Tag Archives: reader

Conflict, Complication and Complexity in Stories

Complexity out of complication and conflictIN HIS book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that conflict arises the moment the protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident and heads towards the turning point at the end of act one.

Act two, the longest act of any story, is held together by conflict, complication and complexity. Every obstacle the protagonist encounters in trying to attain the goal, is complicated by these three aspects.

But what is the difference between complication and complexity? Aren’t they one and the same thing?

Complexity from Conflict and Complication

Complexity, according to McKee, results from the deepening interaction between three layers of conflict:

Inner
Personal
Extra-personal

In Kramer Vs. Kramer, for example, Kramer, whose wife has left him and his son, is torn by inner doubt. He loves his son, but is he in over his head? Can he bring up the child on his own?

There is also personal conflict. The boy is acting-up. He is terrified that he’ll starve without his mother to feed him. Kramer has a hard time pacifying the hysterical child.

Finally, he experiences extra-personal conflict. The kitchen is a dangerous, alien place for the inexperienced Kramer. He does his best to feign confidence. Things, however, degenerate rapidly as he tries to fry eggs for his son.

As the ill-equipped father fights the forces that threaten to defeat him, comedy turns into pathos. The result is one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a middle-aged theoretical physicist, too, has to battle complex internal and external conflicts in order to survive. Years of deep-seated guilt, an almost intractable mathematical problem, and an approaching category-five cyclone threaten his life. Together these conflicts create complexity that makes for engrossing reading.

Summary

Complication rises to the level of complexity when a character experiences inner, personal, and extra-personal conflict.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Man superimposed with galaxies and cycloneThis post is unashamedly about my latest novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel. The novelette represents a new departure from my usual writing, although I’ve tried to keep external events that are at the core of every genre-driven tale a strong feature of this story.

The novelette is part of my ongoing attempt to bring a more authentic, literary approach to my stories while still managing to retain a strong outer journey—something I began exploring in my previous novel, The Land Below.

Here’s a short description of The Nostalgia of Time Travel:

After the accidental death of his wife, Miranda, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist relocates to a remote resort town in Northern Queensland to work on a set of equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. As he struggles with the math, a deadly cyclone approaches, dragging with it ghosts from an unresolved past.

As always, I’ve worked with nuggets mined from different genres in an attempt to keep the story fresh and unpredictable, but I’ve taken extra care to keep the emotional and psychological dimensions authentic.

Here’s an early indication from the first Amazon.com review. I’d love to hear from others whether you think I’ve succeeded.

It’s a book for people who enjoy exploring the complexities of human nature By hannah on August 8, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

A thought provoking novel, that excels at creating a rich, layered world for his characters, with lines you want to read out loud, just to hear them. It’s more of a book for people who enjoy exploring the complexities of human nature, rather then just a waiting for the next plot point.

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Do You Like Your Stories Up Close and Personal?

Lonely man on pierContinuing from last week’s article drawn from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelists’s Guide, we look at the pros and cons of using the first-person technique in storytelling.

Despite its restrictions, the technique has many strengths to commend it.

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951 readers were so convinced of the actual existence of Holden Caulfield, the story’s fictitious narrator, that they scoured the streets to find him. The author’s use of youthful speech patterns, exaggeration, present tense, and slang imbued the work with a sense of fluency and authenticity that would be hard to create through the more common third person past tense narrative.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my soon to be released novella, concerns the struggle of an aging theoretical physicist, Benjamin Vlahos, to unite two grand theories – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – in one grand theory of everything.

Additionally, Benjamin is haunted by the loss of his wife that occurred thirty years previously, blaming himself for inadvertently creating the chain of events that led to her death. To make matters worse, one of the most powerful cyclones to ever threaten the coast of Northern Queensland in Australia is closing in.

As these events wind ever closer together, interspersed with fragments of memory, theoretical speculation, and a haunting sense of loss, the narrative becomes increasingly nostalgic, ethereal, and tense.

I chose to use the first person present tense for the following reasons:

1. The technique lends itself to a colloquial style which encourages a sense of collusion between the reader and Benjamin. We are made privy to Benjamin’s hopes and fears in a more immediate and direct way than is otherwise possible.

2. Because this style uses natural, fluent, speech patterns, it is less likely to descend into pretension, pompousness, and purple prose. It is also a lot easier to read.

3. Since I’m addressing the reader directly, I do not need to use intrusive speech tags. This suits a story of introspection that is driven by emotion and the tension of physical peril caused by the approaching storm.

4. Secondary characters are richer precisely because they are projected from a single viewpoint. When the young Benjamin, thinking back to his youth, says of his uncle, ‘I wished I was bigger so I could pack his bag and shove him out of the house,’ we experience this through the eyes of a six year old child and forgive him his prejudice.

5. On the down side, the protagonist has to be in every scene and the thoughts and feelings of other characters have to be filtered through his viewpoint. But again, because characters are experienced through the heart and mind of our protagonist, we are given more opportunities to explore his soul through his misunderstandings, and through irony, pathos, and humour.

