Tag Archives: story

Screenwriting Mentors

Screenwriting advice

Christopher Vogler’s book provides an extremely useful guide on the screenwriting craft

WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.

In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.

The screenwriting mentors:

Syd Field

For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.

Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.

McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

Story Twists and Dramatic Beats

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

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IN THESE ARTICLES I often talk about the large pivotal elements that shape a story—the turning points, the pinches, the mid-point, and so on.

But these structures, important as they are, form only the macroscopic aspect of your story. The fuel that turns the engine over lies in the details, in the dramatic beats that make up your individual scenes.

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions or events that form the sinew of a scene.

In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character pacing around the room does not constitute a dramatic beat; spotting the dagger behind the curtain, which is to be used in the murder, does.

But what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers and audiences glued to their seats, and how can we best write them?

For one, we can craft them in a way that creates suspense. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise.

Or, we can do both.

Twisting your Dramatic Beats

A twist inevitably contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming. Include at least some beats in your scenes where one or more of the following occurs:

1. A lie is exposed.
2. A loss of resources occurs.
3. A trust is betrayed.
4. A new problem arises.
5. A plan goes wrong.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. A character swaps sides.
8. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
9. A new motive is revealed.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa’s reputation of ruthlessness drives one of the longest and most suspenseful scenes in the entire movie.

At the start of the film, Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa insists on being introduced to each of the dairy farmer’s daughters individually, heightening the suspense.

Although LaPadite at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are  hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth from him through a series of compliments, threats, and innuendoes.

The scene utilises some of the techniques mentioned above:

A new motive is revealed—Landa did not come to LaPadite’s farm house to close the book on the case as he at first claims, but to catch him out.

A lie is exposed—Landa is able to ferret the truth out of LaPadite.

A new problem arises—LaPadite knows that if he continues hiding the Dreyfuses his own family will be executed.

A trust is betrayed and a character swaps sides—LaPadite is forced to betray the Dreyfuses.

A plan goes wrong—LaPadite’s plan to hide the Dreyfuses under his floorboard is exposed.

Summary

Well-crafted dramatic beats contain enough twists to keep your readers and audiences interested in your story.

Writing a strong story ending

Strong story ending in Unforgiven

Unforgiven has a strong story ending


A strong story ending is essential to the success of your tale and is the result of deliberate planning from the very start of your manuscript.

Here are five suggestions for writing such an ending:

1. Play up the reputation of the protagonist, and even more so, the antagonist

Stories are about the protagonist and antagonist involved in a life and death struggle of some sort. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the stakes and leads to a more engaging and tense ending.

In Unforgiven, William Munny, the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Later he is described by the Kid as being “the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Bill Daggett, is described by a deputy as being utterly fearless. He is seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

A truly memorable story ending is as surprising as it is inevitable. Foreshadowing it, therefore, has to be subtly crafted so as not to show its hand.

2. Cast doubt about the outcome of the final confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift direction

Introducing twists which thwart our expectations, causes us to worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who can fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Increase the suspense around the final confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might result in his own death. He tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s doubts about the outcome of the confrontation increases our suspense even more.

5. Have the final confrontation play out in the antagonist’s stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair weakens the protagonist’s ability to prevail. Munny faces Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies and henchmen. This stacks the deck against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

A powerful ending increases the tension in the story by making the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist seem unlikely.

Defining the theme in stories

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; a unifying or dominant idea or motif found in a work of art.

What I find most useful about theme stems from combining two ideas drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme emerges only the end of the story and contains a moral premise.

The theme is proven at the end of a story because that’s when the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is decided. It contains a moral premise because the conflict itself is, at its core, a conflict between good and evil.

In simple terms, if the antagonist wins we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins we have an up ending — good triumphs over evil.

Establishing the theme in 30 Days of Night

In the film 30 Days of Night the isolated northern Alaskan town of Barrow is beset by a band of vampires intent on using a month of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community.

