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Story Rhythm

Story rhythm in Othello

Story rhythm in Othello

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In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to orchestrate story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.

Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge.

This can occur within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.

If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.

Story rhythm in the climax 

If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other.

McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony.

Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).

Summary

Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. Correlation can also exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.

Choosing Character Names in Stories

Character names

Character names perfectly capture the biblical resonance in The Book of Eli

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Character names are an important part of constructing character identity in stories.

Not only does a name help us to identify the players in your story, but it often carries the flavour of the character.

What to avoid in character names

An expectant mother is overheard choosing a name for her child: Pat, Kelly, Terry, Bobby. Her sole reason for considering these particular names is that each can be applied to both a boy and girl. This flexibility could save her the disappointment of choosing a name early only to have her give it up upon discovering the actual gender of her baby.

But this lack of precision is exactly the reason we should avoid assigning interchangeable character names in our stories.

Although an audience will immediately recognise characters by their appearance, this is not the case with words on a page. Here, the character description performs this function, which, in the short story or novel, may be purposely brief, or scattered throughout the text.

Character names are the gateway to individuality and character identity.

It is also good practice to avoid giving characters similar sounding names. Clive and Kyle, Sharon and Shannine, Harry and Larry—except, of course, where the possible confusion flowing from this similarity helps the plot.

But a name may also add additional meaning and flavour to a character: Biblical names such as Paul, Peter, Ezekiel, Rachael, Mary and David, although commonplace, may still carry a trace of biblical resonance, especially if the context supports this.

Certain names may hint at an entire belief system or only certain aspects of a character whether that character turns out to adhere to that association or not. The more unusual or uncommon the name, the stronger the association. Few of us, for example, would name our character Hitler without expecting some association to accrue, and without providing some sort of reason in the plot why we have chosen to do so.

The web is replete with lists and articles providing and explaining the origin of names, their meaning and history. Books on naming conventions, available at any bookstore, are also a good place to start hunting for that all important handle of characters.

Summary

Choosing the right character names is the first step in developing a unique and effective character identity.

Minor Characters in Stories

 

Minor Characters in Dark city

Nosferatu-like creepiness characterizes the minor characters in Dark City

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Do the minor characters in your story exude personality? Do they have small but noticeable eccentricities? Are they memorable in some or other way? If not, they need to be.

A bevvy of minor characters

In Dark City, detective Eddie Walenski, played by Colin Friels, is obsessed with drawing circular patterns on the walls of his dark prison-like room. He behaves like a man who has seen a terrible truth about existence and it has tipped him over into madness.

In Body Heat, D.A. Assistant, Ted Danson, is a minor character who pretends he is Fred Astaire, performing dance steps whenever he gets the chance. Odd but strangely captivating.

In The matrix, the Oracle is a minor character loaded with strong habits and mannerisms. She smokes like a chimney, drawing on her cigarette with excessive deliberateness, is obsessed with baking, and never answers a question directly.

In Down Periscope, writer David Ward creates a wonderful array of minor characters for his Lt. Dodge to engage with:

Nitro, the electrician is dumb, erratic, but very efficient at his job. It’s as if his I.Q. has dropped as a result of all the electrical shocks he’s received over the years. In order to have Lt. Dodge communicate with his superiors, Nitro has to turn himself into a conducting conduit each time!

Engineer Howard Elder is a sailor with many years of experience, which seems to have made him eccentric, if not downright wacky. He sports a filthy Hawaiian shirt and stubble. It’s as if Pearl Harbour has traumatized him so that time has stood still and he has never changed clothes.

Executive Officer “Mart” Pascoe is rigid and authoritative with a bad temper. His intimidation tactics are compensation for his diminutive stature. He repeats orders from Lt. Dodge by shouting them at the crew at the top of his voice.

Although the characters mentioned in the examples above are indeed minor in terms of the time and space they occupy in the story, each is made memorable through colorful mannerisms, eccentricities, or obsessions.

Summary

Minor characters need not be bland and flat, only serving the plot. Give them quirks and eccentricities to make them and your story more memorable.

Genre and Story

Minority Report is a fine example of the science fiction genre

Minority Report is a fine example of the science fiction genre

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IN his book, Story, Robert McKee states that “to anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master genre and its conventions.”

If a film or book has been correctly promoted the audience or readers approach the story with a certain expectation. In marketing jargon this is referred to as “positioning the audience”. This alleviates the danger of readers or audiences spending the first part of the story trying to find out what it’s about.

Genre is as much a marketing tool as it is a story creation one.

