Tag Archives: story

What is Multistrand Narrative?

Man spinning woolAs writers of novels or screenplays we are familiar with using character, setting, dialogue, plot, and genre, to convey theme, mood, and moral premise of our stories.

But to what extent do we utilise narrative structure itself to reflect these last three elements?

In my Ph.D thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I point out that the canonical structure comprising of a beginning, middle, and end, first elucidated by Aristotle, involving a single plot and protagonist pursuing a specific goal, is not the only way to tell a story.

Multistrand stories, also referred to as ensemble, thread-structure, and multiple-plot narratives have become increasingly common in the past few of decades. Woody Allen’s films, for one, tend to employ this structure, as do romantic comedies such as Love Actually, Sex in the City, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, and dramas such as Crash, Babel and Syriana.

Distinct from multiform narratives such as Donnie Darko, Jacob’s Ladder, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which use multiple realities to keep us off center, multistrand stories portray the bewildering simultaneity and multiplicity of contemporary life by intercutting independent stories together, without subsuming them under a single plot.

Instead, equally-weighted strands cohere through a common theme. Each features its own protagonist and explores an aspect of the premise — love heals, for example — by having each individual story reach a similar or contrary conclusion.

Laying down several strands within a limited number of pages affects how much time the writer has available for introducing the various characters, and how those characters are portrayed. Vignettes tend to be the order of the day, here. Complexity within each strand, too, is kept to a minimum since the audience would have difficulty in keeping track of multiple plots involving multiple protagonists.

Taken together, however, the sheer number of independent strands encodes the bewildering intricacy, befuddlement, and moral ambiguity of contemporary life in a way that, perhaps, a conventional three-act structure fails to do. And therein lies the point.

Summary

Multistrand stories encode the bewildering multiplicity of contemporary life in their narrative structure.

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Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

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How to keep your story interesting through reversals

Arrow and sun graphicKeeping our story interesting as we navigate towards the major pivot points (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the midpoint, and climax), takes some doing.

This is because we need time to lay out essential information and perform certain tasks in support of character development and plot that will only pay off later. But this may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audience engaged.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They occur when you create a certain expectation in the reader or audience, only to surprise them a moment later with another:

1. A child enters an abandoned house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading down to the basement. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing impossibly larger. The child shuts her eyes, unable to face the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, she hears another sound and opens her eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast from a mangy cat caught in a slither of light from below.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room to find the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom, despite being grounded. The mother hears the toilet being flushed and smiles with relief, but the smile quickly evaporates when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter.

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise.

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a tremendous gunfight. Lucky to get away with their lives, the robbers reach safety and open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

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How to Spark your Info Scenes

Lighter sparks

Sparking your Scene:

How many times have we come across this scenario? Our hero needs to uncover information about someone, or something. She googles, goes to her local library, zips through old newspapers, records…

Yawn.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers suggests the only memorable thing about such a scene would be if the computer blew up in her face, or a library shelf collapsed and hit her on the head.

Staring at computer screens, or paging through records makes for static scenes. It is much better to have your character corner a grumpy librarian and try to solicit the information from her, or try to bribe a shady cop, or talk to the local priest. Now, you not only get the information necessary to drive your story forward, but you layer the scene with tension or humor via the subtext rooted in the reluctant informant. The result is a richer, more dramatic and entertaining event. Even if your character fails to extract the information, she generates added interest.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson has to deal with a sour, officious clerk. He asks if he can check out a book of records from the facility and is told this is not a lending library. He then asks the clerk for a ruler. “A ruler?” the man snarks back. It’s to help keep his eyes focused on the lines of text, Nicholson replies. The clerk slaps a ruler on the desk in front of him. Nicholson grabs it and hurries back to the records book. He coughs loudly, simultaneously tearing a page from the book with the aid of the ruler.

Good writing!

Not only does the hero get the information he needs, he makes a fool of the unlikable clerk. The scene works on two levels — plot and drama.

