If you had to undertake the almost impossible task of condensing the existing wisdom for writing a good story into a single sentence, what would that sentence be?
Today’s writers have an advantage over those who have gone before them—access to a body of knowledge that has been extracted from the great exemplars of the past—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust, Dickens, William Golding and John Steinbeck, to name some of the few great writers I admire.
Then of course, in more recent times, we have the impressive list of screenwriters and filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, and many more.
The single sentence: What does your protagonist want and why can’t she or he have it?
An argument can be made that familiarity with great works has a trickle down effect; that we grow through osmosis, as it were. But is there one bit of wisdom, gleaned from the ‘encyopedia of writing’, one single instruction to keep on top of mind?
I would venture yes: What does your protagonist want, and why can’t he have it? This one sentence not only demands an answer for the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal; it also hints at the obstacle(s) that stand in his or her way.
Here are two examples of this at work.
A Roman general seeks to revenge his family’s slaughter but is imprisoned by Rome’s brutal emperor, Commodus, and forced to become a gladiator: Gladiator.
A group of friends reassemble in the small town where they first encountered and defeated an unspeakable evil to fight it off once again, but are weakened by the suicide of their friend and rising doubts of their mission: It Chapter Two.
You get the idea.
As a first step to writing a new story, try to conceive of the tale as a single sentence that states the goal and obstacles facing your protagonist. This will give you the spine of your tale.
In his book, Story, Robert McKee explains that the controlling idea of a story delivers to readers and audiences the true theme or ethical judgment of the tale—what the story is really about.
For writers, the controlling idea can help us keep the story on track by shining a spotlight on what actions and events to include or exclude from the story—actions and events that stay or stray from the intended path.
We‘ve talked about this controlling idea before, but under the nomenclature of The Moral Premise. What I like about McKee’s use of the phrase is the reminder that the story has to be constantly steered towards its destination.
McKee defines the controlling idea as having two components: Value and cause. Value identifies the positive or negative charge that arises as a result of the 3rd act’s climax. Cause gives the reason for this outcome. Value and cause, therefore, provide the central meaning of the tale.
“The controlling idea serves to keep your story on track.”
Because value can have a positive or negative charge, the outcome of the controlling idea, the value judgment, can only be delivered to the reader or audience at the end of the story. Importantly, though, the result has been prepared for by a series of actions undertaken by the protagonist in pursuit of his goal. The result of the climactic battle between the antagonist and protagonist towards the end of the third act delivers the writer’s final judgment on the moral or ethical status of the story. In the words of McKee, ‘value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.”
The final value, therefore, whether positive or negative, is the hard fought-for point of the entire tale.
In an up-ending crime story such as In the Heat of the Night, the writer’s judgment on the final value, might be: That even in a corrupt world (negative charge), it is possible to have justice restored (positive charge) through righteous and persistent action.
In a negatively charged love story-ending such as Dangerous Liaisons the controlling idea leads to a negative outcome: That passion, naively directed, leads to self-loathing and death.
All this sounds remarkably like the moral premise.
Summary The controlling idea is the ethical or moral point of the story. Scenes containing actions and events that stray from the path should be eliminated.
Do you follow a writing mentor? Do you need to? Well, we are living in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information. This includes information on creative writing and screenwriting. Sifting through it all to find the right stuff can be a challenge.
In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five writing mentors whose books are studying.
Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’
Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.
“I view writing mentor Syd Field’s work as focusing on the structure of a plot which is centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve the story goal against mounting obstacles.”
Syd Field, who claimed to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’
Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.
Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.
Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.
Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.
Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.
“Who is your favourite writing mentor?”
Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, the book includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.
McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.
Christopher Vogler – writing mentor extraordinaire
Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.
Here the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.
This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.
Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important writing mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into various screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.
While prepping for one of my classes I had occasion to watch several televised debates between proponents of theism and atheism as examples of the sort of logic used in hotly contested debates of this nature.
One such debate in particular struck me as informative. Both men were scientists, one, a mathematician from Oxford and a believer in the existence of God – a Christian. The other was a physicist from Arizona State University and an unflinching atheist.
“The logic of the heart and the art of persuasion.”
Both men, in my opinion, put forward narratives that were strong on logic and consistent within their world views. In terms of their delivery, the Oxford man was affable, warm, tolerant and kind. The physicist came across as cold, rude, arrogant, and condescending. When I asked my honours students who they thought won the debate, a surprising number of them thought that the Christian did, even though that might have been at odds with their own beliefs.
