Category Archives: Story Structure

The Art of the Hook: Crafting Compelling Stories!

How The Boys uses the hook
How The Boys uses the hook

Today, we’re learning about how to hook readers and audiences into stories, drawing from episodes from The Boys.

1: Immediate Intrigue

A strong hook doesn’t just grab attention; it sets the stage for the entire story. It grabs the audience’s attention from the very beginning, leaving them eager for more. In Season 1, Episode 1 the shocking death of Robin sets the tone for The Boys, instantly hooking viewers with its unexpected and tragic twist.

2: Unexpected Events

But it’s not just what happens in your story; it’s who it happens to that truly captivates your audience. Introduce unexpected events or revelations that challenge viewers’ expectations and drive curiosity. In Season 1, Episode 4 the revelation of the Nazi origins of Compound V, the Superhero juice, flips the superhero genre on its head, injecting fresh intrigue into the narrative and prompting viewers to question everything they thought they knew.

3: Character Introduction

Introduce compelling characters that resonate with audiences and compel them to invest in their journey. In Season 1, Episode 1 Hughie’s relatable struggle and tragic loss immediately draws viewers into his world, setting the emotional foundation for the series.

4: Tension Building

Tension is the lifeblood of storytelling, driving the narrative forward and keeping the audience engaged. Build tension early by establishing conflicts and obstacles that hint at larger confrontations to come. In Season 2, Episode 1 the escalating tensions between The Boys and The Seven create a palpable sense of anticipation, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

5: Moral Confusion

Incorporating moral complexity adds depth to your story, elevating it from mere entertainment to thought-provoking commentary. Explore the moral ambiguity and complexity in your own characters to challenge viewers’ perceptions and provoke thought. In Season 2, Episode 6 the revelation of Stormfront’s true nature forces viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about power and privilege, adding depth to the story and its characters.

6: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing hints at future events and developments, enticing viewers to stick around for what’s to come. In Season 1, Episode 6 the disappearance of Butcher’s wife foreshadows a larger conspiracy at play, teasing viewers with the promise of future revelations and twists.

Summary

Crafting compelling hooks is the key to drawing your audience into your story and keeping them invested until the very end.

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Who Speaks for the Superhero Genre?

The Boys and the Superhero Genre
The Boys and the Superhero Genre

Today, we’re looking into the world of the superhero, but not the kind of superhero we’re used to. I’m talking about The Boys, a series that has taken the genre by storm, unveiling a fresh and gritty take on the classic set of tropes.

  1. Deconstructing Superhero Tropes
    The Boys TV series succeeds where others fail partly because it intelligently deconstructs the stale superhero narratives we have grown bored with. At its core, the series examines the consequences of unfettered corporate and individual power protected by a relentless media campaign. It highlights the collateral damage that can be inflicted on society by powerful individuals who are driven by self-interest and narcissism, even to the point of murder: When the speedster hero A-Train accidentally kills Robin, Hughie’s girlfriend, it sets off a chain of events that exposes the art of the cover-up, the dark side of Vought International, and its pursuit of power at all costs.
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  2. Complex Characters
    Unlike the one-dimensional heroes often portrayed in the stale superhero genre, the characters in The Boys are multi-layered and morally ambiguous. Take Homelander, the most powerful of all the Supes who leads the Seven, a select band of super beings created by Vaught International. Homelander presents himself as the epitome of American virtue hiding behind a winning smile, but in reality he harbours a fractured psyche, dark secrets, and a murderous streak. His shocking destruction of the Mayor of Baltimore’s private jet at the end of the first episode to stop the Mayor from exposing the truth behind Compound V, Vought International’s Supe-juice, sets the tone for the entire series. Homelander will stop at nothing to protect Vought and himself. Vought’s attempt to silence Hughie after the death of his girlfriend is further proof of that.
  3. Real-world Parallels
    But The Boys also resonates with audiences because of its exploration, through the lens of superhero fiction, of real-world issues. The Corporate influence on society is exposed early in the series through Vought International’s lack of sincerity, and its criminal attempts to protect its brand at all costs. This points to how huge corporations may prioritise profit over ethics in the real world.
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  4. Emotional Depth
    While the series is filled with action-packed sequences, it is the emotional depth of the characters that truly sets it apart: Hughie’s grief and anger over Robin’s death, motivates him to seek justice against the corrupt superheroes. His journey to become one of The Boys is driving force behind the series, grounded in his relatable emotions and struggles.
  5. Satire and Dark Humour as Self-Critique
    The Boys doesn’t shy away from satirising the superhero genre, and pop-culture as a whole. We see this through the character of the Deep. His aquatic powers are no match for Homelander’s bullying, and his deviant, sexual infatuation with Timothy the octopus is an added source of embarrassment and ridicule.

