Tag Archives: Linda Seger

Story Mentors: Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Robert McKee, Christian Vogler

Fist

The Power of Five

We are living in an age where information on just about any aspect of science or art is abundant. And so it is with writing. Sifting for relevance through this mountain of data, however, is now perhaps our biggest challenge. In an attempt to lighten this task, I offer a brief summary of five important writing mentors active in the Hollywood scene today.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, the five mentioned in this post adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the well known film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot, which entirely revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance – although even he employs a structural template in his use of the quest as a generic structure – but more of that later.

Syd Field

Simplifying for the sake of brevity, one may regard Syd Field’s contribution as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles. Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres. McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach in his thinking, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In A Hero’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale in terms of character function. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into their work. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

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Understanding Story Values

Story Values

Story Values

Good stories relate more than an outer journey that the Hero embarks on in pursuit of a difficult but worthy goal. Hollywood screenwriting consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that something more meaningful has to occur to deepen and universalise the story – the story has to address some aspect of the human condition and the values that underpin it.

Theme reveals Value

The search for justice, the pursuit of excellence, the striving for honour, the need for fulfillment – these are all aspects of a character’s inner journey that help audiences and readers identify with the Hero. A value system can be a negative or positive one. In the film, Gladiator, Maximus’s (Russell Crowe) actions seem ostensibly to be driven by his desire to revenge the slaughter of his family. But a closer examination reveals that he is also driven by his need to right the wrongs of government that arose as a consequence of the emperor’s death.

In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash (Russell Crowe) needs to solve a great mathematical problem in order to prove his worth. He is driven by great intelligence, which manifests, in part, in his condescending attitude towards his peers and teachers. Yet, at a deeper level, he strives for things of the heart, rather than just those of the mind: he makes up a fictional government agent who appreciates his abilities and encourages him to solve a puzzle which can save the world – a mark of his superior intelligence and his need to serve the greater good.

A story’s value system can spring from a character’s desire for authenticity, as in Driving Miss Daisy, in which Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) discovers her true self is more connected to those below her social sphere than she realises. A value system can also espouse social values – a fight for peace, justice, and freedom, as in Thelma and Louise and A Few Good Men. Whatever the emphasis, values underpin a character’s actions, helping to guide, inflect, and often create a story-enriching inner conflict.

Summary

Good stories rest on the bedrock of values. Values guide a character’s actions; a story’s value system is revealed by the theme, which is typically settled at the end of the story when the clash between the Hero and antagonist yields a final result – such as good trumps evil, or vice versa.

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How to Write Decision and Action Scenes

The Decision Scene in a story usually follows the Realisation Scene – the subject of last week’s post. The Action Scene, in turn, is most often preceded by the Decision Scene, forming a realisation-decision-action structure. Although this structure varies greatly in stories – other material might intervene – the scenes are causally connected.

Deciding

Deciding

The Decision Scene

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if the Relisation Scene leads directly into action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear abrupt and forced. Sandwiching a Decision Scene 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 (Keano Reeves) decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the world of Agent Smith and the machines. 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.

Action

Action

The Action Scene

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.

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The Realisation Scene

Moment of Illumination

Moment of Illumination

What is the Realisation Scene?

One way to approach writing from a structural perspective, is to understand the function of a number of must-have scenes in your story. One such scene is the Realisation Scene. In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger defines this important scene as ‘the moment when a character and/or the audience gets it’ – the ah-ha moment. It spins the story around in a different direction and is, therefore, also a structural turning point in the tale.

The Sixth Sense, The Fugitive, and The Green Mile

In The Sixth Sense, for example, this scene occurs when Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and the audience realise that he is dead. This changes the direction of the story in a major way. In The Fugitive, the Realisation Scene occurs when Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) perceives that Charlie Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) is behind his wife’s murder and the attempt to frame him for it. And in The Green Mile this scene occurs when Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) realises that John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) has a God-given power to heal.

After the Realisation Scene plays out, things cannot continue as they were. New plans have to be hatched and adjustments made in the light of new information. As in all well thought out structural turns, the effects is felt both at the level of plot, and on the level of character, causing the latter to grow or wilt depending on his or her strengths and weaknesses.

What’s Wrong With Mulholland Drive?

Occasionally, however, this moment of illumination is not immediately evident, something that Seger sees as a weakness. In Mulholland Drive, for example, Seger suggests that the audience needs an ah-ha moment, right before the Betty/Diane character kills herself, in order to grant the audience clarity. Whether this is true or not for a multiform film such as Mulholland Drive (Lynch would probably argue that he purposely chose obfuscation to deepen the sense of the unknowable), the fact remains that the Realisation Scene, in most conventional stories, is useful in helping to organise the plot around a central moment of illumination that changes the way the audience and the protagonist view the way forward, and as such, is a valuable addition to the writer’s tool kit.

Summary

The Realisation Scene comprises of an an-ha moment in which the audience and the protagonist understand the true nature of the dilemma. This is a game changer and alters the way the protagonist pursues the goal from that moment on.

Author Interview

For an expanded discussion of some of my views on writing, as well as one or two other matters, kindly visit: http://thorstonewell.com/2012/07/08/stavros-halvatzis-interview/

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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.