The point is that the logic of a narrative, be it scientific, historical, or fictional, is only part of the story. The heart behind it plays a role in the art of communication too. It is not enough for a scientist to say that we have it by the numbers and that pleasantries, therefore, do not matter. Certainly, it will make no difference to the hard mathematical proofs whether you come across as arrogant or kind, but it will make a difference to how effective you are in advertising your field.
The mathematician and string theorist Brian Greene is proof of how hard science can be delivered in a warm, persuasive, and cogent way that makes it accessible to lay people. His documentary The Illusion of Time, is a good example of his affable, passionate style. Special and general relativity are explained in a way that makes one want to know more.
So it should be with any narrative. Behind the facts and logic we should sense the presence of a human mind seeking to communicate the wonder of being alive, not only through logic, but through the ineffable understanding of the heart.
Use logic as well as heart to persuade others of the merits of your point of view.
We’ve all heard about the importance of a powerful antagonist in stories.
An antagonist works against the protagonist to stop her from achieving the story goal. Together they form a dynamic pair whose ongoing battle forms the spine of the story.
We know that a well-written villain is clever and resourceful. He believes he is the hero of his own tale. He is often articulate, even eloquent, with a well-defined philosophy about life which motivates his actions and explains his loathing for the hero and her goal.
These characteristics emerge through his actions, but also through at least one great speech in which he explains to the hero, or another character, the depths of his villainous vision.
But it seemed to me that truly memorable antagonists needed something more – an extra ingredient that guaranteed their place in the annals of villainy. It was during one of my classes on writing that it struck me – great villains exhibit what may be described as a double, or triple dip. This is the moment when the character surprises the hero by diving even deeper into the pit of darkness.
“A deeply villainous antagonist should be the mainstay of any gripping story.”
In the TV series, Outlander, an English officer, Black Jack Randall, has already proven to be a ruthless and cruel man capable of rape and murder. But in a crucial scene in a later episode he reveals to us the depths of his wickedness.
He explains to his prisoner, Claire Fraser, the hero of the story, that the two hundred lashes, administered to a young Scot accused of stealing, were something beautiful, a work of art. We see the whipping as a flashback and flinch at the relentless violence of leather cutting into the torn, bleeding flesh of the young man – first dip.
Randall then seems to relent. He admits to Claire that he is filled with self-loathing for the man he has become, giving her hope that he will free her, and also, bolstering her cherished belief that any man is capable of redemption. But, suddenly, he turns and punches her in the gut, driving their air from her lungs. She falls to the ground gasping – second dip.
As if that’s not enough, he orders his reluctant soldier to kick her while she lies gasping on the floor, describing the kicking of a woman as something liberating – third dip.
These actions don’t only represent plunges into physical cruelty. They are an attempt to crush the spirit of the person they are directed against – Claire believes that Black Jack Randall can be saved. He proves to her he can’t. This isn’t only a physical blow, but also is a blow against her Christian belief in the ultimate Salvation of Man.
It is this triple-dip, combined with a relentless desire to destroy his enemy’s spirit that makes Black Jack Randall a truly memorable villain.
Villainous antagonists are driven by a relentless desire not only to crush the hero’s body but his or her spirit, too.
In this article on age-related categories drawn from Linda Seger’s book, Advanced Screenwriting, I examine themes related to old age and end-of-life.
As we enter old age we feel a pressing need to reconcile our past deeds with our conscience. We seek to resolve past hurts, overcome alienation, heal relationships, deal with regret. On Golden Pond, tells the story of three generations of characters who meet in order to reconcile with one another. In Magnolia, the dying father recognises that in order to affirm his own integrity he has to reconcile with his son.
In my own novel, The Land Below, the aging Troubadour, wracked by guilt for having kept a painful secret from his grandson, Paulie, chooses a climactic moment to reveal the truth about his lineage.
“Old age and end-of-life themes necessarily entail protagonists who pursue different goals to those of their younger counterparts.”
But as the prospect of death creeps ever closer, another issue gains prominence. Linda Seger relates her observations in a nursing home for the aged where she noticed two basic types of reactions from people close to death – anger and mellow acceptance.
There were those who felt that they had somehow been cheated out of living a better life, or that life had somehow passed them by. These were issues that they had not resolved earlier in life and that were now coming home to roost.
Then there were people who seemed to accept the end of their lives with a mellow acquiescence and a deep gratitude for having participated in life’s adventure at all.
Although some stories, such as Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, deal with the subject of death and reconciliation in an insightful way, there is generally a dearth of stories featuring this last stage of one’s life – certainly in film. This could be a rich source to explore in the future, especially for a population that increasingly is achieving longer lifespans.
The point to stress, as Erik Erikson indicates, is that if we fail to deal with life’s themes at the time they occur they will continue to fester, under the surface, until we do.
