Tag Archives: story structure

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.

Writing is Rewriting II

Fountain pen and corrections

Rewriting II

In last week’s post, I talked about Frensham’s six areas of focus involved in arriving at the final version of your screenplay—the first stage being to increase comprehensibility. Today, we look at the second: Structure; because this website is filled with discussions of the story spine—the inciting incident, turning points, pinches, the mid point, and so on, it is not my intention to repeat this material here. Instead, I want to focus on an important aspect of structure: the structure of climaxes within the overall story context.

Climaxes

The climax of an Act is contained within its turning point. Because your screenplay is a composite of several stories, or subplots, supporting the main through-line, each turning point is part of the broader story sweep. One of your tasks in writing your second draft, therefore, is to ensure that each climax pitches higher than the one before it.

The climax at the end of Act II is often the most challenging. The hero needs to be (seemingly) as far away from achieving her goal as possible—having (seemingly) been, or about to be, defeated. She abandons her quest, and/or denies responsibility for her actions, and/or faces her moment of truth. If she does none of the above, then consider remedying the situation by introducing another character/subplot, an action which reveals her state of mind, a further confrontation either directly or through a flashback, or new information through an unexpected revelation.

In crafting each climax, ensure that you have seeded the possibility for it earlier in your story and allowed the audience to chew on it before unleashing it, remembering that the essential skill in constructing an effective climax is knowing what information to reveal, and when to reveal it. Examine each climax in your screenplay with this in mind and ensure the ‘what’ and ‘when’ are effectively utilised.

Lastly, ask yourself whether each climax is followed by a pause that is encapsulated within a scene or sequence which is in harmony with the pacing and rhythm of your overall script? Does each climax build from the least significant to the most significant moment by the end of the story?

Summary

Because climaxes occur towards the end of acts as part of a turning point as well as at the midpoint, they are natural attractors for the action that leads up to them, helping to shape and direct the material before them. Effective climaxes, therefore, are an indispensable part of writing successful stories.

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How to Write Your Story’s Midpoint

A halfway line on a playing field

Halfway Line

Although much has been written about the midpoint, not least of all in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

Midpoint/Moment of Illumination/Point of No Return

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: She can choose to turn back from the path she has been following, or, choose to press on, but with renewed insight and illumination stemming from an event that causes her to reassess her situation and her inner approach to it.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or intense action scene. What it does do is: cause the Hero to reassess the quest, have the Hero consider giving up, lead the Hero to realize that she must continue, have her formulate a new or more specific plan of action, have her commit to this new goal in a way that she can not back out of, have her learn something new about her innermost self.

Film Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on her outer life: if she was not in control, she seizes control, if she was uncommitted, she becomes committed, if she was a victim, she decides to hit back, if she was hunted, she becomes the hunter, if she was delusional, she starts to deal with reality, if she was defeated by the goal, she begins a new struggle to achieve it. In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads to her achieving the story goal.

Summary

The midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses her situation, regathers her strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.

How to Orchestrate Story Rhythm

Orchestra conductor

Story Rhythm

In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to manage story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.

Story Rhythm

Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge. This can happen within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us, for example, that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.

If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.

Irony as Climax

If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other. McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal/desire to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony. Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).

Summary

Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. This, of course, need not be on a scene-by-scene basis. Correlation can exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.

How to Write the Moral Premise

Jesus and people

The Moral Premise

What is a story really about? By this, I don’t mean the causal chain of events that comprise the outer journey. I mean the inner core that projects these outer events and motivates the inner journey. One way to understand the essence of a story is to determine its moral premise or as I sometimes prefer to refer to it as: the pilot premise. This is the deepest layer of the story, without which, the tale is rendered rudderless.

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams makes a compelling case for the moral premise being that which explains and determines the direction and flow of events in a story. He claims that stories with a strong moral premise tend to do well at the box office. He sites films such as Starwars and Braveheart as examples of this. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides us to write a story that stays on track.

So what form does this premise take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of the premise. In a film such as The Matrix, for example, part of the premise might be: humanity’s strength (reflected in a special individual–Neo), driven by love, leads to victory. This statement allows the writers to reflect Neo’s outer journey from a novice stumbling over his own feet to an accomplished leader with supernatural abilities (inside the matrix) with aplomb.

This first part on its own, however, can’t describe Agent Smith’s journey from mastery to crushing defeat at the hands of Neo. That aspect of the journey requires an additional part: non-human constructs, under programed instructions to control unruly elements in the matrix, are doomed to failure. It can be simplified even further: love (a human quality) leads to victory but an absence of love leads to defeat.

This second part of the premise guides the writers to chart Agent Smith’s journey as it clashes with Neo’s. The complete moral premise, then, represents the genetic code for a story that describes the entire inner and outer journey of a film such as The Matrix. It takes the form: X leads to victory, but minus X leads to defeat. Working out both sides of the moral premise beforehand, therefore, allows us to keep our story on course.

Summary

The moral premise comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the genetic code of any story: one part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the moral premise in mind allows you to craft a story that stays on track.