Adroit marketing taps into genre expectation. From the title, to the fonts used in the text itself on posters and in television ads, the promoters are at pains to telegraph the sort of story the audience or readers are to expect. This means that the conventions of the genre have to be adhered to. But what are some of the most important conventions?

Genre Specifics

Music, Location, Dress Code, Gadgets, Vehicles, Lighting, and Narrative Conventions

In film, music forms one such convention. Traditional love stories, for example, use a certain type of score to elicit emotions appropriate to that type of story. The mellifluous musical score for Gone with the Wind would not be appropriate for Alien, or vice versa.

Location is another important convention. Westerns use the untamed countryside as part of the backdrop, while science fiction films include high-tech interiors such as spaceships or futuristic exteriors and interiors to convey mood and a sense of otherworldliness.

Clothes, gadgets, and vehicles, and lighting, are further clues to identifying genre. Who can forget the white high-tech armor of Star Wars‘ Storm Troopers, the Jedi Light Sabers, or the hi-flying cars and taxis in The Fifth Element and Minority Report? In terms of lighting, Film Noir, for example, utilises a stark chiaroscuro style to dramatise seedy streets, alleys, rain-coat wearing detectives, and the femme fatale.

But beyond the physical elements, narrative conventions also apply. Sad or tragic endings form part of the narrative tradition of tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, while “up endings” are traditionally associated with comedies and musicals, although exception do occur, as in Evita.

Things get interesting when genres mix, as in Blade Runner, which utilises conventions from film noir and science fiction. Indeed, the mixing of genres presents writers with the biggest opportunity for dressing up old stories in new clothes. Done well, the result is a tale that draws on tradition and novelty to produce narrative that is fresh and rooted in verisimilitude.

Summary

Genre is both a creative tool helping writers shape their stories based on what has gone before, and a marketing tool used by marketers to tell audiences what to expect in a film or novel.

World Building in Stories

World Building via Dean Kontz

Dean Kontz explores world building in his book, Writing Popular Fiction

In his book, Writing Popular Fiction Dean Koontz offers writers useful advice on a number of aspects that go into writing a well-crafted story.

In this post, I want briefly to look at one aspect of the writer’s toolkit à la Koontz: World building markers of near-future worlds (as opposed to words set in the far-distant future.)

Writing about our world, as opposed to writing about a completely alien planet, is more difficult because not everything can be made up; our crystal-ball gazing has to ring true. Near-future worlds have to contain enough extrapolated but recognisable elements to convince us of the verisimilitude of such worlds.

World building requires the ability to predict then project the outcome of trends and defining issues, or, at least, the ability to sound convincing.

Here are some markers, suggested by Koontz, to get you thinking.

Getting started on world building:

Moral Codes

What is considered acceptable today, wasn’t mildly acceptable, even in the West, a few decades ago. One only has to look at the issue of gay rights to realise the extent of the shifts currently underway.

Domestic Politics

Will current political systems still be defined by polarities seen in countries such as the Untied States (Democratic/Republican), Australia, and the UK (Labour/Liberal)?

World Politics

Will the U.S. continue exist as a dominant power? Will Russia or China? Or, will a new power have risen to prominence. Brazil perhaps?

Religion

Will the U.S. remain predominantly Christian, or will another religion rise to displace it? Perhaps science will eventually weaken religion to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant? Or perhaps the reverse is true: the resurgence of monolithic religion?

Personal Lives

This is, perhaps, the most important and detailed category.

How will our homes change? Our clothes, music, transportation? What types of food will we eat? Will marriage still exist as an institution? Will the number of children be limited by the sate? Will the smoking of cannabis be legalised? Will the moon and Mars harbour human colonies? Will space travel be made accessible to common folks? Will cancer, dementia, disease in general, be cured or will new diseases arise?

These are some of the categories, which, Koontz suggests, are useful in helping the writer to sketch in the background of a world that is both familiar and strange—a world that allows one’s characters to live and breathe in the imagination of the reader.

Summary

In thinking about world building of near futures, concentrate on key markers that define a society. This post suggests what some of those markers might be.

How to Write Story Characters

Leonardo DiCaprio as a great story characters in The Great Gatsby

His capacity for hope makes Gatsby one of the truly great story characters

DURING one of my recent lectures a student asked me about the nitty-gritty of writing great story characters for her screenplay.

This got me talking about how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear trite and forced.

I suggested that in some of the films and books, even by established screenwriters and authors, this contrasting trait appeared stilted and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall story character.

Typical story characters comprise of four defining traits, the fourth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and conflict.

For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city.

I emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.

Keeping story characters on track

So, if a someone keeps choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?

