Tag Archives: story structure

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure

Nuts & Bolts

Nuts & Bolts

For sometime now, I’ve been posting articles about such narrative elements as the introduction scene, the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the first and second pinches, the midpoint, realisation, decision, action, obligatory, and denouement scenes – in short, about the structural underpinnings of most stories. Of course, other linking and transitional scenes are dispersed in between these larger ones, but together, they coalesce to form a solid template for an entire tale. In this two-part post, I want to bring these elements together in order to present a snapshot of the overall shape of a typical story. What follows, then, is a simple, but useful summation of story structure:

Introduction Scene

With the exception of a medias res beginning (see past post), a typical story often starts with an introduction to the ordinary world of the Hero – this is the world before the initial disturbance. Here we learn about the Hero’s life and environment as it has existed for some time. This is our opportunity to get to know and empathise with the Hero in his or her natural habitat. In Unforgiven, for example, we see retired gunslinger and now struggling pig-farmer and widower, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), fighting to make ends meet in order to feed his two young children, and we begin to empathise with his plight.

Inciting Incident

Now, into this world, comes an unexpected opportunity, challenge, or threat, which disturbs the status-quo. The Hero may at first choose to ignore this event, or he/she may respond to it immediately. This is the inciting incident and is the event that kick-starts the story. In Unforgiven, the inciting incident occurs when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) asks William Munny to help hunt down and kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, an offer which Munny originally rejects, then decides to accept.

First Turning Point

The first turning point is a powerful structural event that spins the story around in a different direction; it avoids predictability and injects freshness into the tale. In The Matrix, the first turning point occurs when Neo (Keano Reeves) learns that the world he thought was real is actually a computer simulation, and that his body (and most other bodies) is slumbering inside a machine-constructed cocoon which continuously siphons energy from it. This new information necessarily changes the course of Neo’s life.

First Pinch

The first pinch typically occurs in the first half of act II, between the start of the act and the story’s midpoint. The pinch is a scene which reminds us of what’s at stake, thus helping to keep the longer act II on track. In The Matrix, a pinch occurs when Neo fails to leap successfully to an adjacent building and plummets to the ground. This reminds us that his training is not yet complete, but it also prompts us to ask whether Neo is indeed The One – the underlying question of the entire act and the story as a whole.

The Midpoint

The midpoint, also referred to as the moment of (moral) illumination (not to be confused with the realisation scene), occurs about halfway through act II, in effect, splitting this longest of the three acts into two units; in Braveheart, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), spends the initial part of the story avoiding involvement in the politics and troubles of his country. But at the midpoint, he receives a knighthood. This event, which is an outer manifestation of his acceptance of a moral duty to involve himself in the plight of his country – to help lead it to freedom from England – demarcates a change of attitude in Wallace. Henceforth, his actions, and the entire course of the story, will be informed by this moment of moral illumination.

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure concludes next week.

Summary

Story structure comprises of a set of must-have scenes that are interlinked by smaller transitional ones to form an overarching structure. Understanding the function and purpose of each scene provides the writer with a formal template for crafting a unique story at the level of content.

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The Realisation Scene

Moment of Illumination

Moment of Illumination

What is the Realisation Scene?

One way to approach writing from a structural perspective, is to understand the function of a number of must-have scenes in your story. One such scene is the Realisation Scene. In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger defines this important scene as ‘the moment when a character and/or the audience gets it’ – the ah-ha moment. It spins the story around in a different direction and is, therefore, also a structural turning point in the tale.

The Sixth Sense, The Fugitive, and The Green Mile

In The Sixth Sense, for example, this scene occurs when Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and the audience realise that he is dead. This changes the direction of the story in a major way. In The Fugitive, the Realisation Scene occurs when Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) perceives that Charlie Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) is behind his wife’s murder and the attempt to frame him for it. And in The Green Mile this scene occurs when Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) realises that John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) has a God-given power to heal.

After the Realisation Scene plays out, things cannot continue as they were. New plans have to be hatched and adjustments made in the light of new information. As in all well thought out structural turns, the effects is felt both at the level of plot, and on the level of character, causing the latter to grow or wilt depending on his or her strengths and weaknesses.

What’s Wrong With Mulholland Drive?

Occasionally, however, this moment of illumination is not immediately evident, something that Seger sees as a weakness. In Mulholland Drive, for example, Seger suggests that the audience needs an ah-ha moment, right before the Betty/Diane character kills herself, in order to grant the audience clarity. Whether this is true or not for a multiform film such as Mulholland Drive (Lynch would probably argue that he purposely chose obfuscation to deepen the sense of the unknowable), the fact remains that the Realisation Scene, in most conventional stories, is useful in helping to organise the plot around a central moment of illumination that changes the way the audience and the protagonist view the way forward, and as such, is a valuable addition to the writer’s tool kit.

