Tag Archives: film

How to Save your Story Ending

Your story and GladiatorIN his influential book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
offers an approach to writing your story that comprises of a beat sheet of fifteen dramatic units.

They are:

1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-Up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into Two
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into Three
14. Finale
15. Final Image

 

Blake Snyder’s story structure is solid, but there is a possible weakness in the gap between the Break into Three and Finale. The danger is that the sudden reversal of fortunes may appear too abrupt to be credible.

The Break into Three shows the hero at his lowest ebb. But the Finale typically shows the hero in a last ditch attempt to try again. It is the most vulnerable point of the Hollywood ending – the moment when your story, which cannot allow the protagonist to fail, turns the tables on the antagonist.

How can we prevent this last twist from appearing forced?

Making your story ending more credible

In Gladiator, the lowest moment occurs when Maximus finds himself on his knees in the arena, nursing an earlier wound, swordless, and pierced by the Emperor’s blade. His efforts to avenge his murdered family and save Rome from the clutches of the madman seem to have failed.

How does he go from defeat to victory in the space of a beat?

The answer lies in Maximus’ physical strength, his love for his family, and his loyalty to Rome. This grants him the strength to pull the Emperor’s sword out of his own body and turn it against the Emperor himself, ending the tyrant’s life.

The twist seems believable because it marries the theme of the story (that integrity and moral fortitude will trump lascivious greed) to Maximums’ character arc. We find it fitting that the strong and noble Maximus, who has given his life to the service of Rome, should find the strength to rid his country of its incestuous ruler by sacrificing his own life.

Summary

Tie your hero’s lowest moment to his character arc and to the theme of your story to allow the audience to experience the ending as fitting rather than forced and formulaic.

How to Use Coincidence in Stories

Two butterflies

Coincidence?

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search, stories are a different kettle of fish. Here, the reader or audience expects the material to be adroitly planned and crafted. A series of coincidences is viewed for what it is: laziness on the part of the writer.

In Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough, and has it launch or end the story as part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point.

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive.

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive.

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, spins on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

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What is a Time Lock?

Lose up of lock

Time-Lock:

A time lock, in story telling, is a structural device that imposes a limit on the time allowed for a problem to be solved. Failure to do so in the allotted time, renders the story goal unachievable, and the mission a failure.

A time lock, is often, quite literally a clock, counting down to zero before the bomb explodes. Examples abound: In Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the pilots flying the aircraft carrying an atomic bomb that will start the next world war have to be persuaded not to drop it before they reach the target site; in Next, Nicholas Cage has to foil the villain’s plans before a nuclear device wipes out LA.

In my own novel, Scarab II: Reawakening, the Hero, Jack Wheeler, has to get to the quantum computer before the appointed time to stop it from running the programme that may destroy the world.

In 36 Hours the time lock is even more tightly woven into the story’s structure. With the invasion of Europe but days away, the Nazis have little time to extract the date and landing location of the Allied forces from James Garner. Although the story might still work by concentrating on how Garner is seduced into talking, the time lock imbues the story with an overall tension that could not be achieved otherwise.

In Armageddon, a shaft has to be drilled and a bomb placed deep into the comet that is headed for earth…

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, not only must the bridge be built under the most trying circumstances, but it has to be finished by a specific date. The highlight, which shows not only the bridge being completed at the ninth hour just as the train arrives, but also in time for the explosion to occur that sends both bridge and train crashing into the river, has rarely being surpassed in effectiveness.

Summary

A time lock in a story defines a specific time period for the main story goal to be achieved in order to avoid calamity or failure. The device increases tension and helps to maintain the forward thrust of the story.

Backstories Revisited

Whispering

Backstory Revisited

One of the potential problems of exposition/backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us. Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable. A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait. Without sufficient grounding, however, none of the above is achievable.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand, and backstory is provided as a solution to a dangerous situation. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory is essential information the reader/audience must have in order to understand the story. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is a an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

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Why Film & TV Need the Novel

Movie camera and book

Books & Film

Before Amazon’s Kindle revolution and the resurgence of reading it inspired, there were some that predicted the death of the novel as a viable form of entertainment. How could reading compete with the visceral pleasures of big-budget, special-effects-driven films, or the massive growth of computer games that have so captivated our youth? (Exploring the obvious connection between film and the comic book will be the subject of a future post).

Yet, the truth is that far from swimming in competing pools, novels, films and games function in a state of symbiosis, feeding off each other.

I think this state of affairs is set to continue in the foreseeable future.

Consider the various skills of the novelist: Philosopher, visionary, psychologist, researcher, casting agent, actor, director, cinematographer, set builder, costume designer, scriptwriter, editor, sound recordist. Indeed, the novelist is the prime creator of the story world—albeit in the virtual sense.