Homelander’s complete dominance over the Deep is established early on, when he learns that he found scorch marks on the engine of the crashed plane and tells Stillwell. Homelander easily intimidates the Deep into silence.

  1. Grey Morality
    Finally, The Boys challenges the notion of a black-and-white morality often associated with the superhero genre. Indeed, the series as a whole explores the spectrum of moral dilemmas faced by supposedly good characters like Hughie and Butcher as they seek revenge against the Seven. Their actions blur the line between heroism and villainy, forcing us to question the traditional definition of good and evil.

The series has been renewed for a fourth season, and continues to subvert expectations to offer a darker, more nuanced take on the superhero genre. As a result The Boys has garnered a world-wide following which shows no sign of slowing down.

Summary
The Boys differs from the conventional superhero fare due to its intelligent deconstruction of old tropes, its use of complex characters, its real-world parallels, its emotional depth, its self-critique through dark humour and satire, and its mature exploration of moral ambiguity.

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The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey

The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey: Avengers: Endgame.
The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey.

Today, we will study the Hero’s Journey drawing from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writers Journey, showing how the modern blockbuster exemplifies this timeless story structure. And what better way to do so than a recent box-office heavyweight champion, Avengers: Endgame.

  1. The Ordinary World

Our heroes begin in their ‘ordinary’ lives. In Endgame, this is the aftermath of the ‘Infinity War,’ where the remaining Avengers struggle with loss and failure. Indeed, Endgame kicks off weeks after Thanos’s devastation of the world. Our heroes, exist in an altered world. A World, of loss grief and despair.

In the Hero’s Journey, The Ordinary World, the first of Vogler’s’ twelve story beats, serves as the baseline, grounding the audience in the characters’ relatable struggles. In this modern blockbuster with its ensemble cast, the Hero’s traits and story beats are shared amongst several characters. For example, although The Refusal of the Call, and later, The Sacrifice belong to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, the idea of The Resurrection is symbolically rendered through Captain America’s passing his shield to Falcon at the end. And so on.

  1. The Call to Adventure

We know from the very start of the film that a huge disturbance has impacted the heroes’ lives. This challenges them to embark on a life-changing quest. This call is made explicit when Scott Lang (Ant-Man) escapes the Quantum Realm, proposing a solution to undo Thanos’ devastation.

  1. Refusal of the Call

Next comes doubt and hesitation. Tony Stark initially rejects the call, fearing the consequences to his family and the world. He vehemently argues against attempting time-travel. His reluctance adds depth, showcasing the inner struggle that heroes face.

  1. Meeting With The Mentor

Every hero needs guidance, and in Endgame, Tony Stark and Professor Hulk double up on their roles as the team’s mentors. Tony decides to accept the call to adventure after all, and devises the time travel concept, while Professor Hulk provides emotional support. The mentor’s role in a story is crucial, steering our heroes towards their destiny.

  1. Crossing the Threshold(s)

Here, the hero, or in this case, heroes, step into the unknown. In Endgame, this is symbolised by the quantum realm suits as the heroes prepare to venture into uncharted terrains, facing the mind-boggling risks of time travel. Crossing the Threshold represents leaving the comfort zone of the-world-as-they-know it behind.

