Tag Archives: story-structure

Story-Structure Checklist

Ticked off items

Story Checklist:

A story checklist helps to concentrate our attention on important aspects of story construction. Here is one on story structure, once more, gleaned from Michael Hauge’s book, Writing Screenplays that Sell.

1. Does each scene, event, and character contribute to the protagonist’s outer motivation.
The beginning of the story poses an overall question in the viewer’s/reader’s mind that will be answered by the end of the story. In The Matrix, for example, the overall story question is; Is Neo The One?

2. Is each hurdle and obstacle in the protagonist’s path to her goal, greater than the last one? In The Matrix, Neo’s journey is strewn with obstacles—from not knowing how to fight, from a lack of self-belief, to finally being shot in the chest by agent Smith.

3. Does the pace of your story accelerate to the climax? In the third act of the The Karate Kid, the scenes are spaced closer and closer together—reconciling with Ali, being admitted to the tournament, participating in the initial matches, suffering a broken knee, and taking part in the final match.

4. Is the emotional through line made up of peaks and valleys? In The Karate Kid, the tournament scenes are interspersed with quieter scenes of plotting by the Cobras, coaching, and fixing Daniel’s leg.

5. Is your story chock-full of anticipation? The karate tournament, which we know about from the start, the fights with Johnny, the anticipated attacks after the party, all add to the overall sense of anticipation in The Karate Kid.

6. Are there surprises and reversals to our anticipation? In The Matrix, our expectation that Neo is indeed, The One, undergoes several reversals when he fails to jump across buildings, or when his meeting with the Oracle seems to indicate the contrary.

7. Does the story create curiosity? In The Karate Kid, we wonder how on earth Mr. Miyagi will manage to teach Daniel the requisite skills to stand up to his brutal opponent.

8. Are your characters, timing, and situation credible? The three month period provides enough time for Daniel to acquire fighting skills under the expert tutelage of Mr. Miyagi, but the time is adroitly condensed by the screenwriter so that the audience can stay involved.

9. Are the events in the story sufficiently foreshadowed? Q. How can we possibly believe that a boy with a broken knee and three months training can win a tough tournament? A. By introducing a secret weapon in the form of the Crane Stance and Mr. Miyagi’s healing abilities.

10. Does your story have an effective opening and ending? The Karate Kid uses a new arrival opening from New Jersey to Van Nuys to introduce Daniel, which is appropriate to the slow build up of the story. The final match, a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, is an appropriate climax which settles the overall question established early in the story: Can Daniel win against all odds?

Summary

The story-structure checklist focuses the writer’s attention on important aspects of story construction. Familiarity with such a list makes the task of troubleshooting one’s tale that much easier.

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Image: Oliver Tacke

Writing is Rewriting

Hand writing

Rewriting

In his book, Screenwriting, Raymond G Frensham, talks about six types of focus associated with rewriting a screenplay: comprehension, structure, characters, dialogue, style, and polishing. Although opinions differ on the exact number and order of rewrites, Frensham’s view offers some useful insights.

In this first post in the series I examine the first stage of the rewriting process and offer some suggestions for piloting the process. I will be looking at some of the other stages in follow-up posts.

The First Rewrite: Enhancing Comprehension

In seeking to make your story as understandable as possible, ask yourself the following questions and seek remedies if the answers are less than ideal:

1. Is my particular story the best vehicle for expressing my dramatic and emotive intent? Would changing the setting or characters or genre improve the impact and effectiveness of my tale?

2. What information does the audience need to know in order to understand the story? Is the information revealed at the appropriate stages?

3. Can I strengthen the story by more strongly referencing its genre, for example, does my action film contain enough action, my love story enough love (or hate), etc.?

4. Are my characters’ actions motivated by their situation, background, and personality type?

5. Have I chosen the right structure for the type of story I’m writing? Is a three-act structure the best vehicle for my particular tale, or would a two, four, or five act-structure be better?

6. Whose story is it? In other words, through whose eyes is the audience experiencing the story?

Summary

The process of completing a screenplay involves several stages, each with its own focus and task. This post has examined the first stage—enhancing story comprehension.