At a time when big films require even bigger budgets, testing the potential success of a film by measuring the success of the novel upon which it is based is a relatively inexpensive way of taking out some insurance against failure—although, clearly, no guarantee against it, as the movie John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, clearly demonstrates.

The point remains, however, that if a novel has done well in the market place, the chances are that a well-made film might do the same. The film maker might then allow the world of the novel to inform the world of the film, although, clearly, adapting a screenplay from a novel is an art form in its own right—often, to the extent that little of that world, other than the bones of the story, remains the same. Even so, the novel, does at least, act as a starting point for the film project.

In terms of benefit to the novel, people who have seen the film and enjoyed it might now read the novel on which the film is based. Sales of the Game of Thrones series sky-rocketed after the television series hit the screens.

Book-to-film/TV adaptations often go hand in hand with conversations about the relative worth of one rendition over the other. “The book was so much better than the film,” or vice versa—good publicity for all concerned, which helps to boost sales of the appropriate medium.

As an aside, I might mention that in my classes on screenwriting, I often encourage my students to write their screenplays as novellas, or short stories, first. This encourages them to explore their characters’ actions through the inner voice—something the novel, novella and short story do well. This shifts focus to character motives and goals and results in character action that is more authentic and believable, making for better screenplays.

Summary

Film, TV and the novel/novella often function in a state of symbiosis, testing and popularising the story through different media.

How to Write Backstory

Whispering

Backstory

In this follow-up post we look at a very important aspect of effective storytelling—backstory. The following question immediately comes to mind:

Q: When is it useful to include backstory in your screenplay or novel?

A: When information from the past is needed in order to make sense of the present and future.

Three Principles

1. In writing backstory consider the following: Is it absolutely needed?
2. Is it economically executed?
3. Does it blend in seamlessly with the rest of the text?

Necessary Information

Include only information that is absolutely necessary to your story.

In a chilling early scene in Inglorious Basterds, for example, we learn that the SS’s Colonel Hans Landa’s mission is to find missing Jews in the French countryside whom he suspects are being protected from by French Farmers.

Economically Executed

Always try to deliver backstory in the most economical way.

In the same film, some of the backstory is revealed through Landa’s sinister, if well-mannered, speculation, interlaced with subtle threats to the dairy farmer’s family, that he suspects Perrier LaPadite of hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farm house. The dialogue, therefore, does double duty: 1. It reveals the reason Landa is interrogating LaPadite—he is aware of the French dairy farmer’s sympathies for his one-time Jewish neighbours. 2. It increases our suspense because the backstory becomes an indispensable part of the interrogation with an immediate threat to the farmer and his family.

Seamless Blending

Backstory blends seamlessly into the tale when it surreptitiously manages to drive the plot forward—as in the above example—rather than halting it In order to reveal background information. Because it becomes part of the forward thrust, there is no interruption to the story’s relentless march towards the climax. Interest and tension is actively maintained.

Summary

Backstory works best when it helps, rather than impedes, the forward-thrust of the plot. The three principles mentioned above provide a useful checklist in this regard.

How to Write a Log-Line

Logs arranged in a square

Log-lines

In his book, Screenwriting, Raymond G Frensham defines a log-line as a “short, pithy slogan you see on a film poster that captures, at an emotional level, what it’s about, or the kind of short description billings used in weekly TV guides.” The purpose of a log-line is to attract an audience by creating the right expectation in agents, producers, and the audience. Although usually written last, as part of the marketing strategy, your coming up with a log-line prior to starting your story will help you to focus on the main through-line of your tale. Although log-lines, also known as strap-lines, primarily refer to film projects, their functionality can be applied to stories of any format, such as the paperback or kindle novel.

Two Key Elements

Log-lines consist of two key elements: a repeating formal sentence structure and an element of contrast. The following examples, taken from successful movies, demonstrate the effective use of these elements:

‘Honour made him a man.
Courage made him a hero.
History made him a legend.’ Rob Roy

‘Imagine if you had three wishes, three hopes,
three dreams,,,and they all came true.’ Aladdin

‘Someone said “Get a life” – so they did.’ Thelma And Louise

‘This is Benjamin…He’s a little worried about his future.’ The Graduate

‘A story of Love Laughter and the Pursuit of Matrimony.’ Muriel’s Wedding

‘Don’t breathe. Don’t look back. The Dark Side of Nature.’ Twister

‘Everything is Suspect. Everyone for Sale. Nothing is what it seems.’ L.A. Confidential

Summary

Log-lines contain two key features—formal repetition and contrast. Log-lines are used for marketing purposes but they are also useful, if conceived early, as indicators of your story’s through-line.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.