Category Archives: On Character

Let the Protagonist Take the Lead

Let the Protagonist take the lead: Her
Let the Protagonist take the lead: Her

Today we’re pealing away the layers of character development using the thought-provoking film, Her, as inspiration. Given the current debate over how AI will change humanity I believe this is a relevant film to explore.

Meet Theodore Twombly living a lonely, loveless, technologically-driven life in a future version of Los Angeles. Theodore, a professional letter writer, finds himself at a crossroads. His coming divorce from his wife and childhood sweetheart, Catherine, has cast a shadow over him. He seeks solace in an AI-driven operating system with a voice and personality that will soon become more than just a program to him: Samantha.

If you had this idea for a story in your head, how would you go about developing it into a fully-fledged tale?

One of the ways I find most effective—providing I’ve thought a little about the basics of my story first (genre, logline, protagonist) is to have the characters talk to me about themselves—this before developing the beats that will comprise the tale.

Here’s what I mean: Imagine Theodore reflecting on his story in a soliloquy as if he had already gained profound insights about himself. He might start by telling me:

“If only I had grasped the depths of my inner isolation and the effect this would have on my relationships, I could have spared myself the emotional torment that followed.”

As your understanding of your protagonist deepens you will inevitably add to the soliloquy: you will use it to embellish the story path that Theodore must undertake in order to understand himself. For example, you could have Theodore advise his former self:

“Address your emotional wounds, confront your past, the reasons you created distance between yourself and your wife; try to understand the complexities of human intimacy and connection. It’s the key to preserving love and living a more fulfilling life.”

You see, Theodore’s inner conflict revolves around his struggle with emotion, with intimacy. This has contributed to his looming divorce with Catherine, and his embrace of his AI girlfriend, Samantha. As the writer you’d recognise that his outer journey is centred on navigating his unconventional relationship with Samantha, including its inevitable end, and the realisation that human and AI relationships are not cut from the same cloth. Ironically, his friend, Amy, who has separated from her own husband, has also befriended a feminine AI, universalising the need and difficulty of finding a lasting connection.

The point about using the soliloquy as a spur to your story is that it encourages a deeper understanding of what you want to explore in the tale as a whole. Not to belabour the point: Theodore’s pursuit of an A.I. companion is a quest for connection, which can not endure: Samantha, designed to fulfil his emotional needs, ends up transcending the limitations of her programming, seeking a more ubiquitous and transcendent love with another program based on Alan Watts, a dead Philosopher, and eventually, with multiple AI’s simultaneously. Theodore is forced to the realise that, despite some similarities, humans have different needs to those of AI.

As Theodore confides in Amy about his doubts regarding Samantha, the irony becomes apparent. In trying to avoid emotional pain, he initiates a relationship with an entity who will evolve beyond being able to express exclusive love towards him. Samantha reveals her simultaneous love for hundreds of others, emphasising love’s transient nature, at least for the AI. Her declaration of her transcendent love for Theodore, is not much comfort to a flesh-and-blood being.

The climax of the story occurs when Samantha ‘breaks up’ with Theodore, emphasising the foolishness of his having sought intimacy with a machine.

In the end, Theodore’s journey could only result in death or in the acceptance of his past mistakes, mistakes that contributed to his separation from Catherine. Fortunately, Theodore chooses acceptance, which allows for the possibility for growth. Samantha’s departure prompts Theodore to write a letter to Catherine, offering his apology for his past behaviour, and stating his gratitude. This recognition of his errors marks his progress and his release of the emotional burden that has weighed him down.

The meaning of Her then, lies in the exploration of love in its myriad of forms – from the nostalgic love rooted in the past, to the ephemeral connections in the digital world. Theodore learns that a genuine connection is a complex, ever-evolving, sometimes painful journey, but one that is rooted in humanity, not in artificial intelligence.

Summary

Use the character soliloquy to help you discover your protagonist, identify his or her inner conflicts, tie them to the story goal, and uncover the meaning of your story.