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How to Write Decision and Action Scenes

The Decision Scene in a story usually follows the Realisation Scene – the subject of last week’s post. The Action Scene, in turn, is most often preceded by the Decision Scene, forming a realisation-decision-action structure. Although this structure varies greatly in stories – other material might intervene – the scenes are causally connected.

Deciding

Deciding

The Decision Scene

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if the Relisation Scene leads directly into action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear abrupt and forced. Sandwiching a Decision Scene between realisation and action, avoids this error:

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo (Keano Reeves) decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the world of Agent Smith and the machines. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

Action

Action

The Action Scene

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

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How to Use Theme to Orchestrate Your Story

A story typically comprises of a sequence of linked events, centering on a protagonist who pursues a difficult goal against a rising tide of obstacles orchestrated by the antagonist, (or antagonistic forces). In achieving the goal, the protagonist has to overcome an inner weakness or limitation, which results in his/her becoming a wiser and more accomplished person.

Conducting

Shaping the Art

But how do we, as writers, select the most appropriate incidents to relate? Certainly, verisimilitude, suspense, drama, excitement, and uniqueness play a role. But how do we choose between two actions of equal weight, in terms of this list? One way is to let the theme or controlling idea guide us.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee defines the theme, or controlling idea, as he prefers to call it, as a statement expressed in a single sentence that describes how and why life undergoes a change in value by the end of a story.

McKee explains that the controlling idea has two components: value and cause. The controlling idea identifies the change from a positive to a negative value (or, vice versa) at the story-climax as a result of the protagonist’s final action, and provides the main reason for this change. Value plus cause, McKee informs us, captures the meaning of the story.

Value

Value is the positive or negative charge found at the end of the story. In an up-ending, good triumphs, as in Groundhog Day, where cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness; in a down-ending, negative values prevail. In Dangerous Liaisons, passion turns into self-loathing, resulting in hatred that destroys.

Cause

Cause, on the other hand, provides the reason why the protagonist’s world has been transformed into a positive or negative value. In writing a story, we work back from the end value, to the beginning, and trace the causes within the character, society, or environment that has brought about this change.

Theme as a Scene Creation Tool

In Peter Falk’s Columbo, for example, we track back from the theme or controlling idea — Justice is done because the protagonist is cleverer than the criminal — selecting for inclusion only those story beats that serve the theme. Sherlock Holmes style scenes in which Columbo uses deductive reasoning to corner the criminal are appropriate for a man of superior intelligence and observation skills. Reaching under his raincoat for a .44 Magnum in order to frighten the criminal into confessing, or beating the daylights out of him, is not, although it is a fitting action for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

Summary

The theme or controlling idea encompasses a change in value plus the reasons for it. Keeping the theme foremost in our minds assists us in writing appropriate scenes that stay on track.

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How to Write Story Twists: The Craft of the Dramatic Beat

In these posts, I often talk about the large structural elements that make up the overall infrastructure of a story — the turning points, the mid point, and so on. These structures, important as they are, in that they steer and turn the narrative at crucial junctions, however, do not constitute the bulk of your story. The brick and mortar of your story lies in the details — in the large number of dramatic beats that makes up your scenes.

Dramatic beats

Dramatic beats

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions that make up a scene. In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character ambling around the room doesn’t constitute a dramatic beat; his spotting the gun under the table, which is to be used in the murder, does.

The question now arises: what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers glued to the page, and how can we best structure such beats?

For one, we can fashion them in a way which creates suspense, as has been mentioned in a previous post. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise. Or, we can do both.

Twists to Keep your Readers/Audience Interested.

A twist, by definition, contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming, rendering it fresh and unpredictable. Plan your scenes to contain at least some beats in which one or more of the following occurs:

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

In Inglorious Basterds, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) 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 sense of implied threat. Although LaPadite (Denis Menochet) at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are, in fact, hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth out of 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 torture him and catch him out; a lie is uncovered — 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 misfires.

In Summary

Organising your scenes’ dramatic beats according to some of the above-mentioned suggestions is an effective way of ensuring that each scene contains enough twists to keep your readers and audience interested.

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Understanding Scene Construction

A scene is a story unit involving one or more dramatic beat(s). Much has been written about scene construction, but in today’s post, I want to highlight two important aspects: general function and function relative to story-position.

