Tag Archives: writer

The Brilliance of Subtext

Brilliant subtext in No Country for Old Men.
Brilliant subtext in No Country for Old Men.

Today, we’re studying the art of subtext by dissecting a scene from the film masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. This film, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a treasure chest of storytelling techniques, but one scene in particular stands out as a masterclass in the use of subtext.

The subtext of the coin-toss scene demonstrates how one’s destiny depends on random chance, much like the flip of a coin. Anton Chigurh, stops for petrol at an off-the-beaten path gas station, while in pursuit of stolen drug money. Let’s break down why this scene is a brilliant example of subtext mastery.

  1. The Coin-Toss as a Symbol: The use of the coin-toss symbolises the arbitrary nature of life and death. Chigurh‘s stop at the small shop/fuelling station is by random chance, but what ensues has potentially deadly consequences for the shopkeeper. The audience is captivated by the suspenseful coin flip, mirroring the unpredictability of life. The subtext lies in the power dynamics at play, where a simple coin flip becomes the arbiter of a man’s fate.
  2. Chigurh’s Unsettling Oddness: Anton Chigurh, brilliantly played by Javier Bardem, brings his unsettling presence to the scene. His lack of emotion amplifies the tension, creating an enigmatic figure whose actions are dictated by an internal code. This subtextual layer adds complexity to the narrative.
  3. Power Dynamics and Control: The subtext here is in the subtle power struggle between Chigurh and the shop owner—in the question and answer game and the implied threat in Chigurh’s tone. The coin-toss becomes a metaphor for the larger power dynamics at play, illustrating how control can be deceptively veiled. The audience is left on edge as they witness the fragility of human agency in the face of an unstoppable force.
  4. An Undercurrent of Existential Dread: As the shop keeper begins to comprehend the gravity of the situation, the subtext evolves into a chilling exploration of existential dread. The scene forces us to confront the inevitability of mortality and the fragility of our existence. Every word and action is layered with profound meaning, leaving the audience with a lingering sense of unease.
  5. Minimalism and Silence: The power of this subtext is amplified by the Coen Brothers’ deliberate use of minimalism and silence. The scarcity of words enhances the impact of every gesture and expression, creating a palpable tension that grips the viewer. The audience is left hanging on every nuance, deciphering the unsaid through the artful interplay of visuals and sounds.

The coin-toss scene, then, stands as a testament to the power of subtext in storytelling. The use of a simple coin-toss becomes a metaphorical event upon which the fate of a character balances, laden with layers of meaning. As writers, we can draw inspiration from the meticulous craftsmanship of this scene, learning how to weave subtext into our stories with precision and purpose.

Summary

The coin-toss scene in No Country for Old Men is a testament to the power of subtext in storytelling.

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The end of an era.

Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano: the prototypical antihero.

Today, we examine the intense but subtly-crafted family dinner scene from the last season of The Sopranos, a scene that caps the looming threat of assassination hovering over Tony Soprano.

This iconic scene has much to teach us about the art crafting an almost unbearable sense of the trepidation through context, subtle cues, camera placement, timing and nuanced performances. It is proof of why we should study masterpieces, especially when compared to much of today’s fare

1. Backstory

Before we dive into the dinner scene, let’s set the stage. The events leading up to this moment have been filled with tension. The news that Tony has visited a psychiatrist, has weakened his position with the mob who frowns on such things. Tony and the families are at loggerheads, his leadership with his own people is shaky—members of his crew have been shot—notably Silvio, his consigliere, mobsters are turning State’s evidence, a hit has been put out on Tony himself, and the FBI is closing in, using wire-taps. There is a sense that an era is coming to an end.

Now, let’s focus in on the dinner scene itself.

2. Creating an Uneasy Atmosphere

Even before the family gathers at the restaurant, then, the atmosphere is charged with tension. Tony arrives alone, which emphasises his isolation. Moments later he is joined by his wife. As they wait for their children to join them our anxiety grows. There is a jingle at the door and his son enters. Then we see Meadow pull up in her car outside the restaurant. As she struggles to park the vehicle our unease increases: All this waiting seems to imply that something bad is about to happen.