The sheriff, Eben Oleson, the story’s protagonist, confronts Marlow, the leader of the vampires, in order to protect his town, but clearly lacks the strength to defeat him. All seems lost until Eben hatches a plan to bolster his own strength by infecting himself with tainted blood, turning himself into a vampire. Eben defeats Marlow then purposely exposes himself to sunlight and dies, ensuring that he himself never becomes a threat to the humans.

The theme that emerges at the end of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, leads to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others.

Isolating themes in this way allows us to see the essence of stories at a glance. It helps us to keep narrative events on track.

Summary

The theme embodies the moral premise of the story and is established at the end of the tale.

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.

How to write Nonhuman Characters

Nonhuman CharactersWe often need to create nonhuman characters in the stories we write – animals, robots, talking trees.

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that human characters achieve dimensionality by highlighting their human attributes.

Highlighting nonhuman attributes of dogs, such as barking louder or digging faster to get the buried bone, will not make them more endearing. To achieve that we must give them human personality.

We need to do at least three things: choose one or two attributes that will help create character identity, understand the associations the audience itself brings to the character, and create a strong story context to deepen the character.

Attributes in themselves do not give enough interest and variety. Audiences need to project associations onto them. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in advertising.

Reader and Audience Association with Nonhuman Characters

Mercedes is branded as the car of engineering, Ford represents quality, and so on. By associating the car with a certain quality you get the rub-off or halo effect. In advertising this causes the consumer to want to purchase the product. In films and novels the effect draws us closer to the characters through our projecting personal feelings onto them.

In producer Al Burton’s TV series, Lassie, the dog part is written in a way that allows the animal to become part of the family, a best friend to the adults and their son. Through this deft move the series becomes family viewing, and not merely a kid’s show.

A character such as King Kong, however, brings very different associations. He comes from the South Seas. He is enveloped in a dark, mysterious, and terrifying aura. His associations include a vague knowledge of ancient rituals, human sacrifice, and dark, unrepressed sexuality. We, as adults, are frightened of King Kong because we bring to his character our apprehensions of the unknown.

In my novel, Scarab, the Man-Lion, a mythical creature in the likeness of the Spinx of Giza, carries the same sort of frightening mystery and intrigue. Its dark fascination for the reader is generated more by the power of association than a detailed description in the pages of the novel.

Understanding the power of association and how to use it, then, is a crucial part of creating and positioning characters in your stories, and in the market place.

Summary

Highlighting specific human characteristics in nonhuman characters, and using them to amplify our reader’s and audience’s personal experience, helps to make them more engaging.

Writing Great Point-of-View Characters

Writing point of viewWHAT makes for a great point-of-view character? In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty offers us the following advice.

A great point-of-view character is one whose problems fuel the story; the character who has the biggest emotional and physical stake in the story – the most to lose if things go belly up for her.

Writing Point-of-View

Such a character is at the center of the action. Passive characters who merely observe rather than act are not vehicles through whose hearts and bodies we want to experience the story. Imagine if Edge of Tomorrow‘s Major William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, was a mere observer to the alien invasion rather than a key figure in defeating it.

Point-of-view characters are the most interesting. Their thoughts, feelings and opinions are what the readers find most intriguing and absorbing.

A point-of-view character is the most complex. The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s Benjamin Vlahos is such a character. Guilt, nostalgia, and longing, coupled with a powerful intellect have brought him to a stalemate. He can’t go back and he can’t move forward. Not unless he finds the solution that has eluded him for thirty years – prove that time travel to the past is possible.

Other point-of-view characters may appear deceptively simple, but only from the outside. In Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea, the character of the old man appears seems straight forward. But his tenacity in holding onto the fish, even when all seems lost, speaks of a deeper reason.

The old man has a reputation of coming home empty handed from his fishing expeditions. No one wants to go out on his boat with him any more. He appears habitually unlucky and this has cast a shadow over him. It is something he needs to shake off if he is to hold his head up high again.

Interesting, complex, and emotionally invested characters who have the most to lose in a story, then, are great candidates for the point-of-view mantle.

Summary

Writing point-of-view characters whose emotions and actions drive the story forward makes for absorbing stories.

Show Me With Your Body

Girl holding sunThe adroit use of body language to enrich character meaning and intent both in screenplays and novels is a necessary skill. It forms part of the show-don’t-tell arsenal of techniques that makes our writing crisp and resonant.