The general function of any scene is to provide the reader/audience with essential information in order to progress the story in a manner that is engaging and stylistically consistent with the rest of the work. Each scene, therefore, has a specific purpose. We realize that important scenes are nothing other than the structural units we’ve been referring to as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and on on. Hence, the function of the inciting incident scene is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, etc. Identifying scenes in this way highlights their function (described in numerous books and blogs), tells us where they belong in terms of story sequence, and allows us to map them along a path, which traces a beginning, middle, and end.

Pragmatics & Stylistics

What about the pragmatics of scene construction? A general rule is that most scenes should start late and finish early — meaning that a scene should be devoid of excess fat. It should fulfill its function and finish, allowing the next scene to perform its function and finish, and so on.

Scenes should also adhere to the generic stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information — the climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action or thriller genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other, again, in an appropriate setting.

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him.

In Summary

Scenes correspond to the structural units discussed in previous posts, and in innumerable books and blogs. Each scene has a specific task to perform and is located at a specific point within the overall story. Generic concerns influence the stylistics of scene creation — such as setting and type of conflict.

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What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

This post come about as a result of a suggestion by Mark Landen, a regular contributor to this blog, that I say something about tone in story-telling, and its impact on narrative elements such as theme and plot.

First, a brief definition: By “tone” (or the slightly more imprecise, “mood”), I mean the moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude the writer/narrator adopts towards her material in narrating it. Tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is no coincidence that a description of tone corresponds to the overarching genre in story-telling; it is genre, more that setting, plot, or theme, that determines a story’s tone by inflecting the aforementioned elements. Hence, a similar setting in a musical such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or a classical horror such as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) can produce a disparate mood of levity and dread respectively, precisely because it is modulated by a difference in genre.

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is: not necessarily. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comefy can produce as viable, serious, and independent a theme as drama, or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and etherial ordering element, floating above the specific textural concerns of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, at the most quintessential level, tonal elements are not fashioned by plot itself, but by genre: The exploration of the going-on at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

In Summary

Although tone is deeply rooted in the generic demands of the tale, it is inflected by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards her story and her method of narrating it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

I post every Monday.

How to Kick-Start your Story

In a previous post, I mentioned that the inciting incident is an early narrative event intended to get the story rolling. In this post, I want to expand on this important device by highlighting two of its main functions: the inciting incident creates forward momentum by tearing us away from the ordinary world. It also keeps us interested in the story by setting up the 1st turning point as a surprise. The 1st turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly commences — the real start of the story. Expressed in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, therefore, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that prevents the writer from showing her hand too early.

Shutter Island

In the film Shutter Island, Police Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Auel (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility. When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into possible unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is merely the insane imaginings of a psychotic mind. The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story: what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

In Summary

The function of the inciting incident is to kick-start the story by ushering the protagonist away from his ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point. In this sense, this narrative event may be regarded as a sort of mislead.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have a request for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing, in story-telling, is a technique used for creating mood, supporting plot, and deepening character. Robert McKee defines it as the purposeful arrangement of early events intended to prepare us for later ones. The use of foreshadowing is not just limited to events, actions, or dialogue, however. Every decision a writer makes regarding setting and genre also plays a role in setting up the context for conflict — the essence of story-telling — and is, therefore, a part of foreshadowing.

How the Inciting Incident Foreshadows the Obligatory Scene

Foreshadowing creates anticipation, either directly or indirectly, through character predictions, warnings, and new information, and, through setting. Shakespeare, for example, uses inclement weather, and bizarre occurrences (such as horses eating each other — Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4), to ramp up anxiety and foreboding in his plays. While foreshadowing takes many forms, perhaps its most important function is to heighten the sense of impending crisis to be played out in the obligatory scene — the climactic moment in which the protagonist confronts and answers the chief dramatic question of the story: will the primary goal be achieved, despite setbacks and opposition? In the example below, we look at foreshadowing with specific reference to a story’s overall dramatic question.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carey) learns that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had her memory of their failed relationship erased through a new scientific process performed by Lucana Inc. Devastated, Joel decides to follow suit. While undergoing the procedure, however, he realises that he’s made a mistake. He attempts to hide memories of their relationship inside other more obscure ones, in order to preserve them, but ultimately fails. The story is an interwoven catalogue of Joel’s memories, wishes, fears, and influences stemming from the Lucana procedure, ending where it began — with Joel and Clementine running into each other again, as if by accident, destined to try again.