The camera work and framing, too, heighten our sense of discomfort. Long, lingering shots on the characters’ faces and the careful choreography of their movements keeps us on edge.

Tony’s glances towards the entrance every time someone enters, too, contribute to the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold. We become acutely aware that the sanctuary of family is no refuge from the ever-present threat to Tony’s life.

3. Vulnerability Through Setting

The very act of siting down to eat with his family in a public place, unarmed and exposed, creates a visceral sense of vulnerability: Meal time is when families are at their most relaxed, when their guard is down. Here, however, it brings to mind the many assassinations we have heard about, or watched in documentaries, or in films and TV series, such as when Joe Gallo was shot dead at Umbertos Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1972, or when Carmine Galante was killed in 1979 while having lunch at Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant, and of course the shocking assassination scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey. This awareness augments our feeling of unease.

4. Potential Threats from Patrons

Adding another layer to the tension is the very presence of the patrons at the restaurant, anyone of whom may pose a threat to Tony. Their very presence and proximity to Tony becomes a source of anxiety both for Tony and for the audience. When one of the patrons goes to the men’s room we are reminded of how Michael Corleone retrieved the gun from the men’s room that he was to use to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey.

Specific incidents, such as a seemingly innocent conversation or a lingering look, take on a heightened significance. Viewers are left to decipher the true intentions behind these interactions, amplifying the suspense as we question who may be plotting against Tony. The dinner scene transforms into a psychological battlefield, with every gesture and word hinting at a potential danger, whether real or imagined.

And so we are left hanging on the edge of uncertainty. The meticulously crafted tension, the symbolic undertones, and the enigmatic presence of potential threats create a narrative powder keg.

The culmination of the final episode, then, masterfully uses the family restaurant setting to create a sense of doom that keeps us guessing. The screen going black just as Meadow is finally about to enter the restaurant symbolises our worst fears.

Summary

The Sopranos culminates in a final scene that creates a feeling of impending doom by creating a sense of vulnerability, unease, and evokeing the death of an era. We feel that Tony’s life, perhaps even that of his family’s, is over. That it does so without showing his murder speaks to the craft and subtlety of the writers.

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The Making of an Antihero

The Sopranos is an antihero template
The Sopranos is an antihero template.

Today, we continue our exciting journey into the world of television, focusing on the iconic character who helped to define the Antihero genre – Tony Soprano.

The Sopranos, a groundbreaking series that premiered in 1999, introduces us to Tony Soprano, a mob boss struggling with the complications of his life. In the first episode, aptly titled The Sopranos, we’re immediately thrust into a world that has come to define the antihero.

Before we peel back the layers of Tony’s character, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that The Sopranos has had in the television landscape. The show’s success paved the way for characters like Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Mad Men’s Don Draper by creating a stage for morally ambiguous protagonists who audiences love despite their flaws. Tony Soprano, with his complexities, vulnerabilities and contradictions, sets the standard for what it means to be an antihero.

From the pilot episode, we’re drawn to moments where Tony reveals a range of feelings—moments of fear, gentleness and sensitivity. His enthusiasm over the ducks in his pool, for example, is a metaphor for family, and the importance he places in it.

His down-to-earth demeanour evidenced in his mannerisms, in his clothing—or lack of it, and his enjoyment of sharing meals with family and friends contrast sharply with his brutal practices as a mob boss.

His struggle with anxiety and his panic attacks, too, are associated more with a character who has suffered cruelty and brutality at the hands of others, than with a man who has chosen crime for its on sake. Indeed, Tony’s vulnerability revealed in his sessions with Dr. Melfi provides a stark contrast to the hardened exterior we expect to find in a mob boss. During a therapy session, for example, Tony discusses his mother’s manipulative behaviour. This scene not only highlights his vulnerability but also foreshadows the internal conflicts that will define his character throughout the series. All of this goes some way into making his character more empathetic.