Interaction between characters is always superior to mere eyeballing of screens, or flipping through pages in a book. Scour your story for scenes which only serve the plot and try to inject human conflict into them, even if that conflict is small, as in the above example. Your scenes will be better for it.

Summary

Information gathering in a scene can become boring if not handled right. Extracting information from another character is superior to extracting it from the internet or a book. At the very least, have your hero try to convince others to help him acquire it.

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How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning

The Big Yawn:

An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

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Why Do You Write? No, Really!

Girl with arms outstretched

Why Do You Write?

The opinions below, are, of course, entirely my own.

Why do you write? This is, perhaps, the most important question I pose my students at the beginning of any new creative writing course. If they’re not sure, if they scratch their heads, study the ceiling, or choose that moment to text their friends, I advise them to take a break and think seriously about their motivation.

What I feel like saying is: Are you sure you want to do this?

Those of us who contemplate a career in writing, specifically in storytelling — especially as novelists — had better know. If we’re not driven by the unstoppable desire to write, if we’re not obsessed with understanding every nuance, texture and colour of a word, if our pulse doesn’t race when we hit that golden vein in a written passage, we’d be better off taking up a hobby instead.

Writing is hard. Accomplished writing is even harder. Earning a living as a writer is possible, thanks to the tablet revolution and marketplaces such as amazon.com, but it demands steely dedication, talent and luck. To make it as a writer you need to put your head down, keep learning your craft, on a daily basis, and never, ever, give up.

Knowledge and experience of the world are not enough, although they are required. Deep philosophical ideas are enriching, but they too, are not the secret—you want to impress me with your perspective on Existentialism? Go write an article in a philosophy journal. Ideas, at the cost of story, do not make for compelling novels, except for niche or elite readers. Nor, does artistic temperament, on its own. Sensitivity towards others and observational skills are essential, but they, too, are not sufficient.

So, what, in addition to the above, does one need to become a successful writer? The answer, I think, is rather obvious:

PASSION!

Passion is the secret ingredient that makes even the toughest journey enjoyable. Passion turns work into play and sweat into joy. Without passion you lose focus. Without passion you merely slog.

So, why do I write?

I write because passion compels me to. I have no choice. I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather do. Not in a million years. If I did, I’d be better off taking up bowls.

Summary

Passion is the essential ingredient in developing your writing career.

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How to Validate Your Characters’ Traits

The number 4

Validating Character Traits

One of the wonderful things about being a teacher of writing, and author, is that I get to think about my craft and discover hidden treasures that surprise and reward me at unexpected moments.

During a recent screenwriting lecture, a student asked me how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear less trite and forced? She felt that in many of the films and books she’d read, some by accomplished authors, this contrasting trait appeared superficial and misplaced and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall work.

Just to rewind for a moment: A typical character comprises of four defining traits, the forth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and generate interest in the character. For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city …

I thought about this for a while and realised that I hadn’t, perhaps, sufficiently emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.

So, if a man keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?

In other words, seek to explain, in a believable way, where his ‘stupidity’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point, or at the midpoint. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen our understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.

Speaking of which, I’d really love to know what bit of backstory fully explains Hannibal Lector’s (the TV series) drive to create macabre meals from human flesh. Perhaps you can write in and let me know.

Summary

Tying character traits into specific and significant events of a character’s life through the backstory, especially the fourth contrasting trait, is essential in creating characters that are interesting, yet believable.

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How to X-Ray your Story

X-ray of a hand

How to X-Ray Your Story

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri provides us with a succinct way of x-raying our tales prior to commencing the writing of our story, in order to expose its essence, its genetic code. We do this by seeking to identify the story premise (or, what I call the theme, or moral premise—moral because it is the moral of the story and judges behaviour according to a higher justice).

Here are some examples of the (moral) premise:

King Lear: Blind trust leads to destruction.

Ghosts: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Othello : Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Tartuffe: He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

We can see from the above that the moral premise/theme reveals a character’s inner motivation and is intimately linked to his inner journey. The protagonist is relentlessly driven by this motivation to complete that journey. It’s important to note that the moral premise contains a direction and momentum, emerging from the conflict between the character’s emotions, other characters, and the world.

