Tag Archives: writer

Conflict through Dilemma in Novels and Screenplays

DilemmaWHAT sort of choice or dilemma makes for the best dramatic conflict in stories?

In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, for example Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate any possibility of a risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful dramatic technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma generates inner conflict that escalates the tensions between himself and other characters in the story.

Writing Advice from Strunk and White

Writing adviceCONTINUING to mine Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style for writing advice, we learn that we should avoid verbosity and put statements in a positive form. That is, we should make finite assertions that avoid hesitant, ambiguous language – except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

So, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.”

Lastly, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant,” not “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”

All three examples expose the weakness in wordiness that specifically flows from the use of the word “not”. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.

Not honest is better expressed as dishonest. Not importanttrifling. Did not rememberforgot.

You get the idea.

Here is a passage taken from The Nostalgia of Time Travel that illustrates how concrete language, sparse in its use of negatives, can catapult the reader into the world of a character – even when the character is unsure of what he is witnessing:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse something small and white stuffed in between the branches of a jasmine bush at the bottom of the garden. A bird, perhaps, seeking shelter from the approaching cataclysm?

I winch myself up from the deckchair and trundle down the stairs. I wade through the garden and reach the spot. It is not a bird. It is a piece of cloth. A white handkerchief. I disentangle it from the branches, unfold it in my hands. There is a large “M” stitched in pink on the bottom right-hand corner. I press it to my face. The scent is unmistakable. This is Miranda’s handkerchief. It belongs to a set I had tailor-made for her as a gift. I’ve kept it in a shoebox alongside several other of Miranda’s personal items — a hair-clip, a broach, some letters we wrote to each other. I hardly ever open the box anymore. The encounter with the objects is too painful…”

In writing a story about nostalgia and regret I knew that I had to avoid using overly sentimental, indistinct language. I charged my sentences with punchy nouns and verbs as a safeguard.

Summary

Avoid using the negative case in your writing. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not. Do so with suitable nouns and verbs.

How to Contrast Scenes in Scripts and Novels

ScriptsHow many scenes are necessary in writing good scripts? In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger notes that this number varies. Some have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred.

In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Contrasting Scenes in Scripts and Novels

Some scenes are extremely short. Those include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or the inside of a vehicle. These are meant to place the viewer or reader in a specific time and place. Others, engaged with plot and character development occur over several pages.

Film scripts that comprise of only a handful of scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that runs into hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

The secret to a well-paced story is to balance scenes through contrast. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones.

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This prevents the sense of sameness that leads to boredom.

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In my own novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, scenes that enact the slow pace of a man in physical and moral stasis are contrasted with the immense force of a category five cyclone that threatens to destroy the protagonist’s world.

Summary

Contrasting the number and texture of scenes creates rhythm and movement. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to stasis and boredom.

Potent Language in Stories

Potent and moodySOME of the most potent writing advice comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially precious book, Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers who seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete number amongst the greatest – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is potent, in part, because their words render up pictures.

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known but nonetheless accomplished writer:

Potent Language

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of an environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the telling use of concrete and specific language. This language is not only useful in evoking an appropriate atmosphere in short stories and novels. It is also important when used adroitly in the ‘action block’ of screenplays, where brief, specific, and concrete language adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use specific, definite, and concrete language to write scenes that create mood and render up potent pictures in the minds of your readers.

How to Twist Your Story’s Spine

Twist the lightningTHE twist is an important moment in any story. Indeed, I often think of a story’s spine as a zig-zagging line that resembles a thunderbolt thrown down by Zeus. It has energy and surprise encoded into its very structure.

And so it ought to.

But how do twists work? How many of them are there, and what, exactly, is a twist anyway?

The short answer is that the twist is a sudden turn in the hero’s path to the goal so that it now points in a new direction, based on the significance of new information that confronts him.

Here is one list of events that may be regarded as twists:

There’s a Twist in the Tale

1. An unexpected problem derails the hero’s path to the goal.
2. The hero loses an important resource.
3. A sidekick or supporter switches sides.
4. A lie is revealed.
5. A past mistake resurfaces to muddy the waters.
6. The trust in an important ally is lost.
7. An alternative plan emerges to rival the existing one.
8. The hero loses faith in his ability to achieve the goal.

When a twist is severe enough to cause a total change in the original plan, such as an unexpected problem derailing the hero’s path to the goal, then that twist is a turning point – one of the two turning points that occur in Syd Field’s rendition of the three-act story structure.

In my novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie’s discovery that the mysterious machine which supplies power to his underground city has no moving parts, is certainly a twist in the tale it, but it falls short of being a turning point that pivots the story in a different direction.

In The Matrix, however, Neo’s realisation that his life has been nothing more than a simulation fed into his slumbering bran, is a major turning point that spins the story into the second act of this extraordinary movie.

Further, a twist such as the hero’s losing faith in his ability to achieve his goal represents a temporary deviation or pause in his journey. It does not reach the magnitude of a turning point, but is a good candidate for a mid-point, where, typically, the hero questions his strength and ability to pursue the goal.

Other twists, such as a lie being revealed, or a sidekick changing sides, represent deflections to the established path but do not necessarily constitute a derailment.

Although no one can predetermine the precise number of twists in your story beforehand (except for the two major turning points) use twists liberally to create a story shape that is interesting and unpredictable.

Summary

Twist and turn your story to help keep your readers and audiences engaged.

Writing Powerful Scenes

Power ScenesIN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about the general design mechanics of scenes. What sorts of functions must occur in a scene to make it effective – especially a pivotal scene such as one containing a turning point? And how are these functions grouped together?