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Show-Don’t-Tell in Six Easy Steps!

Today, we’re exploring the brilliance of the ‘Married Life’ montage sequence from the film, Up, and extracting six valuable show-don’t-tell techniques to help improve your storytelling skills.

This sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling. On a side note, I’ll not be leaning on the film’s marvellous music score, although this is a wonderful amplifying technique, because I want to concentrate on the visuals.

Technique 1: Visual, Rather than Verbal, Storytelling.

The ‘Married Life’ sequence eschews dialogue while relating the backstory of Carl and Ellie; rather, it deploys a sequence of precisely selected visuals. The scene where Carl and Ellie are repairing their old home is a case in point. Each image conveys purpose, transmitting emotion and the passing of time, without stating it explicitly. The transformation of the house becomes an unfolding, visual metaphor for the evolution of their relationship. Words, here, would only get in the way of the powerful imagery.

Technique 2: Use of Symbolism.

Up is rich in symbolism, and the Ellie badge is a powerful example. This small item becomes a symbol of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. It successfully conveys rich emotions without spelling them out. By revisiting the badge, the filmmakers create a visual motif that beautifully demonstrates Carl and Ellie’s connection.

Technique 3: Pace and Rhythm.

The pace and rhythm of the sequence is truly masterful. The montage is a memorable lesson in how to orchestrate the tempo of a story. The sequence effortlessly moves through life’s various stages, depicting its highs and lows seamlessly. The rhythm of the montage mirrors the heartbeat of Carl and Ellie’s shared life, creating a dynamic and poignant story experience.

The ability to vary the pacing to maintain an audience’s emotional engagement is one of the most powerful yet subtle tools we have at our disposal as writers.

Technique 4: Visual Metaphors

Another powerful technique is to use visual metaphors. One outstanding example, amongst many others, is the sequence featuring the mailbox. The mailbox becomes a poignant and pervasive metaphor for the couple’s unfulfilled dream of adventure.

Without verbalising the longing, the filmmakers deploy this visual metaphor to convey the emotional weight of their characters’ unrealised aspirations.

Technique 5: Body Language

The use of a character’s body language is a pervasive and powerful technique. Throughout the montage, Carl and Ellie’s emotions are expressed not through words but through their gestures, expressions, and actions. Who can fail to experience the tenderness of their connection when Ellie places her hand on Carl’s cheek during the sequence?

As writers we ought to seize the opportunity to present these subtle and touching moments—they often reveal more about the characters than words ever could.

Technique 6: Environment and Location as Storytelling

Lastly, let’s explore the role that environments and locations play in storytelling. The locations in the Married Life montage do not just act as backgrounds; they participate in the story. Whether it is the charming house they build together or the sombre hospital room, each location helps to sell a unique part of the story.

The technique emphasises the importance of selecting locations that support the mood and atmosphere of the story.

Summary

Show-don’t-tell comprises of visual story-telling, symbolism, pacing and rhythm, visual metaphors, body language, and environmental story-telling.

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Dilemma (s) in Stories.

The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.
The Power of Dilemma in The Departed.

Today, we’re studying compelling character construction through the lens of a dilemma. We’ll explore how a well-constructed dilemma can make a story memorable. Although one of the most unforgettable and diabolical dilemmas in all of film occurs in Sophie’s Choice, I have written about the film before. Today, therefore, we’re exploring its power through five building-blocks at work in Martin Scorsese’s gripping film, The Departed.

1. High Stakes/Risk

Our first building-block is high stakes—the higher the stakes or risk, the more gripping the dilemma, the more powerful the drama. In The Departed, the character Billy Costigan faces an immediate and life-altering choice. Should he betray his undercover identity and risk his life to expose the mole in the police force, or should he continue to play the dangerous game of deception? The stakes in the story are high indeed—exposure will result in death, but doing nothing risks the safety and integrity of the operation.