In other words, seek to explain, in a credible way, where his ‘wrong choice’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point in the story. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen your understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is intelligent, educated, persistent, but he’s also overly nostalgic as a result of having lost his wife in a ferry accident in Sydney Harbour years previously, for which he blames himself. This fourth trait dictates the way he lives his life. It underlies his every thought and action. Only if he can only prove that time travel to the past is possible can he change destiny and eliminate his grave mistake.

Were it not for the backstory that explains this ‘negative’ trait, Benjamin might simply appear foolish, or crazy, and not worth our time and empathy.

Summary

Define strong story characters by tying their traits into the significant events of their lives through backstory.

How to Write Better Heroes for your Stories

Heroes and villains in Edge of Tomorrow

Heroes and villains in Edge of Tomorrow

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IT happens to all of us at some point or another. We set out to make a certain character the Hero of our story only to have him turn into a wimp by the end of the tale.

What went wrong?

Here, curtesy of William M. Akers, are some suggestions to avoid this happening to you.

Writing better heroes

1. Heroes have well defined problems—-something they need to solve to win the prize, save the earth. But in order to do so heroes have to learn things about themselves, which may be even harder than the physical obstacles they encounter.

The physical barriers that heroes face are often reflections of the inner fears and thresholds that they have to  overcome in order to achieve the outer goal.

2. Heroes are active. They may be aided and abetted by a bevy of allies but they are the ones who initiate actions, reach for the goals and never quit until the bad guys are defeated and the goals achieved. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise keeps coming back to life again and again in an attempt to defeat the Mimics.

3. The Hero’s problem must be absorbing to an audience. The bigger the stakes, the more interesting the plight. In Breaking Away, the hero struggles to discover whether he is a bike rider or a stone cutter. This may not be much of a problem for you or me, but it is a problem for this particular character. Since we identify with the hero, we, too, desire that he solve it, and that he do so in an intriguing way.

4. Heroes must be steadfast. Aimless, unfocused Heroes who drift in and out of fuzzy situations are best left for art films with niche followings, because they will not prove widely popular with mainstream audiences.

These, then, are some of the characteristics that define the Hero in your story. So, when is your Hero not a Hero? When he turns into an aimless wimp.

Summary

Heroes are active problem-solvers whose actions drive the story forward. They are leaders not followers.

How to manage Rising Conflict in Stories

Rising Conflict in the writings of Lagos Egri

Rising Conflict in the writings of Lagos Egri

 

Staying with the work of Lagos Egri on how best to manage rising conflict in stories, this post specifically examines the role of transitions between emotional states.

Egri informs us that there are four such types:

Handling Rising Conflict

1. Foreshadowing (good)
2. Static (bad)
3. Jumping (bad)
4. Slowly rising (good)

Foreshadowed conflict should occur near the beginning of the story and should point to the forthcoming crisis.

In Romeo and Juliet, the warring families are already such bitter enemies that they ready to kill each other from the get-go.

Static conflict remains unchanging, spiking for only the briefest of moments and occurs only in bad writing. Arguments and quarrels create static conflict, unless the characters grow and change during these arguments. Every line of dialogue, every event, pushes towards the final goal.

In jumping conflict, the characters hop from one emotional level to another, eliminating the necessary transitional steps. This is also bad writing.

Avoid static and jumping conflict by knowing, in advance, what road your characters must travel on:

Fidelity to infidelity
Drunkenness to sobriety
Brazenness to timidity
Simplicity to pretentiousness

The above represent two extremes—start and destination.

Transitioning between less sharply seperated emotional states indicates slowly rising conflict between characters. This is the more desirable type of conflict in stories.

Supposing a character goes from love to hate. Let’s imagine there are seven steps between the two states:

1. Love
2. Disappointment
3. Annoyance
4. Irritation
5. Disillusionment
6. Indifference
7. Disgust
8. Anger
9. Hate

If a character goes from 1 to 5 at once, this constitutes jumping conflict, neglecting the necessary transition. In fiction, every step must be clearly shown. When your character goes through steps 1 to 9, you have slowly rising conflict. Each level is more intense than the previous one, with each scene gathering momentum until the final climax.

Summary

Rising conflict that transitions from level to level is the best way to manage the strife between your story’s characters.

Story Structure and Strong Emotion

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

ONE of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.

Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale—to keep the rope tight.

There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see these twists coming, or seem the as comprising the story’s underlying architecture.

Hiding structure through strong emotion.

One of the better ways to hide structure is through the adroit use of powerful emotions. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.

Story structure should be hidden behind strong emotion if we are to avoid the accusation of predictable and formulaic writing.

In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.

We are dealt a double blow. We feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. Emotions run high. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.

I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.

Summary

Hide the underlying structure of your story behind strong emotion that is motivated and timely.

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.