In Dead Poet’s Society, Todd is forced to resolve issues of self-esteem, identity, integrity, and belonging because he never resolved these issues as a teenager. In Rain Man, Charlie, who carries with him the pain of a childhood in which he felt he didn’t belong, has to reconcile issues of achievement and success juxtaposed against the need for intimacy and integrity before he can resolve his inner conflict.
A character who is dying, then, may be forced to face unresolved issues at the time he is least equipped to do so.
Confronting past, unresolved conflicts in our old age is the last great task to be performed in life and in stories.
Why persevere? Well, if it’s lonely at the top it’s even lonelier at the bottom.
Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.
Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.
Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.
These sorts of accounts are legion.
But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.
The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.
“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. You have to persevere.”
Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some more down to earth, followed.
Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.
Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.
There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.
But perhaps the solution is all around you.
Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.
Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put the advice into practice.
But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.
Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.
That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.
To persevere means to keep writing, reading books and watching movies – to keep learning. And to never give up.
Teenage themes is the second in a series of articles dealing with age-specific stories, drawn from Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting.
Seger asserts that almost all teenage stories deal with the notion of identity, since our teens and early twenties are driven by our need to discover ourselves – who are we, what we want to do, or be, when we grow up.
“Teenage Themes relate to age-specific concerns in a story.”
A teen-orientated story typically explores the themes of sexual identity (Risky Business, Boys Don’t Cry), discovering love (Titanic), finding one’s creative self in a conformist society, securing one’s individuality in a culture that often prescribes who you are or might become (Room with a View, The Cinder House Rules).
In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie, the book’s protagonist, who is nearing the end of his teens, refuses to accept the dictates of the Governor and Senators who insist that life on the surface of the world is unlivable and that one should not, under any circumstances, spread rumours to the contrary.
Fighting against these dictates, Paulie rejects his social status as a lowly orphan when he develops feelings for the Governor’s daughter and ends up becoming the leader of a band of teenagers seeking to escape the suffocating confines of the Land Below.
Paulie, in effect, redefines his place in society. But in doing so he threatens the Governor’s grip on the closely controlled subterranean world. It is this conflict between the freedom to choose and the impulse to control, rooted in the opposing needs of the protagonist (Paulie) and antagonist (Governor, et al.) that creates the plot of the story.
Importantly, then, the theme in any story steers the plot, turning it this way and that, as the protagonist continues to explore and test it until it is proven at end of the tale.
Teenage themes cluster around questions of who are we, what we want to do, or be, when we grow up.
What is meant by ’the gap’ in a story? And how can it help you create tension of your tale?
In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers a mechanism that allows the writer to structure character action in a way that adds to the tension. He calls this mechanism the gap.
The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the reader or audience.
From the protagonist’s point of view the path to the goal seem initially achievable and efficient. But as he or she initiates action to achieve it, the resistance of the world creates a tension which is proportional to the effort expended—like a rubber band that is being stretched form side to side.
“The gap refers to the tension between intention/expectation and result in character action.”
The more the effort the more resistance. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.
Back To The Future makes masterful use of gaps, especially in the scenes around the clock tower with Marty being unable to start the DeLorean, while the doc desperately tries to connect the power cable to the clock tower so it can capture the lightning that is destined to strike and send the car through time.
This constant expansion of the gap also changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.
Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.
A gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.
A gap creates tension between action and reaction, intention and result, as a by-product of the protagonist pursuing the goal.
I have written many articles on the craft of storytelling over the years. Certainly, the web is full of free advice on the craft in the form of articles, videos, and the like.
Given the availability of this material and the willingness of new writers to study it, we should all be masters of the craft.
So, why aren’t we?
The truth is that much of the material is not presented in a way that allows us to fully integrate it.
True, we learn that stories comprise of a three, four, or five act structure. And yes, we are told about the various beat-sheets , about the inciting incident, the turning points, character traits, the theme, and the like.
But do we truly understand all this at a deep level so that our theoretical knowledge flows into practical knowledge which manifests in screenplays or novels?
“Without an intimate understanding of how to integrate narrative components, how one flows into another to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts, we will always fall short of mastery.”
Having covered the most important narrative elements, often more than once, we will turn our focus more sharply than ever before on the relations that exist between them.
Integrate your Storytelling Elements
For example, can you describe in detail the connections that constitute the relationship between theme and character? Or character and backstory? Or how the inciting incident is related to the first turning point in a story?
The answers to these and other questions are important if we are to achieve an integrated understanding of our craft.
If you’ve answered no to some of these questions, be sure to watch this space.
Integrate your skills by developing a deep level understanding of the relations that exist between the narrative elements of a story.