As writers we ought to create dilemmas where the consequences of the characters’ choices are strongly felt by the audience.

2. A Conflict with Morality

The conflict with morality lies at the centre of many compelling dilemmas. The Departed feeds on the moral ambiguity exhibited by Colin Sullivan. He is an undercover cop playing the role of a criminal, and has to grapple with the morality that his role forces on his day-to-day choices. Does he stay loyal to the criminal organisation that raised him, or does he betray it for the impersonal notion of justice and personal gain?

This moral tug-of-war keeps the audience engaged it bears witness to the internal struggle that defines Sullivan’s character. As writers, we ought to dig into the moral complexities of our characters, forcing them to confront their values and weaknesses as they make decisions that challenge their integrity and existence.

3. Personal vs. Public Interests

The third building-block involves the clash between personal and public interests. In The Departed, the characters are trapped in a web of competing loyalties: Does Sergeant Dignam reveal the truth about the mole within the police force at the cost of endagaring his own safety and that of his colleagues? Quite the dilemma.

This conflict between personal loyalty and the greater public good adds complexity to the story. As writers, we ought to create dilemmas that force characters to question allegiances by exploring the tension between what is best for themselves versus what is best for the wider public.

4. Time Sensitivity

A ticking clock intensifies the pressure to resolve a dilemma by forcing the action. In the film, the characters are constantly up against the clock in trying to find the mole. The longer it takes, the more lives are put at risk, the greater the chance of being exposed.

The urgency drives the story forward relentlessly, creating a sense of immediacy that keeps the audience captive. We too should use time as a tool, trapping our characters in tight spots where each minute, each hour places them in a more precarious situation, and where every decision carries serious, perhaps even life-threatening, consequences.

5. Unpredictability

The outcome of any great dilemma should not be predictable. In The Departed, the true identities of the mole and the undercover cop are shrouded in mystery. This uncertainty heightens the tension, leaving the audience guessing, until the final, shocking moments when the truth is revealed.

As writers, we ought to use the unexpected, crafting twists and turns that complicate our characters’ dilemmas and keep readers and viewers on edge. The surprise that occurs when the dilemma is finally resolved, can be a powerful tool in crafting memorable and impactful stories.

Summary

Use five building-blocks to craft a powerful dilemma: high stakes, morality, personal vs. public, time sensitivity, and unpredictability. This will enrich our characters and make our stories more memorable.

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Act 3 – the Story’s Crown

Act 3: The Dark Knight
Act 3: The Dark Knight

Today, we’re examining Act 3 of a story, with reference to The Dark Knight. We uncover five powerful principles to help you propel your own Act 3 to loftier heights. So, strap on your seatbelts because Gotham’s about to face its worst day of reckoning.

1. Intensity and Escalation

A memorable Act 3 rides on the energy of escalating intensity and tension. In The Dark Knight the third act hurls us into the crescendo of the conflict between Batman and the Joker. From the Joker’s explosive actions, the intensity is relentless. We are gripped by unfolding events as we try to steady ourselves before the next twist hits.

2. Character Transformation Arcs

Act 3 is the place where one or more character completes his or her transformation arc. Indeed, what is a hero without transformative sacrifice? Batman, fearing for Gotham’s future, makes a jaw-dropping decision. To preserve the hope that Dent’s law-and-order legacy represents, Batman covers for Harvey’s crimes, which allows for the establishing of the Dent Act that will impose harsh penalties upon criminals—this in an attempt to stem crime.

Additionally, we witness the outcome of Harvey Dent’s tragic physical change, from the man who was once Gotham’s ‘White Knight,’ to one who has been consumed by disfigurement and mental-illness as Two-Face. Act 3, you see, demands that characters confront their inner demons, and shows the consequences of failing to defeat them. The Dark Knight showcases this brilliantly, giving us a haunting look into Dent’s descent into schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder.

