The Dramatic Question in Stories

The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham
The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham

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IN a previous article I discussed how each act in a story is driven by a question it needs to answer. In the first act of The Matrix that question is: What is the matrix? In the second: Is Neo The One? And in the third: Can Neo defeat agent Smith and his cronies?

But just as there are questions that frame each act, so there are questions that frame each episode and each season of a television series.

 

 

The Dramatic Question in a TV Series

In Gotham, the first season’s overall question is: Who will win the mob war, and how will that affect Jim Gordon’s attempt to clean up the city, as he continues to solve specific crimes, while the overall series question is: How does Bruce Wane’s attempt to find the killer of his parents shape his transformation into the Batman?

Each episode typically features a villain-of-the week and is driven by the dramatic question: How is this villain to be defeated? But the episode must also acknowledge the season’s question: How does the defeat of the villain affect the mob war? The death of the witness to the Wane’s murder, for example, would impact the entire series question — not that Cat is about to be killed off by the writers.

The dramatic question also applies, with minor adjustments, to a book series.

A book series, too, asks at least two overall questions. In my book series, The Land Below, the first novel’s dramatic question is: Will Paulie make it to the surface? In a future book, The Land Above, the question might be: How does Paulie, and his companions, survive the horrors that lurk on the surface?

Each story in a series, then, is governed by several interlocking questions that not only drive a specific episode, but help keep the entire series on track.

Summary

Sketching in the dramatic question for a series, season, or episode, prior to commencing the actual writing of the screenplay or book, is the first step in mapping out the direction of your story and its characters.

Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity in Writing

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
If brevity, clarity, simplicity are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is full of laconic one-liners that crisply capture the essence of the characters.

Who can forget the Sundance Kid’s film-defining line: “I’ll do anything you want me to but I won’t watch you die.”

Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short.

Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, there’s nowhere better.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays: the use of verbs that capture the essence of character in the action block, and the use of metaphor in character descriptions.

Here are three examples of weak verbs:

1. Benjamin looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he frown, gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

2. Claire enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Claire enter the room? Does she stride, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

3. Olivia stands waiting.

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care.

Brevity, clarity, simplicity at work

Consider this character description from one of my stories:

I started with: “SAMUEL is big and muscular, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “SAMUEL is built like an earthmoving truck, but can turn on a dime.”

or…

“A well-dressed John Flyn pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“John Flyin pads into the room, a panther in an Armani suit.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Use brevity, clarity, simplicity in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

The Story Ending

Story Ending in The Matrix
Story Ending in The Matrix

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FLEDGLING writers are often told that they should know the story ending before they start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind.

But why should this be the case? What’s so important about the story ending?

Think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, it confirms its theme – its raison d’être.

The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, is only proved as a result of the final showdown between the hero and his nemesis at the end of a story: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly themed stories.

How the Story Ending Shapes the Tale

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, shapes the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further influences the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining the dots , then, will result in an interesting zigzagging line which climbs upwards to a powerful ending.

Summary

Crafting the story ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.

Story Structure and Strong Emotion

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge
Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

ONE of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.

Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale—to keep the rope tight.

There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see these twists coming, or seem the as comprising the story’s underlying architecture.

Hiding structure through strong emotion.

One of the better ways to hide structure is through the adroit use of powerful emotions. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.

Story structure should be hidden behind strong emotion if we are to avoid the accusation of predictable and formulaic writing.

In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.

We are dealt a double blow. We feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. Emotions run high. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.

I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.

Summary

Hide the underlying structure of your story behind strong emotion that is motivated and timely.

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas
Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.

The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento
The fabula and syuzhet in Memento
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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers and audiences. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

How to write a great story hook

Skyfall hook
Skyfall contains an early action hook

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IN A PREVIOUS post I talked about the importance of a strong first image in a story.

In this post I want to suggest four of the most useful and popular starts employed by skilled writers to hook their audiences into their stories from the get-go.

Hook types:

Action: This type of opening immediately propels us into the hurly burly of the tale. It is devoid of static moments or a slackening in intensity or pace. Movies such as Speed and Die Hard are renowned for this kind of action early on in the first act.

A great opening will hook the audience from the get-go.

Shock: This opening typically highlights the formidable powers of the antagonist and emphasises the danger this presents to the protagonist. The explicit sex scene in Basic Instinct, for example, demonstrates the antagonist’s ability to use sex to manipulate the men around her, culminating in a shocking murder.

Contrasting Characters: These openings immediately highlight the differences and incongruities between two lead characters. This helps to sustain interest throughout the entire story. In Lethal Weapon Riggs is a suicidal special forces cop whose crazy tactics conflict with the traditional approach of aging cop, Murdoch, who just wants to retire in one piece and with the minimum of fuss. Their contrasting styles, generate endless entertaining banter between them and helps to drive the entire movie.

Twist: These openings mislead the audience into believing one thing, only to discover that quite the opposite is true. In The Matrix the lead character, Neo, is introduced as a hacker and drug merchant. We soon discover, however, that he is potentially the saviour of humanity.

Summary

Action, shock, contrasting characters, and twist openings are just four types of starts used by writers to hook audiences.

