Tag Archives: screenwriter

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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

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

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

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

Story ideas roll call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

ONE of the potential problems of expositional backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us.

Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable.

A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

Backstory Essentials

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest.

In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand which the backstory then satisfies. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory provides essential information to the reader or audience needed to understand the narrative. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

Writing Dialogue Subtext

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

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Dialogue subtext, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning lurking beneath the obvious.

Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo. It is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

There are many techniques for generating subtext. Here are two more:

Dialogue subtext: the lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. Breaking Bad’s Walter White’s verbal interactions with Jesse are fraught with lies, denials, and tricker as he tries to keep Jesse under his control.

A lie generates dialogue subtext by creating a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, and the like.

So, when one character asks another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that a lie is involved because the answer is evasive—-it fails to answer the question directly, parrying instead, with another question.

Dialogue subtext: manipulation

Another useful source of subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well, It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred manipulates Jack into suspecting that Jack’s wife might be playing around. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are common generators of dialogue subtext. Use them to add depth and complexity to your characters’ interactions.

Thanks

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

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We’ve heard it again and again, character conflict is essential to writing stories that are page turners. It is what drives the story forward. Without conflict the story stalls and falls off the high-wire.

But how is character conflict achieved? Here are some reminders:

Character conflict checklist

1. Is more than one character pursuing a similar goal or avoiding a similar problem? Stories about a race of some sort contain such conflict.

2. Does the conflict affect the protagonist’s inner and outer goals? In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos has to resolve his inner conflict resulting from the suppression of past memories in order to survive a category five cyclone.

3. Is the character conflict the most interesting and compelling it can be? In Scarab the protagonist has to decide between tempting the wrath of supernatural forces and the love of a woman.

Unlike in real life, character conflict forms the basis of most interactions between the story’s players. It gives rise to the polarity between the “good” and the “bad” events that creates the story itself.

4. Can a deadline force an action or decision that is less than the best? Having a bomb set to off at a specific time, or a runaway train set to derail at a certain point on the track, raises the tension and conflict in the story.

5. Can a “solution” actually cause a worsening of the situation? Having a character killed off to silence him can have consequences that increase the conflict between characters.

6. Can you implement the opposition to the goal in a more dangerous, powerful way? Instead of having the antagonist try to stop the protagonist from attaining the goal by going after him directly, he goes after his family instead.

7. Is there something or someone, apart from the antagonist, keeping the protagonist from achieving his goal? In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s disturbing childhood memory of lambs being slaughtered allows Hannibal Lector to get inside her head.

8. Are there conflicting goals among the minor characters that increase the friction between them?

Doubtlessly, you may add to this list, but this is a good start.

Summary

Character conflict forms the basis of all drama. Using a combination of two or more of the above-mentioned techniques will ramp up the conflict in your stories.

The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento

The fabula and syuzhet in Memento

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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and 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, 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 naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

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 and audiences. 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 but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

Every Hero Needs a Nemesis

The nemesis in Crash

Matt Dillon is a strong nemesis in Crash

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ONE of the chief functions of the nemesis in stories is to force the hero to evolve. Without the nemesis’ constant prodding, the hero’s effort to achieve the story goal is doomed to failure.

The Model Nemesis

Die Hard‘s John McClane is in a bad marriage. He is separated from his wife and is headed for divorce before Hans Gruber enters the fray, kidnaps a bunch of people, including John’s wife, and forces him to step up to the mark. By having to rescue his wife from the arch criminal’s clutches, John realises how much he truly loves her and what he has to do to save his marriage, which he does. Thank you, Hans Gruber.

In The Matrix, Neo is riddled with self-doubt. Is he indeed The One? The answer remains unclear until he faces and defeats his nemesis, agent Smith. But for Smith, Neo might still be vacillating over this world-saving question.

At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine is self-serving and unlikable, until he gives up on the woman he loves in order to contribute to the war effort. This is a huge shift for him. Were it not for Ilsa Lund, the opponent who turns his world upside down, he would not have grown through this sacrifice, remaining static and selfish — someone of no moral consequence.

In Crash, Terrance Howard has to deal with a series of problems concerning his wife, as well as with the specter of racism. But having to overcome Matt Dillon’s constant harassment, causes him to emerges a stronger and better man. Here again, no Matt Dillon, no personal growth.

Although the clash between the hero and the nemesis ostensibly occurs at the surface level, the level of actions and events, it is the effect on the hero’s inner landscape that marks its true significance.

Summary

The nemesis is the hero’s polar opposite and forces change in the hero. Ironically, and unintentionally, the nemesis teaches the hero the skills and values he needs to learn in order to achieve the story goal.

Actions in Stories

Small actions in Loves a Blonde

Small actions in Loves a Blonde

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IN HIS BOOK, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA, writes: “(1) any action is better than no action, and (2) appropriate imaginative, integrated action, action complementing a scene’s other elements and overall purpose, is best of all.”

Telling actions need not only be about Godzilla crushing cities underfoot, or King Kong swatting helicopters from the sky. They can also arise in the most seemingly mundane or non-threatening scenes.

Small actions, large impact

In the Czechoslovakian film, Loves a Blonde, two groups of labourers, one male, one female, working on a project in a remote area of the Carpathian foothills end up eating in a dining hall. Both the men and women are equally nervous about meeting each other. The scene isolates one man in particular who fidgets absentmindedly with his wedding ring.

Is the fidgeting an attempt to hide his marital status from the women? We suspect so.

Suddenly, the ring slips from his finger, clutters loudly to the floor, and begins rolling away. The man drops to his hands and knees and scrambles after the ring.

