Tag Archives: novelist

What is the Hollywood Story Structure?

Hollywood signI am a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Story Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such stories as Hollywood stories), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage – sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea.

Commercial structure, then, orders an interconnected set of events about a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to an arrangement of interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing a difficult problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

What sparks a storyteller

What sparks a storyteller?

As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.

There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.

Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.

A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.

A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.

My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.

Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.

Summary

One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.

Distinguishing Between the Hero’s Inner and Outer Motivation in Stories

MotivationDictionary.com defines motivation as ‘the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way.’

As a technical device in stories motivation can be understood as something that involves two interwoven aspects – inner and outer persuasion.

Motivation Within and Without

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his mental life – his values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, his outer motivation.

Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way – as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.

Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.

The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.

Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!”

The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical response to the goal, guided by his reasons for doing so.

Summary

Inner motivation explains why the hero physically responds to some challenge or opportunity, outwardly, in the way that he does.

What Sort of Writer Would You Like to Be?

What sort of Writer are you?WHAT sort of writer do you want to be? That is a perennial and interesting question. But it is also a difficult one to answer because many of us write from the gut, without pausing to examine our deepest motivations.

Yet, the question is important and I pose it to my writing students each year.

The answers I get vary: The sort of writer who makes a good living writing – a commercial writer. Or, a serious, literary writer. Or, another Steven King.

I want to be the sort of writer that…

I tend to nudge students along by asking a related question: What sort of films and novels do you enjoy? Chocolat or Independence Day? The Spire or Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps all of those, alongside many others?

The answers point to the sorts of techniques we need to pay special attention to.

Commercial, widely popular stories tend to focus on the outer journey – the visible struggle of the hero to attain some important tangible goal – save the world, his family, his beloved from some terrifying threat. To discover a hidden treasure. To solve some impossibly difficult puzzle and be rewarded with fame and fortune.

More literary writing throws the focus on the inner journey – the balance or imbalance of the hero’s inner values and motivations pitted against an outer challenge: The discovery of a large pearl that forever changes the life a poor fishing family, and the village they live in. The willful building of a spire, against the advice of others, atop an existing cathedral, even though it lacks the appropriate foundation to support it.

Some films and novels manage to strike a balance between the two journeys – the attempt to return a destructively powerful, magical ring to the hellfire that forged it, while fighting the growing desire to posses its beguiling power.

It is this third category, the one that balances the literary with the commercial, that is, in my opinion, the most viable. It is the one I encourage my students to explore the most.

I believe that stories need to have forward thrust and momentum. They need to pounce from obstacle to obstacle, and to do so in a clear, tangible way that involves the activation of the senses. But stories also need to challenge the hero’s beliefs and values. They need to pit the hero against herself, as much as against an antagonist.

This sort of story requires paying special attention to character-building, but it also needs to generate exciting and fast-paced action. It involves aligning the hero’s character arc to the slope of her mounting obstacles so that each minor victory or defeat forces her into a spiritual, moral, and physical dilemma that promotes growth.

Thinking about stories in this way often helps gauge a developing writer’s specific interest in the craft.

Summary

Write stories of the sort you most enjoy.

Making Your Character’s Actions Uniquely Appropriate

Appropriate Actions

Appropriate Actions in The Godfather

How does the writer determine which settings and actions are the most appropriate for the specific characters in a story?

In his book, The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing, UCLA Screenwriting professor, Richard Walter, calls this appropriateness integration. Integration refers to the unique suitability of events arising from the synchronous cooperation of all other story elements.

Appropriate Actions in Appropriate Settings

In The Godfather, for example, a wealthy man with a particular love of racehorses, defies the mafia. How should the writer craft his punishment? There are any number of gruesome ways to effect retribution. Burn him alive in his own house. Cut him up into little pieces starting with his fingers. But are these the most integrated, the most unique ways, given the man’s background and setting?

In the end the writer found a particularly diabolical punishment for the defiant man. In an unforgettably horrifying scene he had him wake up in his bed with the bleeding head of his prize racehorse under his blankets. Not a morally justifiable act, but one that uniquely fits the defies-us-and-be-punished-where it-hurts-the-most code of the Cosa Nostra.

In War Games, the young protagonist, a computer hacker, is being held by the military in an underground chamber. How should he attempt to escape? Through the air-vent system? Faking a spasm to get a guard inside and hit him over the head with a paperweight? These actions lack a unique fit.