How to Write Effective Subplots

Subplots perform several functions – they add depth and resonance to your story by inviting comparison to the main plot, allow for variation to the tone and pace, often through comic relief, and cause deviations to the plot itself. Linda Seger remarks that subplots give your protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, or to learn a new skill. Subplots also echo the main concerns of the story at a more transcendent level, by adding a different perspective, enriching the tone, and strengthening the themes and symbols of your story. But subplots are not only concerned with protagonists and their world. An action originating from a minor character within the subplot, may twist the plot around in a surprising way. Indeed, crafting a turning point from the subplot is one way to ensure that you don’t telegraph the event and ruin the surprise. Like the main plot, a subplot has a beginning, middle, and end. The number of subplots depends on the needs of the main plot, and how much underpinning it requires.

Sherlock HolmesMain Plot

In the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to stop Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) poisoning all opposing voices in parliament, installing himself as leader of the nation, and extending the Empire. A declared practitioner of the dark arts, Blackwood personifies the forces of irrationality, Holmes, the forces of logic. At a thematic, moral, and symbolic level, the premise is of cool-headedness and rationality vs. fear and irrationality.

Subplots

Enriching the story are three subplots: that of the mysterious Professor Moriarty who, behind the scenes, manipulates the conflict between Lord Blackwood and Holmes, and in particular, Irene Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) love for Holmes, for his own evil ends; the Holmes/Dr.Watson/Mary Morstan triangle; and Holmes’s own relationship with Irene Adler. Some of the major deflections to the main plot come from these subplots: Moriarty gets Irene to drug Holmes in his own rooms by threatening to kill him if she doesn’t (subplot 1). Irene has access to Holmes because of her (past) relationship with him (subplot 2); meanwhile, Holmes tries to break up Watson’s (Jude Law) relationship with his girlfriend, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), perhaps for fear of losing his only friend and confidant (subplot 3). Holmes’ antics succeed in making Watson feel guilty about abandoning his old friend, which results in his saving Holmes’ life on several occasions (main plot). Coincidently, the Watson/Mary relationship invites comparison to the Holmes/Irene one, suggesting an even tighter bond between the two men. In this way, events and motivation from a subplot serve the main plot, helping to keep it on track.

Summary

The function of subplots, as shown in Sherlock Holmes, is to explain and motivate character actions, deflect the main plot, and deepen resonance through contrast and parallel. Although subplots vary substantially in focus and emphasis from story to story, the use of the three aspects identified above will certainly help to deepen and enrich any plot.

The Second Turning Point in Your Story

In Making A Good Script Great, story consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that in any screenplay comprising of three acts, the first act deals with the set-up of the story, the second with its development, and the third with its climax and resolution. Each act, therefore, has a different focus — a different job to do. This “chunking” of material into sections, is of course, not limited just to screenplays. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested that all stories comprise of three main sections – a beginning, middle, and end. This, in many ways, is the structural essence of any story. Much of the wisdom on structure by the so called manual writers such as Seger, can therefore be applied, with some modification, across a variety of writing platforms – the novel, the stage-play, and of course, the screenplay.

Turning Points as moments of Transition

The transition from one act to another is via an elevated action, or event, commonly referred to as a turning point, which usually involves the protagonist. Because the second act tends to be twice as long as the first or third acts, the former requires additional underpinning – the mid-point. In an earlier blog, I suggested that the first turning point represents the moment in which the story truly gets underway. The mid-point, by contrast, represents the protagonist’s “moment of grace”, a moment of insight in which he or she weighs up progress towards the goal against inner and outer resources. The second (and final) turning point occurs when the protagonist confronts another major obstacle, marshals all remaining assets, and pushes forward towards the goal in a do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. As with the inciting incident and the first turning point, the relationship between the first and second turning points is one of magnitude and direction (see earlier blogs). During the first turning point, the protagonist identifies the goal and embarks on the journey to achieve it. But the task is not easy. Obstacles and problems abound. Some are unsolvable. The second turning point, therefore, readjusts the initial direction, refocuses the goal, and, in the light of new information, strengthens the protagonist’s resolve.

In the film Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a ruthless killer in his youth, is a down-and-out pig farmer who can hardly shoot straight or stay on a saddle anymore. Because of his past reputation, he is approached by a young gun calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to assist in killing two men for cutting up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny, in turn, solicits the help of his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and together with The Schofield Kid, they set off to do the deed. Accepting the Kid’s offer is the first turning point. Ned’s decision to pull out of the deal is the mid-point because it offers Munny the opportunity to cancel the job at hand (which he refuses to do). The murder of Ned is the second turning point – Munny now has no choice but to take revenge on those who killed his friend. His goal, therefore, goes from killing the two men he was hired for, to killing everyone who participated in the death of Ned. Not even the saloon keeper, who allowed Ned’s body to be displayed outside his establishment, is spared. This precisely illustrates how the story goal can be refocused in the light of new information.

One Last Turn before the Climax

As with the first turning point, the second turning point achieves the following:

1. It spins the action in a new direction.
2. It revisits the central question of the story.
3. It elevates the stakes.
4. It sets up the next (and final) act.
5. It speeds up the action in the last act by tightening the protagonist’s goal around the looming confrontation with the antagonist.
6. It injects new information about the existing problem.
7. It leads directly to the story’s climax.

In Summary

The function of the second turning point is to inflect and refocus the story goal (initiated by the first turning point). Additionally it increases the stakes, pace, and tension, and leads directly to the final confrontation with the antagonist in the story’s climactic scene.