Story Structure and the Craft of Writing

Story Structure in Scarab
Story Structure in Scarab

This is primarily a website that discusses how story structure underpins the art and craft of storytelling.

Its aim is to offer advice on how to get narrative ingredients, such as the various types of must-have-scenes, to flow together in order to form a tale; on why some stories work and some don’t – in short, it is about how an understanding of structure helps us write better stories.

This process is essentially a left-brain activity. Here, I use the terms left and right brain in the metaphorical sense to suggest analytical vs. creative thinking, rather than as a precise anatomical truth.

In terms of story creation, we associate the left side of the brain, in part, with collating and polling story material: of assembling and not, strictly speaking, of spontaneously conceiving. Conception occurs deep within the right hemisphere – the passionate and unfettered area of creativity.

Story Structure and Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

When I originally got the idea for my first novel Scarab, it was rooted in a series of questions: What if a quantum computer, exhibiting human-like consciousness, is used by unscrupulous people to change the laws of physics by utilising quantum mechanics’s “observer effect”, and in doing so, runs foul of a powerful threshold guardian?

What if the hero is a reluctant, middle-aged recovering alcoholic in love with a film student who is looking for a good story to put herself on the map? And what if their endeavours bring them into conflict with these same unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to fulfill their power-hungry ambitions?

These thoughts, which were to form the basis of my novel, had less to do with story structure and more to do with right-brain musings. I let my imagination wander around, gave my characters desires, beliefs, and goals, placed them in interesting environments, gave them a general direction, and let them write their own story while I tried my best to keep up with them.

But if stories spring from the imagination, where does all our hard-won knowledge of story structure come in? Part of the answer is: after the first draft.

This is when one reviews the story in earnest and checks it against structural requirements: does it contain the must-have scenes? Are the structural components such as turning points, midpoint, and pinches, in the right place? If not, would reshuffling them benefit the story?

Integration

There is, however, a longer term benefit associated with the prolonged study of story structure: The more we think and learn about the subject, the more we understand it, the more spontaneous the process of writing becomes. Corrections and adjustments that had to wait for revision to be applied, begin to appear in the first draft. Theoretical knowledge becomes practical knowledge, pointing to an increased integration of two largely different processes born in different hemispheres of the brain. It is this integration, perhaps more than any other process, that marks our growing maturity as storytellers.

Summary

An understanding of story structure helps the writer strengthen the first draft of a story. As the writer’s understanding of structure deepens, so does his ability simultaneously to apply analytical processes in tandem with creative ones – the mark of a maturing skill.

Character Development in Stories

Scarab and Character Development
Scarab and Character Development

At the end of his chapter on character development, in Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge offers the following useful advice:

In order to have effective character development, identification and sympathy, place your protagonist in jeopardy.

For example, in my bestselling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is under constant threat of being murdered by the man in the black suit. This sustains the suspense, keeping the reader turning the pages to find out if Jack lives or dies.

Additionally, make your protagonist likable. Introduce him to your audience early. Make him powerful, witty, or good at his  job. Position him in a familiar setting. Grant him familiar flaws and foibles.

Ensure originality in your character development by researching specific historical figures whose lives are authentic, unique, and interesting.

Go against cliche by altering the physical makeup, background and personality to make your character less predictable. Pair one character up with an opposite or contrasting character and cast him, in your imagination, by assigning his role to an actor that is best suited to the part.

Character Development Essentials

Remember that there are two levels of character motivation: outer motivation, which is the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story, and inner motivation, which is the reason he strives for the goal in the first place—the why to the what and the how.

Conflict also spurs a character to develop. There are two sources of conflict: outer conflict, which is the conflict between other characters and nature, and inner conflict: the conflict between warring aspects within the character herself.

Finally, there are four main categories of primary characters: hero or protagonist, whose motivation drives the plot, the nemesis or antagonist who tries to prevent the hero from achieving the goal, the reflection or guardian who most supports the protagonist, and the romance character, who, according to Hauge, alternatively supports and quarrels with the hero.

Create secondary characters as needed, in order to provide additional plot complications. Add obstacles, bring relief, humour, depth and texture to your story.

Summary

This post offers concrete suggestions for successful character development in your stories.

Story Tension

Story Tension in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Story Tension in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

 

Story tension arises from barely contained hostility or strained relations between individuals or groups.

This differs from conflict which is more about disharmony and opposition between people who hold different ideas, goals, and beliefs.

Both conflict and tension are invaluable in making stories more powerful and dramatic. In this post we look at seven ways to add tension to your scenes.

 

Drop your characters in uncomfortable situations. Think of the worst thing that could occur to them and make it happen. Your characters might hate you, but  your stories will be better for it.

Remember, tension is an antidote to boredom.