Instead, the computer nerd records, on a miniature tape recorder, the sound key made by the unlocking of the electronically-controlled door and plays it back later to escape. His solution is both ingenious and unique to his circumstances and expertise. It integrates, in a fitting way, elements previously laid out in the story.

Integrating character, action and setting in this way, then, is an effective way of producing memorable and believable scenes.

Summary

Integration refers to the skill in crafting character action in settings that are uniquely appropriate to the story.

The Four Functions of Good Dialogue

The functions of dialogueMUCH has been written about how dialogue functions in screenplays and novels.

But its role in storytelling is so central that there is always room for more discussion. Here is Dwight V Swain on the subject taken from his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual.

The Functions of Dialogue

Dialogue, he informs us, performs four functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

Information: This seems straight forward enough. Tell the audience what they need to know to follow the story. The catch is that the writer should do so without being obvious or slowing down the forward thrust of the tale.

A good example of providing necessary information while maintaining the tension occurs at the start of Inglorious Basterds where a Nazi officer interviews the French farmer concerning the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area – a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the very floorboards where the interview is taking place!

Emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should also reveal emotion. Failure to do so makes for boring lines. In the above mentioned example, each line uttered by the Nazi officer in the scene serves to heighten the stakes for the farmer and his family since discovering the Jews under the floorboards will surely lead to everyone’s execution.

Plot: Additionally dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously so that it does not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that the Nazi officer is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that the Nazi already has the answers and is merely prolonging the process to the torment of the farmer and his family.

Character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. The Nazi officer, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially seems more of a conversation between friends than an interrogation. The farmer, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial – part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Working in unison, then, these functions make for effective and engrossing dialogue – a boon to any storytelling toolkit.

Summary

Good dialogue performs four functions – it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

Conflict through Dilemma in Novels and Screenplays

DilemmaWHAT sort of choice or dilemma makes for the best dramatic conflict in stories?

In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, for example Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate any possibility of a risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful dramatic technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma generates inner conflict that escalates the tensions between himself and other characters in the story.

How Settings Support Plot in Stories

SettingsONE of the many ways to strengthen the dramatic impact of your stories is to place your characters in settings that variously generate harmony or tension among your characters.

In The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty points out that in Wuthering Heights, the somber, brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect setting for the fiery love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a player in the story as any of the characters.

In the film Witness John Book is a city detective recovering from a gunshot wound he received while attempting to shield Rachel, an Amish mother, and her son who has witnessed a homicide. In one incident the entire Amish neighborhood of the rural Pennsylvanian town, where most of the film plays out, takes part in the building of a barn – the men doing the building, the women supporting the men by making the food.

In understanding that this religious, rural community is an indispensable part of Rachel’s life, John correctly concludes that he and Rachel can never share a life – she is embedded in religious and rural values, he isn’t. Even when he sees her, naked to the waist washing dishes, desiring her, he is able to resist the temptation to be her lover. He knows he does not belong.

In my novel, The Land Below, the setting of a sealed underground goldmine is in counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to seek a better life on the surface. The plot to escape emerges inevitably from his dark, claustrophobic existence.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, place your characters in spaces that feed the plot and generate drama.

Summary

Place your story in settings that help to create conflict among your characters – settings that support some characters while opposing others.

How to Contrast Scenes in Scripts and Novels

ScriptsHow many scenes are necessary in writing good scripts? In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger notes that this number varies. Some have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred.

In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Contrasting Scenes in Scripts and Novels

Some scenes are extremely short. Those include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or the inside of a vehicle. These are meant to place the viewer or reader in a specific time and place. Others, engaged with plot and character development occur over several pages.

Film scripts that comprise of only a handful of scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that runs into hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

The secret to a well-paced story is to balance scenes through contrast. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones.

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This prevents the sense of sameness that leads to boredom.

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In my own novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, scenes that enact the slow pace of a man in physical and moral stasis are contrasted with the immense force of a category five cyclone that threatens to destroy the protagonist’s world.

Summary

Contrasting the number and texture of scenes creates rhythm and movement. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to stasis and boredom.

Potent Language in Stories

Potent and moodySOME of the most potent writing advice comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially precious book, Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers who seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete number amongst the greatest – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is potent, in part, because their words render up pictures.

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known but nonetheless accomplished writer:

Potent Language

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of an environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the telling use of concrete and specific language. This language is not only useful in evoking an appropriate atmosphere in short stories and novels. It is also important when used adroitly in the ‘action block’ of screenplays, where brief, specific, and concrete language adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use specific, definite, and concrete language to write scenes that create mood and render up potent pictures in the minds of your readers.