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Reversals in Stories

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The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable of reversals
The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable reversals.

Using reversals to navigate through the major pivot points is one way to keep our readers and audiences engaged.

Importantly, we need time to lay out essential information in support of plot and character development that will only pay off later. This may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audiences interested.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They create a certain expectation in us, only to surprise us a moment later with another: 

1. A young boy creeps into an abandoned double-story house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading up to the loft. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing larger. The boy shuts his eyes, fearful of facing the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, he hears another sound. He opens his eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast by a stray racoon caught in a slither of light.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room. She finds the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her grounded teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom window. The mother hears the toilet flush. She smiles with relief, but the smile quickly fades when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter. 

“Reversals are used to jazz up flagging dramatic beats between the major turning points in a story.”

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise. 

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a gunfight. Lucky to escape with their lives, the robbers reach safety. They open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

Realisation, Decision, Action in Stories

Realisation, Decision, Action In You can count on me
Realisation, Decision, Action in You Can Count On Me.

A character decision in stories usually follows a realisation of some hidden truth. A pivotal action springs from that very decision, forming a realisation-decision-action unit. Although the timing varies, these three nodes are tightly integrated.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if a relisation leads directly to an action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear fake. Sandwiching a pivotal action in between realisation and action avoids this error: 

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the Machine World and Agent Smith. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

“Realisation, decision, action: Realisation leads to decision. Decision leads to action. Action defines character. Character creates plot.”

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

Story Tone and its Relationship to Theme and Plot

Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

What is story tone? By tone I mean the writer’s imprint of a moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude on the narrative.

In a nutshell, it is the writer’s choice of the genre of the story, and his work within it, that determines the tale’s tone, and not its plot, theme or setting.

If this were not the case a similar setting in a musical, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the classical horror, Frankenstein’s Monster, would produce a similar tone in both cases—not one of levity in the former and one of dread in the latter.

“Story tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is strongly influenced by genre. It does not shift the story’s theme and plot on its own.”

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is no. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comedy can produce as serious a theme as drama or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and moral element, floating above the specifics of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, tonal elements are shaped not by plot, but by genre: The events at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

Summary

Although story tone is deeply rooted in the genre of the tale, it is influenced by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards the story and the method of telling it.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story in Noah, the movie.
The moral of Noah centres around God’s judgement of sin and His deliverance for those who trust and believe in Him.

THE most memorable stories contain a theme with a strong ethical or moral premise. A story proves the theme by tracking the conflict that ensues between the hero and his nemesis. Both characters represent opposing values. In simple terms, good guys win, or lose, depending on the outcome of that conflict. In so doing they ‘prove’ the theme.

But does this then mean that some stories are not ethical or moral? Is the nemesis’ winning of the fight, proof that unethical and immoral behaviour is rewarded? 

Biblical tales, for example, are clearly moral. NoahCleopatraThe Ten Commandments. As are modern stories, such as Braveheart,  The FirmGladiatorOblivionEdge of Tomorrow, and countless others. These tales have at their core a moral premise that states that if the hero does the right thing, he will eventually achieve the goal. He will carry the day, save the world, even if he sometimes has to sacrifice himself to do it.

“The story’s moral premise is the pilot of the ship, steering it towards its inevitable destination.”

But what about less obvious examples? SevenFight ClubInceptionOceans 11,12,13? In what sense do these stories espouse ethical or moral values? 

This bothered me quite a bit because, deep down, I felt that all great stories promote the best in us rather than the worst. Yet, something rang true about these latter stories. I felt a verisimilitude in them that I associated with great tales.

Then, during one of my classes on story-telling, it struck me. Most stories are indeed moral and ethical, with one proviso. In some, the moral or ethical judgment falls outside the world of the story itself—it is made by an audience or reader based on received cultural, social, and religious values.

Stories in which the villain gets away with it, spreading death and mayhem in his wake, may appear to show that malice, slyness, and cold-blooded determination lead to victory, but few of us would applaud his actions. 

A horror story, in which, let’s say, demons succeed in taking over the world, is not necessarily a celebration of evil overcoming good. Rather, it is a warning: If the hero fails to stop evil, this is the result – a horrific world overrun by demons. 

The characters within such a story may even celebrate this fact, but audiences, as a whole, won’t, since they bring their own moral and ethical systems to bare upon the tale. 

Paradoxically, then, good will always rise above evil even when it seems defeated.

Summary

Most stories invoke an ethical and moral foundation, even those that ostensibly seem not to.

Obstacles and the Foundation of Structure

Obstacles in Source Code
Obstacles as reversals in Source Code

Obstacles in stories. What are they?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, information that ought to be surprising yet inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience or reader guessing, and inevitable because it has the ring of truth about it.

But what specific forms do turning points/obstacles take?

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journey of the protagonist. In the best stories, they are causally related. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has more on his mind than the physical task alone. 

