Tag Archives: screenwriter

Story Structure

Story structure and Scarab

The Scarab series of novels strongly adhere to story structure

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

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

So what is story structure?

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

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

Laying out Story Structure

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

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

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

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

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

Do your scenes:

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

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

Summary

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

Attitude and Character

Attitude

Attitude

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

Just what is attitude in character?

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

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

Checking for Attitude

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

How to Save your Story Ending

Your story and GladiatorIN his influential book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
offers an approach to writing your story that comprises of a beat sheet of fifteen dramatic units.

They are:

1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-Up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into Two
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into Three
14. Finale
15. Final Image

 

Blake Snyder’s story structure is solid, but there is a possible weakness in the gap between the Break into Three and Finale. The danger is that the sudden reversal of fortunes may appear too abrupt to be credible.

The Break into Three shows the hero at his lowest ebb. But the Finale typically shows the hero in a last ditch attempt to try again. It is the most vulnerable point of the Hollywood ending – the moment when your story, which cannot allow the protagonist to fail, turns the tables on the antagonist.

How can we prevent this last twist from appearing forced?

Making your story ending more credible

In Gladiator, the lowest moment occurs when Maximus finds himself on his knees in the arena, nursing an earlier wound, swordless, and pierced by the Emperor’s blade. His efforts to avenge his murdered family and save Rome from the clutches of the madman seem to have failed.

How does he go from defeat to victory in the space of a beat?

The answer lies in Maximus’ physical strength, his love for his family, and his loyalty to Rome. This grants him the strength to pull the Emperor’s sword out of his own body and turn it against the Emperor himself, ending the tyrant’s life.

The twist seems believable because it marries the theme of the story (that integrity and moral fortitude will trump lascivious greed) to Maximums’ character arc. We find it fitting that the strong and noble Maximus, who has given his life to the service of Rome, should find the strength to rid his country of its incestuous ruler by sacrificing his own life.

Summary

Tie your hero’s lowest moment to his character arc and to the theme of your story to allow the audience to experience the ending as fitting rather than forced and formulaic.

How to Write Memorable Antagonists

Memorable Antagonists

Ed Harris, as General Francis X. Hummel, is one in a long line of memorable antagonists in stories.

ANTAGONISTS fulfill an indispensable function in stories. They act as spurs to protagonists forcing them to achieve their true potential.

In The Rock, Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical warfare expert working for the F.B.I. is sent on a mission with a former British spy, John Patrick Mason, to prevent General Francis Hummel from launching chemical weapons into San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.

The General demands one hundred million dollars in war reparations to be paid to the forgotten families of slain servicemen who died on covert operations. His actions, therefore, stem from his sense of duty to his men and their families, whom he believes have been abandoned by the country they served.

A well-crafted antagonist is more than a mere technical device. He is also a flesh-and-blood character with a personality, a belief-system, and a goal of his own.

How many times have we seen the villain doing villainous things, but can’t understand why?

This is because he is merely a cog in the writer’s plot. Since the antagonist and protagonist form the essential narrative unit that drives the story forward, a poorly written villain will stall the engine.

Nailing your Antagonists

Generally speaking, many of the aspects that apply to writing a credible character apply to the antagonist, but one in particular aspect warrants special mention: The villain believes he is the hero of his own story. He believes he is justified in doing what he does because of some past injustice, injury, or misconstrued sense of duty.

In The Matrix, agent Smith despises human beings. He hates their smell, their sweaty bodies, which he sees as prisons of meat. His job is to rid his perfect world of anyone who threatens it. He is intelligent, determined, skilled — in his own mind, a hero with a cause. It is partly this self-belief that makes him such a memorable villain.

Summary

Give your antagonist a powerful cause, operating within a self-consistent value system, in order to lend him credibility and depth.

A Good Plot Entails Cause and Effect

The Good Plot in Stories

The Good Plot in Stories

EVERY good story needs a good plot.

The English novelist E. M. Foster defined plot as a series of causally linked events. One of the surest ways to strengthen your plot, therefore, is to ensure that your scenes are tied together through cause and effect.

Aristotle referred to this important aspect of a story as unity. He believed that if a scene makes no difference to the characters of a story then it has no place being in it. Unity, or causality, is fundamental to the well-written tale.

What is Good Plot, Anyway?

‘The father died and then his wife died’ is not a plot because although the two events follow upon each other they are not causally linked. ‘The father died and then his wife died of sorrow’, however, is a plot because the first event causes the second.

Plot is at its strongest when it stems from a character’s goals, needs, wishes and desires pitted against those of an opposing character or force.

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, the hero’s desire to explore the world beyond the confines of his underground existence drives the plot. It explains his actions and reactions to events around him.

