Tag Archives: novelist

The Hero’s Journey in Stories

The hero’s journey in The Matrix

The hero’s journey in The Matrix

.
.
THE hero’s journey can be viewed as a composite of two sorts of paths through the story world.

The one is an outer journey that contains the physical events that play out in this world. The other is an inner journey that motivates the hero’s actions.

Think of the inner journey as the path that takes the hero to a state of higher knowledge and self-awareness. Only when he has achieved this state will his outer actions be of sufficient quality to defeat the antagonist in the external world.

Defining the hero’s journey in The Matrix

In The Matrix, Neo’s love interest, Trinity, and his relationship with his friends, provide some of the most important reasons he embarks on his outer journey.

His goal is to defeat the antagonistic forces that keep humanity slumbering in a virtual world. That is his outer journey.

But in order to complete his outer journey successfully he has to undertake an inner journey that will culminate in the realisation that he is the only one capable of defeating agent Smith and the machines. This march to self awareness is a prerequisite for wielding the power he needs to achieve success.

His friendship with Morpheus and his crew, and his love for Trinity, therefore, are spurs to Neo’s outer journey.

Often, the inner and outer journeys intersect in one powerful scene. In The Matrix, Neo dies at the hands of agent Smith only to be brought back to life through Trinity’s love, symbolised by a kiss.

Summary

The inner journey provides the explanation for the hero’s actions that comprise his outer journey.

Writing a strong story ending

Strong story ending in Unforgiven

Unforgiven has a strong story ending


A strong story ending is essential to the success of your tale and is the result of deliberate planning from the very start of your manuscript.

Here are five suggestions for writing such an ending:

1. Play up the reputation of the protagonist, and even more so, the antagonist

Stories are about the protagonist and antagonist involved in a life and death struggle of some sort. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the stakes and leads to a more engaging and tense ending.

In Unforgiven, William Munny, the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Later he is described by the Kid as being “the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Bill Daggett, is described by a deputy as being utterly fearless. He is seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

A truly memorable story ending is as surprising as it is inevitable. Foreshadowing it, therefore, has to be subtly crafted so as not to show its hand.

2. Cast doubt about the outcome of the final confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift direction

Introducing twists which thwart our expectations, causes us to worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who can fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Increase the suspense around the final confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might result in his own death. He tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s doubts about the outcome of the confrontation increases our suspense even more.

5. Have the final confrontation play out in the antagonist’s stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair weakens the protagonist’s ability to prevail. Munny faces Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies and henchmen. This stacks the deck against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

A powerful ending increases the tension in the story by making the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist seem unlikely.

Fine Tuning the Story Climax

Story Climax in The Matrix

Story Climax in The Matrix

ARGUABLY the most important scene in any tale is the story climax, also known as the must-have-scene.

This scene, which occurs towards the end of the story, pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a winner-take-all confrontation. Here the stakes are at their highest, the outcome at its most uncertain, the moral premise of the story undecided.

How to improve the story climax

The question arises as to how we may improve on this crucially important scene, knowing that a failed climax inevitably means a failed story. Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

1. What is the primary strength of your antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness or fear of your protagonist?

Create a scene that plays up your protagonist’s chief weakness, while highlighting your antagonist’s primary strength. Additionally, place the confrontation in a setting that enhances the antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously decreasing them for your protagonist.

In The Matrix, a powerful confrontation between Neo and agent Smith takes place inside the virtual world — agent Smith’s territory where he holds the advantage. At the end of a sustained fight sequence Smith shoots Neo, and seemingly kills him. It is only when Trinity administers the kiss of love to Neo on the Nebuchadnezzar, back in the real world, that Neo recovers and is able to defeat Smith inside the matrix – the real climax of the film.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel the antagonistic forces are a category five cyclone and Benjamin Vlahos’s guilt over the death of his wife. The climactic scene occurs when the ghosts from his past emerge from the great funnel of the storm to confront him on the shores of Mission Beach. Stripped bare if all delusion he has to decide whether he wants to forgive himself or yield his life to the fury of the storm.

Summary

The story climax is the dramatic highlight of your tale. It pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a final confrontation whose outcome determines both the moral premise and the ultimate success of your story.

Plot Types In Stories

Adventure as one of the plot types in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Adventure as one of the plot types in Raiders of the Lost Ark

.
.
.
HOW many plot types are there in stories? Opinions differ, but here are twelve suggestions to get you going:

A sprinkling of Plot types

1. The Adventure: The Hero travels to exotic lands and experiences extraordinary events—typically in search of some sort of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well: Raiders of the Lost Arc.

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by following her to the ends of the earth if needs be: Taken.

3. The Redemption: The hero has to free himself from the internal and external consequences of a past action through atonement. This usually involves gaining insight about his past through a series of increasingly challenging actions: The Nostalgia of a Time Travel, Atonement.

4. The Quest: The protagonist goes on a journey to acquire or protect something of great value. The story usually describes the character’s vicissitudes and ultimate growth during this journey: Lord of the Rings.