So engrossed is he in his pursuit of the tale-tale object that he fails to notice that the knees he is shuffling past are no longer those of men but of women! By the time he finally captures the elusive object and pops up from under the table, triumphantly holding the ring up in his hand, he finds himself amongst the very group of women from whom he was he was trying to hide the ring in the first place!

The action itself is small in scale, but its emotional impact is huge, making for a scene that is fresh and inventive. It satisfies Professor Walter’s second observation of integrated action and exploits that age old maxim of “show don’t tell”. This is writing at its simplest and best.

Summary

Drama is action. Static scenes make for boring stories. While there is nothing wrong with large action in stories, there should be a liberal sprinkling of smaller, well-observed action too.

How to Write Page Turners

Scarab and page turners

Page turners: Scarab earned its status when it held its best seller slot on Amazon for over two years

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WRITERS strive to write page turners every time they set fingers on a keyboard, stories that keeps us wanting more.

But how is this achieved?

Often, the trick to writing page turners is to create anticipation in the minds of the readers by raising questions that desperately need answering.

Eight questions to pose in writing page turners:

1. A Prediction: Knowing that something has been predicted for the future creates tension in the reader or audience. Will the prediction come true or not?

2. Hobson’s Choice: None of the two choices offer a true solution, but we still wonder which one will be chosen.

3. The Bait or Hook: Something unexpected and compelling occurs which holds our undivided attention.

4. The Invisible Influence: There is something or someone influencing events but it remains unknown to us.

5. Unsolved Mystery: In his course on screenwriting, Hal Croasmun mentions that every mystery contains three aspects, of which one or two remain unknown till the end—what happened, who did it, and how did it happen? In trying to discover the answer to one or more of these question, keeps us glued to the story.

6. The Cliffhanger: This is an unexpected end or twist to a scene or chapter. We need to know the answer, so we keep reading or watching.

7. Anticipation Created by Dialogue: Something is mentioned by a character or characters which causes us to anticipate a future event. We worry or wonder about it.

8. Apprehension Caused by Genre: In a tragedy, for example, we have certain expectations about the end of the story. Other genres, such as Noir, raise expectations about the behaviour of the femme fatale, or the moral health of the protagonist.

Although this list is by no means replete, it is a start to get you thinking.

Summary

Page turners raise several of the following questions—-a prediction, a Hobson’s choice, a bait or hook, invisible influences, an unsolved mystery, a cliffhanger, anticipatory dialogue, or apprehension caused by genre.

Story Momentum

Story Momentum in Witness

Story Momentum in Witness

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AT WORST A TALE without story momentum flatlines and dies. At best it bores the reader.

In her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger shows us how to avoid this fate for our stories by establishing story momentum.

What is Story Momentum?

Seger defines story momentum as the force, or, perhaps more appropriately, the glue that causes one scene to stick inexorably to the next. Inexorably, because the relationship between scenes is one of cause and effect.

There are, of course, scenes meant to serve the subplot that are less tightly bound into the main plot, but in terms of the plot itself, a causal relationship between scenes should abound.

The end of act two in Witness ushers in a powerful and telling sequence of scenes in this regard: The young Amish boy, Samuel, identifies detective McFee as the murderer. This prescribes the next scene in which John Book visits his boss to tell him of this, but is asked to keep it quiet.

This causes John to return to his apartment where he is shot at by McFee. John realises that his boss is one of the murderers. As a result, John picks up Rachael, Samuel’s mother, and Samuel himself, and drives to the Amish farm to hide out. It leads to the next scene in which, as a result of his injury, John passes out. This, in turn, leads into the second act with John hiding out at the Amish farm, with Rachel looking after him.

Note how every scene is tightly related to the next through causality. The result? Momentum is maintained throughout.

Summary

Story momentum arises as a result of consecutive scenes being causally related to each other. It maintains tension and contributes to the main plot through-line of your tale.

Character Traits, Wants, Needs.

Character Traits in Blade Runner

Character Traits in Blade Runner

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IN A PREVIOUS POST, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain character traits at the expense of others.

I suggested that the best way to manage this process is to make changes at specific structural junctions such as the inciting incident, first turning point, mid-point, and second turning point.

Another way to think of the character arc is in terms of character traits vying for dominance as a result of the tension that arises between a character’s wants versus his needs.

Let me explain:

Prior to the mid-point, sometimes referred to as the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. He mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because he has not yet discovered or acknowledged his need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, is a negative one—obsessive desire, overblown ambition, and the like.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and himself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means the prominent trait(s) motivating the character has been overshadowed by other more positive traits. This causes a change in the goal, and therefore, in the path to the goal. It illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

In the original Blade Runner, Deckard, a retired blade runner, a hunter of off-world synthetic humans, is persuaded to come out of retirement to hunt and kill a group of dangerous Nexus-6 Replicants, led by Roy, who have landed on earth illegally. We later learn that they’ve come in search of their creator Tyrell, of the Tyrell Corporation.

Their intent is to have him extend their lifespan which has been set at four years to prevent them from developing emotions and becoming a threat to humans. During his investigations, Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s personal assistant, Rachel, is herself a Replicant although she is is unaware of this fact. The plot thickens when Deckard falls in love with her and tries to protect her from harm.

Adjusting Character Traits Through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realise that what he wants — to get rid of Replicants, is not what he needs — to rise above his prejudice and to keep Rachel alive. Ironically, during a fight to the finish, Deckard is rescued from falling to his death by Roy, the Replicant he has sought to kill. This act proves Replicants are capable of compassion, a trait that humans seem to have lost.

Deckard’s dominant trait of cold efficiency in tracking and killing Replicants becomes subservient to his traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In changing his goal by protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker acknowledges that his need is greater than his want. This change of heart (character arc) illustrates how traits affect the story goal — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of character traits as well as what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to integrate the outer and inner journey of a story.