes in a film, and certainly by the first turning point in any story, everything that follows it is in response to it.

In Jaws, the question is “Will Martin catch the shark?”. In Witness, it is “Will John Book get the murderer?” In my novel, The Level, it is “Will the hero mange to get back his memory and escape the asylum?”

In a story with an up-ending the answer to the central question is usually “yes” and favours the hero.

Sometimes, however, in a more ambiguous or ambivalent tale, where solutions are not as clear-cut, the answer can be “yes” and “no”. In The Level, for example, both the hero and reader discover that the hero’s identity and capacity for escaping his confines, are inexorably linked.

Linking the answer to some unexpected deeper revelation that has been withheld until that point is a powerful way to bring the outer and inner strands of a story together at the climax. The technique offers a symbol crash to the drumroll of the final act.

Summary

The first act poses the central question of the story that is answered at the climax of the third act.

What is the Decision-Making Mechanism in Stories?

Decision-makingJust lately I have been preoccupied with the inner journey in stories, which got me to thinking about the decision-making mechanism that drives it.

I have been emphasising that the story, at the level of plot, is the reflection of the protagonist’s character arc – that until the character achieves a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness she can not prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the mechanism that allows us to bridge the inner and outer journeys.

How the Decision-Making Mechanism Works

The protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, she receives a challenge which she is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that she first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

But because the protagonist lacks emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, she fails to make the right decisions until her suffering, resulting from her string of defeats, causes her to learn from her mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decision-making, therefore, directly impacts the quality of her actions. Her efforts can only lead to victory when she has fully achieved maturity – usually by the end of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, can only break his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to change his life forever.

Summary

The decision-making mechanism is the bridge between the protagonist’s inner and outer life and is tied to the character’s developmental arc.

Transitions – the Hard Cut

Cuts and transitionsTransitions are a necessary part of storytelling. Leaping over unnecessary chunks of narrative through hard cuts keeps the story pacy and exciting. They free the reader from having to trudge over flat terrain.

This is no more obvious than when comparing today’s films and television to those of even a couple of decades ago. What would once have been considered lively viewing now seems dull and languid.

Pace and Transitions

No doubt the pace of our contemporary lifestyle has much to do with the speeding up of the narrative flow. But it also has to do with the realisation that gaps created by effective transitions allow the reader or audience to fill in the gaps without a loss of pace. It also increases participation in a story.

But the attempt to keep things moving, especially in action genres, is not new. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, points out that Alistair Maclean faced a potential pacing problem in his novel, Where Eagles Dare, when Major Smith and his group get to the Oberhausen airfield and have to wait for the rescue plane to arrive.

A scene of the fugitives sitting around waiting would make for unexciting narrative. Instead, Maclean switched the viewpoint to the pilot in the rescue plane, which brought with it new information and renewed interest.

In my own novels, Scarab and Scarab II, I extensively use this technique of switching viewpoints to important characters to leap to significant parts of the story. This does not only keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, it injects new interest by exploring new information from the best possible vantage points in the story.

Additionally, when done well, the technique allows readers to fill in the missing parts which, significantly, ramps up involvement in the story.

Summary

Use hard cut transitions to skip over unnecessary parts of a story.

How to Involve Your Audience in Your Feature Script

FeatureI recently consulted on a feature script that was nearing pre-production. The script had many things going for it – a social and historical context, a strong uplifting theme, driven characters. Certainly, there were tweaks and shimmies still needed to bring it to a final draft, but the bulk of the structural work had been done.

It just needed to amp up audience involvement in the story. The problem was that the solution had been wrongly identified as the need for more action.

Ramping up Audience Involvement in Your Feature

Sometimes writers mistake involvement for action. They erroneously add a fight scene here, a chase scene there in the belief that it will suck audiences in through sheer pace. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.

Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to solicit sympathy, at the very least. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.

Additionally, at the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. It take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.

Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story.

How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?

The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.

In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if stays away from her forever. It is a reversal that increases our involvement in the story.

With regard to the script I consulted on, I suggested that we replace a couple of poorly motivated ‘action’ incidents with two ‘barrier’ events and a reversal and leave it at that. That seemed to do the trick.

Summary

A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal increases audience involvement in a story.

How to Keep Evolving Stories on Track

Evolving storiesAre stories evolving? In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.”

This insight may well be applied to all stories.

Evolving Structures

In my own PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I trace the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when experience changes.

The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space.

Meaning, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our salient understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.

This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.

These films muddle our understanding of linear sequencing, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.

The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotion are not effective.

My advice to authors and screenwriters who choose to write in evolving, non-linear forms, then, is to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion in us – passion, sadness, joy, disdain – the usual fare of traditional story-telling.

I’d like to think I followed my own advice in my non-linear novel, The Level.

Evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to give a damn.

Summary

Never allow the evolving form and structure of stories to get in the way of emotion.