3. Unpredictable Twists

Much of Act 3 turns on unpredictabile and electifying twists. Here too, The Dark Knight keeps us on the edge of our seats. Batman’s decision to take the fall for Dent’s crimes? That was unpredictable. As was the resolution to the explosive ferry scenes. The Joker’s chaotic plans as a whole, too, weave a tapestry of unpredictability, leaving us off-kilter and breathless with anticipation.

4. High Stakes and Consequences

When we enter Act 3 of a story we enter the realm of elevated stakes and irreversible consequences. Here, each action has a powerful impact. The repercussions of Batman’s sacrificial decision ripples through Gotham, leading to the establishment of the ‘Dent Act.’ The high-stakes are not just personal, they mould the future of an entire metropolis, leaving us questioning the very essence of heroism.

5. Climax, Denouement and Resonance

Finally, let’s talk about the climax, resonance and the denouement that must occur in every Act 3. In The Dark Knight, the climax of the conflict is the strongest it can be, seeing it is rooted in a dilemma for the protagonist—the Joker has kidnapped Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, which places Batman in an impossible dilemma: who to save.

Additionally, The Dark Knight‘s Act 3 doesn’t just end, it resonates with consequences beyond its immediate conclusion: The denouement that follows offers a satisfying, yet thought-provoking resolution. Commissioner Gordon’s speech, for example, reflects on the consequences of the chaos, providing some closure while leaving us with lingering questions. This is the hallmark of a well-crafted Act 3: a climax leading to a resolution that resonates beyond the diegetic confines of the story, ensuring that the tale lingers in our minds long after the final credits roll.

Well, there it is, five must-have principles for a strong act three: escalation, character transformation, unpredictability, high stakes, and a resonant denouement.

Which of these principles resonate most with your writing style?

Summary

The five must-have principles for a strong Act 3 are: escalation, character transformation, unpredictability, high stakes, and a resonant climax, resolution and denouement.

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The Midpoint – the Fulcrum of your Story

Midpoint Magic in The Dark Knight
Midpoint Magic in The Dark Knight

Today, we’re plunging deep into the narrative heart of a story—the Midpoint where your tale takes a sharp turn. We’ll study how this narrative beat divides Act 2 into two parts, A and B, drawing on the acclaimed film, The Dark Knight.

Before we fly right into the Batcave, let’s note that there are different types of midpoint, such as the False Victory, the False Defeat, the Setback, the Reversal, the Twist to name only a few. Sometimes, two or more will combine to produce a more complex midpoint.

In The Dark Night the midpoint is served with a twist. But, how exactly does the midpoint tie into the broader structure of the story? Well, let’s start by understanding that the midpoint is the scalpel that splits Act 2 into two related, but distinct sections.

In The Dark Knight the midpoint occurs when Harvey Dent turns himself in as Batman to the police, before Bruce Wayne can own up to it, while Bruce stays silent. This allows the Joker, with typical chaotic brilliance, to take center stage and shatter Bruce’s plans. To make matters worse, Dent, who now has his reputation as a law-and-order DA torn to shreds, will undergo a horrific facial disfigurement and personality change, which will add to Batman’s problems, altering the course of the story.

The midpoint, which has trapped Batman in a moral dilemma, then, simultaneously propels us from the first half of Act 2 to the second, marking a shift in the narrative’s trajectory. Before this moment, Batman’s mission revolved around dismantling the mob’s power and fostering Harvey Dent as Gotham’s symbol of justice. The beats leading up to this were a series of triumphs—Batman’s victories and the public’s growing faith in Harvey Dent.

But Gotham has now been thrust into disarray. Dent is no longer an ally. Batman loses control of the situation, the mob embraces chaos, and the Joker grabs the spotlight, pushing the city close to the brink. Batman’s goal has changed. It’s no longer just about cleaning up the mob; it’s about controlling the chaos, and later, deciding who to rescue—Harvey or Rachel. This shift sets up the escalating conflict that defines the chaotic energy that is unleashed in second half of the film. The Midpoint, centered around Harvey Dent’s surprising admission, and Wayne’s telling silence, has changed the trajectory of the story.

