Tag Archives: structure

How to Interrogate Your Story

20 Questions

20 Questions:

To ensure that your story is on track, complete the first draft of your novel or screenplay, then answer the following questions (drawn from Lagos Egri’s superlative work on dramatic writing).

1. What is your story’s premise? For example: “Unswerving integrity delivers from disgrace.” That defines the moral premise/theme of your story.
2. What is your protagonist’s goal? What does your protagonist want, more than anything?
3. What is your protagonist’s compulsive, 100% trait?
4. What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.
5. Why is the character insecure about this condition? How did he or she develop that insecurity about the condition?
6. How did the character develop the condition about which he is insecure? What is this injury for which the character has a compulsive drive to escape? Backstory here. Provide a specific event or series of events that explain how he developed the condition. Those events caused a chain of reaction/action/reaction. Tell the tale.
7. What is the crisis that upsets the status quo? How does it affect the protagonist?
Why is the protagonist dissatisfied?
8. What is the dire necessity that spurs the protagonist to action and keeps him relentless to reach his goal? This is something that threatens his special insecurity.
9. How does hesitation to take action threaten to worsen the protagonist’s situation?
10. What decision will he make or action will he take to change things? This is his point of attack, the decision or action that starts the conflict.
11. Is the protagonist fighting for or against the status quo? Does he want to keep things the way they are, or change them because they’ve become intolerable?
12. Who is your antagonist? He must be diametrically and militantly opposed to the protagonist.
13. Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist and his goal? What is the antagonist’s motivation?
14. What is the point of 1) contradiction and 2) conflict between them?
15. What is the unbreakable bond between the protagonist and antagonist? What is so much at stake that they can’t leave each other? Multiple reasons are good.
16. What is the wrong step the protagonist makes that starts the crisis?
17. How does this decision create another problem?
18. What does the protagonist do to rectify this new problem?
19. How does this response create another, worse, problem?
20. How does the final crisis, conflict, and resolution prove your premise?

Summary

Satisfactorily answering the set of twenty questions listed above will help to keep your characters and story on track.

Story Maps

Map

Mapping the Creative Process:

In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.

Summary

Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.

Simplifying the Story Question

Question Mark

The Story Question

During one of my lectures on storytelling in Sydney, Australia, I remember one student asking me if there was one single piece of information, one pithy piece of advice, I could offer novice writers, which might help them to kickstart their story?

This reminded me of my asking the very same question of one of my mentors at the London International Film School, many years ago. The advice I received back then was the same advice I offered my Sydney students: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?

This generic question incapsulates most traditional tales in one single sentence. Answering it involves telling a story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, seeks to solve it, is opposed in solving it by the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails to do so by the end of the story. Chunking these considerations into separate parts, yields, most typically, a three act structure based upon that well known Aristotelian observation that a story has a beginning (what is the problem), a middle (how does the protagonist engage with the problem) and an end (how is the problem finally resolved/unresolved).

Exploring Character

Probing the sentence further we uncover a psychological element: What does your protagonist ‘want’? Exploring your protagonist’s want(s) leads us to consider deeper elements of his/her life such as background, occupation, relationships, psychology, want versus need (see previous post). Some of these elements are typically revealed in the story’s subplot, involving minor characters who are arrayed into two main camps, the protagonists’ and the antagonists’. Typically, the subplot acts as a foil to the plot, highlighting, either by comparison or by contrast, similarities and differences in character, values, goals, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the major characters.

Exploring the Inner and Outer Journey

The question also hints at a dual journey to be undertaken by the protagonist in order to achieve his/her want: Clearly there is an outer goal to be achieved in order to fulfill the want, which, most typically, involves a physical entity or result: get the girl, stop the bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, save the cat (outer journey). But the want involves a need: Why does the protagonist need to risk life and limb to do so (inner journey)?

We can see, even from a brief exploration of this basic question, how probing it yields an individual story that is, nevertheless, based upon a general truth. A typical story is nothing other than the tale of someone who wants to achieve something because of some deep psychological/human need, but is being prevented from doing so by opposing forces.

Summary

At the deepest level, individual stories may be summed up in universal structures. One such structure comes in the form of a question: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it? In answering this general question, you are, in fact, telling an individual story.

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Understanding the Story Climax

Explosion

Story Climax

Although I’ve touched on a story’s climax before, it is such an important narrative segment, that it deserves revisiting.

What is the Story Climax?

Syd Field states that “The Climax is the principle part of the story for which (…) all the machinery of planning and constructing has been set in motion (…). The climax is a scene, (also known as the must-have scene), in which the Hero faces the greatest obstacle of all – the final confrontation with the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, in which one side wins and the other looses. The climax brings together the following elements: it resolves the main plot, it settles the theme of the story, and it addresses the transformation (or, lack there of) of the Hero.

The climax is the highest emotional peak of your story. It also resolves the final goal of the tale. In Act I, the goal that is set is found to be insufficient or fake, while in Act II a more appropriate goal is determined. At the end of Act III, however, the true, or, concealed, goal is uncovered. The climax ends in the Hero’s achieving, or, failing to achieve this true goal. This also determines the theme of the tale: For example – self sacrifice leads to victory, or, self sacrifice leads to defeat.

Knowing the climax of your story as you write gives you a target to aim at since you can now ask and answer the question, at each stage of the process, of how each scene helps you to set up your story climax. If it doesn’t, cull the scene and write one that does.

