Tag Archives: writer

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.

Why Plot Hinges on Character

CharacterThe more time I spend thinking about stories, as a writer and teacher, the more convinced I become that it all really hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that.

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over questions such as: what does the character lack at the beginning of a story in terms of her self-awareness, her moral and ethical values? What must she learn before she can accomplish her goal? What is the tension between her want and her need? In short, how could I create her developmental arc?

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc.

I recognised that the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story – the reason the hero reacts to events, or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot that is an intrinsic part of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow characters that are inauthentic or artificial – a bit of advice that my students, especially those new to the subject, find helpful.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life.

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story lies in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that will not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a master study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength.

Summary

The character arc is the progenitor of a viable plot.

Transitions – the Hard Cut

Cuts and transitionsTransitions are a necessary part of storytelling. Leaping over unnecessary chunks of narrative through hard cuts keeps the story pacy and exciting. They free the reader from having to trudge over flat terrain.

This is no more obvious than when comparing today’s films and television to those of even a couple of decades ago. What would once have been considered lively viewing now seems dull and languid.

Pace and Transitions

No doubt the pace of our contemporary lifestyle has much to do with the speeding up of the narrative flow. But it also has to do with the realisation that gaps created by effective transitions allow the reader or audience to fill in the gaps without a loss of pace. It also increases participation in a story.

But the attempt to keep things moving, especially in action genres, is not new. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, points out that Alistair Maclean faced a potential pacing problem in his novel, Where Eagles Dare, when Major Smith and his group get to the Oberhausen airfield and have to wait for the rescue plane to arrive.

A scene of the fugitives sitting around waiting would make for unexciting narrative. Instead, Maclean switched the viewpoint to the pilot in the rescue plane, which brought with it new information and renewed interest.

In my own novels, Scarab and Scarab II, I extensively use this technique of switching viewpoints to important characters to leap to significant parts of the story. This does not only keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, it injects new interest by exploring new information from the best possible vantage points in the story.

Additionally, when done well, the technique allows readers to fill in the missing parts which, significantly, ramps up involvement in the story.

Summary

Use hard cut transitions to skip over unnecessary parts of a story.

How to Sympathise with a Flawed Hero

Sympathise with  flawed heroOne of the most important requirements in writing a successful story is that we sympathise with the hero. The hero, in a typical tale, is the character through whom we chiefly experience events.

This does not mean that the hero has no flaws. Indeed, the flaw is what helps define the hero’s character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful action to swift and righteous action that helps him achieve his goal.

Yet, crafting a sympathetic hero has become increasingly difficult. A variety of scandals involving our politicians, military and religious leaders has served to soil our trust in the existence of unsullied, altruistic heroes.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc.

The notion of a flawed hero, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. These tragic heroes are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes, in recent times, is noteworthy.

Dexter, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe.

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters pulled this off? Here are some suggestions:

We sympathise with a flawed hero because …

The hero finds himself in a situation of undeserved misfortune:

Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can ill afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay his bills.

The law-breaking hero is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to do this and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he outsmarts both the police and his criminal victims time and again.

The hero acts for a cause other than himself:

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Understanding the underlying motivation of these deeply flawed heroes helps soften our critique of them.

Summary

Understanding a character’s motivation, no matter how flawed, helps us to sympathise with his predicament.

Evocative Language and Mood

Evocative ScenesGreat writing is evocative. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty emphasises that evocative language builds expectation, tension, and establishes mood.

Here is an example of mood building from Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic:

Evocative Writing.

‘The man in the dark overcoat and the dark-brimmed hat that shadowed his face climbed out of the two-toned coupe; with difficulty he avoid stepping into a wide puddle by the driver’s door. The sounds of the night rain were everywhere, pinging off the hood and splattering against the glass of the windshield, thumping the vinyl roof and erupting in the myriad pools that had formed throughout the deserted parking area on the banks of the Potomac river.’

This may at first appear to be a rather unexciting, scene-setting passage. Do we really care about the sound of rain? But upon closer examination the choice of words is informative.

The rain is ‘pinging’, ‘spattering’, ‘thumping’, ‘erupting’. These are explosive, evocative words. Rain is a symbol of the turmoil to come – it brings to mind the sound of bullets, the thudding of bodies. As readers we feel this subliminally and it raises our interest and expectation.

Evocative language is versatile. It helps create deeper levels of meaning and emotion that underpin the story. The writer sets up mood and expectation then expands it through action and plot.

In my novel Scarab, I try to create a sense of mystery and intrigue through words that evoke an otherworldly time and place beyond the confines of the underground chamber where the encounter between an archeologist and the mythical Sphinx occurs:

“The form broke free from the bright haze that enveloped it, as if encouraged by his request. It approached slowly, deliberately, feline-like, swaying a little from side to side, but drowsily, as if in a dream. Drake heard the sound of nail or claw, he knew not which, clicking along hard stone, growing louder and more distinct.

He could almost make it out now, but it was more of an intuition than a clear vision, like a shape glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye by cells more sensitive to movement than to light—a shape which the mind had more to do in the making, than the eye in seeing.

It was indeed feline in movement and in appearance, like a giant cat, only larger and more graceful. Drake’s heart was bursting at the wonder of it. It seemed so close now, though distance was hard to judge. He reached out his hand, beckoning it forward. It hesitated a little, as if cautious of approaching the pleading man.”

In the above passage, words and phrases such as “drowsily”, “dream”, “shape”, “form” “broke free from the bright haze”, and “the sound of nail or claw”, help create just the right mood of mystery and anticipation the scene demands.

Summary

Use evocative language to create the appropriate mood for your scenes.