In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to orchestrate story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.
Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge.
This can occur within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.
If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.
Story rhythm in the climax
If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other.
McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony.
Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).
Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. Correlation can also exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.
ONE of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.
Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale—to keep the rope tight.
There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see these twists coming, or seem the as comprising the story’s underlying architecture.
Hiding structure through strong emotion.
One of the better ways to hide structure is through the adroit use of powerful emotions. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.
Story structure should be hidden behind strong emotion if we are to avoid the accusation of predictable and formulaic writing.
In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.
We are dealt a double blow. We feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.
In my YA novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. Emotions run high. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.
I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.
Hide the underlying structure of your story behind strong emotion that is motivated and timely.
YOU’VE HEARD it said that writing is to rewriting. But what exactly does that mean? How precisely do you go about writing the second draft of your story?
Opinions vary, but according to Syd Field, the second draft ought to, at the very least, address the structural integrity of your story.
I took his advice when writing the second draft of my second novel, The Level.
Field suggests that we approach the second draft in this way:
The Second Draft
Allow the first draft to simmer for a few weeks then come at it afresh. First off, locate and examine the main structural entities in your story:
Do you have an introduction to the ordinary world? Has the protagonist been introduced in his daily environment before things go south?
Next, find your inciting incident. Does it indeed “incite” your story? Could another incident have been more effective?
Locate your first turning point at the end of the first act. Does it set the main goal of the story in a way that is related to the inciting incident but is sufficiently stronger and moves in a different direction to it?
The second draft adjusts and repositions the narrative elements in your story—it ensures that the structure of the story is the best it can be.
Find the second turning point. Does it turn the story around in an unexpected way, adjusting the overall goal set at the first turning point?
Jump back to the midpoint next. What event forces the hero to face his inner conflict and decide between quitting or going on, against stiffer opposition?
Pinch one and two are checked next. Does your longer second act contain at least two supporting scenes or scene sequences on either side of the midpoint that reiterate and reinforce the pursuit of the goal?
Examine the confrontational scene in your third act between your hero and antagonist. Is it set in an environment which favours the antagonist and disadvantages your Hero, thus upping the tension and stakes?
Look at your resolution scene. Does it indeed resolve the issues posed by the dramatic questions of the first, second, and third acts?
Finally, check your theme – the theme can only emerge after the outcome of the final conflict has been decided: do good guys finish first, or does evil prevail? Is the answer what you had intended when you wrote the first draft? If not, could the story be improved if you allowed it to end differently, despite your original intentions? Remember the creative process has a life of its own. Sometimes it’s easier to follow the muse than to ignore her.
The second draft adjusts and repositions wayward narrative elements in your story. It improves the structural integrity of your tale.
.A STRONG STORY PREMISE is the foundation of most successful stories.
Here are four simple guidelines for coming up with a winning premise that sets you on a path of writing a successful story:
How to write a strong story premise:
1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:
Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts proved it.
In my own best selling Scarab series, the original premise is: What would happen to the world if a mysterious formula, buried inside in a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx of Giza, proves to be the final link in constructing a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics?
2. Ensure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:
Here’s an example: The daughter of a callous hospital director is abducted by an ex-surgeon whose child has failed to qualify for a liver transplant and has died as a consequence (set-up).
This is intriguing, but not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:
The fired surgeon kidnaps the director’s own daughter and removes her liver. The director has to find a replacement for his child’s organ, within two days, or she’ll die.
3. The concept must raise dramatic questions:
In this example, such questions are indeed raised: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper allow the child to die? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?
4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:
Steven Spielberg defined high concept as a pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know enough about the sort of story we’re about to experience, to hold our interest.
Together with good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, and a sense of verisimilitude, the story premise offers a method for successful storytelling.
The story premise is a short description of the story that acts as a blueprint for the entire tale. A strong premise is one that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions.
WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.
In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.
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.
The screenwriting mentors:
For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.
Field, who claims 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.
Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, 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, 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.
Thus 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 screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.
It is the surreptitious hint in a story that will act as foundation to a pay-off or ‘ah-ha’ moment later on in the tale.
In writing, every narrative event ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in writing a screenplay, which uses fewer pages to tell the story, than in writing a novel.
If the writer intends to plant a knife in a scene in order to foreshadow an important event later on, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion.
Foreshadowing the Pay-Off
In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can retaliate. This is crucial in establishing the credibility of the character’s fight-back.
In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee. This action sets up the pay-off later on in the plot, when the canine crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.
But how best to handle foreshadowing and its pay-off?
Firstly, foreshadowing should never draw attention to itself, but form part of the story’s natural development. Secondly, a pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.
Foreshadowing and pay-offs are specific events in the plot that make story surprises more believable. Foreshadowing forms the justification for a later crucial event, without drawing attention to itself, while a pay-off is delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.
