Category Archives: Story Structure

Your story in a single sentence

The idea behind It Chapter Two can be contained in a single sentence, as discussed below.

If you had to undertake the almost impossible task of condensing the existing wisdom for writing a good story into a single sentence, what would that sentence be?

Today’s writers have an advantage over those who have gone before them—access to a body of knowledge that has been extracted from the great exemplars of the past—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust, Dickens, William Golding and John Steinbeck, to name some of the few great writers I admire.

Then of course, in more recent times, we have the impressive list of screenwriters and filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin,  David Mamet, and many more.

The single sentence: What does your protagonist want and why can’t she or he have it?

An argument can be made that familiarity with great works has a trickle down effect; that we grow through osmosis, as it were. But is there one bit of wisdom, gleaned from the ‘encyopedia of writing’, one single instruction to keep on top of mind?

I would venture yes: What does your protagonist want, and why can’t he have it? This one sentence not only demands an answer for the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal; it also hints at the obstacle(s) that stand in his or her way.

Here are two examples of this at work.

A Roman general seeks to revenge his family’s slaughter but is imprisoned by Rome’s brutal emperor, Commodus, and forced to become a gladiator: Gladiator.

A group of friends reassemble in the small town where they first encountered and defeated an unspeakable evil to fight it off once again, but are weakened by the suicide of their friend and rising doubts of their mission: It Chapter Two.

You get the idea.

Summary

As a first step to writing a new story, try to conceive of the tale as a single sentence that states the goal and obstacles facing your protagonist. This will give you the spine of your tale.

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Controlling Idea – à la Robert McKee

The controlling idea in Dangerous Liaisons: Passion, naively directed, leads to self-loathing and death.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee explains that the controlling idea of a story delivers to readers and audiences the true theme or ethical judgment of the tale—what the story is really about.

For writers, the controlling idea can help us keep the story on track by shining a spotlight on what actions and events to include or exclude from the story—actions and events that stay or stray from the intended path. 

We‘ve talked about this controlling idea before, but under the nomenclature of The Moral Premise. What I like about McKee’s use of the phrase is the reminder that the story has to be constantly steered towards its destination. 

McKee defines the controlling idea as having two components: Value and cause. Value identifies the positive or negative charge that arises as a result of the 3rd act’s climax. Cause gives the reason for this outcome. Value and cause, therefore, provide the central meaning of the tale.

“The controlling idea serves to keep your story on track.”

Because value can have a positive or negative charge, the outcome of the controlling idea, the value judgment, can only be delivered to the reader or audience at the end of the story. Importantly, though, the result has been prepared for by a series of actions undertaken by the protagonist in pursuit of his goal. The result of the climactic battle between the antagonist and protagonist towards the end of the third act delivers the writer’s final judgment on the moral or ethical status of the story. In the words of McKee, ‘value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.”

The final value, therefore, whether positive or negative, is the hard fought-for point of the entire tale.

In an up-ending crime story such as In the Heat of the Night, the writer’s judgment on the final value, might be: That even in a corrupt world (negative charge), it is possible to have justice restored (positive charge) through righteous and persistent action.

In a negatively charged love story-ending such as Dangerous Liaisons the controlling idea leads to a negative outcome: That passion, naively directed, leads to self-loathing and death.

All this sounds remarkably like the moral premise.

Summary
The controlling idea is the ethical or moral point of the story. Scenes containing actions and events that stray from the path should be eliminated.

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How to write a truly villainous antagonist.

Outlander, the series, features a truly villainous antagonist
Outlander, the series, features a truly villainous antagonist

We’ve all heard about the importance of a powerful antagonist in stories. 

An antagonist works against the protagonist to stop her from achieving the story goal. Together they form a dynamic pair whose ongoing battle forms the spine of the story. 

We know that a well-written villain is clever and resourceful. He believes he is the hero of his own tale. He is often articulate, even eloquent, with a well-defined philosophy about life which motivates his actions and explains his loathing for the hero and her goal. 

These characteristics emerge through his actions, but also through at least one great speech in which he explains to the hero, or another character, the depths of his villainous vision.