Summary

The Realisation Scene comprises of an an-ha moment in which the audience and the protagonist understand the true nature of the dilemma. This is a game changer and alters the way the protagonist pursues the goal from that moment on.

Author Interview

For an expanded discussion of some of my views on writing, as well as one or two other matters, kindly visit: http://thorstonewell.com/2012/07/08/stavros-halvatzis-interview/

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Dramatic Structure: The Power of Three

Three Act Structure

Three Act Structure

We often refer to classic Hollywood screenplays as having a three act structure — the arrangement of a story around three pieces of narrative real-estate — but the root of this idea lies with Aristotle, and his notion that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This arrangement lies at the basis of almost all the traditional dramatic structure in storytelling, including the novel.

The Function of Each Act

Each act has a specific structural function to perform, which it does by organising the pace and depth of the information it releases to the reader or audience.

Act I

The function of act I is to set-up the story. It does this by establishing the main characters, time-period, and setting in which the story unfolds, and defining the goal, and the conflict which arises from the pursuit of the goal. This act, which contains the inciting incident — an event that sets it all in motion, sets the protagonist on his/her way to achieve the goal.

The act also defines the first step in examining the theme of the story. In The Matrix, for example, that question is whether human ingenuity, spiritual strength, self belief, and endurance, can defeat the seemingly impervious strength of the Machine world.

Act II

Act II is primarily concerned with developing the seeds that have been sown in the first act. This act deepens the conflict resulting from obstacles to the goal, while simultaneously developing the protagonist, and other characters, in response to these obstacles. This act is balanced by the mid-point, a moment in the story in which the protagonist considers whether or not to throw in the towel and turn back from the goal in the face of mounting difficulties. This decision is encouraged by an event which reveals a secret truth about the protagonist — some hidden strength or quality which equips him or her to face the challenges ahead with renewed resources.

The act continues to probe the thematic question, although it does not yet provide an answer to it. In The Matrix example, the answer to the final outcome of the battle between man and machine see-saws through many iterations, and remains unresolved. Act II is the longest, most intricate, and complicated part of the story.

Act III

Act III typically pays-off, and resolves, through the denouement, the questions and puzzles set up by the previous two acts. It answers the main dramatic question of whether the Hero will succeed in attaining his/her goal. The third act also settles the theme. If the theme of The Matrix is about whether or not self-sacrifice serves the greater good, the third movie in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, settles it in the affirmative, as a result of the final conflict.

Summary

A three act structure allows the writer to craft a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. All three acts have their own function to perform. They collaborate to produce the theme of the story, as a result of the final conflict in the third act.

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Plot and Subplot: Several Strands, One Yarn

Image of yarn

Many Strands, One Yarn

We know that plot and subplot form the basis of all stories. What may be somewhat less obvious, however, is the precise relationship that exists between the two. How are these narrative elements knitted together, and what patterns do they form in stories? It may be useful to answer these questions in the following way: If plot is primarily concerned with the outer journey — the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal, the subplot(s) supports this journey by exploring its motivation, whether it concerns love, hate, generosity, revenge, or the like, and additionally tends to highlight theme, symbol, and the moral framework of the tale — the inner journey. In a finely crafted story, plot and subplot are woven together into a seamless whole.

The Role of Genre

Action-driven stories tend to spend more time on plot, although subplot is never ignored. Even frenetically paced films like Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol contain scenes which explore material centered on emotional content: Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), for example, is wracked with guilt over having failed to protect Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife from being killed in Budapest. This frames many of his actions and his refusal to remain with the team at the film’s conclusion. We later learn that Hunt’s wife is very much alive and that Hunt has known this all along but has kept it secret in order to protect her. This sort of inner layering forms part of the story’s subplot.

The Piano

Art-cinema inflected films, by contrast, tend to emphasize subplot over plot. In The Piano, for example, the plot, involves Ada’s (Holly Hunter) attempt to get back her piano and thus regain her “voice” and self-expression. The new owner of the piano, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is obsessed with Ada, promises to returns the instrument to her in exchange for piano lessons and sex. This thread of lust, obsession, and Ada’s own awakening sexual passion, overshadows the plot, primarily because the action is diminutive in comparison to the spectacle found in Action/Adventure films. By contrast, it is the subplot that contains the large and tempestuous emotions that drive the story forward.

Retaining Plot Prominence

In some genres, such as the conventional Love Story, plot and subplot may even occasionally appear to merge, becoming difficult to pry apart. Here, the “love” thread, which typically provides part of the protagonist’s inner motivation/subplot in the Action/Adventure genres, now becomes the outer goal (plot), itself. This genre typically centers around the attempt of lovers to get/stay together despite mounting obstacles. Strengthening the outer obstacles may prevent the subplot from usurping the role of the plot.

