Category Archives: Story Structure

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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The fabula and the syuzhet in stories.

Extracting the fabula from the syuzhet is essential if one is to make sense of Memento.
Extracting the fabula from the syuzhet is essential if one is to make sense of Memento.

The fabula and syuzhet are important narrative concepts, yet few writers know exactly what they mean.

The syuzhet is the story that unfolds on the page or screen. It contains all the gaps in information, obfuscations, and complications that help make the story gripping to readers and audiences.

The fabula, by contrast, is the sequence of events readers and audiences reconstruct in their minds while the story unfolds in order to make sense of it.

Think of the fabula as the all-revealing, areal perspective of a story. It affords full discloser, offers no surprises and grants no unsolved puzzles. It is replete. 

The syuzhet, on the other hand, represents the subjective, ground-level discombobulation of the fabula. It is intended to generate a kaleidoscope of puzzlement and intrigue to keep us engrossed. Arguably, the syuzhet contains the artistic fingerprints of its creators. It is the level where most of the art and craft happens.

Memento, for example, has an extremely convoluted syuzhet. The hero, who suffers from short term memory loss, has to constantly try to understand events that make no sense to him, since he has forgotten the intentions and motives that have preceded them. The creators of the film offer a story that unfolds from present to past. this approach captures the disorientating subjective experience of the hero.

“The fabula reorders a discombobulated syuzhet in the mind of the reader or audience in order to make sense of the overall story.”

Most films, even conventional ones, routinely hide information from us. This is in order to build suspense or interest. In Manchester by the Sea the protagonist is unable to form relationships. He seems content to remain in an abusive, low-paying job is explained through a series of flashbacks later in the film. 

Other more ontologically complex films reveal information at a more formal level. The result is the existential surprises of the sort we see in films such as Donnie DarkoVanilla SkyJacob’s ladderEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many others. Such puzzle films present the audience with two or more levels of existential reality. This makes it harder to construct a fabula from a stubbornly uncommunicative syuzhet.

In my own novel, The Level, the syuzhet withholds crucial information from the readers, challenging them to build a coherent fabula before they can understand the meaning of the story.

The benefit of fabula construction for writers lies at the initial stage of story-creation. In planning a complex tale it is best to build a clear fabula before attempting to shift, hide, and surprise through an artful syuzhet. Failure to do so will leave writers as confused as the readers and audiences they are attempting to woo.

Summary

Establish a cogent fabula before attempting to write a convoluted and artful syuzhet.

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Plot from character

William Golding is a master at forging plot from character
William Golding is a master at forging plot from character.

The longer I think about stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, the more convinced I become that it all hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that. 

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over the following questions. Does the character lack self-awareness at the beginning of the story? Moral and ethical values? What is her wound, couched in a secret? What must she learn/heal before she can accomplish her goal? Is there is tension between her want and her need? In short, how what is her character arc?

“Plot from character is an insurance policy against shallow and inauthentic character action.”

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc. 

I recognised that understanding the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story. It is reason the hero reacts to events or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot as manifestation of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow, inauthentic characters.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life. 

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story is found in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that may not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength. 

Summary

Plot from character is a methodology that many of the world‘s greatest writers have perfected.

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The story start – how to find it.

The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.
The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.

How do you choose your story start? What sort of incident do you use? Is it a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters? 

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings is one. Speed is another. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the storythe point of attack.

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is the genre? Are you writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when you know the answer to those questions can you know what note to strike in your opening.

“A great story start is one which most affectively establishes mood while maintaining the reader’s or audiences attention.”

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue. 

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back. 

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you want to strike in your tale to help you determine your story start.

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Plot or Character?

Plot or character? Both are essential in to the success of Gladiator.
Plot or character? Both are essential to the success of Gladiator.

Fledgling writers often ask: what drives a story, plot or character?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than say European art film that concentrates more on character. 

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because both are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other.

The following analogy is helpful: Character is to plot as a prism is to a beam of light passing through it. The plot is refracted by character.

“Plot or character? That’s the wrong question. Both serve the narrative. Both are tools writers ought to use in equal measure to tell a story.”

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena? 

Much more fitting is that Maximus use the Emperor’s sword, dripping with his own blood, and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it. 

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story shines through the prism of character.

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Rewrite your story – the first stage

The book deals with the rewrite step by step.
The book deals with the rewrite step by step.

How do you rewrite or edit a story? In his book, Screenwriting, Raymond G Frensham, offers six types of focus associated with the rewriting of a screenplay: comprehension, structure, characters, dialogue, style, and polishing. Although opinions differ about the exact number and order of rewrites, Frensham’s view offers some useful insights for novelists too.

In this post we examine the first stage of the rewriting process and offer some suggestions for implementing the process. I will be looking at the other stages in future posts. 

“Commence the rewrite by asking a series of questions in order to expose the strengths and weaknesses of your story.”

The First Rewrite: Enhancing Comprehension

In seeking to make your story as understandable as possible, ask the following questions:

1. Is my story the best vehicle for expressing my dramatic and emotive intent? Would changing the setting or characters or genre improve the impact and effectiveness of my tale?

2. What information does the audience need to know in order to understand the story? Is the information revealed at the appropriate stages?

3. Can I strengthen the story by more strongly referencing its genre, for example, does my action film contain enough action, my love story enough love (or hate), etc.?

4. Are my characters’ actions motivated by their situation, background, and personality type?

5. Have I chosen the right structure for the type of story I’m writing? Is a three-act structure the best vehicle for my particular tale, or would a two, four, or five act-structure be better?

6. Whose story is it? In other words, through whose eyes is the audience experiencing the story?

Summary

The process of completing a screenplay involves several stages, each with its own focus and tasks. This post examines the first stage of the rewrite, namely, enhancing story comprehension.

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Significant action or dialogue?

The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue
The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue.

DIALOGUE, like significant action, is a crucial part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, and, at its best, draws us into the inner life of the characters.

Sometimes, however, scenes are better served through action alone.

Who can forget the laconic Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gunslinger whose draw is faster than lightning? As he faces man after man, daring each to draw, the tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, through unflinching gazes, and through twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns. No need for dialogue here.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence from ape to spacefaring humanity is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

“Deciding whether to favour dialogue or significant action in a story is, more often than not, a stylistic choice.”

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character, come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggests that he is disconnected from the world better than any words can.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in the verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very presence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

The absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on significant action.

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