Foreshadowing and the Dramatic Question

The inciting incident, in which Joel learns that Clementine has had him erased from her memory, asks the question: how will Joel deal with the news? Prior to the story’s mid-point, Joel’s answer is to try and forget Clementine ever existed. This provides the dramatic context for the first half of the movie, allowing the scenes to rally around it. But this early version of the dramatic question also foreshadows the overarching question, which is answered only in the obligatory scene: will Joel and Clementine manage to get together again? Joel’s realisation, at the mid-point, that memories are precious, provides the context for the second half of the story. Seen in this light, foreshadowing is the pilot that keeps the story on track, endowing events with a sense of inevitability and truthfulness. In Eternal Sunshine, the suggestion is that love is transcendent — greater than the pain rooted in individual memories.

In Summary

Foreshadowing prepares us for the story climax and resolution. It takes its lead from the inciting incident and culminates in the obligatory scene. Used skillfully, foreshadowing helps to give cohesion and context to your stories by asking and answering the main dramatic question.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

The Second Turning Point in Your Story

In Making A Good Script Great, story consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that in any screenplay comprising of three acts, the first act deals with the set-up of the story, the second with its development, and the third with its climax and resolution. Each act, therefore, has a different focus — a different job to do. This “chunking” of material into sections, is of course, not limited just to screenplays. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested that all stories comprise of three main sections – a beginning, middle, and end. This, in many ways, is the structural essence of any story. Much of the wisdom on structure by the so called manual writers such as Seger, can therefore be applied, with some modification, across a variety of writing platforms – the novel, the stage-play, and of course, the screenplay.

Turning Points as moments of Transition

The transition from one act to another is via an elevated action, or event, commonly referred to as a turning point, which usually involves the protagonist. Because the second act tends to be twice as long as the first or third acts, the former requires additional underpinning – the mid-point. In an earlier blog, I suggested that the first turning point represents the moment in which the story truly gets underway. The mid-point, by contrast, represents the protagonist’s “moment of grace”, a moment of insight in which he or she weighs up progress towards the goal against inner and outer resources. The second (and final) turning point occurs when the protagonist confronts another major obstacle, marshals all remaining assets, and pushes forward towards the goal in a do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. As with the inciting incident and the first turning point, the relationship between the first and second turning points is one of magnitude and direction (see earlier blogs). During the first turning point, the protagonist identifies the goal and embarks on the journey to achieve it. But the task is not easy. Obstacles and problems abound. Some are unsolvable. The second turning point, therefore, readjusts the initial direction, refocuses the goal, and, in the light of new information, strengthens the protagonist’s resolve.

In the film Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a ruthless killer in his youth, is a down-and-out pig farmer who can hardly shoot straight or stay on a saddle anymore. Because of his past reputation, he is approached by a young gun calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to assist in killing two men for cutting up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny, in turn, solicits the help of his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and together with The Schofield Kid, they set off to do the deed. Accepting the Kid’s offer is the first turning point. Ned’s decision to pull out of the deal is the mid-point because it offers Munny the opportunity to cancel the job at hand (which he refuses to do). The murder of Ned is the second turning point – Munny now has no choice but to take revenge on those who killed his friend. His goal, therefore, goes from killing the two men he was hired for, to killing everyone who participated in the death of Ned. Not even the saloon keeper, who allowed Ned’s body to be displayed outside his establishment, is spared. This precisely illustrates how the story goal can be refocused in the light of new information.

One Last Turn before the Climax

As with the first turning point, the second turning point achieves the following:

1. It spins the action in a new direction.
2. It revisits the central question of the story.
3. It elevates the stakes.
4. It sets up the next (and final) act.
5. It speeds up the action in the last act by tightening the protagonist’s goal around the looming confrontation with the antagonist.
6. It injects new information about the existing problem.
7. It leads directly to the story’s climax.

In Summary

The function of the second turning point is to inflect and refocus the story goal (initiated by the first turning point). Additionally it increases the stakes, pace, and tension, and leads directly to the final confrontation with the antagonist in the story’s climactic scene.