In Summary

The normal function of the subplot(s) is to support, motivate, and highlight the inner concerns of the plot by exploring the relationships and emotions of the protagonist and other characters through one or several story strands. Occasionally, and depending on genre, subplots appear to usurp the plot.

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Plants and Pay-Offs: Unearthing Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

In a previous post I discussed the importance of foreshadowing, suggesting that the term covers a wide variety of narrative elements, including theme and symbol — elements that one might best describe as meta-narrative, that is, a layer of significance that sits above, or at the base of a story and does not necessarily participate directly in the plot.

In this post, I want to focus exclusively on narrative elements that create foreshadowing, yet are very much part of the plot — actions and objects that participate directly in the story. It may be best to describe this sort of foreshadowing as planting and paying-off to differentiate it, for the sake of precision, from foreshadowing though theme and symbol.

Planting for the Pay-Off

In writing, every narrative action ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in screenwriting, which uses fewer pages to tell the story than are afforded a novel. If the writer plants a gun in a scene, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion. In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can fight back. In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s (Jim Carrey) dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee, setting up the pay-off later in the plot, when it crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

Where is the best place to put plants and pay-offs? A plant should remain innocuous and be situated at a natural and believable point along the story spine — as part of the story’s natural development. Its pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

In Summary

Plants and pay-offs deal with specific elements in the plot. The main characteristic of a plant is that it should appear innocuous, while a pay-off should be delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.

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How to Develop Conflict in your Stories

Conflict

Conflict

We’ve often heard that conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories are bound to appear staid and static — lacking dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and thus rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how synchronising the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, to the external conflict makes for a gripping tale that stays on track.

Mounting Conflict

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the spine of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict which arises, should build on the previous one in terms of danger and intensity — both internally and externally. This means that the conflict is adjusted to suit — as the physical stakes change, so does the character’s internal response — fear/prejudice/courage/etc. The internal and external journeys continuously track each other, like partners in a dance. Additionally, obstacles which gives rise to conflict differ from previous ones in order to avoid monotony and repetition.

Structuring Conflict

What follows a scene, or scenes containing mounting conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven, for example, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) decides to walk away from the job, which involves killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces, on his own, an entire saloon filled with men out to kill him. This situation has arisen as a result of a setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan who, himself, has been unjustly accused of murder — and Manny’s pledge to revenge Ned’s death.

Lastly, it is important to note that each conflict has a definite climax, leading directly to the setback: Manny’s shooting of one of the cowboys leads directly to the setback — Ned Logan’s death.

In Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

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Why Obstacles are Good for Stories: Directing Story Traffic

Obstacles

Obstacles

What is Story Traffic?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the development and structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, which should be as surprising as it is inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience/reader guessing, and inevitable, because it has been deftly prepared for by the writer. Another way to view turning points is as obstacles, blocking the way to the protagonist’s goal, forcing a change in direction.

What of the Midpoint?

Typically, a story contains a beginning, middle, and end, and therefore, two major turning points — one which introduces the middle section (or act ii,) and one which introduces the last section (or act iii). But because this middle section tends to be the longest, it often needs to be split further through the use of a midpoint, also discussed previous posts, in effect, creating two more sections. The midpoint, too, may be regarded as a turning point, with one proviso — that it presents the protagonist with a moral choice, a moment of illumination, which once accepted, changes him. Henceforth, the protagonist’s actions take on board this insight, for good or ill, and guide his actions to the story’s conclusion.

What specific forms, then, do turning points/obstacles take? I offer the following for your consideration:

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journeys respectively. In the best stories, they operate simultaneously. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has then to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has clearly more on his hands than the physical task alone.

Obstacle Types

Obstacles may stop the established external/internal flow of events dead in its tracks, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may reverse the flow completely, in a 180 degree about-turn. What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins.

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point and Source Code, to replay the story from the same starting point.

Deflection, or expansion, is by far the most common form of turning point/obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the overall parameters of the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s (Clint Eastwood) intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one, albeit in the same vain.

In Summary

Turning points introduce major new sections of your story by presenting new information that is as surprising as it is inevitable. There are three main types of turning point — dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

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How to Keep your Story Moving

Momentum

Momentum

A story without momentum is in danger of being branded boring; at worst it implodes and disintegrates. In her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger gives us several suggestions of how to establish and enhance story momentum.

Story Momentum

Seger defines story momentum as that which causes one scene to lead inexorably to the next. Inexorably, because the relationship between scenes is one of cause and effect. There are, of course, other scenes, which serve the subplot, that are less tightly bound into the main plot, but in terms of the plot itself, a causal relationship between scenes should be the order of the day.