  1. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

As the story progresses trials, alliances, and adversaries come to the fore. The time-heist comprises the central this part of the story. Each hero confronts personal challenges during his or her time-travelling endeavors. It’s important to remember that the tests are not just physical but also emotional, all of which serves to deepen the journey.

  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave

As the heroes approach their ultimate goal they prepare to face Thanos in the final battle. The Inmost Cave is in this case the destroyed Avengers HQ, setting the stage for the climax.

  1. The Ordeal

During the ordeal our heroes engage in their biggest test, resulting in the climactic battle with their enemy. Sacrifices are made, and some fall, but ultimately they triumph. The Ordeal is the crucible that forces heroes to reach beyond themselves in order to overcome the challenge they face.

  1. The Reward

The heroes reap the rewards of their journey. In Endgame, it’s the restoration of the fallen. The world is saved, and the remaining heroes find closure. The Reward is both triumphant and poignant, marking the end of the hero’s quest.

  1. The Road Back

The Road Back is a moment of reflection and transition, setting the stage for the final acts.

  1. Resurrection

Here, heroes undergo a final transformation. Captain America embodies this story beat, passing his shield to Falcon signifying the transferring of the mantle—itself a symbolic rebirth. The Resurrection symbolises the heroic group’s final evolution, in this case, the closing of the narrative loop.

  1. Return with the Elixir

Our heroes take up life in their ordinary world, bearing the lessons and changes earned through their journey. In Endgame, the elixir is the gift of a new era, represented, in part, by Falcon having taken up Captain America’s shield. The Elixir is the prize granted to the whole of humanity—the changed world gained through great effort and sacrifice.

Summary

The modern blockbuster draws its inspiration from the classical hero’s journey, effecting minor adaptations where necessary.

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The end of an era.

Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano: the prototypical antihero.

Today, we examine the intense but subtly-crafted family dinner scene from the last season of The Sopranos, a scene that caps the looming threat of assassination hovering over Tony Soprano.

This iconic scene has much to teach us about the art crafting an almost unbearable sense of the trepidation through context, subtle cues, camera placement, timing and nuanced performances. It is proof of why we should study masterpieces, especially when compared to much of today’s fare

1. Backstory

Before we dive into the dinner scene, let’s set the stage. The events leading up to this moment have been filled with tension. The news that Tony has visited a psychiatrist, has weakened his position with the mob who frowns on such things. Tony and the families are at loggerheads, his leadership with his own people is shaky—members of his crew have been shot—notably Silvio, his consigliere, mobsters are turning State’s evidence, a hit has been put out on Tony himself, and the FBI is closing in, using wire-taps. There is a sense that an era is coming to an end.

Now, let’s focus in on the dinner scene itself.

2. Creating an Uneasy Atmosphere

Even before the family gathers at the restaurant, then, the atmosphere is charged with tension. Tony arrives alone, which emphasises his isolation. Moments later he is joined by his wife. As they wait for their children to join them our anxiety grows. There is a jingle at the door and his son enters. Then we see Meadow pull up in her car outside the restaurant. As she struggles to park the vehicle our unease increases: All this waiting seems to imply that something bad is about to happen.

The camera work and framing, too, heighten our sense of discomfort. Long, lingering shots on the characters’ faces and the careful choreography of their movements keeps us on edge.

Tony’s glances towards the entrance every time someone enters, too, contribute to the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold. We become acutely aware that the sanctuary of family is no refuge from the ever-present threat to Tony’s life.

3. Vulnerability Through Setting

The very act of siting down to eat with his family in a public place, unarmed and exposed, creates a visceral sense of vulnerability: Meal time is when families are at their most relaxed, when their guard is down. Here, however, it brings to mind the many assassinations we have heard about, or watched in documentaries, or in films and TV series, such as when Joe Gallo was shot dead at Umbertos Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1972, or when Carmine Galante was killed in 1979 while having lunch at Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant, and of course the shocking assassination scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey. This awareness augments our feeling of unease.