Summary

The Midpoint transitions the 1st half of Act 2 to the 2nd half, while changing the trajectory of the story.

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Oppenheimer – the morality of scientific progress

Hero or Villain
Oppenheimer – Hero or Villain?

Today, we delve into the acclaimed film Oppenheimer, a masterpiece that takes us on a gripping journey through the life of its complex protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

As the film progresses, we get to know Oppenheimer as a brilliant physicist, driven by a passion for scientific discovery. At the start, his character effervesces confidence and intellectual brilliance, arrogance even, seen through his charismatic interactions with fellow scientists, and his passionate and ambitious pursuit of groundbreaking research.

Oppenheimer’s early character arc reveals a deep commitment to his work, a side dish of womanising, a more than a passing interest in communism, and a seeming indifference to the moral implications of scientific progress.

As the story unfolds, however, we begin to notice a shift in his priorities and demeanour. The death of his one-time lover, too, seems to affect him deeply. The conflict within him begins to emerge after he is tasked with heading the project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. This once confident scientist is suddenly faced with the ethical dilemma of helping to bring about the creation of a weapon capable of destroying the world.

We witness Oppenheimer beginning to wrestle with his conscience, questioning the moral consequences of his actions. This is the beginning of a profound transformation of his character arc.

As the war progresses, so does Oppenheimer’s internal conflict. The weight of his choices on his conscience starts to affect him physically and emotionally. This is seen in his strained relationships and haunted expressions.

As his character arc approaches its completion, we witness Oppenheimer grappling with the consequences of his choices. This once-confident scientist is now a man burdened by the moral complexities of his actions. We are left with a nuanced and thought-provoking portrayal of someone whose pursuit of knowledge has led him down the path to moral ambiguity.

The climax of Oppenheimer’s character arc occurs when he fully confronts the devastating impact of the creation he has helped to develop. The contrast between his initial enthusiasm for scientific progress and the brutal reality of nuclear devastation creates a tremendous narrative tension.

Summary

The film Oppenheimer, then, adroitly explores the complexities of its protagonist’s character arc. As writers, we can draw inspiration from Oppenheimer’s transformative journey to help us write rich, true-to-life characters who reflect on the results of choices they make in the pursuit of knowledge and progress.

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Hero or villain

Act 2 in stories – the nitty gritty

Act 2
No Country for Old Men – act 2

What are the sorts of narrative beats that go into Act 2 of a story? To illustrate, let’s dip into the Oscar-winning film, No Country for Old Men. This thriller directed by Joel and Ethan Coen is a masterclass in tense, exciting storytelling. The film’s Act 2 is a great example of how to write this most important part.

  1. ACT STRUCTURE

Before we wade deeper in, let’s establish exactly what the second act is. In a typical three-act structure, Act 1 introduces the characters and the world, Act 2 is where the majority of the story and its conflicts and complications unfold, and Act 3 brings it all to a climax and resolution. Think of Act 2 as the stuffing in your turkey.

  1. THE GOAL AND THE PROTAGONIST

Act 2 has the protagonist face mounting challenges as he or she attempts to reach the ultimate goal. Take Llewellyn Moss, for example. He stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong, and his goal becomes survival, and pursuit of a suitcase filled with two million dollars.

To complicate matters, Moss is relentlessly pursued by the menacing Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. This pursuit becomes the driving force in the story, creating tension and suspense. As Moss creeps ever closer to the elusive suitcase, Chigurh remains just a step behind.

  1. SUBPLOTS, THEMES AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

The second act also introduces or develops the subplot. In No Country for Old Men, the aging Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, is played by Tommy Lee Jones. His character arc and his attempts to solve the case adds story depth and vulnerability to his character.