Witness

The end of act two in Witness provides a telling sequence of scenes in this regard: The young Amish boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas), identifies detective McFee (Danny Glover) as the murderer. This prescribes the next scene in which John Book (Harrison Ford) visits his boss to tell him of this, but is asked to keep it quiet. This causes John to return to his apartment, only to be shot at by McFee. John realises that his boss is one of the murderers. As a result, John picks up Rachael (Kelly McGillis), Samuel’s mother, and Samuel, and drives to the Amish farm to hide out. This initiates the next scene in which, as a result of his injury, John passes out. This, in turn, leads into the second act with John hiding out at the Amish farm, with Rachel looking after him.

Note how every scene described above is tightly related to the next. In future blogs, I shall have more to say about the specific structure of these causal scenes, and the important actions or beats within them called action points, but for now, I mention that the inciting incident and turning points, discussed at length in previous posts, are certainly cause-and-effect scenes.

In Summary

Story momentum is a result of scenes being causally related to each other, contributing to he main plot through-line. Interwoven with other “looser” scenes that comprise the subplot, they make for a story that has both forward momentum and variation in pace, tone, and subject matter.

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How to Pace your Stories

Varying the Pace

Varying the Pace

By pacing I mean the overall flow and rhythm of your story: its climaxes, reliefs, pauses, highs and lows – the heartbeat of your tale. Every story needs to vary its pace if it is to give its audiences and readers a chance to catch their breath and reflect. Without this variation, your story would grow monotonous and dull.

Graphing the Pace

In other words the pace should not look like this:

Graph1

Graph1


It should look like this:
Graph2

Graph2


Although the ante is forever ramping up, you should allow for diminuendos in the buildup to your final climax.

Contrast

What this means in practical terms, is that your material should contain contrasts:

Short vs. long scenes
Information vs. mood scenes
Interior vs. exterior
Dialogue vs. non-dialogue
Dramatic vs. comic relief
Day vs. night
Slow vs. fast tempo scenes
Present vs. flashbacks

Of course, this can’t be a mechanical process – contrast for contrast’s sake in a “let’s take turns” approach. These contrasts have to fit the demands of the overall structure of your story – the turning points, pinches, midpoint, and so on. As nebulous as it is to say this, the timing and placement of these contrasts are best governed by feeling, or instinct. If you’ve written a highly tense scene that has brought audiences to breaking point, you might consider following it up with a calmer or lighter scene, sooner rather than later – comic relief following a dramatic scene, grants us, well, comic relief.

Another great tip for pacing within scenes, or scene sequences, is the old adage, enter late, and leave early. Although this is not possible for all scenes, the late-in early-out approach is particularly useful in the third act of your story when the pace culminates in the climactic scene.

In Summary

Pacing refers to the overall flow and rhythm of your narrative incidents. Handled well, it keeps the audience and readers hooked into the story through a series of contrasts in scene length, tempo, dialogue, interior/exterior, drama/action/comic relief, day/night, and time frame.

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How to Determine the Theme of your Story

Just about everyone knows that every story contains a theme. Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition. Also, a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art. Ask most people what exactly it is that they mean by “theme”, however, and the answers vary in inflection and precision from “mood” to “controlling idea”. It seems that theme means different things to different people. At the very least, its use, in the colloquial sense, is imprecise.

Yet, a deep understanding of theme is essential in crafting a story that stays on track. The definition I find most useful in my own writing stems from a combination of two strands of thought drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme is only clinched the end of the story, and that it implies a moral premise.

Why should the theme be clinched only at the end of the story? Because that’s when the final outcome of the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is determined.

Why should that involve a moral sense, or judgment? Because the antagonist represents the negative force, or, the existence of evil in the tale, while the protagonist represents the positive force, or, the presence of good. In simple terms, if the antagonist wins, we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins, we may have an up ending — good carries the day.

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 the 30 days of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community. The sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the story’s protagonist, pits himself against Marlow (Danny Huston), the leader of the vampires, in order to help save the 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 only to expose himself purposely to sunlight and perish, ensuring that he never becomes a threat to humans.

The theme of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, may lead to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others — something that only emerges at the end of the film.

What is useful about isolating the theme in this way is that it grants one the ability to hold the essence of the story in the palm of one’s hand for scrutiny. This is crucial in keeping things on track, and for trouble-shooting potential problems.

In Summary

It is helpful to think of the theme as embodying a moral premise, which is clinched only at the end of the tale. Identifying your theme at the planing stage affords you the opportunity to see the essence of your story at glance and helps you to keep things on track.

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