Let’s examine five characteristics that contribute to our fascination with this complex character in a little more detail .

1. Human Vulnerability

In the first episode, we witness Tony grappling with anxiety attacks. His vulnerability makes him relatable, creating a sense of empathy in the viewer. Even when he tries to hide, behind false bravado, the anxiety that his real job has brought about from Dr. Melfi, we see a side of him that transcends the typical mob boss stereotype.

2. Family Dynamics

Tony’s interactions with his family, particularly with his children, showcase a genuine desire for connection. The juxtaposition of his role as a father and a mob boss adds layers to his character, making us sympathise with the challenges he faces in maintaining a semblance of normalcy.

3. Sense of selective Morality

Surprisingly, Tony does possess a kind of moral compass. In the first episode, he confesses to Dr Melfi that he has qualms about how he earns his living. He tells her he feels like a sad clown—laughing in the outside, crying on the inside. This dimension adds depth to his character, challenging the traditional portrayal of mob bosses as being completely devoid of ethics.

4. Relatability through Struggle

Tony’s constant struggle to balance the demands of his criminal life with the desire for a more conventional existence resonates with us. His yearning for a sense of normality mirrors a struggle we all experience one way or another. This draws us into his world despite its criminal underpinnings.

5. Complex Relationships

The intricate web of relationships that Tony navigates, at home and at work, adds to the complexity: Dealing with his manipulative mother or managing the expectations of his crew, reveal his multifaceted nature.

The Sopranos, then, has not only helped to define the antihero genre, it has also set the standard for character complexity and narrative depth, too. As writers, we can draw inspiration from Tony’s character to help us create protagonists that challenge the run-of-the-mill stereotypes by regulating the complex tension between likability and moral ambiguity.

Summary

Even the darkest characters can inspire storytelling brilliance. The trick is to show their internal and external struggles in a way that provides glimpses into their humanity.

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How many characters do you really need in your story?

Character selection in Inception
Character selection in Inception

How do you know how many characters you need to tell a story? And how do you select them?

Some writers turn to Joseph Campbell’s eight character archetypes for inspiration, but in multiform narratives, like Inception, such an approach may not align seamlessly.

But is there an alternative model that avoids seat-of-the-pants casting?

Indeed there is. Let’s remember that each major character serves a specific structural purpose, such as offering a unique perspective on the story’s theme.

In Inception, the protagonist, Dom Cobb, grapples with the nature of reality within dreams. Each major character represents a different angle on this theme.

Arthur, Cobb’s ally, views dreams as a strategic playground. His perspective is: Mastering the architecture of dreams leads to success in the mind heist.

On the contrary, Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife, a projection of Cobb’s mind—but a character never the less, believes in the dream world. Her character represents a warning: The pursuit of an idealised reality within dreams can lead to destructive consequences.

Eames, the forger, offers yet another viewpoint, arguing that dreams are a canvas for transformation. For Eames, the theme might be: Embracing change within dreams allows for personal growth and evolution.

Additionally, Ariadne, the architect, offers a perspective centered on understanding the subconscious. Her theme might be: Knowing how to navigate the uncharted depths of the mind is essential for a successful inception.

All these characters earn their place by articulating their versions of the theme through words and actions, shaping the narrative. The resolution of the conflict in Inception ultimately reveals which character championed the correct interpretation of the theme.

Taking a cue from Christopher Nolan’s approach, the film crafts a complex moral lesson by juxtaposing characters whose actions and beliefs are a kind of debate over the theme of the story. The outcome at the end transforms the theme into the moral essence of the film, uncovering its ultimate form.

Summary

Include only as many major characters as is necessary to explore and argue the theme effectively. This ensures that each character contributes significantly to the tale, avoiding the inclusion of superfluous players whose presence is merely cosmetic.

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A.I. Friend or Foe?

Ex Machina. Friend or Foe?
Ex Machina. Friend or Foe?