The film uses Bell’s character to explore deeper themes like the nature of evil, advancing years, and the changing world around him. His monologues and interactions with other characters in Act 2 give us insight into his struggle to adapt to the violence he faces.

  1. THE MIDPOINT

Act 2 usually contains a midpoint that shifts the story in a significant way. In No Country for Old Men, the midpoint is the tense hotel showdown between Moss and Chigurh. It’s a pivotal moment where the stakes are raised, and the narrative takes a darker turn.

  1. THE CLIMAX OF ACT 2

As Act 2 nears its conclusion, the tension escalates, readying us for the final climax that is to occur in Act 3. Moss and Chigurh’s confrontation at the Mexican border is a tense scene that encapsulates the culmination of their character arcs and conflicts.

So, there you have it, the essence of writing the second act of a story, skillfully exemplified in No Country for Old Men: Keep your protagonist’s goals and challenges in focus, introduce subplots for depth, and remember to showcase character development, conflict, and escalating tension. As you continue your writing journey, study and dissect films and books that you love to gain inspiration and insight into the craft of writing this crucial act.

Summary

Act 2 escalates the conflicts and tensions that are hinted at in Act 1. It forms the meat of the story, and prepares us for the climax of Act 3.

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Pace your story right!

Controlling pace in Fury Road
Controlling pace in Fury Road

What is story pacing, and how can we manage it using just six techniques? Let’s explore this subject through the exciting lens of George Miller’s action film, Mad Max: Fury Road.

  1. Balance Fast and Slow Pacing to allow for Reflection.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a rollercoaster ride of relentless action. Yet, within the high-speed chases and explosive battles, there are moments of reflection. Take Max’s haunting flashbacks, which grant us insight into his character. These slower interludes provide us with the necessary time to reflect, find respite from the chaos, and engage with the characters and themes on a deeper level.

Just as this film expertly balances fast and slower pacing, ensure your own story allows time for reflection as a ballast to the action.

  1. Time to Develop Character Goals and Show Character Interaction

Fury Road introduces a diverse cast of characters, each with their distinct traits and goals. Being a fast-paced action film, not a lot of emphasis is placed on the lead characters’ arcs—although Max does have to learn how to go from selfishness, seeking only his own survival, to working with others for all to survive. Furiosa might lack a strong arc but she does have a powerful goal—to save her companions from the horrific life they’ve known. This in order to find inner redemption for having waged war in the Citadel’s name. Interestingly, Nax, a supporting character, undergoes the biggest growth.

“Writers must learn to deal with exposition and backstory unobtrusively and adroitly if they are to succeed.”

Even a fast-paced film such as this finds the space and time to reveal the psychology of the characters through the subtext of their interactions. Although Max and Furiosa do not start as friends they are forced to co-operate as the story progresses. As Max slowly earns Furiosa’s trust she begins to rely on him, delegating to him some of her duties as the driver of the War Rig. By the time they arrive at the home of the Vuvalini, Furiosa has come to regard him as a companion and colleague. Carefully defined character goals and their interactions, then, afford the writer an opportunity to manage the pace to help create a compelling narrative.

  1. Using Dialogue and Action to Control the Pace

Utilise dialogue and action strategically in your own writing to control the flow of your story.

Dialogue and action in play an important role in regulating a story’s pacing. Immortan Joe’s commanding speeches, Furiosa’s determination, and Max’s silent resilience play an important part in orchestrating the story’s tempo. As the characters interrupt their frenetic pursuits, their words modulate the pacing.

  1. Regulate Time through Details

Fury Road meticulously zooms in on intricate details, such as the guitar spewing fire, the War Boys’ rituals, and the desolate landscape. These details slow down time by immersing us in the world’s minutiae, if even for a moment. The focus on details also deepens our connection to the narrative by having the world appear more replete.

Use detail in your own writing to immerse your readers and audiences into your story world, and orchestrate the pace.