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Plot & Subplot – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Coin

Two Sides of the Coin

We all know that a story comprises of a plot and subplot. But what precisely is the relationship of one to the other? This is an important subject and one that warrants restating.

For the Love of Love

A useful way to see this relationship is to think of the plot as the outer journey the Hero undertakes in order to achieve the goal and save the day, and the subplot as the inner journey that unfolds in concert with it – in many ways the subplot provides some of the major motivation for the outer journey.

The Matrix

The Hero’s love interest, his/her relationship with friends and family, for example, provide some of the reasons the Hero typically risks life and limb to save the day. In The Matrix, Neo’s outer journey is to defeat these antagonistic forces that keep mankind slumbering in a false virtual world.

Neo’s inner journey is to realise that he is indeed the one person who can defeat the agents and machines and save mankind – a realisation that is a prerequisite for aquiring the power needed to perform this difficult task. His friendship with Morpheus and the rest of the crew, and the love he and Trinity feel for each other, personalise Neo’s outer journey and make it immediate.

Often, the inner and outer journeys intersect in one powerful scene. In The Matrix, Neo dies at the hands of agent Smith but is brought back to life through Trinity’s love for him – symbolised by a kiss.

Summary

The plot and subplot work together to create a cohesive story. The plot describes the outer journey while the subplot provides much of the motivation for it.

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How to Avoid the Blank Page

The Blank Page

The Blank Page

In his book,The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field mentions that the great Irish writer, James Joyce, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re immediately working on.

Pantser or Plotter?

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill a blank page. Having a story roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and get us to our destination sooner — page by page.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word of the actual screenplay or manuscript. Others like to write from the seat of their pants — pantsers in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more helpful is knowing what the midpoint or turning points are. This allows us even more freedom — the freedom to drop into at any point in the story and write from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the Hero and the antagonist might be more appropriate.

Left or Right Brain?

Sitting down to write a story from a structural roadmap, however, often changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure (essentially a left-brain activity) that we outline in the cool light of day mutates when we massage it back to our right brain and finally onto the screen or paper. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planingning story structure.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for not having one at all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting our midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to the new direction that may result from the actual writing of our tale. Indeed, this to and fro movement between our left and right brain hemispheres may help to integrate the writing process and make us more accomplished writers — with only proviso: when letting the muse go, let her go. Don’t put her on the leash of structure. But when she pauses to rest, by all means, look over her shoulder and let the left brain take over for a while. Ideally, this occurs after the first draft has been written, as I have mentioned in a previous post. But there is no reason to assume that we shouldn’t pause to catch our breath from the creative hurly-burly and ponder on the direction of our stories, at any time.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories, no matter how scant or vague, helps us to drop in at any point of our protagonist’s journey and write from there. When the muse changes our roadmap in the act of writing itself, simply go back and adjust the map rather than assume it had no value in the first place.

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Exploring the Story Network II

Network Connections

Network Connections

The main structural hoists between the 1st and 2nd turning points are: the 1st pinch, the midpoint, and the 2nd pinch. In this post, we explore the dynamic relationship that exists between these structures.

1st Pinch, 1st Turning Point, & Midpoint

The 1st pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs about halfway through the first part of act ii and the midpoint. It helps to keep things moving by propelling events toward the midpoint and the moment of illumination that occurs there. The 1st pinch feeds off the 1st turning point, reminding us of what is at stake. Its relationship to the 1st turning point, therefore, is not of one of surprise or deviation, but of reiteration. This is because the 1st turning point has already changed the story’s direction and the task of the 1st pinch is to keep the story on track by subtly and adroitly reminding us of this fact, not to surprise us by introducing yet another change in direction.

2nd Pinch & 2nd Turning Point

The 2nd pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs halfway between the midpoint and the end of act ii. As with the 1st pinch, the 2nd pinch keeps the story on track by revisiting, through a single scene, or scene sequence, the (changed) concerns of the story and propels it towards the 2nd turning point. The relationship between the 2nd pinch and the 2nd turning point, however, is now one of deviation and surprise, since the task of the 2nd turning point is to spin the story around in a different direction by introducing a new challenge, or by deepening the existing one in a game of rising stakes.

1st & 2nd Pinch Symmetry

Sometimes a strong symmetry obtains between the 1st and 2nd pinch. In his book, The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field points to an example of such symmetry in the film, Thelma and Louise. The 1st pinch occurs when the two girls pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt) who then proceeds to steal their money (at the Midpoint). The 2nd pinch occurs when J.D. is picked up by the police and rats on the two women by telling the cops that the women are headed for Mexico, thus sealing their fate.

Summary

Pinches 1 & 2 are scenes or scene sequences that keep the story on track by reminding the reader or audience of the central concerns of the story initiated by the 1st turning point. The relationship of the 1st pinch to the 1st turning point is one of reiteration; that of the 2nd pinch to the 2nd turning point is one of surprise and deviation.