The Specifics of Obstacles

Obstacles may stop the flow of events, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may even reverse the flow, resulting in an about-turn.

“One way to view turning points is as obstacles that block the way to the protagonist’s goal and force a change in direction.”

What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins. 

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog DayRun Lola RunVantage Point and Source Code. Such stories replay events from the same starting point but with variations in outcome.

Deflection or expansion is by far the most common form of obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan. The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one.

Summary

Turning points are obstacles to the status quo. They introduce major new sections of your story, presenting information that is surprising yet inevitable. There are three main types—dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.

Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

Character Flaw in Stories — what is it?

The character flaw in Macbeth
Few enduring stories illustrate the influence of the character flaw more strongly than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

What is a character flaw, anyway?

One way to think of a flaw is as a glitch in a character’s internal makeup that shapes his interaction with the world. In trying to hide or suppress this glitch, the character engages in an inner struggle, which drives the story forward. 

A Character flaw may be born out of an internal cause, such as an emotional scar from the past, or an external one, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice.

Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character make for interesting stories that resonate with readers and audiences.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, such as the three witches and his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

“The Character Flaw generates inner conflict in the protagonist. It is a prolific generator of subtext in a story.”

Additionally, a flaw generates questions about the story: What lies and obfuscations has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And, crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point, and climax? 

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey through the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”.

In The Matrix Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self-belief (flaw) to one of belief.

This inner journey—Neo’s character arc—influences each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw directs a character’s response to the world. It helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his actions.

Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace
Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace

Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition. 

“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown. 

Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.

Complete Story ~ essential ingredients

Complete story:Tom Cruise in The Edge of Tomorrow
In Edge of Tomorrow the complete story arises as a result of the A and B lines coming together at the climax.

In his book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder offers us this piece of invaluable advice on writing a complete story: “Keep in mind the only reason for storytelling, and why the A and B stories must cross throughout: It’s to show the true reason for the journey is not getting the tangible goal, but learning the spiritual lesson that can only be found through the B Story!”

This is what the tale is really about: learning the spiritual or moral lesson that allows the hero to overcome the obstacles that life and the antagonist throw his way.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

At the inciting incident, the hero is given a wake-up call. A bump disturbs his trajectory through the ordinary world. His first response is usually an incorrect one. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise is told he is to go to the warfront to film the allied invasion. His response is to try and blackmail the General in order to force him to reverse his decision. Not a good call.

“In a complete story the A and B narrative strands criss-cross each other at crucial moments.”

The first turning point represents the true start of the story. It also sets the outer goal. Tom Cruise is killed, but gets covered by the blue blood of the Alpha Mimic, which causes him to return to relive the day. His response upon finding himself back at square one, however, is to try and talk the Master Sergeant into letting him call his superiors. Lesson still not learnt.

By the midpoint, Cruise finally realises why he keeps returning to the same event, over and over again. He has to team up with the Angel of Verdun and defeat the Mimics by killing their leader, the Omega. Our reluctant protagonist has gone from unwilling participant to motivated Hero. Here, the outer and inner stories fuse to produce a single and clear purpose—a plan to save the world from the invading Mimics—even if it means sacrificing oneself to do it.

By the second and final turning point, his recurring efforts are in danger of stalling—a blood transfusion will rob him of his ability to relive the day, just as it did the Angel of Verdun’s. And while he is at first reluctant to sacrifice her to this permanent-death scenario, he realises that he has no choice but to risk it if he is to have any hope of defeating the Mimics. This represents a step up in growth and is a perfect illustration of the A and B stories supporting each other.

The inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, and the second turning point, then, present the writer with the perfect opportunity of fusing the Hero’s transformational arc to his pursuit of the outer goal.

Summary

The B Story underpins the A story. It is the transformational arc the hero undergoes in order to acquire the true goal.

Invitation

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Surprise and Explanation in Stories

SurpriseONE of the joys of reading a well-written story is found in the element of surprise.

A surprise can prevent complacency and help avoid predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Surprise and Explanation

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the young protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, fails to understand the reasons why his uncle is disliked by his mother. Consequently he plays a childish prank on him, hoping to drive him away from their home. When his uncle is found dead in his bed the very next day, Benjamin thinks it is as a result of the prank and the guilt stays with him for decades. It seeps into other areas of his life, including his taking the blame for the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. By remaining unresolved the poorly understood event helps to define his life.

I knew that I had a powerful mechanism at my disposal that could ripple through the entire story. I just had to ensure that I used it at the right moment, in this instance, the climax – the nexus of the protagonist’s inner and outer life. I also had to make sure that the explanation it offered was credible. I did so by placing sufficient clues along the way, drawn from the backstory.

Judging from the reviews of The Nostalgia of Time Travel has received thus far, it appears that I may have succeeded.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story ties your protagonist’s inner and outer life together and leaves a lasting impression.