Tag Archives: screenwriters

Three Acts, Many Stories

Three stories

Three Act Structure:

In his book, The Screen Writer’s Workbook, Syd Field contextualises the three acts of a story by reminding us that each act performs a specific function and answers a specific dramatic question.

The function of the first act is to set up the world of the main characters and to foreshadow their conflicts, as well as to establish the protagonist’s goal. The dramatic question of the first act is: What is the protagonist’s initial situation that compels him to embark on the story goal?

The second act is defined by the dramatic context of conflict. This act pits the protagonist against the antagonist by placing both in a situation of mounting attrition, forcing the protagonist to adapt his skills, and face his inner weakness, in order to achieve his goal.

The second act is typically double the length of the first act, and is orchestrated by a midpoint: the moment in which the protagonist decides on whether to give up on his goal, or press on against mounting opposition. To do so, he has to dig deep to uncover his inner strength and, perhaps, defeat hidden demons.

Paradoxically, his renewed determination inevitably results in an increase in the amount of deadly opposition he encounters along the way. The dramatic question of the second act is: How does the protagonist keep his head above water in the face of mounting obstacles and conflict.

The third act is defined by the dramatic context of climax and resolution. It contains the so-called must-have scene: the final and deadliest clash between the protagonist and antagonist. The act unswervingly builds up to this must-have scene, the outcome of which yields the theme: if the hero loses then that which defeats him becomes the theme.

In Othello, for example, jealousy leads the Moor to murder his wife, thinking that she was unfaithful to him. The theme here is: Jealousy leads to destruction. The dramatic question of this final act is: will the protagonist, and all that he stands for, carry the day, or will he be defeated by the antagonist and his world?

A story, then, breaks down into three acts, which correspond to the beginning, middle and end of the tale, each of which has a specific function to perform.

Summary

A story typically comprises of three acts. Each act answers a specific dramatic question.

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Image: Ian Sane
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How Good is Your Story?

Thumbs upAs an author, and a lecturer in the craft of storytelling, I am often asked, in the first instance, and required, in the second, to evaluate work that is presented to me. I am, and always have been, uncomfortable with assigning numerical values (marks) to stories. Stories are not algebra. The final product is not right or wrong. Stories are works of art, and as such, are as slippery as eels. They are, to some extent, subject to taste, to audience/readership preferences, and to the current popularity of specific genres.

Here, I am not referring to grammatical errors, faulty sentence construction, spelling mistakes—to editing. Those are all perfectly quantifiable. I am talking about the perceived worth of more nebulous concepts such as “up” versus “down” endings, relevance of theme, effectiveness of writing style, and even to such technical aspects as judging whether the right balance between characterisation and the relentless forward thrust of the story, has been achieved.

In the past few days I have had to provide guidance regarding the appropriateness of selecting one director over another for study, asked to evaluate a story-in-progress by an indie colleague, and implored to give a rating, as a number out of ten, of a completed first draft of a novel by another.

My answer to the first request was that any director whose body of work has solicited varied opinions, and is of interest to the student, is worthy of study; to the second, that the writer finish the story before seeking the opinion of others; to the third, that I would not give a mark out of ten, but I would offer my opinion as to whether I thought the story to be poor, show promise, or be ready-to-go.

This reluctance to provide a hard judgment on stories is less an indication of temerity or ignorance on my part than it is a response to the changing environment of story reception. Certainly, with regard to indie films and novels, the public is the ultimate judge of whether a story will sink or swim. I know of many instances where work has been turned down by publishers and producers and then has gone on to achieve extraordinary success on amazon, or through Internet channels such as YouTube, resulting in burgeoning writing and film making careers on the part of the writers and filmmakers.

Does this challenge the belief that some works are genuinely better than others? Certainly, not in terms of quantifiable technical aspects that are subject to proper editing; but it does acknowledge the proliferation of relativism with regards to theme and subject matter. In a fast-changing, technologically-driven world where the boundaries of nationality and personal identity (and, by implication, genre), are bleeding into each other, these aspects of a story are a lot harder to pin down, let alone, evaluate. My advise to story tellers is simply this: Write your stories to the best of your ability and let your readership or audience decide on whether they succeed or fail.

Summary

The success or failure of your stories, especially for indie writers and filmmakers, ultimately lies in the hands of your readership or audience. Solicit the opinion of experts on technical aspects of your work, but leave the judgment about your subject matter and its stylistic treatment to the latter.

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Image by Barry Solow

Story Plots

Post-it stickers on a board

Story Plots:

Much has been written about the total number of plots out there—ranging from three to twenty, or more. Although I think that this sort of discussion is moot, if not outright silly, the actual plots that it throws up, isn’t:

1. The Pursuit: In this type of plot the chase defines the story’s structure and character relationships. The chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased, for this to work properly, and for tension to be maintained. (The Fugitive).

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by pursuing her to the ends of the earth if needs be. (Taken).

3. The Adventure: The Hero travels to strange and exotic places and experiences equally strange and exotic events. The Hero typically goes off in search of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well. (Raiders of the Lost Arc).

4. The Quest: The protagonist undertakes a journey to acquire or protect something of exceeding value. The story usually charts the character’s vicissitudes and growth during this journey. (Lord of the Rings).

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It typically involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth, and, possibly, redemption through a sacrificial act. (Dangerous Liaisons).

6. The Revenge: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist.(The Count of Monte Christo).

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person. (Face Off).

8. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away. (The Shawshank Redemption).

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously under gunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person, but a force of nature which threatens the existence of the protagonist. (Volcano, Rocky).

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution. (Ocean’s Eleven).

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story and invites the reader or audience to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death. (Sherlock Holmes).

What plot type do you think your story falls under? Is it, perhaps, a mix of two, or more? Answering these questions will help guide the development of your characters and action.

Summary

Plot types help to fashion the structure of your story by setting up certain generic expectations. This post suggests eleven such types.

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More on Dialogue Subtext

Road sign

Subtext

For our purposes, subtext in dialogue, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning hiding beneath the obvious. Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo and is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

Although there are many techniques for generating subtext, in today’s post, I’d like to explore two important ways which may assist you in doing so.

The Lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve actually occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. There are several ways to do this. The wider sense of a lie in terms of subtext can be characterised by a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, change of subject, and the like.

So, when one character asks of 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 the answer is evasive because it fails directly to answer the question, parrying instead, with another question.

The overall context of the subtext in this example, is, therefore, The Lie, but is specifically modified by a sense of evasiveness, although any one of the other modifiers in our list could suffice, depending on the context.

Manipulation

Another useful category for subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when her or his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a certain 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 sows the seed of suspicion by suggesting Jack’s wife might be playing around without Jack’s knowledge. 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 two layers of subtext that enrich any piece of dialogue. Use these techniques, when appropriate, to imbue your dialogue with rich layers of meaning.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.