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In Defense of Story Structure II

Two Hemispheres, One Brain

This is primarily a blog about the art and craft of storytelling, written from a structural perspective. Its aim is to provide advice on how to get narrative ingredients, such as the various types of must-have-scenes, to flow together in order to form a tale; on why some stories work and some don’t – in short, it is about how an understanding of structure helps us write better stories. This process, however, is essentially a left-brain activity. Here, I use the terms left and right brain in the metaphorical sense to suggest analytical vs. creative thinking, rather than as a precise anatomical truth. In terms of story creation, we associate the left side of the brain, in part, with collating and polling story material: of assembling, not, strictly speaking, of spontaneously conceiving. Conception occurs deep within the right hemisphere – the passionate, unfettered, and fecund womb of creativity.

Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

When I originally got the idea for my first novel, Scarab, some thirteen years ago, it was as a series of questions: What if a quantum computer, exhibiting human-like consciousness, is used by unscrupulous people to change the laws of physics by utilising quantum mechanics’s “observer effect”, and in doing so, runs foul of a powerful threshold guardian – the Sphinx of Giza? What if the hero is a reluctant, middle-aged, recovering alcoholic in love with a young film student who is looking for a good story to put herself on the map? And what if their endeavours bring them into conflict with these same unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to fulfill their power-hungry ambitions?

These thoughts, which were to form the basis of my novel, had less to do with story structure and more to do with right-brain musings. I let my imagination wonder, gave my characters desires, beliefs, and goals, placed them in interesting environments, gave them a general direction, and let them write their own story while I tried my best to keep up with them.

But if stories spring from the imagination, essentially a right-brain activity, where does all our hard-won knowledge of story structure come in? Part of the answer is: after the first draft. This is when one reviews the story in earnest and checks it against structural requirements: does it contain the must-have scenes? Are the structural components such as turning points, midpoint, and pinches, in the ball-park? If not, would reshuffling them and adjusting them benefit the story?

Integration

There is, however, a longer term benefit associated with the prolonged study of structure: The more we think and learn about the subject, the more we understand it, the more spontaneous the process of writing becomes. Corrections and adjustments that had to wait for revision to be applied, begin to appear in the first draft. Theoretical knowledge becomes practical knowledge, pointing to an increased integration of two largely different processes born in different hemispheres of the brain. It is this integration, perhaps more than any other process, that marks our growing maturity as storytellers.

If you haven’t read the first installment of ‘In Defense of Story Structure’, and would like to do so, click on this link.

Summary

A thorough understanding of story structure helps the writer strengthen the first draft of a story. As the writer’s understanding of structure deepens, so does the ability simultaneously to apply analytical processes in tandem with creative ones – the mark of a maturing skill.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure II

This is the second and final installment of The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure.

Must-Have Scenes

Must-Have Scenes

Second Pinch

As mentioned previously, pinches are scenes located within act II that remind us of the major concerns of the story. Their main propose is to keep the story on track. If the first pinch in The Matrix has Neo fail to leap successfully to the adjacent building, the second has him reel in a helicopter via an attached cable. The second pinch is related to the first, then, in that it revisits and develops the concerns posed by the first.

The Second Turning Point

As with the first turning point, this structural device turns the story around in an unexpected way. Up to now, the Hero has accepted a challenge or opportunity, acquired a goal, grown through moral insight, and pressed forward towards achieving that goal, despite mounting obstacles. Now, a new situation arises – usually prompted by antagonistic forces – that ups the stakes, forcing a reassessment of, and adjustment to, the original goal. The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny learns that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), his best friend, has died at the hands of the sheriff; Munny, who has already fulfilled his contract, has no choice but to expand his goal and seek revenge on all those who participated in Ned’s death.

The Climactic Scene

This scene, also known as the must-have confrontational scene, pits the Hero and antagonist against each other in a fight to the finish (either literally, or metaphorically). Its outcome establishes the theme of the story – for example, that good triumphs over evil. In The Matrix Neo is resurrected through the power of love and faith, symbolised by a kiss.

The Resolution or Denouement Scene

In a typical conventional story with an up-ending, the Denouement Scene ties up loose ends, answers earlier questions, and unites the Hero with his community and love-interest. In a down-ending, the Hero is defeated in some important way – he may, for example, win the battle but lose the war, lose some moral or spiritual aspect of himself, fail to win the girl, leave questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Here, the theme may well be that evil triumphs over good, or that good guys finish last.

The Realisation Scene

I’ve left the mention of the Realisation Scene (see past post) till last, not because it necessarily occurs at the end of the story, but because it is a scene that injects new information about the plot – it allows the Hero to get at the truth. Most typically, the Realisation Scene (and its decision/action consequences) occurs at the first turning point, or the midpoint, or even as late as the second turning point, although this is less common, since it places the engaging and dynamic realisation-decision-action cluster towards the end of the story.

Summary

Story structure comprises of certain must-have, or master scenes, which form the undercarriage of the entire tale. Additionally, linking and transitional scenes abound. Other important scenes include the realisation-decision-action cluster, which can occupy any one of several points in the story, depending on the individual needs of the story itself.

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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.