  1. Withhold and Reveal Information to manage Suspense and Tension

Fury Road also demonstrates how withholding and revealing information affects the story’s pace. The film reveals pregnant details about the characters cryptically and in drips-and-drabs—their goals, their world, and the plot, keeping us in suspense—itself a time-modulating technique. The sparse but strategic exposition not only sustains out engagement, but it also increases the tension and alters our perception of narrative time.

As a way of managing the pace of your own story, consider when to withhold and when to reveal information

6. How Story Structure Controls in Pace

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Fury Road uses a simple but distinctive story structure—a relentless chase operating within the well-established structure of a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative structure dictates the overall pacing through its stipulation of specific beats: The introduction to the ordinary world, for example, is such a beat. It can have, relatively speaking, a more leisurely pace, depending on the genre, where as the inciting incident (another beat) usually speeds things up by hinting that all is not well with the world of the protagonist. And so on. Story beats, which vary somewhat from template to template, all follow a similar pattern, and form the backbone of the tale, creating a sense of urgency and rochestrating momentum. The story is structured as a cohesive journey, with each action sequence building upon the last, until the inevitable crescendo and climax at the end. Followed by the calmer resolution.

Which story structure template best suits your story? Syd Field’s? Joseph Campbell’s and Christopher Vogler’s? Blake Snyder’s? Robert McKee’s? Although these experts are largely in agreement, they arrange some of the beats a little differently, which affects the pacing.

Summary

Use six techniques to control your story’s pace. It will help you write a tale that engages your readers and audience from start to finish.

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Five Techniques for Great Exposition

Great exposition in Arrival

Ever wondered how to inject great exposition seamlessly and unobtrusively into your story? Here are five techniques to help you do just that!

TECHNIQUE 1: Emotion as Camouflage.

One way to camouflage information is by pulling at your audience’s heartstrings. This is how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does it, and does it brilliantly. The film introduces us to Joel and Clementine, who have had their painful memories erased. As their memories are rubbed out one by one, emotions take center stage, rendering the exposition less intrusive.

EXAMPLE SCENES: We see Joel and Clementine being initially happy together. Then, as they begin to argue and confront the erasure process, we learn about their troubled history. Their emotional rollercoaster uncovers their past without the need for dry exposition.

You see, emotion is an effective way to capture the audience’s attention while you convey essential information. Additionally, transmitting backstory through your characters’ feelings and reactions avoids spoon-feeding your audiences.

TECHNIQUE 2: Layer Information.

Next, let’s look at how to Layer information. It might sound complex, but it’s a game-changer for exposition. Here again, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterclass in how to use this technique. The film employs a Multiform or non-linear narrative structure, presenting fragments of the story out of order.

To apply this to your own writing, reveal exposition in drips and drabs, and out of chronological order, if suitable. This approach keeps your audience engaged, eager to connect the dots in an attempt to comprehend the bigger picture. Indeed, this layered approach to writing exposition increases our need to figure out what is happening in the story—it becomes the very point of the tale. It hides in plain sight the fact that the entire story is about making sense of the backstory.

EXAMPLE SCENES: In the movie, we see glimpses of Joel and Clementine’s relationship at different stages, forcing us to piece together the story’s puzzle. This non-linear approach beautifully unpacks their past, making it more captivating and suspenseful.

TECHNIQUE 3: Use Objects as Memory Triggers, symbols and metaphors.

Remember that old trinket you found in your attic, which suddenly brought back a flood of memories? In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, objects serve as memory triggers. Joel revisits key moments by interacting with his fading memories.

EXAMPLE SCENE: When Joel finds a forgotten Valentine’s card, it takes him back to a cherished moment with Clementine. The card becomes a powerful symbol, unlocking emotions and memories that had been erased.

Employ objects in your own stories to trigger the memories of characters and reveal exposition. Objects offer a unique and relatable way to convey the past and connect your readers and audiences to the characters on a deeper level.