5. Another criticism is that the technique forces the repetitive use of ‘I’. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, however, the frequent use of the word adds to the sense of pathos, stasis, and eccentricity of the protagonist, as seen below:

‘I wipe my reading glasses with my handkerchief to ensure they are free of smudges, squeeze them back on my face, and tilt my equations this way and that. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I make sure my pluses are not really minuses resulting from a lack of concentration. I sip another cup of coffee and spread more syrup over my waffles before I study the math again.’

Summary

Use first person, present tense narration to invoke a powerful sense of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy.

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Omit Needless Words

Scissors on paper“Omit useless words,” William Strunk Jr. implored. Our writing will be more polished and powerful because of it.

Unnecessary words make sentences lethargic by wasting time and energy. This is even more important in screenplays than novels where a lean, tight style cuts to the chase.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides several examples:

A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor glass windows.

“Glass” is redundant: A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor windows.

Matthew falls to the floor with an expressionless face.
Better: Matthew falls to the floor, expressionless.

If something is understood in a story, don’t repeat it: He looked at the clock on the wall. Clocks are usually on walls: He looked at the clock.

Don’t repeat a point once it’s made: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with platinum-blond hair, a Playboy centerfold rack, and curves Beyoncé envies.

Barbie dolls are blond and stacked: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with curves Beyoncé envies.

Don’t repeat something already mentioned in the slugline:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed the car down to normal driving speed.

We know he’s in a car. Rather write:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed to normal driving speed.

Although this sort of cut-and-thrust brevity is less of a requirement in a novel, any story will benefit by having needless words omitted.

Summary

Ferret out needless words to make your writing leaner and more powerful.

Image: James Bowe
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Personal Reflections on Story Structure

Silhouette of a butterfly on a flower

Butterflies in the Dark

Writers like to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal.

I recently met a fellow writer queuing to cash a check from Amazon, like I was. We got to talking and, there and then, became friends. We now share ideas and suggestions via email, when meeting at the local bookstore isn’t possible.

Last week I ran into a novelist at the dairy section of a supermarket. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking how my views on the subject have cured over time.

It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who first suggested to me story structure could be studied, and one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it.

“Without an understanding of structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing,” he told me. That was way back in the early 90s. Sadly, Elmo passed away in 2011, but I still remember his words clearly.

My initial reaction was unfavourable. I had graduated from university and film school with degrees in English Language and Literature and a Higher Diploma in the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.

But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk, waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head.

I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I was, after all, the resident screenwriter of Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know a thing about Syd Field, and later, Christian Vogler, Michael Hague, John Truby, Linda Seger, and others? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.

Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it. Not glibly, but deeply and innocently. Its nuances. Its nooks and crannies. That’s what constitutes integrity.

I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework with impunity I found I didn’t want to. I found my understanding of structure had freed me from the vagaries of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate on the magic of character, theme, symbol, and story content.

Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective, and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure.

This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.

That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too?

Summary

One of the most valuable lessons South African filmmaker Elmo de Witt taught me is an appreciation of story structure.

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Image: Marsel Minga
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How to X-Ray your Story

X-ray of a hand

How to X-Ray Your Story

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri provides us with a succinct way of x-raying our tales prior to commencing the writing of our story, in order to expose its essence, its genetic code. We do this by seeking to identify the story premise (or, what I call the theme, or moral premise—moral because it is the moral of the story and judges behaviour according to a higher justice).

Here are some examples of the (moral) premise:

King Lear: Blind trust leads to destruction.

Ghosts: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Othello : Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Tartuffe: He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

We can see from the above that the moral premise/theme reveals a character’s inner motivation and is intimately linked to his inner journey. The protagonist is relentlessly driven by this motivation to complete that journey. It’s important to note that the moral premise contains a direction and momentum, emerging from the conflict between the character’s emotions, other characters, and the world.

With that in mind, we can say that the premise = Character’s emotion + Conflict (or direction) + Results (the end).

If we plug in the premise/theme of The Matrix into this formula, for example, we may come up with: Self-belief leads to victory over the enemy.

With the theme/moral premise firmly in place, we can generate the log-line (the one-line synopsis of the plot, as opposed to the moral of the story), before moving to the synopsis itself, the treatment, and the fist draft of our screenplay, or novel.

But these latter topics are the subject of a future article.

Summary

The moral premise, or theme, is the force that drives the protagonist to complete his inner journey.

Image: Jess
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Big Story Ideas

Tree with lights and man picking

Big Ideas:

Ideas. The fuel that powers civilizations and progress—social, political, economic, scientific, technological. Great ideas are innovative, lead to success, generate excitement.

And so it is with stories too. Hollywood calls such ideas High Concept. Pitch a truly big idea in Hollywood and producers and executives sit up and take notice. Suddenly, you are doing lunch with all sorts of people who want to hitch a ride on your wagon.

So, how do you get that big story idea? And just what is it, actually?