But it seemed to me that truly memorable antagonists needed something more – an extra ingredient that guaranteed their place in the annals of villainy. It was during one of my classes on writing that it struck me – great villains exhibit what may be described as a double, or triple dip. This is the moment when the character surprises the hero by diving even deeper into the pit of darkness.

“A deeply villainous antagonist should be the mainstay of any gripping story.”

In the TV series, Outlander, an English officer, Black Jack Randall, has already proven to be a ruthless and cruel man capable of rape and murder. But in a crucial scene in a later episode he reveals to us the depths of his wickedness.

He explains to his prisoner, Claire Fraser, the hero of the story, that the two hundred lashes, administered to a young Scot accused of stealing, were something beautiful, a work of art. We see the whipping as a flashback and flinch at the relentless violence of leather cutting into the torn, bleeding flesh of the young man – first dip.

Randall then seems to relent. He admits to Claire that he is filled with self-loathing for the man he has become, giving her hope that he will free her, and also, bolstering her cherished belief that any man is capable of redemption. But, suddenly, he turns and punches her in the gut, driving their air from her lungs. She falls to the ground gasping – second dip.

As if that’s not enough, he orders his reluctant soldier to kick her while she lies gasping on the floor, describing the kicking of a woman as something liberating – third dip.

These actions don’t only represent plunges into physical cruelty. They are an attempt to crush the spirit of the person they are directed against – Claire believes that Black Jack Randall can be saved. He proves to her he can’t. This isn’t only a physical blow, but also is a blow against her Christian belief in the ultimate Salvation of Man.

It is this triple-dip, combined with a relentless desire to destroy his enemy’s spirit that makes Black Jack Randall a truly memorable villain.

Summary

Villainous antagonists are driven by a relentless desire not only to crush the hero’s body but his or her spirit, too.

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Old age and end-of-life characters – how to write them

Old age On Golden Pond..
Old age On Golden Pond. The film tells the story of three generations of characters who meet to reconcile with one another.

In this article on age-related categories drawn from Linda Seger’s book, Advanced Screenwriting, I examine themes related to old age and end-of-life.

As we enter old age we feel a pressing need to reconcile our past deeds with our conscience. We seek to resolve past hurts, overcome alienation, heal relationships, deal with regret. On Golden Pond, tells the story of three generations of characters who meet in order to reconcile with one another. In Magnolia, the dying father recognises that in order to affirm his own integrity he has to reconcile with his son.

In my own novel, The Land Below, the aging Troubadour, wracked by guilt for having kept a painful secret from his grandson, Paulie, chooses a climactic moment to reveal the truth about his lineage.

“Old age and end-of-life themes necessarily entail protagonists who pursue different goals to those of their younger counterparts.”

But as the prospect of death creeps ever closer, another issue gains prominence. Linda Seger relates her observations in a nursing home for the aged where she noticed two basic types of reactions from people close to death – anger and mellow acceptance. 

There were those who felt that they had somehow been cheated out of living a better life, or that life had somehow passed them by. These were issues that they had not resolved earlier in life and that were now coming home to roost. 

Then there were people who seemed to accept the end of their lives with a mellow acquiescence and a deep gratitude for having participated in life’s adventure at all. 

Although some stories, such as Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novelTinkers, deal with the subject of death and reconciliation in an insightful way, there is generally a dearth of stories featuring this last stage of one’s life – certainly in film. This could be a rich source to explore in the future, especially for a population that increasingly is achieving longer lifespans.

The point to stress, as Erik Erikson indicates, is that if we fail to deal with life’s themes at the time they occur they will continue to fester, under the surface, until we do. 

In Dead Poet’s Society, Todd is forced to resolve issues of self-esteem, identity, integrity, and belonging because he never resolved these issues as a teenager. In Rain Man, Charlie, who carries with him the pain of a childhood in which he felt he didn’t belong, has to reconcile issues of achievement and success juxtaposed against the need for intimacy and integrity before he can resolve his inner conflict.

A character who is dying, then, may be forced to face unresolved issues at the time he is least equipped to do so.

