Tag Archives: Syd Field

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.

Story Mentors: Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Robert McKee, Christian Vogler

Fist

The Power of Five

We are living in an age where information on just about any aspect of science or art is abundant. And so it is with writing. Sifting for relevance through this mountain of data, however, is now perhaps our biggest challenge. In an attempt to lighten this task, I offer a brief summary of five important writing mentors active in the Hollywood scene today.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, the five mentioned in this post adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the well known film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot, which entirely revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance – although even he employs a structural template in his use of the quest as a generic structure – but more of that later.

Syd Field

Simplifying for the sake of brevity, one may regard Syd Field’s contribution as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles. Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres. McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach in his thinking, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In A Hero’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale in terms of character function. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into their work. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

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Structuring Act I, etc.

Building Structure

Building Structure

In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”

Pilot Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.

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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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How to Kick-Start your Story

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

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

Shutter Island

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

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

In Summary

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

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How to Establish Dramatic Context

During my classes on story, I often talk about the multiple layers that go into the crafting of a tale. The inciting incident, turning points, pinches, and midpoint, are structural units that help the writer to formulate, position and strengthen narrative incidents by locating them within a specific dramatic context — the beginning, middle, and end; each structural unit has a specific purpose and function within each dramatic context. Syd Field reminds us that another way to think of the dramatic context is in terms of its purpose — the purpose of the beginning is to set up the story, the middle, to create confrontation and complication, and the end, to bring about a resolution. But here’s the useful part: each context can be formulated in terms of a specific question to guide the writer in creating scenes that, in effect, answer this question.

Legion

In the movie Legion, Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) disobeys God’s command to wreak vengeance on Man for his perpetual disobedience. Instead, Michael cuts off his wings, making himself human, and appoints himself protector of a waitress at a remote diner, Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), and her unborn child, who, he declares, is mankind’s last hope. In choosing this path, Michael pits himself against the hordes of horrific angels led by Archangel Gabriel (David Durrand) who have come down to earth to kill the unborn child. This causes Michael to sacrifice himself for his cause, a sacrifice, which, ironically, leads God to restore Michael to his former self, intact with wings and angelic powers. Michael then defeats Gabriel and saves the child, and by implication, mankind.

Questions Asked and Answered

The setup (beginning) asks and answers the question: what is the purpose of the strange happenings occurring around the remote diner? The confrontation (middle), asks and answers the question: will Archangel Michael and his motley crew prevail against the hordes? The resolution (end) asks and answers the question: having beaten the horrific hordes, will Michael overcome the final obstacle by defeating Gabriel, thus saving the child and the world? Writing scenes that collectively pose and answer these questions provides a road map to your story which helps to keep it on track.

In Summary

The dramatic context defines the kind of incidents that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Each context can be formulated in terms of a question. Structuring our scenes in answer to this question provides us with a blueprint for crafting each stage of our story.

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How to Strengthen the Middle Part of a Story

In The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the second act of your story, being the longest and the one containing the most conflict and complications, needs special handling. Here, novice, or even experienced writers, are most likely to wonder off track and end up at a dead end. The midpoint, or the moment of illumination, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post, is that moment in which the Protagonist receives new information that allows him or her to proceed from a changed moral or ethical perspective to the second turning point. In the first half, the Protagonist pursues the goal based on negative traits. In the second half, he or she realizes that the best way forward is through the activation of positive traits inherent in his or her personality.

The Pinch

Dividing the second act into two sections allows for additional structure on either side of the midpoint. Field calls this structure the “pinch” in that it brings together the threads in each half in a way which keeps the story on track by driving the action on to the mid-point, and plot point II.

An Unmarried Woman

In An Unmarried Woman, the young, unhappily married Erica (Jill Clayburgh), enrolls in art classes and has an affair with her teacher, Saul. Against her will, she falls in love with him, then discovers she is pregnant. Torn between her lover and her husband, she decides to leave both and raise her child on her own.