With that in mind, we can say that the premise = Character’s emotion + Conflict (or direction) + Results (the end).

If we plug in the premise/theme of The Matrix into this formula, for example, we may come up with: Self-belief leads to victory over the enemy.

With the theme/moral premise firmly in place, we can generate the log-line (the one-line synopsis of the plot, as opposed to the moral of the story), before moving to the synopsis itself, the treatment, and the fist draft of our screenplay, or novel.

But these latter topics are the subject of a future article.

Summary

The moral premise, or theme, is the force that drives the protagonist to complete his inner journey.

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How to Manage Character Conflict

Boy with raised fists

Transitioning Conflict:

Staying with the work of Lagos Egri, and still on the subject of character conflict, this post examines this most powerful force that exists between characters. Egri informs us that there are four types of conflict in writing:

1. Foreshadowing (good)
2. Static (bad)
3. Jumping (bad)
4. Slowly rising (good)

Foreshadowed conflict should occur near the beginning of the story and should point to the forthcoming crisis. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring families are already such bitter enemies that they ready to kill each other from the get-go.

Static conflict remains even, spiking for only the briefest of moments and occurs only in bad writing. Arguments and quarrels create static conflict, unless the characters grow and change during these arguments. Every line of dialogue, every event must push towards the final goal.

In jumping conflict, the characters hop from one emotional level to another, eliminating the necessary transitional steps. This is also bad writing.

Avoid static and jumping conflict at all costs, by knowing, in advance, what road your characters must travel:

Fidelity to infidelity
Drunkenness to sobriety
Brazenness to timidity
Simplicity to pretentiousness

The above represent two extremes—start and destination.

Transition

You must have transitions between states. Supposing a character goes from love to hate. Let’s imagine there are seven steps between the two states:

1. Love
2. Disappointment
3. Annoyance
4. Irritation
5. Disillusionment
6. Indifference
7. Disgust
8. Anger
9. Hate

If a character goes from 1 to 5 at once, this constitutes jumping conflict, neglecting the necessary transition. In fiction, every step must be clearly shown. When your character goes through steps 1 to 9, you have slowly building conflict. Each level is more intense than the previous one, with each scene gathering momentum until the final climax.

Summary

Foreshadowed, slow-rising conflict, which transitions from level to level, is the best way to orchestrate opposition amongst your story’s characters.

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Story and the Dimensions of Character

Stone engravings

Character Dimensions:

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri points out that every object has three dimensions: Height, Width, Depth. Characters, on the other hand, have three extra dimensions.

Egri begins with the most simple of the three: Physiology. To illustrate how physiology affects character, he provides examples of a sick man seeking health above all else, whereas a normal person may rarely give health any thought at all. He suggests that physiology affects a character’s decisions, emotions, and outlook.

The second dimension is Sociology. This deals with not only a character’s physical surroundings, but his or her interactions with society. He asks questions like: Who were your friends? Were your parents rich? Were they sick or well? Did you go to church? Egri constantly explores how sociological factors affected the character, and vice versa.

The most complex of the three is Psychology, and is the product of the other two.

In an industry obsessed with high concept and plot, it is important to restore the balance by placing equal focus on character. According to Egri, it is character, not plot, that ought to determine the direction of the story.

The Bone Structure of Character

Egri provides categories for developing character. Collectively, he calls these categories the character’s bone structure. Filling out the specific details of each serves as a good start in creating a three dimensional character.

Physiology

Sex
Age
Height and weight
Color of hair, eyes, skin
Posture
Appearance
Heredity

Sociology

Class
Occupation
Education
Home life
Religion
Race, nationality
Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports
Political affiliations
Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines

Psychology

Sex Life, moral standards
Personal premise, ambition
Frustrations, chief disappointments
Temperament
Attitude toward life
Complexes
Abilities

Summary

This post looks at Lagos Egri’s three dimensions that must be addressed in order to craft well-rounded characters: physiology, psychology, and sociology.

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