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How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

ONE of the potential problems of expositional backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us.

Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable.

A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

Backstory Essentials

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest.

In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand which the backstory then satisfies. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory provides essential information to the reader or audience needed to understand the narrative. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

Writing Dialogue Subtext

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

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Dialogue subtext, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning lurking beneath the obvious.

Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo. It is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

There are many techniques for generating subtext. Here are two more:

Dialogue subtext: the lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. Breaking Bad’s Walter White’s verbal interactions with Jesse are fraught with lies, denials, and tricker as he tries to keep Jesse under his control.

A lie generates dialogue subtext by creating a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, and the like.

So, when one character asks another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that a lie is involved because the answer is evasive—-it fails to answer the question directly, parrying instead, with another question.

Dialogue subtext: manipulation

Another useful source of subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well, It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred manipulates Jack into suspecting that Jack’s wife might be playing around. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are common generators of dialogue subtext. Use them to add depth and complexity to your characters’ interactions.

Thanks

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

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We’ve heard it again and again, character conflict is essential to writing stories that are page turners. It is what drives the story forward. Without conflict the story stalls and falls off the high-wire.

But how is character conflict achieved? Here are some reminders:

Character conflict checklist

1. Is more than one character pursuing a similar goal or avoiding a similar problem? Stories about a race of some sort contain such conflict.

2. Does the conflict affect the protagonist’s inner and outer goals? In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos has to resolve his inner conflict resulting from the suppression of past memories in order to survive a category five cyclone.

3. Is the character conflict the most interesting and compelling it can be? In Scarab the protagonist has to decide between tempting the wrath of supernatural forces and the love of a woman.

Unlike in real life, character conflict forms the basis of most interactions between the story’s players. It gives rise to the polarity between the “good” and the “bad” events that creates the story itself.

4. Can a deadline force an action or decision that is less than the best? Having a bomb set to off at a specific time, or a runaway train set to derail at a certain point on the track, raises the tension and conflict in the story.

5. Can a “solution” actually cause a worsening of the situation? Having a character killed off to silence him can have consequences that increase the conflict between characters.

6. Can you implement the opposition to the goal in a more dangerous, powerful way? Instead of having the antagonist try to stop the protagonist from attaining the goal by going after him directly, he goes after his family instead.

7. Is there something or someone, apart from the antagonist, keeping the protagonist from achieving his goal? In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s disturbing childhood memory of lambs being slaughtered allows Hannibal Lector to get inside her head.

8. Are there conflicting goals among the minor characters that increase the friction between them?

Doubtlessly, you may add to this list, but this is a good start.

Summary

Character conflict forms the basis of all drama. Using a combination of two or more of the above-mentioned techniques will ramp up the conflict in your stories.

The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento

The fabula and syuzhet in Memento

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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers and audiences. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

How to Write Page Turners

Scarab and page turners

Page turners: Scarab earned its status when it held its best seller slot on Amazon for over two years

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WRITERS strive to write page turners every time they set fingers on a keyboard, stories that keeps us wanting more.

But how is this achieved?

Often, the trick to writing page turners is to create anticipation in the minds of the readers by raising questions that desperately need answering.

Eight questions to pose in writing page turners:

1. A Prediction: Knowing that something has been predicted for the future creates tension in the reader or audience. Will the prediction come true or not?

2. Hobson’s Choice: None of the two choices offer a true solution, but we still wonder which one will be chosen.

3. The Bait or Hook: Something unexpected and compelling occurs which holds our undivided attention.

4. The Invisible Influence: There is something or someone influencing events but it remains unknown to us.

5. Unsolved Mystery: In his course on screenwriting, Hal Croasmun mentions that every mystery contains three aspects, of which one or two remain unknown till the end—what happened, who did it, and how did it happen? In trying to discover the answer to one or more of these question, keeps us glued to the story.

6. The Cliffhanger: This is an unexpected end or twist to a scene or chapter. We need to know the answer, so we keep reading or watching.

7. Anticipation Created by Dialogue: Something is mentioned by a character or characters which causes us to anticipate a future event. We worry or wonder about it.

8. Apprehension Caused by Genre: In a tragedy, for example, we have certain expectations about the end of the story. Other genres, such as Noir, raise expectations about the behaviour of the femme fatale, or the moral health of the protagonist.

Although this list is by no means replete, it is a start to get you thinking.

Summary

Page turners raise several of the following questions—-a prediction, a Hobson’s choice, a bait or hook, invisible influences, an unsolved mystery, a cliffhanger, anticipatory dialogue, or apprehension caused by genre.