The inciting incident occurs when Erica’s husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), asks Erica for a divorce. This leads to the first turning point when she begins art classes and meets Saul (Alan Bates). Pinch I marks the start of her relationship with her teacher. The mid-point occurs when she finally has sex with him. Pinch II describes her realization that she has fallen in love with Saul, while plot point II occurs when she discovers that she is pregnant with his child. These events clearly illustrate the strong relationship that both pinches share with the first and second tuning points respectively — often one of cause and effect: in An Unmarried Woman, Erica’s sexual relationship with Saul is a direct result of her starting art classes (tuning point I), while her realizing that she is pregnant with his child (turning point II) follows from her having fallen in love with him (pinch II). Including these structural entities not only ensures consistency in narrative incident, but also ensures that you have something to aim for as you seek to structure the longest part of your story.

In Summary

Pinches occur on either side of the mid-point. Each is strongly related to the turning point nearest to it, helping to ensure narrative consistency.

Where’s the Mid-Point in your Story?

In story-telling, as in so many things, the mid-point is a special moment in a journey – the moment in which one considers what has gone before and what is to follow. It is a moment of evaluation and of reflection. Have things gone according to plan? Do I continue on this path, turn back, or veer off in a different direction? Are my body and spirit up to meeting the challenges that lie ahead?

In my classes on screenwriting, I devote quite a bit of time to this structural gem. I’m in good company. Screenwriting gurus such as Syd Field, Robert Mackee, Michael Hague, Linda Seger, and Stanley D. Williams, likewise emphasize the importance of the mid-point within the overall story structure. Williams, in his book, The Moral Premise, refers to it as “the moment of grace”, the point in which the protagonist is given the opportunity to accept or reject an underlying truth about herself, and, therefore, to gain insight about her current predicament. Since action flows from a character’s psychological, spiritual, and emotional motivation, the mid-point lays the foundation for structuring the protagonist’s future actions, based on this moment of illumination.

Although the mid-point is one of many structural devices at our disposal (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, and the climax, are others), I consider it especially important since it not only allows for the integration of the first and second parts of the outer journey, but also ties in the inner journey to the outer journey more tightly than would otherwise have been possible. I shall be discussing each separate strand in more detail in future blogs, but for the moment we are reminded that the inner journey describes a character’s beliefs, intentions and motivations — who the character is — while the outer journey describes action the character initiates in order to reach her goal, precisely because of who she is. In this sense, the outer journey is a metaphor for the inner one — the invisible life made visible.

The use of the mid-point in Braveheart

In the film Braveheart, for example, William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, goes from a man who is willing to compromise liberty in order to raise a family and be allowed to farm in peace, to a man who embraces the challenge of winning Scotland’s freedom by leading his nation to war. The transforming event is arguably the moment in which Wallace is knighted. In accepting the knighthood (outer journey) Wallace reaffirms the traits of courage, self-sacrifice, and virtue (inner journey) that go with the role that was always inherent in him. The bestowing of the knighthood, which occurs half-way through the film, forms a link between the old and the new Wallace, and provides the dramatic context for the story in general.

Structuring the mid-point

In structuring your mid-point, begin by asking the following questions:

1. What does the protagonist not know about herself and her predicament before the “moment of grace”?
2. What incident/obstacle best allows for the moment of illumination to burst through?
3. Does the protagonist use this new insight to initiate new action that essentially differs from previous action?
4. Or, does the protagonist reject the moment — as in Tragedy?
5. Is the end of the story an inevitable consequence of actions flowing from the moment of illumination?

In Summary

A well constructed mid-point aligns your protagonist’s transformational arc to a significant outer event. As an inner journey mechanism, it is the moment in which the protagonist allows herself to grasp or let slip the opportunity for self-illumination. As a manifestation of the outer journey, it finds expression in a bold and significant act, which differs essentially from anything that has gone before. A masterful use of the mid-point in your stories will greatly improve the way your characters act and grow as they strive to achieve their goals. Enjoy the journey!