Fledgling writers sometimes believe that a series of action-packed scenes makes for gripping viewing or reading – that pace and action is what people want from a story.

Although this may be partly true, it is not all that people want from a tale. If characters have no higher purpose other than to beat each other up, if scenes provide no new information, if scenes fail to deepen or explain character, or if characters survive only to repeat the same action in a different setting, they will fail to generate plot because of a lack of consequence.

Linking scenes through cause and effect in order to show that actions have repercussions, therefore, is indispensable in generating a good plot.

Summary

A good plot is generated through linked scenes that are driven by characters with conflicting goals, wants, needs and desires.

Elements of a Great Story

Herman Melville, master of the great story

Herman Melville is the author of the great story of Moby Dick

Well-crafted writing occurs when the writer is able to integrate narrative elements so that each element functions perfectly, and in its place, to produce the symphony that constitutes a great story.

True geniuses, as opposed to talented writers, do so spontaneously without continuously having to think about the inherited machinery of their craft since their work so often breaks the mold, forming a new blueprint from which additional instances are generated.

In his influential 1962 Writer’s Digest article, Are Writers Born or Made, Jack Kerouac writes:

“Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.”

The good news is that once we have mastered the techniques, once those neuron pathways have become entrenched through practice, we too can fulfill the requirements needed for a great story.

The truth is that for most writers the fluency and depth that are the hallmarks of a great story stem from the countless of hours spent cultivating their craft.

Elements of a Great Story

Take the relationship between the protagonist’s weakest trait and the climax of the story, for example. Could you tell me what that relationship is? And could you use that understanding to write a well-crafted ending worthy of being called the climax of the story?

Asking these questions might lead you to say that since your protagonist’s weakness is that he suffers from arachnophobia, it might be best to have him face his antagonist in a chamber filled with spiders, an antagonist, who, by the way, happens to love spiders – breeds them, keeps them as pets.

The scales of the final confrontation, even with other factors not withstanding, are now tilted even more in the antagonist’s favour. Tension is higher as readers and audiences fear for our hero’s fate.

But what then might cause our hero to defeat his nemesis? This can’t be forced lest our protagonist appear to be a marionette at the mercy of the plot.

Well, how about checking through his list of positive traits for a clue? His rediscovery of some half-forgotten talent? His ability to fight blindfolded, developed through a childhood spent sword fighting with his brother, perhaps? Add to that a talent for hitting small targets from a distance acquired through flinging stones at coke cans, again, as a boy?

Might he not knock out the light in the chamber, grabbing the advantage from his adversary while simultaneously avoiding seeing the spiders?

This example, simplistic as it is, does illustrate how thinking about character traits in an integrated way might put us on the path to finding a fitting context for those traits to operate in—in this case the climax.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I use precisely this integration technique at the story’s climax to allow Benjamin’s backstory and his unrelenting love for his family to generate a fitting but surprising response to the life-threatening challenge presented to him by tropical cyclone Yasi.

Summary

Learn to integrate the various narrative components to produce a story that is well-crafted.

Character, Plot and Verisimilitude

Character,  plot and verisimilitude in Edge of Tomorrow

Character, plot and verisimilitude in Edge of Tomorrow

HOW do you achieve verisimilitude in stories?

Make your story a consequence of character instead of making your character a mere pawn of the plot. In other words, have character, typically your protagonist, drive the story forward in a convincing and germane way.

This is not as complicated as it may seem if you ensure that your protagonist’s traits are in keeping with his actions at the nodal points of your story.

In Edge of Tomorrow, for example, Major William Cage initially refuses to do his job of filming the allied landing in France against the alien invaders. This action aligns with his trait of self-preservation.

But when the General orders Cage to the front as a private, an encounter with the enemy results in alien blood being spilled on the major. This endows him with the power to keep returning to the moment of his death so he may take a different path.

Through trial and error he learns to use this power not only to survive in a personal sense, but to try and defeat the enemy in order to save humanity, and specifically, the woman he has fallen in love with. His focus on self-preservation has expanded to include the preservation of the human race.

His heroic actions at the end, when he loses the power to return to the moment before his death, reveals that he is willing to sacrifice his life in one last-ditch effort to save the world. The trait of selfishness has given way to the hitherto hidden traits of self-sacrifice and duty, awakened by the endless series of hard knocks he has endured. His actions at the nodal points, therefore, are determined by his inner traits and are part of his character arc.

Similarly, in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos’ choice between seeking safety in his cyclone-resistant house, or letting the storm end his life lies in the tension between his sense of guilt for the death of his wife, and the love he bears his parents.

Ultimately, a third characteristic, his gift of intelligence, arbitrates between the first two warring traits. His decision, an inevitable consequence of his character, results in appropriate action and is a major turning point in the story.