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It usually involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth and redemption through a sacrificial act: Dangerous Liaisons.

6. The Revenge/Payback: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist: Unforgiven, The Count of Monte Christo.

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked in together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person: Face Off.

8. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away: Escape Plan, The Shawshank Redemption.

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously outgunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person. It can be a force of nature which threatens the life of the protagonist. Deep Impact, Twister.

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution: The Great Train Robbery, Ocean’s Eleven.

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story. It invites us to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death: Sherlock Holmes.

12. The Chase: In this type of plot the pursuit drives the events and character relationships. For tension to be maintained the chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased: World War Z, The Fugitive.

What kind of plot type drives your story? Is it a mix of several, perhaps? Determining your plot type(s) will help guide the development of your characters and action.

Summary

Plot types help you write your story by setting up certain requirements and expectations. This article suggests twelve such types.

Improving your logline and synopsis

Synopsis and The Matrix
.
You’ve finally written that logline for your story and generated a synopsis from it as a first step to writing your novel or screenplay.

But how do you go about improving both the logline and synopsis, prior to commencing the writing of the actual work itself? How do you write something as good as The Matrix?

 

The quality of a story is reflected in the quality of its logline and synopsis.

Ask yourself: Does your logline contain an effective set-up and pay-off? If not, seek to improve it.

Next, run through the basic structure of your story. Consider whether you can improve on any of the events, actions, and motivations that occur, especially at the major pivotal points:

How captivating is your introduction to the ordinary world or the inciting incident? Do we know what the story is about by the first third of Act I? How surprising is the first turning point at the end of Act I? Does your protagonist weigh the pros and cons of continuing his struggle at the mid-point? Does his struggle take a turn for the worse at the second turning point towards the end of Act II? How strong is the crisis leading to the final climax? How rewarding is the resolution?

Search for scenes that seem weak, flat, or uninteresting, then strengthen them. Specifically, consider if your setup and payoff are sharp and unique enough? Are there enough twists and surprises to hold our attention? Is the mislead and reveal as surprising and fitting as it can be?

Focusing on the pivotal scenes allows you to target your improvements where they count the most.

Summary

Improve your logline by making it more unique. Strengthen your synopsis by ensuring that the actions, motivations, and events that occur at the pivotal points are the best they can be.

Three Act Structure

Three act structure

Syd Field was a big proponent of the three act structure


.
.
IN his book The Screen Writer’s Workbook, Syd Field points out that each act in a three act structure story performs a specific function and answers a dramatic question.

The three act structure

The first act establishes the world of the protagonist and foreshadows his conflicts, as well as determining his purpose in the story world. The dramatic question of the first act is: What is the protagonist’s initial challenge that compels him to embark on a struggle to achieve the story goal?

The second act is characterised by mounting conflict. This act pits the protagonist against the antagonist by placing both in a situation of mounting attrition, forcing the protagonist to adapt his skills and face his inner weaknesses.

The second act is typically double the length of the first, and is propped up by a midpoint—the moment in which the protagonist decides on whether to give up on his goal, or press on against mounting obstacles. To go forward he has to dig deep to find his inner strength.

Ironically, the protagonist’s dogged determination to attain the goal in the second act increases the deadly opposition against him. The dramatic question of this act is: How does the protagonist keep his head above water in a rising tide of obstacles?

The third act is characterised by the story climax and resolution. It contains the must-have scene: The final clash between the protagonist and antagonist. The outcome of this clash yields the theme of the story.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s encounter with the ghosts of his past who represent the secret knowledge rooted in his subconscious gives rise to the perfect inner storm. His realisation about who he truly is changes his life forever. The dramatic question of the third act is: Will Benjamin discover the truth about his past. The theme is: Seek, persist, and you shall find.

Summary

A story typically comprises of a three act structure. Each act answers a specific dramatic question.

Defining the theme in stories

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; a unifying or dominant idea or motif found in a work of art.

What I find most useful about theme stems from combining two ideas drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme emerges only the end of the story and contains a moral premise.

The theme is proven at the end of a story because that’s when the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is decided. It contains a moral premise because the conflict itself is, at its core, a conflict between good and evil.

In simple terms, if the antagonist wins we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins we have an up ending — good triumphs over evil.

Establishing the theme in 30 Days of Night

In the film 30 Days of Night the isolated northern Alaskan town of Barrow is beset by a band of vampires intent on using a month of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community.

The sheriff, Eben Oleson, the story’s protagonist, confronts Marlow, the leader of the vampires, in order to protect his town, but clearly lacks the strength to defeat him. All seems lost until Eben hatches a plan to bolster his own strength by infecting himself with tainted blood, turning himself into a vampire. Eben defeats Marlow then purposely exposes himself to sunlight and dies, ensuring that he himself never becomes a threat to the humans.

The theme that emerges at the end of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, leads to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others.

Isolating themes in this way allows us to see the essence of stories at a glance. It helps us to keep narrative events on track.