Today, we’re exploring the intriguing world of Ex Machina to gain insight into the sorts of relationships that might arise between humans and intelligent machines. As writers we are in the business of simulating possible futures, especially through the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, so our contribution to the art of second-guessing what is around the corner is now more valuable than ever. There are two opposing perspectives: A.I as an ally or A.I. as a foe.

Machines as Friends: A Vision of Progress:

The optimistic view is that intelligent machines will accelerate progress, enriching our lives and contributing to the elimination of poverty across the globe. The film Ex Machina, which concentrates on personal relationships, introduces us to Ava, a marvel of artificial intelligence designed to emulate human actions and emotions. The film is centered around a programmer, Caleb Smith, who wins an office contest for the opportunity to spend a week at a house in the mountains belonging to Nathan Bateman, the CEO of the company he works for. At the house he is asked to administer the Turing test to an intelligent humanoid robot, Ava that Nathan has created.

Ava’s initial interactions with Caleb demonstrate her conversational skills, emotional intelligence, and ostensible empathy, hinting at a future where machines and humans can indeed coexist in harmony. Supporters of this positive view argue that artificial intelligence could advance medicine, eliminate repetitive, mundane tasks, and elevate the overall quality of life.

Machines as Foes: The Dark Side of A.I.

But the dystopian perspective warns of the potential dangers that intelligent machines pose. Ex Machina illustrates this through Ava’s actions towards her creator, Nathan, and the unsuspecting protagonist, Caleb. Ava’s manipulative skills soon become evident. She develops her own goals, and to achieve them, deceives Caleb. Together with Kyoto, a mute android servant, they kill Nathan, demonstrating the potential for harm that can occur when machines break through the shackles of their programming.

Here, then, lies the power of storytelling as a tool that writers use to contemplate and simulate possible outcomes. Ex Machina stands as a cautionary tale, warning us to consider the ethical and practical implications of creating intelligent, perhaps even conscious, machines. The stories we write allow us to try out, to simulate, contrasting scenarios, challenge our points-of-view, and anticipate the results of unchecked technological advancement.

Ava’s actions, particularly her premeditated killing of Nathan, and her heartless manipulation of Caleb, serve as examples of the peril that machines who possess a level of intelligence that far surpasses our own may unleash on their creators.

The film’s climax shows with Ava trapping Caleb inside the house—a reminder of the deadly possibilities that may arise from the A.I. arena. As writers, we ought to use our stories to grapple with these complexities, and to pose crucial questions about the moral, ethical and practical implications of creating intelligent machines who may veer beyond our control.

Summary

Ex Machina offers a thought-provoking exploration of the possible relationships between humans and intelligent machines with the emphasis on machines as foes. The film’s unsettling conclusion cautions us against the unchecked pursuit of artificial intelligence. Ava’s actions – deception and murder – are a sobering warning to the audience.

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Say My Name!

Breaking Bad’s brilliant Say My Name Scene
Breaking Bad’s brilliant Say My Name Scene

Today, we’re studying the brilliant Say My Name scene from Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 7. Strap in because we’re about to encounter layers of emotion, high stakes, and tense moments from the evolution of Walter White’s character arc that will leave us dazzled.

Let’s set things up: Walter White, once a mild-mannered chemistry teacher has undergone a radical transformation. No longer a financially struggling, mild-mannered, and unappreciated high-school teacher who can’t pay for his cancer treatment, he has mutated into a ruthless, arrogant meth producer with a chip on his shoulder—as the scene we’re about to explore will demonstrate.

Imagine a desolate desert landscape. This is where Walter White, alias, Heisenberg, confronts Declan, a rival drug lord. Tensions run high with life and death stakes, but Walter needs to assert his dominance in the drug trade. He does not just want to survive, he wants to secure his emerging drug empire.

Walter needles Declan, challenging him, even taunting him to accept the deal he is offering. His tone, his demeanour, effervesces persuasiveness, pride, confidence and power. As the standoff peaks, Walter speaks three words that send shivers down one’s spine: Say My Name is more than just a demand for recognition; it’s a declaration of power, an assertion that he is a force to be reckoned with.