Summary

Make your protagonist’s actions an inevitable consequence of warring traits. This will help lend your story verisimilitude.

Turning Life into Great Writing

Great writing

Turning life into great writing

Great writing, in my opinion, embodies two indispensable but distinct sets of skills.

The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, moral compass, and the like.

Some skills within this first set are surreptitiously acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second is learnt more quickly. Knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set of skills. Mention is made of the importance of the first set, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis lies squarely on how to work with technique. The reason is simple.

It is far easier to teach someone how to use a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise my students to think about both sets of requirements simultaneously; to try and integrate them into the writing process from the get-go.

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

Turning life into great writing

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed a trace of tears in his pale eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman been a lover who had rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind for use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or turning point.

I have, as yet, not exactly done so, although I did locate a few important scenes with a very different character at that very gallery in my second Scarab novel.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb a spectrum of experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for their narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and observing life, the other from mastering the techniques that transforms life into stories.

Integration in Storytelling

Integrated storytelling

Integration in storytelling

I have written many articles on the craft of storytelling over the years.

Certainly, the web is chock-a-block with free and paid advice on the subject in the form of more articles, books, and courses.

Given the availability of this learning material and the willingness of students of writing to read it, we should all be absolute masters of the craft.

So, why aren’t we?

The truth is that much of the material presented in books and courses lacks a pointed approach to the storytelling craft, a focus on effective integration of the various story elements.

Yes, we learn that stories comprise of a three, four, or five act structure. And yes, we are told what an inciting incident, a turning point, a character trait, and the theme, are.

But do we truly understand, at a deep, almost subconscious level, how they work together to produce a successful screenplay or novel?

Without an intimate and near replete understanding of how one narrative component flows into another to produce a network that is bigger than its parts, we will always fall short of mastering our craft.

Having covered the most important narrative elements, often more than once, we will now turn our focus more sharply than ever before on the relations that exist between them.

Integrating your Storytelling Elements

For example, can you describe in detail the flows that constitute the relationship between theme and character? Or character and backstory? Or how the inciting incident is related to the first turning point in a story?

The answers to these and other questions are important if we are to achieve an integrated understanding of our craft.

If you’ve answered no to some of these questions, be sure to watch this space.

Catch you next week.

Summary

Integration refers to the deep level understanding in storytelling of the relations that exist between the narrative elements that form the structure of a story.

How to Make the Backstory Relevant to Plot and Character

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

I remember reading somewhere that in order to write a great character you first have to know that character’s backstory in great detail.

Only then, it was suggested, would you be in a position to know how the character ought to respond to certain situations. Only then can you think about developing the plot.

My gosh, how daunting. It’s like asking me to plow a large field with a spade. If I took that advice I’d never finish any story.

 

“The point is that the backstory is important only insofar as it sheds light on a character’s responses to the challenges posed by the plot.”

But how could we possibly know that in advance?

Yes, it might be interesting to note that your hero smokes cigarillos on his birthday if that quirk will enrich his character, but do I really need to know that he wore red scarves as a child if that observation might be of no significance to the story?

It shouldn’t be that complicated, folks.

Drilling Down to the Essentials of the Backstory

So, where does one begin looking for significant events in the backstory, especially when the story is not fully determined yet?

Let me tell you what works for me.

Because I sit halfway between being a pantser and a plotter, I begin with a sense of what my protagonist needs to achieve in the story—his goal.

Nothing too specific yet. Perhaps he needs to defeat an adversary from his past. Perhaps he needs to arrive at a certain destination at a specific time. I know he will encounter external obstacles in trying to do so, but I do not need to know exactly what they are yet.

I also know that I need to challenge his ability to achieve his goal by complicating his decision making process through a dilemma, or some inner flaw.

These clues come from thinking about the plot and character simultaneously, and in general terms—nothing too specific, at this time.

Let’s say my protagonist suffers from agoraphobia or is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

This immediately forces me to think about what incident in the past might have given rise to this condition. Such an incident is truly worthy of being part of the backstory.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, my protagonist’s addiction to smoking directly affects the plot of the story. Indeed, his desire to have one last pack of cigarettes before boarding the Sidney ferry with his wife is the chief cause of his predicament.

This realisation led me to sketch in some background regarding his smoking.

Thinking about your character’s goal and relating it to his positive and negative traits, then, encourages you to come up with that part of the backstory that sheds light on why your character might have those traits in the first place.

Think of this approach as a goal-trait-backstory triad of techniques that helps grow the story in a more integrated and economical way.

Summary

Find the story goal. Relate it to your protagonist’s flaws and traits. Come up with the backstory that explains them.