Tag Archives: writetip

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.

Story Map – what is it?

So, you want to write a story but have no story map. Sure, you have a genre or character in mind. Maybe even the beginnings of a plot. But you sense it’s not quite enough to get you started. So, where to from here?

Story map in Before the Ight
Story map techniques in Before the Light

You need a story map to help you find your way.

It’s worth remembering that stories come from the generation of multiple ideas distilled to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”  In Before the Light, the core idea is: can super-powerful computers be trusted?

But an idea without a story is toothless. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, all of which help the writer determine the genre. 

“A story map assembles all the ingredients necessary to the writing of your first draft.“

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title. 

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one explores the main character and supporting cast, his backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, goal and transformational arcs. Simultaneously, one builds a plot guided by structure—the inciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid-point, climax and resolution. 

Now the writer is ready to create subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions—in other words, to write the treatment, followed by the step-outline.

By the time you have outlined your obligatory or climactic scene, you will have exposed the main theme of the story, since the winner of the final conflict carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, the theme is: human instinct and determination trump artificial intelligence. 

Of course, the first draft is one of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the light of day.

(For a detailed explanation of each narrative element mentioned above, please use the search box to locate relevant articles on this website.)

Summary

Creating a story map helps you plan your story. This article mentions some of the many components of such maps.

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.

Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

Character Flaw in Stories — what is it?

The character flaw in Macbeth
Few enduring stories illustrate the influence of the character flaw more strongly than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

What is a character flaw, anyway?

One way to think of a flaw is as a glitch in a character’s internal makeup that shapes his interaction with the world. In trying to hide or suppress this glitch, the character engages in an inner struggle, which drives the story forward. 

A Character flaw may be born out of an internal cause, such as an emotional scar from the past, or an external one, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice.

Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character make for interesting stories that resonate with readers and audiences.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, such as the three witches and his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

“The Character Flaw generates inner conflict in the protagonist. It is a prolific generator of subtext in a story.”

Additionally, a flaw generates questions about the story: What lies and obfuscations has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And, crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point, and climax? 

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey through the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”.

In The Matrix Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self-belief (flaw) to one of belief.

This inner journey—Neo’s character arc—influences each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw directs a character’s response to the world. It helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his actions.

No villain, no hero

The villain in Ordinary People
The mother as villain in Ordinary People


The success of a story largely depends on how well the writer uses the protagonist’s inner and outer struggles, juxtaposed against a powerful villain, to prove the theme.

But it’s not all just about the protagonist. Behind every successful hero lurks a relentless and ruthless villain.

Inexperienced writers tend to develop their heroes and villains separately, instead of crafting them as polar opposites of a single narrative entity.

If your hero is a formidable Kung-fu expert you need an even more powerful villain to stand up to him. Pacific Rim is filled with battle-hardened hero types, driving highscraper-tall machines. The writers, therefore, had to come up with monster-size villains to fight them. 

The more powerful your hero, the more powerful your villain needs to be in order to generate risk, suspense, and excitement—to pose a worthy threat to the hero. 

Strength, of course, is not merely physical. In Ordinary People, the mom is a formidable and relentless opponent whose implacable determination to take custody of her young son drives the plot forward.

“Never forget that it is the villain that inadvertently spurs the hero to achieve his best in order to win the day.”

Although villains are crafty and tireless plotters, they are not always 100% bad. Remember, villains don’t see themselves as villainous. They feel justified in doing what they do. In their minds, they are merely seeking revenge, righting a wrong, balancing the books, for a perceived injustice perpetrated against them.

Additionally, a successful villain knows how to punch the hero’s buttons. He takes advantage of the hero”s weakness. If your hero is a rich stockbroker, the villain is an even richer businessman who manipulates the market to bring him down. If your hero is a champion boxer, his opponent is a seven foot, three-hundred pound Russian giant. 

Remember, then, that the hero and villain form a single unit. Identify the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength, and have the villain take advantage of that weakness—until the last moment when the tables turn and the hero uses the same technique against him. 

Lastly, have the final confrontation play out in the villain’s lair—the place that is most advantageous to the villain. It will raise the tension and fill your readers or audience with dread. Providing you have chosen an up-ending, it will also make your hero’s final victory that much sweeter.

Summary

The hero and villain are polar opposites, forming a single narrative unit.
The hero’s weakness juxtaposed against the villain’s strength complicates the plot and heightens tension.

Eccentric characters – Foibles, kinks and rituals.

Eccentric Characters - Uriah Heep
Charles Dickens’ stories are filled with eccentric characters such as David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep.

