Tag Archives: writetip

If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.

Spiritual Growth and the Age of a Character

Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet
Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet

How does spiritual growth relate to the age of a character?

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger points out that older characters in stories experience a deepening engagement with values they might not have entertained during their younger years—values relating to spiritual growth.


Forty and Beyond

Maturity often brings with it a tension between the spiritual and the material in our own lives. Stories about evolving characters, therefore, tend to explore issues that have become more pressing because of the wisdom individuals have earned through experience.

Having achieved successful careers, sometimes at the expense of the inner life, some are ready to shift focus from material pursuits to a more spiritual approach, concentrating on such values as integrity, social conscience and enduring relationships. 

”Spiritual growth in a character often, although not always, goes hand-in-hand with a growing maturity associated with age. The stories we write containing such characters should reflect this possibility.”

Some characters even factor in self-sacrifice for the greater good as a viable course of action. Films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Ghandi, Erin Brokovich, and Norma Rae touch on this directly.

The point is that as we mature so does the focus of our attention—from the visceral pleasures granted by material success to the more selfless rewards of value-driven action: from receiving to giving, from competing to sharing, from holding grudges to forgiving. The value system of the characters we write, therefore, ought to reflect this age-related shift. Stories containing such characters will resonate with more mature audiences who recognise these values in themselves.

Summary

Stories about maturing characters explore themes that weigh up spiritual growth over material gain.

Building Characters in Seven Steps

Building characters in The Godfather
Building characters in The Godfather

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby lays out seven steps to building characters:



The seven steps chiefly apply to the protagonist of the story since the protagonist is the vehicle through which the story is channeled. Truby illustrates these steps through an adroit analysis of several films. Here, we look at his break-down of The Godfather, taken directly from his book, although the pattern applies to any well-written story.

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent 
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Hero: Michael Corleone.

Weaknesses: Michael is young, inexperienced, untested, and overconfident.

Psychological Need: Michael must overcome his sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Moral Need: He needs to avoid becoming ruthless like the other Mafia bosses while still protecting his family.


“The path to building characters that are effective is one that tracks the protagonist’s journey from weakness and need to a new equilibrium, forged through the crucible of battle.“

Problem: Rival gang members shoot Michael’s father, the head of the family.

Desire: He wants to take revenge on the men who shot his father and thereby protect his family.

Opponent: Michael’s first opponent is Sollozzo. However, his true opponent is the more powerful Barzini, who is the hidden power behind Sollozzo and wants to bring the entire Corleone family down. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.

“A strong opponent is someone who finds and exploits the protagonist’s weakness throughout the story.”

Plan: Michael’s first plan is to kill Sollozzo and his protector, the police captain. His second plan is to kill the heads of the other families in a single strike.

Battle: The final battle is a crosscut between Michael’s appearance at his nephew’s baptism and the killing of the heads of the five Mafia families. At the baptism, Michael says that he believes in God. Clemenza fires a shotgun into some men getting off an elevator. Moe Green is shot in the eye. Michael, following the liturgy of the baptism, renounces Satan. Another gunman shoots one of the heads of the families in a revolving door. Barzini is shot. Tom sends Tessio off to be murdered. Michael has Carlo strangled.

Psychological Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael still believes that his sense of superiority and self-righteousness is justified.

Moral Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael has become a ruthless killer. The writers use an advanced story structure technique by giving the moral self-revelation to the hero’s wife, Kay, who sees what he has become as the door slams in her face.

New Equilibrium: Michael has killed his enemies and “risen” to the position of Godfather. But morally, he has fallen and become the “devil.” This man who once wanted nothing to do with the violence and crime of his family is now its leader and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

Summary
Using a seven-step approach to building characters and story is a great way to mould protagonists who drive the plot forward in an organic and integrated way.

Epiphany and Self-Realisation in Stories

The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.
The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.

The epiphany refers to that moment at the end of the character arc where the hero realises a hidden truth about himself. This truth shines a light on a blind spot, flaw or wound, that has hampered progress towards achieving his purpose.


The epiphany is an internal event that impacts two layers of meaning—the psychological and the moral. The psychological allows the flaw to be confronted—a first step in healing oneself. Importantly, the epiphany allows the hero to gain true efficacy in the world and results in his turning the tables on the antagonist through external action.

But whereas the psychological dimension begins the process of healing the hero as an individual, the moral dimension allows the hero to apply the healing to the whole of society—it universalises the story by associating the action with the moral good.

“As a whole, then, the hero’s epiphany is the moment where self-deception is stripped away. The penny drops. The lesson is learnt. It is the culmination of the inner journey of the character.“

It goes hand in hand with the transformation of ‘want’ into ‘need’. Without this transformation the hero is fighting in the dark, ill equipped to fulfill his goal.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby (who refers to the moment of epiphany as the moment of self-realisation) provides the following examples of transformation:

“In Casablanca Rick sheds his cynicism, regains his idealism, and sacrifices his love for Ilsa so he can become a freedom fighter.