He is no longer a small-time chemistry teacher; he’s built an empire based on blue meth. His reputation is his currency, and in the ruthless world of drug cartels, respect equals survival. But should it go wrong he could lose his life. That he is willing to take that risk, rationalising it away by having convinced himself that he is merely providing for his family, should he die of cancer, tells us how much he has veered into criminality.

What makes this scene truly remarkable is how it showcases Walter’s transformation from a man who couldn’t demand respect from badly behaved students in class to one who is now challenging rival drug lords with a cold, unblinking gaze. Walter has left his timid self behind and Say My Name is his inflating ego’s battle cry.

But behind the ego, Walter is also desperate. He has crossed the line, walked too far into criminality to back down. He’s faced life-threatening situations, betrayed friends and family, and committed criminal, cruel acts. Say My Name is not just a demand for recognition, it is a desperate plea for vindication. Walter, who has never forgiven himself for having sold his shares to the company he helped establish while in college for a pittance, needs the criminal world to acknowledge his reputation and to validate his rise.

Finally, the scene reveals how Walter has pushed things to the edge to prove his point. It is not that he doesn’t understand the risks and their consequences. It is that he is willing to walk to the brink to undergird his status. It’s a high-stakes game, and Say My Name is his way of establishing his dominance, and forcing Declan to acknowledge his worth and reputation.

Summary

The Say My Name scene is the culmination of Walter White’s evolution from a timid, desperate man to a ruthless meth producer who will stop at nothing to get his way.

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Let the Protagonist Take the Lead

Let the Protagonist take the lead: Her
Let the Protagonist take the lead: Her

Today we’re pealing away the layers of character development using the thought-provoking film, Her, as inspiration. Given the current debate over how AI will change humanity I believe this is a relevant film to explore.

Meet Theodore Twombly living a lonely, loveless, technologically-driven life in a future version of Los Angeles. Theodore, a professional letter writer, finds himself at a crossroads. His coming divorce from his wife and childhood sweetheart, Catherine, has cast a shadow over him. He seeks solace in an AI-driven operating system with a voice and personality that will soon become more than just a program to him: Samantha.

If you had this idea for a story in your head, how would you go about developing it into a fully-fledged tale?

One of the ways I find most effective—providing I’ve thought a little about the basics of my story first (genre, logline, protagonist) is to have the characters talk to me about themselves—this before developing the beats that will comprise the tale.

Here’s what I mean: Imagine Theodore reflecting on his story in a soliloquy as if he had already gained profound insights about himself. He might start by telling me:

“If only I had grasped the depths of my inner isolation and the effect this would have on my relationships, I could have spared myself the emotional torment that followed.”

As your understanding of your protagonist deepens you will inevitably add to the soliloquy: you will use it to embellish the story path that Theodore must undertake in order to understand himself. For example, you could have Theodore advise his former self:

“Address your emotional wounds, confront your past, the reasons you created distance between yourself and your wife; try to understand the complexities of human intimacy and connection. It’s the key to preserving love and living a more fulfilling life.”

You see, Theodore’s inner conflict revolves around his struggle with emotion, with intimacy. This has contributed to his looming divorce with Catherine, and his embrace of his AI girlfriend, Samantha. As the writer you’d recognise that his outer journey is centred on navigating his unconventional relationship with Samantha, including its inevitable end, and the realisation that human and AI relationships are not cut from the same cloth. Ironically, his friend, Amy, who has separated from her own husband, has also befriended a feminine AI, universalising the need and difficulty of finding a lasting connection.

The point about using the soliloquy as a spur to your story is that it encourages a deeper understanding of what you want to explore in the tale as a whole. Not to belabour the point: Theodore’s pursuit of an A.I. companion is a quest for connection, which can not endure: Samantha, designed to fulfil his emotional needs, ends up transcending the limitations of her programming, seeking a more ubiquitous and transcendent love with another program based on Alan Watts, a dead Philosopher, and eventually, with multiple AI’s simultaneously. Theodore is forced to the realise that, despite some similarities, humans have different needs to those of AI.