Eccentric characters in stories, are filled with foibles, kinks and rituals. As are real people in the world. .
We often like to do things in a certain way: follow a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, point us to some deeper truth.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other specialists, showcase personalities that range from the eccentric to the pathological.

As a writer of novels and screenplays, I too am interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with understanding emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story

“Eccentric characters, handled adroitly, make for colourful and engaging stories.”

I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do touch on those subjects. The best stories endure because they expose a character’s peculiarities and weaknesses—they offer us good drama, and in so doing, engage our emotions. If stories get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people they describe—colourful characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.

Some years back, I taught a documentary filmmaking course every Friday at a college in downtown Johannesburg. Traffic was bad at that time of morning so I would leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway. Trouble was that the college opened at 8am and I would arrive at my destination way before then.

Luckily, I could while away the time at a nearby Macdonald’s. Call me an early bird, but I was usually the first customer to be served when the doors opened at 6am. Hotcakes with butter and syrup and coffee were just what I needed before that first lecture at 8am.

But sometimes I was pipped at the post by an even earlier bird. 

Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There were, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around.

But then, there was the small matter of my favourite spot. 

The table, tucked away in a far corner of the shop was flanked on two sides by large windows that looked out into a parking lot dotted with trees. I really liked that spot. I liked it almost as much as I liked my hotcakes.

The trouble was, so did the earlier bird.

Now, good sense would have me gracefully yield my spot to her. First come first served and all that.

But on such occasions I secretly wished I had got there even earlier to stake my claim. Or that she’d been held up by some event or other, granting me first access. I found myself anxiously scanning the interior of the shop for a sign of her, even as I was pulling into the parking area.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help lowering my head in embarrassment. Was I really that petty-minded?

Even so, I believe that such foibles, habits, and rituals, trivial as they are, are useful markers of personality.

At the very least they offer writers an opportunity to inject their experiences into their characters, rendering them more eccentric and interesting. In observing ourselves through such characters, we may even succeed in purging ourselves of some of our more irrational inclinations.

Summary

Studying eccentric characters on a daily basis, ourselves and others, helps us write captivating, fictional constructs that bristle with life, eccentricity, and colour.

Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace
Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace

Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition. 

“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown. 

Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.

Success as a Writer

Juno was an unexpected success.
Juno was an unexpected success.

How do you measure success as a writer? Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

“No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits. Success is all too often elusive.”

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

If your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. But even if they don’t, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Maximise the chances of success while insulating yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

Invitation

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Title, Title, Title.

The title of the film says it all - Apollo 13 poster.
The title of the film says it all.

In today’s competitive market an indie writer needs to keep her eye on at least two targets – writing skills and marketing, and it all starts with the title.

The belief that all a good writer has to do is keep writing—that recognition will come knocking on his door in due course, is optimistic. For every writer that succeeds many others don’t. The truth is that wide-spread recognition, if it comes at all, has to be actively pursued, coaxed, grown.

Entering competitions, doing readings of your work, building a large online presence, giving guest lectures at book clubs and colleges, can help—but start by grabbing your potential reader’s attention through a great title followed by a captivating logline or blurb.

I have discussed loglines and blurbs elsewhere on my blog. Today I want to look at the importance of a story’s title.

“Not only does a title hint at what your story is about, it is an indispensable marketing tool, too.”

I asked a friend of mine, an avid reviewer of kindle books, how she picks which story to read first amongst the many others she receives each day. She told me she lets the title and book cover do that for her.

When I worked for Elmo de Witt Films, one of my tasks was to look out for promising screenplays. There were always dozens of them in a pile on my desk waiting to be read. The ones that caught my eye first were always screenplays with great titles.

The story title as a marketing tool

A great title ticks one or more of the following boxes:

It points to a genre.
It hints at the story behind it.
It has emotional content.
It is not the name of a character.
It sets up a question, hints at a puzzle, intrigues one in some way.

Titles such as, Apollo 13, Rich and FamousGladiatorThe Madness of King George, and Alien leave us in no doubt as to what the story is about. Others, such as Blade Runner, sound so cool and compelling they make us want to know more.

But titles such as K-PaxThe Island, August Rush?

Not so good.

The title, Emma, may have worked for Jane Austen over two hundred yeas ago, but names of (unknown) people don’t generally make for good titles.

I typically come up with ten or more titles for a new book or screenplay and ask family, friends, and students to pick their favourite from the list, before making my final choice. I consider it time well spent.

Summary

Choosing a compelling, eye-catching title for your story is the first small step in getting your novel or screenplay noticed.

Invitation

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