Summary

Confronting past, unresolved conflicts in our old age is the last great task to be performed in life and in stories.

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Teenage themes

Teenage themes in Titanic
Teenage themes in Titanic

Teenage themes is the second in a series of articles dealing with age-specific stories, drawn from Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting.

Seger asserts that almost all teenage stories deal with the notion of identity, since our teens and early twenties are driven by our need to discover ourselves – who are we, what we want to do, or be, when we grow up.

“Teenage Themes relate to age-specific concerns in a story.”

A teen-orientated story typically explores the themes of sexual identity (Risky BusinessBoys Don’t Cry), discovering love (Titanic), finding one’s creative self in a conformist society, securing one’s individuality in a culture that often prescribes who you are or might become (Room with a ViewThe Cinder House Rules).

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie, the book’s protagonist, who is nearing the end of his teens, refuses to accept the dictates of the Governor and Senators who insist that life on the surface of the world is unlivable and that one should not, under any circumstances, spread rumours to the contrary. 

Fighting against these dictates, Paulie rejects his social status as a lowly orphan when he develops feelings for the Governor’s daughter and ends up becoming the leader of a band of teenagers seeking to escape the suffocating confines of the Land Below. 

Paulie, in effect, redefines his place in society. But in doing so he threatens the Governor’s grip on the closely controlled subterranean world. It is this conflict between the freedom to choose and the impulse to control, rooted in the opposing needs of the protagonist (Paulie) and antagonist (Governor, et al.) that creates the plot of the story. 

Importantly, then, the theme in any story steers the plot, turning it this way and that, as the protagonist continues to explore and test it until it is proven at end of the tale.

Summary

Teenage themes cluster around questions of who are we, what we want to do, or be, when we grow up.

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The gap in stories – à la Robert Mckee

Find the gap (s)  in Back to the Future.
Find the gap (s) in Back to the Future.

What is meant by ’the gap’ in a story? And how can it help you create tension of your tale?

In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers a mechanism that allows the writer to structure character action in a way that adds to the tension. He calls this mechanism the gap.

The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the reader or audience.

From the protagonist’s point of view the path to the goal seem initially achievable and efficient. But as he or she initiates action to achieve it, the resistance of the world creates a tension which is proportional to the effort expended—like a rubber band that is being stretched form side to side.

“The gap refers to the tension between intention/expectation and result in character action.”

The more the effort the more resistance. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.

Back To The Future makes masterful use of gaps, especially in the scenes around the clock tower with Marty being unable to start the DeLorean, while the doc desperately tries to connect the power cable to the clock tower so it can capture the lightning that is destined to strike and send the car through time.

This constant expansion of the gap also changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.

Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.

A gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.

Summary

A gap creates tension between action and reaction, intention and result, as a by-product of the protagonist pursuing the goal.

How to slip backstory into your stories without showing you hand!

How to hide exposition.

Inglorious Basterds provides us with a great lesson in how to hide exposition.
Inglorious Basterds provides a great lesson in how to hide exposition.

Why hide exposition?

One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the forward thrust of your story.

Halting the narrative to provide background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.

“Always try to hide exposition.”

In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:

Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out?
LaPadite: Yes.
Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard.
LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in
France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile.
Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me?
LaPadite: I have no interest in such things.
Landa: But you are aware of what they call me?
LaPadite: I am aware.
Landa: What are you aware of?
LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”.
Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the
other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.

Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things: 

1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms.
2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house.
3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman.
4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.

Summary

Hide exposition through the veil of emotion. Crafted well, exposition deepens character, contextualises plot, and moves the story forward.

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What is a dramatic beat?

The ominous base notes in Jaws, or the discussion about the intimacy of a foot massage both constitute smaller but important beats.
The ominous base notes in Jaws, or the discussion about the intimacy of a foot massage both constitute smaller but important beats in these stories.

A dramatic beat is a small but significant bit 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 turn the story in a different direction.

Consider the example of a protagonist who is about to leave his flat to meet his fiancé at a restaurant only to have his mother arrive unannounced to visit him. He politely informs her that he is late for his date. She leaves, feeling disgruntled.

The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.