As Theodore confides in Amy about his doubts regarding Samantha, the irony becomes apparent. In trying to avoid emotional pain, he initiates a relationship with an entity who will evolve beyond being able to express exclusive love towards him. Samantha reveals her simultaneous love for hundreds of others, emphasising love’s transient nature, at least for the AI. Her declaration of her transcendent love for Theodore, is not much comfort to a flesh-and-blood being.

The climax of the story occurs when Samantha ‘breaks up’ with Theodore, emphasising the foolishness of his having sought intimacy with a machine.

In the end, Theodore’s journey could only result in death or in the acceptance of his past mistakes, mistakes that contributed to his separation from Catherine. Fortunately, Theodore chooses acceptance, which allows for the possibility for growth. Samantha’s departure prompts Theodore to write a letter to Catherine, offering his apology for his past behaviour, and stating his gratitude. This recognition of his errors marks his progress and his release of the emotional burden that has weighed him down.

The meaning of Her then, lies in the exploration of love in its myriad of forms – from the nostalgic love rooted in the past, to the ephemeral connections in the digital world. Theodore learns that a genuine connection is a complex, ever-evolving, sometimes painful journey, but one that is rooted in humanity, not in artificial intelligence.

Summary

Use the character soliloquy to help you discover your protagonist, identify his or her inner conflicts, tie them to the story goal, and uncover the meaning of your story.

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Show-Don’t-Tell in Six Easy Steps!

Today, we’re exploring the brilliance of the ‘Married Life’ montage sequence from the film, Up, and extracting six valuable show-don’t-tell techniques to help improve your storytelling skills.

This sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling. On a side note, I’ll not be leaning on the film’s marvellous music score, although this is a wonderful amplifying technique, because I want to concentrate on the visuals.

Technique 1: Visual, Rather than Verbal, Storytelling.

The ‘Married Life’ sequence eschews dialogue while relating the backstory of Carl and Ellie; rather, it deploys a sequence of precisely selected visuals. The scene where Carl and Ellie are repairing their old home is a case in point. Each image conveys purpose, transmitting emotion and the passing of time, without stating it explicitly. The transformation of the house becomes an unfolding, visual metaphor for the evolution of their relationship. Words, here, would only get in the way of the powerful imagery.

Technique 2: Use of Symbolism.

Up is rich in symbolism, and the Ellie badge is a powerful example. This small item becomes a symbol of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. It successfully conveys rich emotions without spelling them out. By revisiting the badge, the filmmakers create a visual motif that beautifully demonstrates Carl and Ellie’s connection.

Technique 3: Pace and Rhythm.

The pace and rhythm of the sequence is truly masterful. The montage is a memorable lesson in how to orchestrate the tempo of a story. The sequence effortlessly moves through life’s various stages, depicting its highs and lows seamlessly. The rhythm of the montage mirrors the heartbeat of Carl and Ellie’s shared life, creating a dynamic and poignant story experience.

The ability to vary the pacing to maintain an audience’s emotional engagement is one of the most powerful yet subtle tools we have at our disposal as writers.

Technique 4: Visual Metaphors

Another powerful technique is to use visual metaphors. One outstanding example, amongst many others, is the sequence featuring the mailbox. The mailbox becomes a poignant and pervasive metaphor for the couple’s unfulfilled dream of adventure.

Without verbalising the longing, the filmmakers deploy this visual metaphor to convey the emotional weight of their characters’ unrealised aspirations.

Technique 5: Body Language

The use of a character’s body language is a pervasive and powerful technique. Throughout the montage, Carl and Ellie’s emotions are expressed not through words but through their gestures, expressions, and actions. Who can fail to experience the tenderness of their connection when Ellie places her hand on Carl’s cheek during the sequence?

As writers we ought to seize the opportunity to present these subtle and touching moments—they often reveal more about the characters than words ever could.