The truth is that ideas, or seeds of ideas, can come at you anywhere, anytime— from smells, sights, sounds, touch, distant memories. But is there a way to force-generate a truly big idea, cold, so to speak?

Here again, there are many prompts, many paths to the land of big ideas. News and documentary programs, magazines, websites, books.

As a science fiction writer, I tend to sniff around in places were great scientific ideas are already in the boiling pot. I recently purchased a magazine published by Media24, aptly titled: 20 Big Ideas. The magazine identifies 20 huge scientific topics that are currently in vogue:

The ongoing search for a Theory of Everything, Dark Energy, the Gaia Theory, Quantum Entanglement, Catastrophism, Chaos Theory, Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence—to name but a few.

These are the topics currently causing a stir in the scientific and related communities, through journals, magazines, television programs, radio stations, Internet forums, and the like.

Find a topic that fascinates you, explore the unanswered question surrounding it, and create your premise or log-line around that. If you are interested in the search for a Theory of Everything, for example, you should probably know that it has to do with trying to explain the entire spectrum of physical existence, from the very small-the quantum world, to the very large—cosmology. You should know that trying to incorporate gravity into the former is the crux of the problem.

The question is: what would the Theory of Everything be like? From there, you might think along the following lines:

What if a young theoretician working under the guidance of a supervising professor makes a startling mathematical discovery that will change the face of theoretical physics forever? What obstacles could you place in his way, and what would be the motives of the antagonist in trying to prevent him from achieving his goal?

The same initial process can be applied to the topics of Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence, and the other big ideas doing the rounds.

The next step is to develop the log-line, the structural skeleton of the story, and the one page synopsis along the lines suggested in numerous articles on this website, or others like it, before starting the actual writing of your story itself.

Summary

Big ideas make for big stories. Begin by tracking down big ideas through studying relevant journals, newspapers, conference papers, television programs, and the like, and create your log-line or premise based on one of them.

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Image: Andrés Nieto Porras
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Amazon, Mon Amour!

Glances and hearts

Amazon Love:

In today’s post I want to pay a personal tribute to Amazon. Now, I do realise that it is sometimes unpopular to align one’s self with a large institution such as Amazon, an institution whose operational style might be seen, by some, as predatory. But, with all due respect to contrasting views, I make no apology for this.

No. I don’t own shares in the company, nor do I work for it—although, I do, in a real sense, work with Amazon to achieve my personal goals.

Let me explain.

Some fourteen years ago, whilst working as the resident screenwriter for Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa, I wrote a short novel called Scarab. A fellow South African writer read it, liked it, and recommended it to his publisher at Perscor. The book generated interest with the local branch of the company, but before it could go further, the branch closed down and some of its staff relocated to Cape Town to form a new company. The South African economy was shaky at the time, and businesses were folding one after another. This was during the early days of Nelson Mandela’s Apartheid-free South Africa and the country was excited, nervous and focused on more important things. I was advised to try to find another publisher, failing which, I should contact the Cape Town group and take it from there.

I never did.

I was eyeing Australia at the time, busy with my graphics and animation company, and somehow, I let things slide. I suppose the fear of rejection also played a role.

As time slipped by, I found myself teaching and studying in Australia, while a little device called the Kindle gathered in strength and popularity. The thought occurred to me that there was no harm in updating my novel (the pentium processors mentioned in my old revisions of Scarab were now passé), with the view to publishing it on Amazon.com as a Kindle ebook. And so I did.

I’d love to say that the rest is history, and offer some rags-to-riches story, but, sadly, that wouldn’t quite be the truth. What is true, however, is that since that day, I haven’t looked back. Scarab performed better than I had ever expected, hitting the #1 spot in the bestseller list in High-Tech Scifi, both at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. And some two years later, the novel is still holding a place on the same bestseller list, while its off-spring, Scarab II: Reawakening, has staked its own bestseller claim on amazon.co.uk.

The effect of this small gift of success was to grant me confidence that with enough hard work, output and dedication, I could eventually earn a living solely through my writing. What a rush for any writer!

The truth is that without Amazon’s global reach and innovative vision for the future of books, its research and development, its success in making reading “cool” again for the younger generation through the introduction of its Kindle tablets and software, Scarab would have remained a pile of pages on my shelf, placed in a box, gotten lost, and Scarab II would never have seen the light of day. My dream of being a writer might never have materialised—not for me, and perhaps, not for many other authors who have trodden a similar path to mine. This has been an opportunity for which, I, for one, am deeply grateful.

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The Syuzhet & Fabula

Road sign

Syuzhet & Fabula:

In today’s post, I want to talk about two obscure but useful terms in relation to story telling—the syzhet and the fabula.

The Syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The Fabula

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their normal sequence, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting information, often robs the audience of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. Few would disagree that part of the magic of Pulp Fiction lies in its disjointed syuzhet.

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers or audience. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex narratives that stay coherent while remaining intriguing and challenging to your readers and audience, at the same time.