How to Write Page Turners

Scarab and page turners
Page turners: Scarab earned its status when it held its best seller slot on Amazon for over two years

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WRITERS strive to write page turners every time they set fingers on a keyboard, stories that keeps us wanting more.

But how is this achieved?

Often, the trick to writing page turners is to create anticipation in the minds of the readers by raising questions that desperately need answering.

Eight questions to pose in writing page turners:

1. A Prediction: Knowing that something has been predicted for the future creates tension in the reader or audience. Will the prediction come true or not?

2. Hobson’s Choice: None of the two choices offer a true solution, but we still wonder which one will be chosen.

3. The Bait or Hook: Something unexpected and compelling occurs which holds our undivided attention.

4. The Invisible Influence: There is something or someone influencing events but it remains unknown to us.

5. Unsolved Mystery: In his course on screenwriting, Hal Croasmun mentions that every mystery contains three aspects, of which one or two remain unknown till the end—what happened, who did it, and how did it happen? In trying to discover the answer to one or more of these question, keeps us glued to the story.

6. The Cliffhanger: This is an unexpected end or twist to a scene or chapter. We need to know the answer, so we keep reading or watching.

7. Anticipation Created by Dialogue: Something is mentioned by a character or characters which causes us to anticipate a future event. We worry or wonder about it.

8. Apprehension Caused by Genre: In a tragedy, for example, we have certain expectations about the end of the story. Other genres, such as Noir, raise expectations about the behaviour of the femme fatale, or the moral health of the protagonist.

Although this list is by no means replete, it is a start to get you thinking.

Summary

Page turners raise several of the following questions—-a prediction, a Hobson’s choice, a bait or hook, invisible influences, an unsolved mystery, a cliffhanger, anticipatory dialogue, or apprehension caused by genre.

Story Momentum

Story Momentum in Witness
Story Momentum in Witness

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AT WORST A TALE without story momentum flatlines and dies. At best it bores the reader.

In her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger shows us how to avoid this fate for our stories by establishing story momentum.

What is Story Momentum?

Seger defines story momentum as the force, or, perhaps more appropriately, the glue that causes one scene to stick inexorably to the next. Inexorably, because the relationship between scenes is one of cause and effect.

There are, of course, scenes meant to serve the subplot that are less tightly bound into the main plot, but in terms of the plot itself, a causal relationship between scenes should abound.

The end of act two in Witness ushers in a powerful and telling sequence of scenes in this regard: The young Amish boy, Samuel, identifies detective McFee as the murderer. This prescribes the next scene in which John Book visits his boss to tell him of this, but is asked to keep it quiet.

This causes John to return to his apartment where he is shot at by McFee. John realises that his boss is one of the murderers. As a result, John picks up Rachael, Samuel’s mother, and Samuel himself, and drives to the Amish farm to hide out. It leads to the next scene in which, as a result of his injury, John passes out. This, in turn, leads into the second act with John hiding out at the Amish farm, with Rachel looking after him.

Note how every scene is tightly related to the next through causality. The result? Momentum is maintained throughout.

Summary

Story momentum arises as a result of consecutive scenes being causally related to each other. It maintains tension and contributes to the main plot through-line of your tale.

Writing the second draft

Second draft and The LevelYOU’VE HEARD it said that writing is to rewriting. But what exactly does that mean? How precisely do you go about writing the second draft of your story?

Opinions vary, but according to Syd Field, the second draft ought to, at the very least, address the structural integrity of your story.

I took his advice when writing the second draft of my second novel, The Level.

Field suggests that we approach the second draft in this way:

The Second Draft

Allow the first draft to simmer for a few weeks then come at it afresh. First off, locate and examine the main structural entities in your story:

Do you have an introduction to the ordinary world? Has the protagonist been introduced in his daily environment before things go south?

Next, find your inciting incident. Does it indeed “incite” your story? Could another incident have been more effective?

Locate your first turning point at the end of the first act. Does it set the main goal of the story in a way that is related to the inciting incident but is sufficiently stronger and moves in a different direction to it?

The second draft adjusts and repositions the narrative elements in your story—it ensures that the structure of the story is the best it can be.

Find the second turning point. Does it turn the story around in an unexpected way, adjusting the overall goal set at the first turning point?

Jump back to the midpoint next. What event forces the hero to face his inner conflict and decide between quitting or going on, against stiffer opposition?

Pinch one and two are checked next. Does your longer second act contain at least two supporting scenes or scene sequences on either side of the midpoint that reiterate and reinforce the pursuit of the goal?

Examine the confrontational scene in your third act between your hero and antagonist. Is it set in an environment which favours the antagonist and disadvantages your Hero, thus upping the tension and stakes?

Look at your resolution scene. Does it indeed resolve the issues posed by the dramatic questions of the first, second, and third acts?

Finally, check your theme – the theme can only emerge after the outcome of the final conflict has been decided: do good guys finish first, or does evil prevail? Is the answer what you had intended when you wrote the first draft? If not, could the story be improved if you allowed it to end differently, despite your original intentions? Remember the creative process has a life of its own. Sometimes it’s easier to follow the muse than to ignore her.

Summary

The second draft adjusts and repositions wayward narrative elements in your story. It improves the structural integrity of your tale.