I find it helpful to organise functions into separate layers. The first two are straight forward. On one level scenes must showcase actions such as the hero’s response to some challenge laid down before him. Actions comprise the so-called outer journey – the plot.

But on an underlying level scenes must also support the plot by showing that the hero’s actions are consistent with his inner journey. In other words, that his motivation arises naturally from his values, beliefs, background.

Additionally, the hero must show personal growth. He must exhibit an ability to learn from the mistakes he makes in pursuing his goal, if he is finally to achieve it.

Involving Readers and Audiences in Your Scenes

These two levels in a scene are indispensable to each other. They really make up a single dramatic unit – action and its motivational core. But there is another layer we can add to a pivotal scene to make it even more effective. We can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.

If we, as an audience, are aware of something that the hero is not, such as that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, then we generate tension which is dissipated only when the hero learns this himself.

Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.

In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.

Not all scenes and genres are susceptible to this sort of treatment. Sprinkled here and there, however, the technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps our readers and audiences engrossed.

Summary

Reveal more information to your readers and audiences than is known to your protagonist in specific scenes in your story to help spike up the tension.

How to Generate High Concept Ideas in Stories

IdeasAS a teacher and writer I am often asked to give advice about generating ideas for a screenplay or novel.

What sorts of things should the writer look for in a concept to maximise its chance for commercial success?

In the absence of a crystal ball, use High Concept. Here are some of its components:

Ideas Checklist

1. Ensure your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One (The POTUS is held hostage on his plane, 12 Monkeys – a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

2. Set your story in a unique or interesting environment – Hart’s War (Nazi concentration camp), Red Corner (Red China).

3. Pick the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemma: John Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Pick a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursue. Memento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

Of course, a hit depends on your getting so many other factors right too, but using these suggestions does enhance the commercial potential of your story idea.

I take my own advice in my own stories. Here’s a short description of my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to posses it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The Level was my second novel:

“A man, suffering from amnesia, wakes up in a pitch-black room, tied to what feels like a wooden chair. He discovers he is being held captive in a derelict insane asylum stalked by inmates who are determined to kill him. Help comes in the form of a beautiful, mysterious woman dressed in a black burka who offers to show him the way out, if only he can remember who he truly is.”

Both ideas draw on high concept and make for intriguing reading.

Summary

Use High Concept to make your story ideas more commercial.

How to Calibrate Actions in Stories

ActionsIN previous articles I talked about the need to synchronise your hero’s actions against his character arc. I emphasised that the quality of his actions depends on his state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity through pain and suffering – through trial and error.

But at which point, and how often, does the writer interrogate his hero?

Calibrating Actions

The answer is that the hero should be examined, at least, at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution.

Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.

It is now easier to position actions and events between the two extremities on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.

In Edge of Tomorrow‘s endlessly cycling reality, Major Cage, who is committed to defeating an alien enemy that can see the future, is repeatedly killed, triggering a reset in his life. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves, and decides to ultimately sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation.

In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the nature of his captivity only when he embraces his true identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist.

In both cases the culmination of the inner and outer journeys create the climax of the story.

Summary

Calibrate inner and outer actions along the nodal points in your story to keep them in sync.

What is the Decision-Making Mechanism in Stories?

Decision-makingJust lately I have been preoccupied with the inner journey in stories, which got me to thinking about the decision-making mechanism that drives it.

I have been emphasising that the story, at the level of plot, is the reflection of the protagonist’s character arc – that until the character achieves a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness she can not prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the mechanism that allows us to bridge the inner and outer journeys.

How the Decision-Making Mechanism Works

The protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, she receives a challenge which she is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that she first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

But because the protagonist lacks emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, she fails to make the right decisions until her suffering, resulting from her string of defeats, causes her to learn from her mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decision-making, therefore, directly impacts the quality of her actions. Her efforts can only lead to victory when she has fully achieved maturity – usually by the end of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, can only break his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to change his life forever.

Summary

The decision-making mechanism is the bridge between the protagonist’s inner and outer life and is tied to the character’s developmental arc.

So You Want to be Writers?

For WritersWriters? Really? In this day and age of shrinking readership? A time when video games, a thrill-a-minute movies and digital media are stealing the public’s attention away?

There’s no money in it, you’re told – except for a lucky few. Go train for a real job.

And, perhaps, there is some evidence to support this view.

Are Writers Dispensable?

But you know what? The stats don’t really matter. The truth is that the world needs writers. Without a clear and unfaltering narrative, society has no sustained and unambiguous conscience. It can’t fully grasp or describe its dreams. It can’t vividly and critically explore the possibility of a brighter future against a backdrop of darker ones, thoughtfully and cogently, weighing up the consequences of each.

Writing is, by its very nature, equipped to expose, explore, evaluate. Yet, it can entertain as much as it can school.

Films present meaningful narratives, but they need screenwriters to do so. Games, too, need writers to create the game worlds their characters inhabit. Art and music can indeed critique and inspire society, but its appreciation and significance is often communicated through words, after the fact.

In their purest form, stories that first exist as novels, novellas and the like, being able to directly inhabit a character’s mind, uniquely capture the debate around a theme, a moral system. They minutely trace consequences in a way that is difficult to do elsewhere. So much so, that they often inspire other forms.

We could sit here all day debating the strengths and weaknesses of our craft in our contemporary world, but it wouldn’t really matter. Because ultimately, true writers are stubborn, willful, and imbued with a sense of purpose that can’t be shaken off.

Writers are born, not made. We do what we do because we can’t imagine doing anything else. And you can take that to the bank.

Summary

Writers consider their labours as a calling and not a mere job.