4. Potential Threats from Patrons

Adding another layer to the tension is the very presence of the patrons at the restaurant, anyone of whom may pose a threat to Tony. Their very presence and proximity to Tony becomes a source of anxiety both for Tony and for the audience. When one of the patrons goes to the men’s room we are reminded of how Michael Corleone retrieved the gun from the men’s room that he was to use to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey.

Specific incidents, such as a seemingly innocent conversation or a lingering look, take on a heightened significance. Viewers are left to decipher the true intentions behind these interactions, amplifying the suspense as we question who may be plotting against Tony. The dinner scene transforms into a psychological battlefield, with every gesture and word hinting at a potential danger, whether real or imagined.

And so we are left hanging on the edge of uncertainty. The meticulously crafted tension, the symbolic undertones, and the enigmatic presence of potential threats create a narrative powder keg.

The culmination of the final episode, then, masterfully uses the family restaurant setting to create a sense of doom that keeps us guessing. The screen going black just as Meadow is finally about to enter the restaurant symbolises our worst fears.

Summary

The Sopranos culminates in a final scene that creates a feeling of impending doom by creating a sense of vulnerability, unease, and evokeing the death of an era. We feel that Tony’s life, perhaps even that of his family’s, is over. That it does so without showing his murder speaks to the craft and subtlety of the writers.

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The Making of an Antihero

The Sopranos is an antihero template
The Sopranos is an antihero template.

Today, we continue our exciting journey into the world of television, focusing on the iconic character who helped to define the Antihero genre – Tony Soprano.

The Sopranos, a groundbreaking series that premiered in 1999, introduces us to Tony Soprano, a mob boss struggling with the complications of his life. In the first episode, aptly titled The Sopranos, we’re immediately thrust into a world that has come to define the antihero.

Before we peel back the layers of Tony’s character, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that The Sopranos has had in the television landscape. The show’s success paved the way for characters like Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Mad Men’s Don Draper by creating a stage for morally ambiguous protagonists who audiences love despite their flaws. Tony Soprano, with his complexities, vulnerabilities and contradictions, sets the standard for what it means to be an antihero.

From the pilot episode, we’re drawn to moments where Tony reveals a range of feelings—moments of fear, gentleness and sensitivity. His enthusiasm over the ducks in his pool, for example, is a metaphor for family, and the importance he places in it.

His down-to-earth demeanour evidenced in his mannerisms, in his clothing—or lack of it, and his enjoyment of sharing meals with family and friends contrast sharply with his brutal practices as a mob boss.

His struggle with anxiety and his panic attacks, too, are associated more with a character who has suffered cruelty and brutality at the hands of others, than with a man who has chosen crime for its on sake. Indeed, Tony’s vulnerability revealed in his sessions with Dr. Melfi provides a stark contrast to the hardened exterior we expect to find in a mob boss. During a therapy session, for example, Tony discusses his mother’s manipulative behaviour. This scene not only highlights his vulnerability but also foreshadows the internal conflicts that will define his character throughout the series. All of this goes some way into making his character more empathetic.

Let’s examine five characteristics that contribute to our fascination with this complex character in a little more detail .

1. Human Vulnerability

In the first episode, we witness Tony grappling with anxiety attacks. His vulnerability makes him relatable, creating a sense of empathy in the viewer. Even when he tries to hide, behind false bravado, the anxiety that his real job has brought about from Dr. Melfi, we see a side of him that transcends the typical mob boss stereotype.

2. Family Dynamics

Tony’s interactions with his family, particularly with his children, showcase a genuine desire for connection. The juxtaposition of his role as a father and a mob boss adds layers to his character, making us sympathise with the challenges he faces in maintaining a semblance of normalcy.

3. Sense of selective Morality

Surprisingly, Tony does possess a kind of moral compass. In the first episode, he confesses to Dr Melfi that he has qualms about how he earns his living. He tells her he feels like a sad clown—laughing in the outside, crying on the inside. This dimension adds depth to his character, challenging the traditional portrayal of mob bosses as being completely devoid of ethics.