7 Ways to Increase Story Tension

1. Place your characters in a place they shouldn’t be in.
2. Have your characters make decisions that have severe consequences.
3. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that worsens conflict.
4. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that increases the danger to themselves.
5. Have your characters participate in socially, politically, and morally unacceptable actions.
6. Place your characters in a situation where they have to choose between two evils.
7. Have your characters overstep their natural boundaries.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, a retired theoretical physicist, has made a decision years preciously that changed his life forever. His thoughts and actions in the present continue to be impacted by that decision. The result is that he is unable to move on with his life until he can forgive himself for the consequences flowing from that decision.

Summary

Story tension hooks the reader or audience hooked into your story. Use one or more of the seven techniques mentioned in this post to help you achieve this goal.

Value Driven Stories

Value driven - A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind is a value driven story

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GOOD STORIES are value driven. They are more than just about the outer journey that the Hero embarks on in pursuit of a difficult but worthy goal.

In How to Make a Good Script Great, Hollywood screenwriting consultant Linda Seger reminds us that something more meaningful has to occur to deepen the story – it has to address some aspect of the human condition and the values that underpin it.

Value Driven Stories

A value driven system can be a negative or positive one. In the film, Gladiator, Maximus’ actions seem ostensibly to be driven by his desire to revenge the slaughter of his family. But a closer examination reveals that he is also driven by his need to right the wrongs of government that arose as a consequence of the emperor’s death.

The search for justice, the pursuit of excellence, the striving for honour, the need for fulfillment – these are all aspects of a character’s inner journey that help audiences and readers identify with the Hero.

In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash needs to solve a great mathematical problem in order to prove his worth. He is driven by great intelligence, which manifests, in part, in his condescending attitude towards his peers and teachers.

Yet, at a deeper level, he strives for things of the heart, rather than just those of the mind: he makes up a fictional government agent who appreciates his abilities and encourages him to solve a puzzle which can save the world – a mark of his superior intelligence and his need to serve the greater good.

A story’s value system can spring from a character’s desire for authenticity, as in Driving Miss Daisy, in which Miss Daisy discovers her true self is more connected to those below her social sphere than she realises.

A value system can also espouse social values – a fight for peace, justice, and freedom, as in Thelma and Louise and A Few Good Men. Whatever the emphasis, values underpin a character’s actions, helping to guide, inflect, and often create a story-enriching inner conflict.

Summary

Value driven tales make for good stories. Values guide a character’s actions; a story’s value system is revealed by the theme, which is typically settled at the end of the story when the clash between the Hero yields the victor.

Big Story Ideas

Jurassic Park is replete with big story ideas
Jurassic Park is replete with big story ideas

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Story ideas are the fuel that powers civilisation, driving social, political, economic, scientific, and technological progress.

Big story ideas, too, are innovative, lead to success, generate excitement.

 

High Concept and Big story ideas

Hollywood calls ideas, such as the one behind Jurassic Park, High Concept. Pitch a truly big idea in Hollywood and producers and executives sit up and take notice. Suddenly, you are having lunch with all sorts of people who want a ride on your wagon.

So, how do you generate those big ideas?

The truth is that big story ideas, or the seeds of ideas, can come at you anywhere, anytime—from smells, sights, sounds, touch, distant memories.

But is there a way to force a truly big idea, at will?

Here again, there are prompts one can use: 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 melting pot. I once purchased a magazine published by Media24, aptly titled: 20 Big Ideas. The magazine identified 20 huge scientific topics that were in vogue: The ongoing search for a theory of everything, dark energy, the Gaia theory, quantum entanglement, catastrophism, chaos theory, artificial intelligence—to name but a few.

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

The point? 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 quantum mechanics is the crux of the problem.

From there, you might progress along the following lines:

What if a young theoretician working under the guidance of a professor makes a startling discovery that will change 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 process can be applied to the topics of consciousness, artificial intelligence, and so on.

The next step is to develop the log-line 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 story ideas make for big stories. Track down big ideas by studying journals, newspapers, conference papers, television programs, and the like, then create your log-line or premise based on one of them.

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.

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 crisis leads to the story climax

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise
Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

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WHAT is the story crisis and how is it related to the story climax?

This post traces variations of this most important relationship.

The story climax is generally preceded by a crisis resulting from a dilemma in which the Protagonist faces a final life-changing decision. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

In some stories the crisis may be spatially and temporarily separated from the climax, although they are intimately linked in filmic time and space.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she finally gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Although crunch decisions  and climactic action usually follow closely together towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic events to occupy different spatial and temporal settings. They should always, however, feel as if they are inexorably linked.

Crisis and climax in Kramer vs Kramer

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

Summary

The crisis forces the Protagonist to take a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.