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Dramatic Beats and Turning Points in Stories

A dramatic Beat and Turning PointsA dramatic beat is a small but significant knot of information in a story.

Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to spin the story in a different direction.

Consider the protagonist in a story getting ready to meet his fiancé at a restaurant. He opens the door to find his mother standing outside. She’s come for a visit. He politely informs her that her visit will have to wait as he is already late for his date. His mother leaves, somewhat disgruntled.

The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.

The number of beats can be as low as one or two in a short scene, to five or more in a longer one. There is, however, no set number. Importantly, the rate of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically has a slower rhythm than mainstream films and novels.

The Dramatic Beat and Turning Points

A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.

“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”

In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.

Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

Summary

The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.

How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood

The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

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ALL great stories have a moral premise – a deep structure that shapes the narrative from below the surface of the novel or film.

The moral premise is why writers write stories. It is the expression of cause and effect seen from an ethical and moral perspective.

“The Moral Premise exists at a level below the plot, shaping narrative actions and their consequences according to its own internal logic.”

Some of the writers have only a vague notion of their moral premise upon commencing their stories. They know there will be good characters, evil characters and in-between characters, and they leave it at that, choosing, rather, to concentrate on the machinations of the plot. After all, the plot is where all the visceral, sticky, fun stuff happens.

Yet, the moral premise is inherent in every story whether we consciously put it there or not. It should, therefore, be as much a part of our conscious intent as the plot. Ignoring it may result in our thinking we are writing one sort of story while we are really writing another.

Even more importantly, the moral premise helps us understand the reason our protagonist acts in the way that he does. It helps us craft the trajectory of the story.

The Moral Premise in There will be Blood

In There Will Be Blood we follow the consequences of what happens when Daniel Plainview, a man with no scruples or morals, gains wealth and power through oil. His initial charitable act of adopting the son of one of his workers who has been killed in a drilling accident, soon gives way to relentless self-interest.

He sends the boy away because he has become deaf in yet another drilling accident and is now a burden to his operations. The boy later returns, but as Plainview sinks deeper into the mire he becomes incapable of maintaining friendships or family bonds.

He murders the man who has claimed to be his long-lost half-brother when he discovers he is an imposter. He rejects his adopted son when he learns that he wants to make his own way in the oil business. And finally, he murders Eli Sunday, the evangelist with whom he has been butting heads over land and oil.

If we take the moral premise of the film to be that the pursuit of wealth and power, at the expense of love and family, leads to loneliness and defeat, we can place each scene in the story along a trajectory that finally ends in Plainview lying drunk in the bowling alley in his home – bloodied, spent, alone. In a sense, he is as dead as the body of Eli Sunday sprawled next to him – the man he has just murdered with a bowling pin.

Summary

The moral premise guides the writer in identifying and placing narrative incidents along a trajectory in a story.

A Good Villain?

Pablo Escobar as the chief villain

Pablo Escobar as the chief Villain

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IN his book, Screenwriting, UCLA professor Richard Walter, reminds us that just as there are few purely good or purely bad people in life, a well observed character, particularly a villain or an anti-hero in a story, should contain at least some small trace of good in him.

“What Makes A Good Villain?”

In Narcos, for example, the drug lord, Escobar is responsible for establishing the cocaine trade in Miami, and murdering many innocent people in his own country, Colombia, as a show of force against the government.

Yet, his love for his family and his generosity to the poor people of his own town point to some good traits in him. When the tables are turned on him by rival cartels, as well as an equally brutal police force, he is separated from his family as he attempts to get them out of the country to safety. To make matters worse, they end up in the hands of the Colombian police. That is the beginning of the end for Escobar.

As his men are killed off one by one he becomes increasingly isolated. His father rejects him. His wife asks him to turn himself in. Despite his record, we cannot help but feel a wisp of sympathy for him.

    “A villain who is completely villainous, without a single trace of humanity in him, is essentially uninteresting and unconvincing in a story.”

In the 1970’s television series, Archie Bunker, the lead character is portrayed as stubborn, not very bright, and bigoted, hardly traits that we admire.

But who amongst us has never felt some prejudice or acted in a willful way towards others? Despite his negative traits, and because of the skillful writing of his character, we, unexpectedly, come to love the bigoted, stubborn Archie. Richard Walter suggests that part of the reason for this lies in that in comparing ourselves to Archie, we can at least feel relief that we are not as bigoted as he is.

Additionally, we are forced to recognise that prejudice can reside in anyone – a beloved grandfather, a friend, even a spouse, and we strive to guard against it in our own lives. The reason that we give such characters the time of day at all, then, is because, at the very least, we feel some sympathy for them. Without sympathy, without liking some aspect of their character, we would not waste our time on them.

Summary

Add some sympathetic traits to your most unlikable characters, especially to your villain, to avoid making them flat and stereotypical.


Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters

Emotional changes

Signaling Emotional Changes in Character

ONE of the hallmarks of good writing in films and novels is that there are emotional changes to the characters through time.

In stories, as in life, people learn from their mistakes, from life’s hard knocks, and try to prevent them from recurring by adjusting some aspect of their character.

Some, of course, never do, but that’s a topic for a future article.

But how do characters move from one state to another? How does love turn into hate? Passion into indifference?