4. Relatability through Struggle

Tony’s constant struggle to balance the demands of his criminal life with the desire for a more conventional existence resonates with us. His yearning for a sense of normality mirrors a struggle we all experience one way or another. This draws us into his world despite its criminal underpinnings.

5. Complex Relationships

The intricate web of relationships that Tony navigates, at home and at work, adds to the complexity: Dealing with his manipulative mother or managing the expectations of his crew, reveal his multifaceted nature.

The Sopranos, then, has not only helped to define the antihero genre, it has also set the standard for character complexity and narrative depth, too. As writers, we can draw inspiration from Tony’s character to help us create protagonists that challenge the run-of-the-mill stereotypes by regulating the complex tension between likability and moral ambiguity.

Summary

Even the darkest characters can inspire storytelling brilliance. The trick is to show their internal and external struggles in a way that provides glimpses into their humanity.

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How many characters do you really need in your story?

Character selection in Inception
Character selection in Inception

How do you know how many characters you need to tell a story? And how do you select them?

Some writers turn to Joseph Campbell’s eight character archetypes for inspiration, but in multiform narratives, like Inception, such an approach may not align seamlessly.

But is there an alternative model that avoids seat-of-the-pants casting?

Indeed there is. Let’s remember that each major character serves a specific structural purpose, such as offering a unique perspective on the story’s theme.

In Inception, the protagonist, Dom Cobb, grapples with the nature of reality within dreams. Each major character represents a different angle on this theme.

Arthur, Cobb’s ally, views dreams as a strategic playground. His perspective is: Mastering the architecture of dreams leads to success in the mind heist.

On the contrary, Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife, a projection of Cobb’s mind—but a character never the less, believes in the dream world. Her character represents a warning: The pursuit of an idealised reality within dreams can lead to destructive consequences.

Eames, the forger, offers yet another viewpoint, arguing that dreams are a canvas for transformation. For Eames, the theme might be: Embracing change within dreams allows for personal growth and evolution.

Additionally, Ariadne, the architect, offers a perspective centered on understanding the subconscious. Her theme might be: Knowing how to navigate the uncharted depths of the mind is essential for a successful inception.

All these characters earn their place by articulating their versions of the theme through words and actions, shaping the narrative. The resolution of the conflict in Inception ultimately reveals which character championed the correct interpretation of the theme.

Taking a cue from Christopher Nolan’s approach, the film crafts a complex moral lesson by juxtaposing characters whose actions and beliefs are a kind of debate over the theme of the story. The outcome at the end transforms the theme into the moral essence of the film, uncovering its ultimate form.

Summary

Include only as many major characters as is necessary to explore and argue the theme effectively. This ensures that each character contributes significantly to the tale, avoiding the inclusion of superfluous players whose presence is merely cosmetic.

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The Creator

The Creator
The Creator.

Today, we’re continuing to ponder the future of artificial intelligence, this time, through the lens of the thought-provoking movie, The Creator.

The film introduces us to a world where the boundaries between man and machine start to blur, leaving us questioning the very essence of what it means to be human. Should intelligent machines have rights? What about AI/Human hybrids?

1: Concept and Plot

The storyline of The Creator is captivating. Set in a not-so-distant future, the film explores the impact of evolving AI technology in a world struggling to resolve emerging ethical dilemmas. It offers an interesting take on the practical and  ethical relationships between humans and AI, exploring the potential consequences of playing God with technology.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ability to balance the exciting elements of science fiction with an insightful examination of human nature. The story, which does not offer an iron-clad solution, does shine a light on the need to at least tackle the ethical questions surrounding AI and its impact on our society—before it’s too late. It leaves us thinking about these questions long after the credits have rolled.

2: Characters

The Creator delivers convincing performances that add depth to the story. The protagonist’s internal struggle and the moral dilemmas faced by other characters make for a compelling viewing experience.

What is rather impressive is the way the characters’ emotions and motivations are portrayed. This portrayal humanises the story, making it relatable despite the futuristic setting. We can’t help but empathise with the characters as they navigate the complex landscape of morality and technological advancement.