Take the following snippet from my recent novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

To put you in the picture – Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist the story, watches an apparition, a version of himself, slumbering in a deckchair in his candlelit room while a cyclone approaches.

I could have written:

I stare at the slumbering figure intently. He seems pained, buffeted by raging nightmares. I can’t help but wonder about the extent of fear and regret tormenting him.

Pretty lame, right? Instead I wrote:

I study the ashen-faced man slumbering in front of me. His lips tremble. His eyes rage behind closed eyelids. His jaw grinds down on the bones of all the years.

This is better.

Although the body language centers around small actions, such as trembling lips and a grinding jaw, and throws in a metaphor to boot, it does a better job at conveying the tormented inner life of the sleeping figure. It obeys that much vaunted bit of advice of showing the reader the clues and letting her work out the emotion for herself, rather than handing it to her in a platter.

The use of body language to convey the inner state of a character is a powerful technique that helps to keep an audience or reader engaged in your story. It should always replace a spoon-fed description of your character’s emotions.

Summary

Use body language to describe a character’s inner life.

What Do You Write About?

Fountain pen nibIN a previous post I asked the question: Why do we write? The answers were as varied as they were numerous – from a need to express oneself to the need to make money. This week I want to chat about a follow-on question: What do we write?

Ostensibly, the answer seems uncomplicated, depending on the reasons we write. Some of us write in certain genres because that’s what our readers have come to expect of us. But genres constrain, to a certain extent, what we can write about. A western most typically features the countryside, guns and horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, which is not to say, of course, that such stories are not varied, especially if one keeps genre-mixing in mind. Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind here.

Then there are those writers who do not stick to specific genres, but dwell in the mystical spaces between them, writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. These stories tend to distinguish themselves less through the pizzaz of depicted events and more through the style, language, and a closer focus on the detail.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer to what we write, what our stories are really about, lies in the theme. It is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound.

Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Scarab, for example, is a tale involving a mystical Sphinx-like creature, a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics, and a maniacal killer dressed in black. I had hoped to write a yarn that was entertaining and thought-provoking and, judging by the comments of my readers, it appears that I succeeded. Scarab became a bestseller in Amazon’s sci-fi category and stayed there for a couple of years.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative is imbued with emotions and everyday events that we all recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances might be. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and artistic discovery – they deal with similar themes.

Answering the original question with this approach in mind, then, I’d say that I write about recurring themes that interest me. The style, genre and specific narrative events are a secondary concern.

Perhaps you hold a similar view?

Summary

The theme is what a story is really about.

Does the Novel Have a Future in this Gadget-Crazy World?

LibraryThere was a time that I was not as upbeat about the future of reading as a form of entertainment as I am now.

The desktop computer was the hot topic of the decade, driving the burgeoning games industry and a torrent of spectacular special effects movies to greater and greater heights, while book sales steadily decreased. How could the written word stand up to such a challenge?

Sure, screen and game writers were assured of a bright future, but what was to become of the poor novelist? Could she expect smaller and smaller slices of the loaf until she starved to death?

As things turned out I need not have worried. The tablet revolution, sparked by kindle, and taken up by the likes of kobo, iPad, and android devices, would be the game changer.

Suddenly, people who had drifted away from books, especially the youth, found it cool to be reading on brand new technology. It satisfied their fascination with gadgets. Tablets started popping up from a range of manufacturers. Reading was the winner, which, of course, was good news for writers, although not without hiccups.

Any major upheaval in the established order creates instability. As companies continue to experiment on how best to bring writers, readers and their products together they make mistakes. Writers are often on the receiving end.

Publishing houses, too, are having to adapt to ensure survival. The landscape is continually changing making it difficult to predict what’s next. Opinions fly around with detractors and supporters of traditional versus electronic publishing fighting it out in countless blogs and forums. My attitude is that as long as people keep reading, whatever the format, I’ll keep writing.

In the meantime, I am optimistic about the novel. After all, stories will remain an important part of life no matter what.

Summary

Stories are a necessary part of life. Write them. Read them. Enjoy them.

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