In his book, Screenwriting, Story mentor, Raymond G Frensham, gives an example from Act III of Witness which shows how these elements are integrated at the climax. By the end of Act III, John Book (Harrison Ford) is less concerned about his own survival than he is about the survival of the Amish community and their values (goal change). John, in choosing to put down his gun and face the antagonist unarmed, unleashes the moral power of the Amish community, which defeats the antagonistic forces (Climax & Theme: good triumphs over evil.)

Summary

The climax is, perhaps, the most important scene in the story since it resolves several elements, such as, plot, change in the protagonist, and theme. Structuring the climax correctly, therefore, is one of the important skills a writer must master.

Exploring the Story Network I

Structural Links

Structural Links

Understanding story structure involves different stages of learning. The first stage is to identify, name, and understand the function of each narrative component. We learn that a turning point, for example, spins the story in a different direction, and we learn that in a typical story there are two such turning points. But looking at individual elements in this way provides us with a static picture. It tells us what the elements do, and where they occur, individually, but not how they interact with each other to produce a cohesive and dynamic narrative. This is very much a case of the sum of the parts being less than the whole: we cannot unlock the full meaning of a text unless we trace the links between the narrative elements, understand that they form a network, and explore how that network functions. Individual structural units, seen in isolation, therefore, surrender less information than they do when studied as a network. The following series of posts tries to remedy this situation by exploring these important interrelationships, starting with the inciting incident and the first tuning point. For the purposes of this post, the typical starting point – the ordinary world – is treated as given.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident, we are reminded, is an event that gets the story rolling. It usually occurs after the ordinary world of the Hero has been established and takes the form of a disturbance to the status quo of this world. The inciting incident is often mistaken as the start of the story, precisely because it jump-starts the tale by relating its first significant event. In media res beginnings, the inciting incident replaces the introduction to the ordinary world, injecting a sense of excitement and urgency at the start of the story at the expense of context.

The First Turning Point

The first turning point is the true start of the story because it presents new information which forces the Hero to respond to a challenge, opportunity, or threat, hatch a plan, and embark on a series of actions to implement this plan which affect the entire story. It differs from the inciting incident in that it introduces information that spins the story in a different direction than that suggested by the inciting incident.

Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: First Link in the Network

The relationship of the inciting incident to the first turning point, is, therefore, one of deviation resulting from a surprising and unexpected change – a rotation, or alteration to the path initiated by the inciting incident. One can only understand the inciting incident, therefore, by relating it to the ordinary world before it, and the first turning point ahead of it, just as one can only understand the first turning point in relation to the inciting incident and the structural nodes ahead of it – but more of that in next week’s post.

Summary

Understanding structure relies not only on an understanding of discreet structural units, but of the links that exist between them. Each structural node exists in a dynamic relationship to the other nodes in the narrative network and can, therefore, only be understood in relation to the overall network.

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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.

How to Write Effective Subplots

Subplots perform several functions – they add depth and resonance to your story by inviting comparison to the main plot, allow for variation to the tone and pace, often through comic relief, and cause deviations to the plot itself. Linda Seger remarks that subplots give your protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, or to learn a new skill. Subplots also echo the main concerns of the story at a more transcendent level, by adding a different perspective, enriching the tone, and strengthening the themes and symbols of your story. But subplots are not only concerned with protagonists and their world. An action originating from a minor character within the subplot, may twist the plot around in a surprising way. Indeed, crafting a turning point from the subplot is one way to ensure that you don’t telegraph the event and ruin the surprise. Like the main plot, a subplot has a beginning, middle, and end. The number of subplots depends on the needs of the main plot, and how much underpinning it requires.

Sherlock HolmesMain Plot

In the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to stop Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) poisoning all opposing voices in parliament, installing himself as leader of the nation, and extending the Empire. A declared practitioner of the dark arts, Blackwood personifies the forces of irrationality, Holmes, the forces of logic. At a thematic, moral, and symbolic level, the premise is of cool-headedness and rationality vs. fear and irrationality.

Subplots

Enriching the story are three subplots: that of the mysterious Professor Moriarty who, behind the scenes, manipulates the conflict between Lord Blackwood and Holmes, and in particular, Irene Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) love for Holmes, for his own evil ends; the Holmes/Dr.Watson/Mary Morstan triangle; and Holmes’s own relationship with Irene Adler. Some of the major deflections to the main plot come from these subplots: Moriarty gets Irene to drug Holmes in his own rooms by threatening to kill him if she doesn’t (subplot 1). Irene has access to Holmes because of her (past) relationship with him (subplot 2); meanwhile, Holmes tries to break up Watson’s (Jude Law) relationship with his girlfriend, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), perhaps for fear of losing his only friend and confidant (subplot 3). Holmes’ antics succeed in making Watson feel guilty about abandoning his old friend, which results in his saving Holmes’ life on several occasions (main plot). Coincidently, the Watson/Mary relationship invites comparison to the Holmes/Irene one, suggesting an even tighter bond between the two men. In this way, events and motivation from a subplot serve the main plot, helping to keep it on track.

Summary

The function of subplots, as shown in Sherlock Holmes, is to explain and motivate character actions, deflect the main plot, and deepen resonance through contrast and parallel. Although subplots vary substantially in focus and emphasis from story to story, the use of the three aspects identified above will certainly help to deepen and enrich any plot.