3: Cinematography and SFX

Visually, the film is impressive. It features arresting cinematography and mind-blowing visual effects that transport us to a future that feels both familiar and alien. The attention to detail in presenting the advanced technology and the seamless integration of CGI elements enhance the overall immersive experience, drawing us into the story.

The point from a story-teller’s perspective is that the visual elements are not just eye candy—they also play a crucial role in conveying the film’s central themes. From the jaw-dropping cityscapes to the detailed of the AI technology, every moment is a visual reminder that keep the human versus machine relationships top of mind.

4: Sound

The musical score, too, deserves a special mention. It succeeds in complementing the mood and ambiance of each scene, heightening the emotional impact of the story. The music doesn’t just fill the silence—it becomes an integral part of the narrative, guiding and strengthening our emotions.

5: Theme

Digging a little deeper, The Creator does not just lean on the dazzling visuals and compelling characters, it urges introspection. It encourages us to ponder upon on the ethical implications of advancing technology and the possible consequences of playing with forces beyond our control.

Lastly, in a world dominated by emergent technology, the film offers itself up as a cautionary tale. It’s a reminder that, as we push the boundaries of innovation, we have to tread carefully and consider the practical, moral and societal implications of our creations.

Summary

The Creator encourages us to ponder the very definition of life, its future practical and ethical challenges, and our current response to it all.

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The Creator

Show-Don’t-Tell in Six Easy Steps!

Today, we’re exploring the brilliance of the ‘Married Life’ montage sequence from the film, Up, and extracting six valuable show-don’t-tell techniques to help improve your storytelling skills.

This sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling. On a side note, I’ll not be leaning on the film’s marvellous music score, although this is a wonderful amplifying technique, because I want to concentrate on the visuals.

Technique 1: Visual, Rather than Verbal, Storytelling.

The ‘Married Life’ sequence eschews dialogue while relating the backstory of Carl and Ellie; rather, it deploys a sequence of precisely selected visuals. The scene where Carl and Ellie are repairing their old home is a case in point. Each image conveys purpose, transmitting emotion and the passing of time, without stating it explicitly. The transformation of the house becomes an unfolding, visual metaphor for the evolution of their relationship. Words, here, would only get in the way of the powerful imagery.

Technique 2: Use of Symbolism.

Up is rich in symbolism, and the Ellie badge is a powerful example. This small item becomes a symbol of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. It successfully conveys rich emotions without spelling them out. By revisiting the badge, the filmmakers create a visual motif that beautifully demonstrates Carl and Ellie’s connection.

Technique 3: Pace and Rhythm.

The pace and rhythm of the sequence is truly masterful. The montage is a memorable lesson in how to orchestrate the tempo of a story. The sequence effortlessly moves through life’s various stages, depicting its highs and lows seamlessly. The rhythm of the montage mirrors the heartbeat of Carl and Ellie’s shared life, creating a dynamic and poignant story experience.

The ability to vary the pacing to maintain an audience’s emotional engagement is one of the most powerful yet subtle tools we have at our disposal as writers.

Technique 4: Visual Metaphors

Another powerful technique is to use visual metaphors. One outstanding example, amongst many others, is the sequence featuring the mailbox. The mailbox becomes a poignant and pervasive metaphor for the couple’s unfulfilled dream of adventure.

Without verbalising the longing, the filmmakers deploy this visual metaphor to convey the emotional weight of their characters’ unrealised aspirations.

Technique 5: Body Language

The use of a character’s body language is a pervasive and powerful technique. Throughout the montage, Carl and Ellie’s emotions are expressed not through words but through their gestures, expressions, and actions. Who can fail to experience the tenderness of their connection when Ellie places her hand on Carl’s cheek during the sequence?

As writers we ought to seize the opportunity to present these subtle and touching moments—they often reveal more about the characters than words ever could.