Make your story a consequence of character instead of making your character a mere pawn of the plot. In other words, have character, typically your protagonist, drive the story forward in a convincing and germane way.
This is not as complicated as it may seem if you ensure that your protagonist’s traits are in keeping with his actions at the nodal points of your story.
In Edge of Tomorrow, for example, Major William Cage initially refuses to do his job of filming the allied landing in France against the alien invaders. This action aligns with his trait of self-preservation.
But when the General orders Cage to the front as a private, an encounter with the enemy results in alien blood being spilled on the major. This endows him with the power to keep returning to the moment of his death so he may take a different path.
Through trial and error he learns to use this power not only to survive in a personal sense, but to try and defeat the enemy in order to save humanity, and specifically, the woman he has fallen in love with. His focus on self-preservation has expanded to include the preservation of the human race.
His heroic actions at the end, when he loses the power to return to the moment before his death, reveals that he is willing to sacrifice his life in one last-ditch effort to save the world. The trait of selfishness has given way to the hitherto hidden traits of self-sacrifice and duty, awakened by the endless series of hard knocks he has endured. His actions at the nodal points, therefore, are determined by his inner traits and are part of his character arc.
Similarly, in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos’ choice between seeking safety in his cyclone-resistant house, or letting the storm end his life lies in the tension between his sense of guilt for the death of his wife, and the love he bears his parents.
Ultimately, a third characteristic, his gift of intelligence, arbitrates between the first two warring traits. His decision, an inevitable consequence of his character, results in appropriate action and is a major turning point in the story.
Make your protagonist’s actions an inevitable consequence of warring traits. This will help lend your story verisimilitude.
CONTINUING to mine Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style for writing advice, we learn that we should avoid verbosity and put statements in a positive form. That is, we should make finite assertions that avoid hesitant, ambiguous language – except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.
So, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.”
Lastly, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant,” not “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”
All three examples expose the weakness in wordiness that specifically flows from the use of the word “not”. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.
Not honest is better expressed as dishonest. Not important – trifling. Did not remember – forgot.
You get the idea.
Here is a passage taken from The Nostalgia of Time Travel that illustrates how concrete language, sparse in its use of negatives, can catapult the reader into the world of a character – even when the character is unsure of what he is witnessing:
“Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse something small and white stuffed in between the branches of a jasmine bush at the bottom of the garden. A bird, perhaps, seeking shelter from the approaching cataclysm?
I winch myself up from the deckchair and trundle down the stairs. I wade through the garden and reach the spot. It is not a bird. It is a piece of cloth. A white handkerchief. I disentangle it from the branches, unfold it in my hands. There is a large “M” stitched in pink on the bottom right-hand corner. I press it to my face. The scent is unmistakable. This is Miranda’s handkerchief. It belongs to a set I had tailor-made for her as a gift. I’ve kept it in a shoebox alongside several other of Miranda’s personal items — a hair-clip, a broach, some letters we wrote to each other. I hardly ever open the box anymore. The encounter with the objects is too painful…”
In writing a story about nostalgia and regret I knew that I had to avoid using overly sentimental, indistinct language. I charged my sentences with punchy nouns and verbs as a safeguard.
Avoid using the negative case in your writing. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not. Do so with suitable nouns and verbs.
Transitions 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.
Use hard cut transitions to skip over unnecessary parts of a story.
WHAT makes for a great point-of-view character? In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty offers us the following advice.
A great point-of-view character is one whose problems fuel the story; the character who has the biggest emotional and physical stake in the story – the most to lose if things go belly up for her.
Such a character is at the center of the action. Passive characters who merely observe rather than act are not vehicles through whose hearts and bodies we want to experience the story. Imagine if Edge of Tomorrow‘s Major William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, was a mere observer to the alien invasion rather than a key figure in defeating it.
Point-of-view characters are the most interesting. Their thoughts, feelings and opinions are what the readers find most intriguing and absorbing.
A point-of-view character is the most complex. The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s Benjamin Vlahos is such a character. Guilt, nostalgia, and longing, coupled with a powerful intellect have brought him to a stalemate. He can’t go back and he can’t move forward. Not unless he finds the solution that has eluded him for thirty years – prove that time travel to the past is possible.
Other point-of-view characters may appear deceptively simple, but only from the outside. In Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea, the character of the old man appears seems straight forward. But his tenacity in holding onto the fish, even when all seems lost, speaks of a deeper reason.
The old man has a reputation of coming home empty handed from his fishing expeditions. No one wants to go out on his boat with him any more. He appears habitually unlucky and this has cast a shadow over him. It is something he needs to shake off if he is to hold his head up high again.
Interesting, complex, and emotionally invested characters who have the most to lose in a story, then, are great candidates for the point-of-view mantle.
Writing point-of-view characters whose emotions and actions drive the story forward makes for absorbing stories.