Cueing Emotional Changes

Novice writers often make the mistake of creating characters who erratically jump from state to state. I’ve written before in this blog about the need for introducing transitional emotional states.

But how do we specifically convey these shifts to our readers? Is it through dialogue? Is it through narration?

In most cases, the best way to signal change is subtly, through small but telling actions. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty offers the example of a girl falling out of love with her boyfriend.

Does the girl tell him outright that she no longer loves him?

That might be too abrupt (unless that is the specific effect we are after). It would also be spoon feeding the reader. The story might require that the breakup be dragged out a bit.

In the example provided by Geraghty, the character stops using hair conditioner when washing her hair. It is a sign that she no longer cares about looking her best for him – that he’s not worth the extra cost of conditioner.

Subtle, but telling.

In planning for an emotional shift in your characters, then, identify the spot where the shift is to occur, then insert a telling but subtle action to signal it. This technique will add polish and finesse to your writing.

Summary

Signal a significant change to the emotional state of your characters through subtle but telling actions.

Writing Great Dialogue Hooks

Unforgiven contains great dialogue hooks

The film Unforgiven contains some great dialogue hooks

Great dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that its study fills countless of books.

In this article I want to touch on one technical aspect of great dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity.

(See Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual).

Swain suggests that in order to have dialogue hang together it needs to contain a dialogue hook. That is, each speech needs to acknowledge the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition and question/answer:

Two Technical Keys to Great Dialogue

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story.

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

This question and answer structure, as well as the repetition of the word ‘dead’ and ‘killed’, not only links the dialogue between the two characters, it bridges the second and third acts of the film. Munny’s shock and disbelief turns into unrelenting revenge with dire consequences for the perpetrators.

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate.

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

There are other ways to link dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question/answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

Question/answer and repetition are two simple but powerful techniques to help you write great dialogue hooks for your novels and screenplays.

How to Break Through Writer’s Block

Writer's blockWriter’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another.

It happened to me while writing my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One minute I’m conjuring up a storm, full of plot plans and enthusiasm for the characters in my story, the next I realise that a month has passed without my having added a single word to the text.

I had succumbed to writer’s block – that insidious creature that slouches in the shadows hoping to snatch our muse away and keep her prisoner in his dungeon.

But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of our writing careers.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.

Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery.

So, what to do?

You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis.

Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain momentum.

So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.

Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on.

Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned.

Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.

Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road.

And don’t be too surprised, if, a mile or two along, you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker, wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about kidnappings and dungeons, and how she escaped them both.

Summary

Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one bit at a time, one day at a time.

What is the Hollywood Structure?

Hollywood signI am a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Story Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such stories as Hollywood stories), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage – sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea.

Commercial structure, then, orders an interconnected set of events about a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to an arrangement of interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing a difficult problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

What sparks a storyteller

What sparks a storyteller?

As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.

There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.

Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.

A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.

A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.

My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.

Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.

Summary

One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.

Great Writers Have This In Common

Great writers

Leo Tolstoy – one of the world’s great writers

What makes great writers great? I’ve ruminated on this topic before, but the subject is so fascinating that I find myself revisiting it each time I read or reread a truly great story.

There have been many great writers throughout history: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and many others writing in a multitude of languages across the world.

Most of these writers differ significantly from one another in style and subject matter. So in what sense can they be said to share the same appraisal?

What makes a writer great, anyway?

And why is it that so many remain relevant today when the world they lived in, the manner and style of their writing, has changed? Just compare Shakespeare to Hemingway, for example.

Something timeless must surely be part of the lens through we recognise great writing. It must be something that not only focuses on the historical context, but locates in the work an immediate relevance to today’s society, despite the anachronisms and eccentricities of language and nationality.

It can not be style alone, although all great writers have it in abundance, because style succumbs to anachronism.

Nor can it be solely form, because form evolves with time. Linear story telling, for example, is increasingly competing with non-linear forms.

The essence of great writing therefore has to contain something that excludes change from its definition because it is already fully evolved.

The set of universal values, perhaps?

Great Writers and Universal Values

Although many academics argue against the objectivity of universal values, I believe that they do exist and have always done so. Great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love form some of the values which ennoble us as a species and whose absence or negation exposes the worst in us.

Throughout history great writers have been humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the timeless relevance of those values. They write stories that track the consequences to societies and individuals when love is supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition – when the values that make us human are ignored or negated: A Cathedral’s newly added spire that threatens to collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire), the families and villages that are torn apart by greed (The Pearl), the blind ambition that leads to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal human values that renders great writing immortal and perpetually relevant to us all. Long may it continue to do so.

Summary

Great writers write stories that affirm universal values.

Distinguishing Between the Hero’s Inner and Outer Motivation in Stories

MotivationDictionary.com defines motivation as ‘the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way.’

As a technical device in stories motivation can be understood as something that involves two interwoven aspects – inner and outer persuasion.

Motivation Within and Without

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his mental life – his values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, his outer motivation.

Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way – as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.

Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.

The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.

Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!”

The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical response to the goal, guided by his reasons for doing so.

Summary

Inner motivation explains why the hero physically responds to some challenge or opportunity, outwardly, in the way that he does.