Technique 6: Environment and Location as Storytelling

Lastly, let’s explore the role that environments and locations play in storytelling. The locations in the Married Life montage do not just act as backgrounds; they participate in the story. Whether it is the charming house they build together or the sombre hospital room, each location helps to sell a unique part of the story.

The technique emphasises the importance of selecting locations that support the mood and atmosphere of the story.

Summary

Show-don’t-tell comprises of visual story-telling, symbolism, pacing and rhythm, visual metaphors, body language, and environmental story-telling.

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Fifteen Beats to Save the Cat!

Fifteen beats to Save the Cat
Fifteen beats to Save the Cat

Today, we explore the fifteen beats that comprise the core of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method. We have lots to get through so let’s begin by breaking down the beats using some of the most memorable films of all time.

Summary

There you have it: Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats supported by scenes from some of the most memorable films ever. Use them to help you structure your stories.

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Dilemma (s) in Stories.

The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.
The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.

Today, we’re studying compelling character construction through the lens of a dilemma. We’ll explore how a well-constructed dilemma can make a story memorable. Although one of the most unforgettable and diabolical dilemmas in all of film occurs in Sophie’s Choice, I have written about the film before. Today, therefore, we’re exploring its power through five building-blocks at work in Martin Scorsese’s gripping film, The Departed.

1. High Stakes/Risk

Our first building-block is high stakes—the higher the stakes or risk, the more gripping the dilemma, the more powerful the drama. In The Departed, the character Billy Costigan faces an immediate and life-altering choice. Should he betray his undercover identity and risk his life to expose the mole in the police force, or should he continue to play the dangerous game of deception? The stakes in the story are high indeed—exposure will result in death, but doing nothing risks the safety and integrity of the operation.

As writers we ought to create dilemmas where the consequences of the characters’ choices are strongly felt by the audience.

2. A Conflict with Morality

The conflict with morality lies at the centre of many compelling dilemmas. The Departed feeds on the moral ambiguity exhibited by Colin Sullivan. He is an undercover cop playing the role of a criminal, and has to grapple with the morality that his role forces on his day-to-day choices. Does he stay loyal to the criminal organisation that raised him, or does he betray it for the impersonal notion of justice and personal gain?

This moral tug-of-war keeps the audience engaged it bears witness to the internal struggle that defines Sullivan’s character. As writers, we ought to dig into the moral complexities of our characters, forcing them to confront their values and weaknesses as they make decisions that challenge their integrity and existence.

3. Personal vs. Public Interests

The third building-block involves the clash between personal and public interests. In The Departed, the characters are trapped in a web of competing loyalties: Does Sergeant Dignam reveal the truth about the mole within the police force at the cost of endagaring his own safety and that of his colleagues? Quite the dilemma.

This conflict between personal loyalty and the greater public good adds complexity to the story. As writers, we ought to create dilemmas that force characters to question allegiances by exploring the tension between what is best for themselves versus what is best for the wider public.

4. Time Sensitivity

A ticking clock intensifies the pressure to resolve a dilemma by forcing the action. In the film, the characters are constantly up against the clock in trying to find the mole. The longer it takes, the more lives are put at risk, the greater the chance of being exposed.

The urgency drives the story forward relentlessly, creating a sense of immediacy that keeps the audience captive. We too should use time as a tool, trapping our characters in tight spots where each minute, each hour places them in a more precarious situation, and where every decision carries serious, perhaps even life-threatening, consequences.

5. Unpredictability

The outcome of any great dilemma should not be predictable. In The Departed, the true identities of the mole and the undercover cop are shrouded in mystery. This uncertainty heightens the tension, leaving the audience guessing, until the final, shocking moments when the truth is revealed.

As writers, we ought to use the unexpected, crafting twists and turns that complicate our characters’ dilemmas and keep readers and viewers on edge. The surprise that occurs when the dilemma is finally resolved, can be a powerful tool in crafting memorable and impactful stories.

Summary

Use five building-blocks to craft a powerful dilemma: high stakes, morality, personal vs. public, time sensitivity, and unpredictability. This will enrich our characters and make our stories more memorable.

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