Summary

The theme embodies the moral premise of the story and is established at the end of the tale.

Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection is one of the many techniques discussed in Sol Stein’s marvelous book


.
.
.
.
IN his book, On Writing, master editor and storyteller, Sol Stein stresses that good dialogue is never on-the-nose. It does not solely focus on the plot. It is certainly never trivial, unlike much of the dialogue we hear in casual conversations at parties or in supermarkets.

Good dialogue is oblique and unexpected. Yet, in deflecting, it hints at the very secrets the characters are trying to hide. It heightens our sense of intrigue, curiosity, and suspense.

Deflection takes several forms. Here are some examples:

Types of deflection

1. Abruptly changing the subject:

“Got that hundred bucks I lent you?”
“Went to the bank to draw it. Saw your girlfriend in the queue. Don’t think she spotted me. Too busy falling all over some guy with male model looks.”

2. Answering a question with a question:

“Have you ever stolen anything of value from a friend?“
“Are you serious?”

3. Silence:

“Are you having an affair, Peter?”
Peter looks at his wife but says nothing. At last he gets up and pours himself a stiff drink.

4. Action that is at odds with the dialogue:

She slaps him hard across the face so that his hair flies to the side.
He responds: “If you ever stop doing that I’ll leave you.”

5. Counter attacking:

“You look bad.”
“So do you.”

6. Threatening :

He says: “Don’t wait up for me tonight, honey. Working really late at the office again.”
She says: “Mind if I drop by after gym to say hi?”

7. A counter revelation:

“I’m sorry Sam. I never meant to sleep with your girlfriend. It kinda just happened. And it was only that once.”
“That’s ok, Ben. It’s not like I haven’t slept with yours!”

In each case deflection acts to parry the original question or statement.

Summary

Deflection, in its various colours, is indispensable to the writing of good dialogue. Done well it helps to sustain curiosity and suspense. Use it often.

Story Structure

Story structure and Scarab

The Scarab series of novels strongly adhere to story structure

ONE of the most effective things novice screenwriters and novelists can do to improve their craft quickly is to learn as much as they can about story structure.

Happily the information is freely available in sites such as mine and in many others. Books and courses on the subject, too, number in the thousands.

So what is story structure?

Story structure refers to the overall shape of a story comprising of events arranged into scenes.

A fitting structure emerges when the right scenes occur in the right place, at the right time, to solicit maximum audience or reader engagement.

Laying out Story Structure

Typically, a well structured story comprises of three acts—a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning establishes the setting, situation, characters and their motivations, and, chiefly, the protagonist’s goal.

The middle expands and complicates the obstacles placed in the path of achieving that goal.

The end resolves the question of whether or not the goal can be achieved, most typically, against a background of mounting tension and pace, resulting in a crisis, its climax and resolution.

Having grouped your scenes into the three sections that form a beginning, middle and end, answer the following questions:

Do your scenes:

Add to or detract from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal?
Accelerate the pace of the story?
Create conflict?
Contribute to the overall rhythm of the story—fast scenes ought to be followed or preceded by slower ones and tense ones with lighter/humorous ones?
Create anticipation/tension?
Surprise the reader/audience?
Foreshadow important events?
Sustain curiosity?
Contribute to character development?
Place the protagonist in jeopardy?

If the answer to these questions is mostly “yes”, then you are probably on your way to writing a successful story.

Summary

Story structure refers to a finite number of scenes arranged into three acts so that they facilitate the creation of suspense, verisimilitude, and impact in a story.

Attitude and Character

Attitude

Attitude

Crafting distinctive characters is not easy. The danger is that we create robots who merely drive the plot forward. One remedy for this is to think about your character’s attitude to life.

Just what is attitude in character?

Attitude is the underlying manner which motivates and shapes the way a character speaks, moves, makes decisions. It contains traces of a character’s backstory, value system, and intention.

An attitude can be optimistic, pessimistic, challenging, proud, sardonic, supercilious, courageous, cowardly, and so on.

Checking for Attitude

How do you check for this distinctive quality in your characters? In a scene where two or more characters interact, ask yourself whether you could swap dialogue and action between them without your readers noticing. If you can, then the chances are that your characters are mere generic engines whose sole aim is to push the plot forward.

Who but the Terminator would say: I’ll be back. Or, Bruce Banner warn: Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like it when I’m angry, or Dorothy: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. And, is there anyone who can’t name the movie franchise with a lead character whose favourite drink has to be prepared in a very specific way: A martini. Shaken, not stirred.

In terms of small, defining actions, can you imagine anyone chewing on a cigar, or parting his poncho to reveal his gun and holster, in quite the same way as Clint Eastwood does in his portrayal of the laconic anti-hero in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns? Or The Nostalgia of Time Travel’s Benjamin Vlahos being preoccupied with solving a mathematical equation for thirty years in order to undo a dreadful mistake?

Granting your characters different attitudes will help you create memorable individuals for your stories.

Summary

Grant your characters specific attitudes towards life to give them individuality.