Story Momentum

Story Momentum in Witness

Story Momentum in Witness

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AT WORST A TALE without story momentum flatlines and dies. At best it bores the reader.

In her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger shows us how to avoid this fate for our stories by establishing story momentum.

What is Story Momentum?

Seger defines story momentum as the force, or, perhaps more appropriately, the glue that causes one scene to stick inexorably to the next. Inexorably, because the relationship between scenes is one of cause and effect.

There are, of course, scenes meant to 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 abound.

The end of act two in Witness ushers in a powerful and telling sequence of scenes in this regard: The young Amish boy, Samuel, identifies detective McFee as the murderer. This prescribes the next scene in which John Book visits his boss to tell him of this, but is asked to keep it quiet.

This causes John to return to his apartment where he is shot at by McFee. John realises that his boss is one of the murderers. As a result, John picks up Rachael, Samuel’s mother, and Samuel himself, and drives to the Amish farm to hide out. It leads to 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 is tightly related to the next through causality. The result? Momentum is maintained throughout.

Summary

Story momentum arises as a result of consecutive scenes being causally related to each other. It maintains tension and contributes to the main plot through-line of your tale.

Character Traits, Wants, Needs.

Character Traits in Blade Runner

Character Traits in Blade Runner

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IN A PREVIOUS POST, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain character traits at the expense of others.

I suggested that the best way to manage this process is to make changes at specific structural junctions such as the inciting incident, first turning point, mid-point, and second turning point.

Another way to think of the character arc is in terms of character traits vying for dominance as a result of the tension that arises between a character’s wants versus his needs.

Let me explain:

Prior to the mid-point, sometimes referred to as the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. He mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because he has not yet discovered or acknowledged his need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, is a negative one—obsessive desire, overblown ambition, and the like.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and himself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means the prominent trait(s) motivating the character has been overshadowed by other more positive traits. This causes a change in the goal, and therefore, in the path to the goal. It illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

In the original Blade Runner, Deckard, a retired blade runner, a hunter of off-world synthetic humans, is persuaded to come out of retirement to hunt and kill a group of dangerous Nexus-6 Replicants, led by Roy, who have landed on earth illegally. We later learn that they’ve come in search of their creator Tyrell, of the Tyrell Corporation.

Their intent is to have him extend their lifespan which has been set at four years to prevent them from developing emotions and becoming a threat to humans. During his investigations, Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s personal assistant, Rachel, is herself a Replicant although she is is unaware of this fact. The plot thickens when Deckard falls in love with her and tries to protect her from harm.

Adjusting Character Traits Through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realise that what he wants — to get rid of Replicants, is not what he needs — to rise above his prejudice and to keep Rachel alive. Ironically, during a fight to the finish, Deckard is rescued from falling to his death by Roy, the Replicant he has sought to kill. This act proves Replicants are capable of compassion, a trait that humans seem to have lost.

Deckard’s dominant trait of cold efficiency in tracking and killing Replicants becomes subservient to his traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In changing his goal by protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker acknowledges that his need is greater than his want. This change of heart (character arc) illustrates how traits affect the story goal — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of character traits as well as what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to integrate the outer and inner journey of a story.

How to write the Story Climax

Story Climax in the Short novel - The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Story Climax in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

What is the Story Climax?

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 loses.

The climax does the following: It resolves the main plot, it settles the theme of the story, and it addresses the transformation, or, its lack, of the Hero.

Syd Field states it more succinctly: “The Climax is the principle part of the story for which (…) all the machinery of planning and constructing has been set in motion (…).

In my short novel, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the climax occurs when the protagonist’s past collides with his present inside the eye of a category 5 cyclone in the north east coast of Australia’s Mission Beach. The protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, has to acknowledge a crucial truth about his past in order to survive. The synchronicity between his inner and outer turmoil forms a powerful and fitting climax to the story.

The climax, then, is the highest emotional peak of your story. It also resolves the final goal of the tale. The goal that was set in Act I has proven to be insufficient, while in Act II a more appropriate goal has been determined. It is only by the end of Act III, however, that the true goal is finally revealed. 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.

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 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 story climax is arguably the most important scene in the story since it resolves crucial 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.

More on Constructing Compelling Characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

As has been suggested in previous posts, compelling characters are the lifeblood of any story.

Learning to craft fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad.

There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to plan characters through the use of the character profile.

Profiling Compelling Characters

A compelling character profile contains elements that work together to increase the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character.

In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Manny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.

Summary

A character profile is a way of fashioning compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.