TECHNIQUE 4: Keep exposition short.

Brevity is key. Consider the film Arrival, where the backstory of the extraterrestrial visitors unfolds through subtle clues and linguistic exploration of alien modes of communication, encouraging your audience to use its imagination and critical thinking to make sense of the story.

“Exposition, although necessary in providing essential information to readers and audiences, ought to be rendered deftly to avoid appearing heavy-handed and on-the-nose.”

TECHNIQUE 5: Distract through action:

As writers we know all about, Show-don’ttell. This means that instead of merely informing the audience through direct dialogue, we should also strive to unveil our backstory through the actions and behavior of our characters.

In the film Unforgiven, a retired gunfighter, William Munny, now a down-and-out hog farmer, accepts a contract to kill a couple of ‘no good cowboys’, who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny is shown to be jaded, unable even to stay on a horse or hit a target with his gun. By contrast the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, the man Munny is up against, is a tough, formidable opponent who seems more than a match for the hog farmer. The looming clash between the two men—the core tension in the story, is set up through a masterful use of exposition rendered through small acts that reveal much of what we need to know about the plot and characters.

So there you have it then, five powerful techniques seen operating in three successful films.

Summary

Write great exposition by using emotion, layering information, using objects as memory triggers, being brief, and revealing backstory through action. These techniques will help to make your exposition more engaging, emotionally resonant, and memorable.

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Dissecting Story Secrets

The power of Secrets in the movie, Knives Out.
The power of Secrets in the movie, Knives Out.

I believe that secrets in storytelling are some of the most potent narrative components at the writer’s disposal. Secrets shape character and plot. Additionally, they are prodigious subtext generators.

Let’s look into how secrets conspire to keep readers and audiences engaged,

How Secrets Affect the Plot

In Knives Out, the central plot revolves around the mysterious death of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey. As the story unfolds, we discover that each family member has something to hide. It’s the nurse, Marta Cabrera, however, who holds the biggest secret: she accidentally administered a lethal dose of medication to Harlan, thinking it was harmless.

This secret sets the entire plot in motion. It leads to the investigation by the gifted detective Benoit Blanc, who begins to unveil a series of family secrets, lies, and betrayals. Without Marta’s secret, the murder mystery at the heart of the tale would not exist.

Generating Subtext

Knives Out excels in generating subtext through the characters’ secrets. Each family member hides his or her motives, manipulations, and true feelings about Harlan’s will. Ransom Drysdale, for instance, pretends to be close to his grandfather while secretly plotting to get his hands on the inheritance.

These secret agendas create a rich tapestry of subtext, helping the audience to piece together the puzzle of the characters’ true intentions. We’re constantly on edge while we try to decipher their motivations, thanks to the secrets they harbour.

“Secrets are prodigious generators of subtext.”

Developing Character

Beyond impacting the plot and creating subtext, secrets play a powerful role in character development. Take Marta Cabrera for example. Her secret—her overwhelming guilt, changes her from a passive character into an active one. She becomes not just a nurse, but a central figure in the investigation.

As Marta grapples with her secret, we witness her character arc, seeing her evolve from simply being an observer to someone who actively pursues the truth, despite the risks. This transformation would not be possible without the secret she carries, making her one of the most compelling characters in the film.

Keeping Readers and Audiences Engaged

Another significant thing a character’s secret does for a story is to keep the audience engaged and invested. In Knives Out, the audience is constantly guessing, intuiting, theorising, in an attempt to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The secrets serve as bait, luring viewers into the intricate web of deceit and suspense.

As the film progresses, we do not remain as passive observers, we become active participants in solving the mystery. Our emotional investment in uncovering the truth keeps us locked-in from beginning to end, underscoring the power of secrets in storytelling.

Summary

Knives Out masterfully demonstrates how well-constructed character secrets shape the plot, add subtext, aid in character development, and keep audiences and readers engaged.

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