In Dances with Wolves Dunbar finds a new reason to live and a new way of being a man because of his new wife and his extended Lakota Sioux family. Ironically, the Lakota way of life is almost at an end, so Dunbar’s self-revelation is both positive and negative.

In effect, the hero realizes that he has been wrong, that he has hurt others, and that he must change. He then proves he has changed by taking new moral action.”

Summary

The hero’s epiphany refers to the moment in which the hero recognises his psychological and moral shortcomings and acts to overcome his last crisis and gain his true goal.

Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.

With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.

“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”

But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:

“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.

KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”

The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.

Summary
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.


Great Plot from Moral Weaknesses

Great Plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie
A great plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie

How do you generate a great plot from the moral weakness of your hero? You tailor-make the story goal to fit your hero’s weakness. Paring these two narrative events elevates your story to one of poetic justice.

One way to tie the character to the goal is to link it to the moral premise of the story. Ask, what does my character learn by pursuing and eventually gaining the goal?

If your character is stingy, he has to learn to be generous (Scrooge). If he is cowardly and narcissistic, he ends up in a situation where he has to save the world (Edge of Tomorrow.)

There is an ironic relationship between the character’s flaw or weakness and the challenge he is presented with because it is this very weakness that needs to be eliminated in order for him to become whole again.

“The point of a great plot is, at least in part, to teach the hero a moral lesson.”

Few films illustrate this better than Tootsie. In the film, Dustin Hoffman plays a man who has little respect for women, treating them poorly. But he is an out-of-work actor who desperately seeks an acting job. Ironically, he lands a part playing a woman by pretending to be a woman—a role he has to continue playing outside the studio. This exposes him to the sort of mistreatment he has subjected women to in the past. Experiencing this behaviour first hand is a lesson that causes him to grow and change. The plot is fitting because it is geared towards fixing the inner failing of the protagonist.

And so it’s should be with every great story. The plot should showcase the hero’s weakness by placing him in a situation that can only be solved by addressing that very weakness in the plot and in himself.


Summary

Behind every great plot is a protagonist who solves the story problem by addressing an inner weakness in his character.

Fabulous Scenes—how to write them

Fabulous scenes in Unforgiven
The end of one of the many fabulous scenes in Unforgiven

So, you have your logline, a short synopsis of your story, and you’re ready to start writing fabulous scenes. But how to do it?

There are several ways to classify scenes—reactive, proactive, turning point scenes, midpoint scenes, the must-have-scene, and so on. In future articles I will be looking at the specific similarities and differences between each type. Here, however, I want to lay out a general strategy for writing great scenes.

The most important things to know off the bat for writing great scenes are:

1. Who is the central character in the scene?

2. What is the character’s goal in the scene?

3. How does the scene advance the plot?

4. What is the emotion generated by the scene?

5. How does the scene reveal character?

The second thing to consider is the method: How do you intend to convey the above? Through dialogue, action, subtext?

“Fabulous scenes are fabulous because they do the simple things right and let the fireworks emerge from that.”

In Unforgiven, a young, bombastic gunslinger who calls himself the Schofield Kid approaches ex-outlaw William Manny at his farm. He wants to recruit Manny to help him kill a couple of cowboys who reportedly cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Clearly, Manny is not doing well as a pig farmer and needs money to feed himself and his two young children. Manny initially rejects the offer. The scene, which can viewed as the inciting incident, fulfills several of the points raised above:

  1. The focus of the scene is clearly about William Manny who is faced with making a decision.
  2. The goal is to show Manny receiving a ‘job’ offer for which he will receive reward money, and his response to it.
  3. ThIs advances the plot by dangling the possibility of Manny returning to his old ways in order to collect the reward money.
  4. We see Manny as a shadow of the hard-living gunslinger he once was. Instead of lauding his decision not to accept the offer, we are left feeling sorry for him and his poverty-stricken life.
  5. The scene has Manny declare that he is no longer the cursing, hard-drinking killer he once was—that his wife has cured him of his evil ways. There is a sense, however, that Manny yearns for the adventure and freedom of the old days. We sense that he is only fooling himself, and this deepens his character.

The scene uses subtext and the physical demeanour of the characters to juxtapose the flashy, big-talking, Schofield Kid against the seemingly spent pig-farmer. It is a great example of how to use the above-mentioned techniques to write a spectacular scene.

Summary

Fabulous scenes apply an appropriate method for revealing character goals, hinting at hidden emotions, and promoting plot.

Story Theme – What Is It?

Before the Light, and the story theme.
In Before the Light, the story theme is that of humanity having to be protected from itself.

“What is your story theme? What is your story really about?” I ask.
“It’s about a boy who embarks on a journey to find his long-lost sister—,” you answer.

“That’s not what I mean,” I say, interrupting you. “By theme I mean the essence of your story, distilled into a single sentence.”