The number of beats in a scene can be as few as one or two in shorter scene, to five or more in a longer ones—though there is no set number. Importantly, the number of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically have fewer beats resulting in a slower rhythm than do mainstream films and novels.

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, by contrast, are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.

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Suspension of disbelief – how to achieve it.

Suspension of disbelief—one if the topics covered in the book
Suspension of disbelief—one of the topics covered in the book.

In chapter 15 of Crafting Novels and Short Stories Scott Bell argues that audiences and readers need to be convinced of the credibility of a story in order to remain immersed in it. This is referred to as the suspension of disbelief.

Bell writes that sometimes a writer may push a plot point too far without sufficiently preparing us for it. Or, she may not push it far enough.

If something sounds right in outline but seems far-fetched when dramatised, re-examine the logic and emotions that lead up to it. If your murderer turns over a new leaf at the end of Act II, make sure you’ve given him an internal and external reason for this conversion.

“Suspension of disbelief is essential if one is to make the story credible.”

Additionally, remember to pace your scenes. They have an effect on the overall rhythm of the story. If your protagonist is alone for the first half of your film or novel, the narrative will contain no dialogue scenes. In the case of a novel, there will probably be much summary and reflection.

If your story takes place in a boat where four people are trapped for a day, however, you’ll probably have long scenes of dialogue. Here, it is important to vary the pace and rhythm of the dialogue. It will avoid monotony which weakens immersion and the suspension of disbelief.

As an exercise examine your plot’s rhythm by testing it against Scott Bell’s list:

  1. List all your scenes, skipping a line between each. Write down whether there needs to be any transition or change of pace between the scenes. Or can you simply jump to the next scene? If so, mark the scenes with “YES—I’m absolutely positive this part should be written as a scene,” or “MAYBE—in other words this needs to be a scene on its own.
  2. Search your story for scenes that can be combined. Here’s an example, specifically: You write a scene where your protagonist argues with her husband as he’s leaving for work, then you summarise her driving the kids to school, then include a scene where she gets her feelings hurt by her son as she drops him off at the curb.

“Unsurprisingly, overall story pace depends upon scene placement and construction.”

Perhaps you could combine the things that need to happen in the story. The other car won’t start so she’s got the kids and her husband squished into her car. She’s arguing with the husband as she’s trying to drive and can’t pay attention to the children, who are trying to get her attention. As she pulls up to the school, her son hurts her feelings on purpose as he’s getting out of the car. Lots going on. Not boring. And now the argument with the husband is tied to the child hurting her feelings.

  1. Study a film or novel you admire—something you would like to emulate. Jot down the length, number, and order of scenes, and in the case of a novel, the summaries, and passages of reflection. You will deepen your understanding and application of the above-mentioned techniques.

Summary
Pay attention to the techniques that go into the suspension of disbelief. Inject them into your own stories. Your tales will be all the better for it.

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How to write a strong dramatic premise.

Dramatic premise: Don’t mess with nature—it bites!
Dramatic premise: Don’t mess with nature—it bites!

A strong dramatic premise is fundamental to most successful stories.

Here are four tips to help you come up with a winning premise:

1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:

Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts prove it.

In my own best selling Scarab series, the original premise is: What would happen to the world if a mysterious formula, buried inside in a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx of Giza, proves to be the final link in constructing a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics?

2. Ensure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:

Here’s an example: The daughter of a callous hospital director is abducted by an ex-surgeon whose child has failed to qualify for a liver transplant and has died as a consequence (set-up).

This is intriguing, but not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:

The fired surgeon kidnaps the director’s own daughter and removes her liver. The director has to find a replacement for his child’s organ, within two days, or she’ll die.

“Together with good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, and a sense of verisimilitude, the story premise offers a method for successful storytelling.”


3. The concept must raise dramatic questions:

In this example, such questions are indeed raised: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper allow the child to die? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?

4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:

Steven Spielberg defines high concept as a pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know enough about the sort of story we’re about to experience, to hold our interest.

Summary

The dramatic premise is a short description of the story that acts as a blueprint for the entire tale. A strong premise is one that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions.

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