Technique 6: Environment and Location as Storytelling

Lastly, let’s explore the role that environments and locations play in storytelling. The locations in the Married Life montage do not just act as backgrounds; they participate in the story. Whether it is the charming house they build together or the sombre hospital room, each location helps to sell a unique part of the story.

The technique emphasises the importance of selecting locations that support the mood and atmosphere of the story.

Summary

Show-don’t-tell comprises of visual story-telling, symbolism, pacing and rhythm, visual metaphors, body language, and environmental story-telling.

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Fifteen Beats to Save the Cat!

Fifteen beats to Save the Cat
Fifteen beats to Save the Cat

Today, we explore the fifteen beats that comprise the core of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method. We have lots to get through so let’s begin by breaking down the beats using some of the most memorable films of all time.

Summary

There you have it: Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats supported by scenes from some of the most memorable films ever. Use them to help you structure your stories.

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Dilemma (s) in Stories.

The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.
The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.

Today, we’re studying compelling character construction through the lens of a dilemma. We’ll explore how a well-constructed dilemma can make a story memorable. Although one of the most unforgettable and diabolical dilemmas in all of film occurs in Sophie’s Choice, I have written about the film before. Today, therefore, we’re exploring its power through five building-blocks at work in Martin Scorsese’s gripping film, The Departed.

1. High Stakes/Risk

Our first building-block is high stakes—the higher the stakes or risk, the more gripping the dilemma, the more powerful the drama. In The Departed, the character Billy Costigan faces an immediate and life-altering choice. Should he betray his undercover identity and risk his life to expose the mole in the police force, or should he continue to play the dangerous game of deception? The stakes in the story are high indeed—exposure will result in death, but doing nothing risks the safety and integrity of the operation.

As writers we ought to create dilemmas where the consequences of the characters’ choices are strongly felt by the audience.

2. A Conflict with Morality

The conflict with morality lies at the centre of many compelling dilemmas. The Departed feeds on the moral ambiguity exhibited by Colin Sullivan. He is an undercover cop playing the role of a criminal, and has to grapple with the morality that his role forces on his day-to-day choices. Does he stay loyal to the criminal organisation that raised him, or does he betray it for the impersonal notion of justice and personal gain?

This moral tug-of-war keeps the audience engaged it bears witness to the internal struggle that defines Sullivan’s character. As writers, we ought to dig into the moral complexities of our characters, forcing them to confront their values and weaknesses as they make decisions that challenge their integrity and existence.

3. Personal vs. Public Interests

The third building-block involves the clash between personal and public interests. In The Departed, the characters are trapped in a web of competing loyalties: Does Sergeant Dignam reveal the truth about the mole within the police force at the cost of endagaring his own safety and that of his colleagues? Quite the dilemma.

This conflict between personal loyalty and the greater public good adds complexity to the story. As writers, we ought to create dilemmas that force characters to question allegiances by exploring the tension between what is best for themselves versus what is best for the wider public.

4. Time Sensitivity

A ticking clock intensifies the pressure to resolve a dilemma by forcing the action. In the film, the characters are constantly up against the clock in trying to find the mole. The longer it takes, the more lives are put at risk, the greater the chance of being exposed.

The urgency drives the story forward relentlessly, creating a sense of immediacy that keeps the audience captive. We too should use time as a tool, trapping our characters in tight spots where each minute, each hour places them in a more precarious situation, and where every decision carries serious, perhaps even life-threatening, consequences.

5. Unpredictability

The outcome of any great dilemma should not be predictable. In The Departed, the true identities of the mole and the undercover cop are shrouded in mystery. This uncertainty heightens the tension, leaving the audience guessing, until the final, shocking moments when the truth is revealed.

As writers, we ought to use the unexpected, crafting twists and turns that complicate our characters’ dilemmas and keep readers and viewers on edge. The surprise that occurs when the dilemma is finally resolved, can be a powerful tool in crafting memorable and impactful stories.

Summary

Use five building-blocks to craft a powerful dilemma: high stakes, morality, personal vs. public, time sensitivity, and unpredictability. This will enrich our characters and make our stories more memorable.

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