Without it the tale is rendered rudderless. 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams explains that the moral premise (substitute the word theme here) is the force that determines the flow and direction of events in a story. He asserts that stories with a strong moral premise do well at the box office. He sites films such as Star Wars and Braveheart as examples. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides the writer to craft a story that stays on track.

So, what form does the theme take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of it.

“The story theme is the compass that allows the writer to navigate through a myriad of narrative outcomes.”

In the novella, Before the Light, for example, one part of the theme might be: Too much knowledge heaped upon an unprepared humanity leads to destruction (followed by the second part), but a well-kept secret leads to survival.

This creates an appropriate springboard for character action, for the story to explore the possible consequences of each possible outcome. The sentient quantum computer, Icarus, for example, has to choose between fulfilling the duty entrusted to it by its human creators, and risk dragging the entire world into a war, or betray the very purpose of its creation.

The story traces the tension between those two irreconcilable outcomes, right up to the moment in the climax when a decision is made—with all its concomitant consequences.

The complete moral premise, or theme, therefore, represents the genetic code for a story and takes the simple form: If X leads to a bad outcome, then MINUS X leads to a good outcome. A fully articulated theme allows us to navigate the terrain between those outcomes using this structure.

Summary

The theme or moral premise, comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the organising force of any story: One part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the theme in mind allows you to craft a story that stays on track.

Want vs Need — Part II.

Want vs Need in Unforgiven
Want vs Need in Unforgiven

What is the difference between want vs need in a character? And why is it important? In order to answer these questions we need to delve a little deeper into the developmental arc of the character, once more.

The character arc, we are reminded, describes the path that a character takes from a state of incompetence and moral ignorance, to that of excellence and moral superiority. The arc is intimately tied to the plot, since plot is a tapestry woven out of characters interacting with one another.

Practical and moral superiority, however, can only be achieved by passing some difficult test. It stands to reason, therefore, that a state of true knowledge can only be achieved late in the story—deep into the character arc.

One way for a character to prove that she is making progress is for her to acknowledge that her want, her stated reason for pursuing the goal, is not necessarily her need, at least not on its own. She first has to discover her true motivation and begin healing past wounds, correct existing flaws, in order to unleash her inner strength. It’s a moment of self-revelation that spurs growth.

“A character’s want is established early in the story and stems from a false motivation for pursuing a goal. The character’s need, by contrast, stems from a later realisation of a wound or flaw that has to be healed in order to achieve practical and moral efficacy in the world.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, this moment occurs when Benjamin Vlahos realises the truth about his parents, allowing him to begin healing the wound that has kept him a prisoner of an intractable mathematical problem for thirty years.

In Unforgiven the moment of self-revelation occurs when Ned Logan realises that he can’t bring himself to kill one of the cowboys who reportedly cut up a prostitute. Although a secondary character, he does act as a foil to William Munny, the protagonist of the story. Munny, who lacks a character arc, remaining largely static, does not hesitate to take the rifle from him and shoot one of the men in cold blood. Ned’s want for a monetary reward, however, has been replaced by his realisation of his true need—to live a peaceful life back at his raunch with his Indian companion.

A character’s want being replaced by his need, then, is a truly transformative moment and usually occurs deep into the story. It represents the true start of a characters healing process.

Summary

Want vs need lie on opposite sides of a character’s developmental arc. They represent the growth from ignorance to knowledge.

How Character shapes action

Character shapes action in Braveheart

Character shapes action and ultimately story. But no two people are exactly the same and, therefore, neither is the motivation behind their actions. 

Slap one person across the face and he might turn the other cheek. Slap another and he might punch you in the gut. A pacifist responds differently to a threat than would a war-monger. Different actions lead to different stories.

Personality shapes action. The inner life of a character is moulded by that character’s genetics, but also her hopes, desires, fears and wounds. It is these differences within a character that create the full tapestry of human response.

But personality is not static. Fears migrate, change, increase or decrease. Hope grows, shrinks, is fulfilled or snuffed out. To write a viable character arc, namely, the growth of the hero from ignorance to knowledge, or vice to virtue, we need to track the transformation of the elements that define personality.

In Braveheart, William Wallace goes from a disinterested farmer to a courageous and engaged rebel leader seeking to overthrow the English yoke. In Edge of Tomorrow Major William Cage goes from a cowardly public relations officer to a fearless soldier willing to die over and over again in order to save humanity by defeating an insidious alien enemy.

“Character shapes action. Write stories that tie the character arc to the plot in order to ensure the verisimilitude of your tale.”

If the above is true then it stands to reason that the growth of character helps to order the sequence of the narrative events that make up the story.

Tracking the change of say, cowardice to heroism through four or five stages, provides a roadmap for creating ‘ action’ scenes that feel authentic and believable. The result is stories that are motivated and well written—never a bad thing in the pursuit of success.

Summary

Character shapes action. Write believable and successful stories by tying your hero’s character arc to the flow of narrative events that comprise your plot.