Category Archives: Story Design

How the Story Premise Drives the Tale

The dramatic premise in The Matrix

The dramatic premise in The Matrix

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri offers a great way of pinpointing the premise of our tale prior to commencing the writing of the story itself. He instructs us to identify the story’s essence or theme—-the moral of the story.

Here are some examples of the story premise:

King Lear: Blind trust leads to destruction.

Ghosts: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Othello : Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Tartuffe: He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

The story premise reveals the protagonist’s motivation pitted against some cosmic justice. It is intimately linked to the character’s inner journey and his ability to learn from the threats arrayed against him.

The hero’s inner motivation relentlessly drives him to complete his journey—to reach for his goal. Importantly, the premise contains direction and momentum arising from the conflict between the hero’s emotions, other characters, and the world.

With that in mind, we can say that the premise explains the hero’s internal and external conflict, the outcome of which finally proves this very premise.

If we plug in the premise of The Matrix into this formula, for example, we come up with: Self-belief, though hard-fought, leads to victory over the enemy.

With this firmly in place, we can generate the log-line (the one-line synopsis of the plot), before moving on to the synopsis itself, the treatment, and the fist draft of our screenplay, or novel.

But these are topics For another article.

Summary

The story premise, or theme, is the foundation of the tale and drives the protagonist to achieve his goal by completing his inner journey.

Value Driven Stories

Value driven - A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind is a value driven story

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GOOD STORIES are value driven. They are more than just about the outer journey that the Hero embarks on in pursuit of a difficult but worthy goal.

In How to Make a Good Script Great, Hollywood screenwriting consultant Linda Seger reminds us that something more meaningful has to occur to deepen the story – it has to address some aspect of the human condition and the values that underpin it.

Value Driven Stories

A value driven system can be a negative or positive one. In the film, Gladiator, Maximus’ actions seem ostensibly to be driven by his desire to revenge the slaughter of his family. But a closer examination reveals that he is also driven by his need to right the wrongs of government that arose as a consequence of the emperor’s death.

The search for justice, the pursuit of excellence, the striving for honour, the need for fulfillment – these are all aspects of a character’s inner journey that help audiences and readers identify with the Hero.

In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash needs to solve a great mathematical problem in order to prove his worth. He is driven by great intelligence, which manifests, in part, in his condescending attitude towards his peers and teachers.

Yet, at a deeper level, he strives for things of the heart, rather than just those of the mind: he makes up a fictional government agent who appreciates his abilities and encourages him to solve a puzzle which can save the world – a mark of his superior intelligence and his need to serve the greater good.

A story’s value system can spring from a character’s desire for authenticity, as in Driving Miss Daisy, in which Miss Daisy discovers her true self is more connected to those below her social sphere than she realises.

A value system can also espouse social values – a fight for peace, justice, and freedom, as in Thelma and Louise and A Few Good Men. Whatever the emphasis, values underpin a character’s actions, helping to guide, inflect, and often create a story-enriching inner conflict.

Summary

Value driven tales make for good stories. Values guide a character’s actions; a story’s value system is revealed by the theme, which is typically settled at the end of the story when the clash between the Hero yields the victor.

Big Story Ideas

Jurassic Park is replete with big story ideas

Jurassic Park is replete with big story ideas

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Story ideas are the fuel that powers civilisation, driving social, political, economic, scientific, and technological progress.

Big story ideas, too, are innovative, lead to success, generate excitement.

 

High Concept and Big story ideas

Hollywood calls ideas, such as the one behind Jurassic Park, High Concept. Pitch a truly big idea in Hollywood and producers and executives sit up and take notice. Suddenly, you are having lunch with all sorts of people who want a ride on your wagon.

So, how do you generate those big ideas?

The truth is that big story ideas, or the seeds of ideas, can come at you anywhere, anytime—from smells, sights, sounds, touch, distant memories.

But is there a way to force a truly big idea, at will?

Here again, there are prompts one can use: News and documentary programs, magazines, websites, books.

As a science fiction writer, I tend to sniff around in places were great scientific ideas are already in the melting pot. I once purchased a magazine published by Media24, aptly titled: 20 Big Ideas. The magazine identified 20 huge scientific topics that were in vogue: The ongoing search for a theory of everything, dark energy, the Gaia theory, quantum entanglement, catastrophism, chaos theory, artificial intelligence—to name but a few.

These are the topics causing a stir in the scientific and related communities, through journals, magazines, television programs, radio stations, Internet forums, and the like.

The point? Find a topic that fascinates you, explore the unanswered question surrounding it, and create your premise or log-line around that.

If you are interested in the search for a theory of everything, for example, you should probably know that it has to do with trying to explain the entire spectrum of physical existence, from the very small—the quantum world, to the very large—cosmology. You should know that trying to incorporate gravity into the quantum mechanics is the crux of the problem.

From there, you might progress along the following lines:

What if a young theoretician working under the guidance of a professor makes a startling discovery that will change theoretical physics forever? What obstacles could you place in his way, and what would be the motives of the antagonist in trying to prevent him from achieving his goal?

The same process can be applied to the topics of consciousness, artificial intelligence, and so on.

The next step is to develop the log-line and the one page synopsis along the lines suggested in numerous articles on this website, or others like it, before starting the actual writing of your story itself.

Summary

Big story ideas make for big stories. Track down big ideas by studying journals, newspapers, conference papers, television programs, and the like, then create your log-line or premise based on one of them.

Story Rhythm

Story rhythm in Othello

Story rhythm in Othello

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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).

Summary

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.

Genre and Story

Minority Report is a fine example of the science fiction genre

Minority Report is a fine example of the science fiction genre

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IN his book, Story, Robert McKee states that “to anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master genre and its conventions.”

If a film or book has been correctly promoted the audience or readers approach the story with a certain expectation. In marketing jargon this is referred to as “positioning the audience”. This alleviates the danger of readers or audiences spending the first part of the story trying to find out what it’s about.

Genre is as much a marketing tool as it is a story creation one.

Adroit marketing taps into genre expectation. From the title, to the fonts used in the text itself on posters and in television ads, the promoters are at pains to telegraph the sort of story the audience or readers are to expect. This means that the conventions of the genre have to be adhered to. But what are some of the most important conventions?

Genre Specifics

Music, Location, Dress Code, Gadgets, Vehicles, Lighting, and Narrative Conventions

In film, music forms one such convention. Traditional love stories, for example, use a certain type of score to elicit emotions appropriate to that type of story. The mellifluous musical score for Gone with the Wind would not be appropriate for Alien, or vice versa.

Location is another important convention. Westerns use the untamed countryside as part of the backdrop, while science fiction films include high-tech interiors such as spaceships or futuristic exteriors and interiors to convey mood and a sense of otherworldliness.

Clothes, gadgets, and vehicles, and lighting, are further clues to identifying genre. Who can forget the white high-tech armor of Star Wars‘ Storm Troopers, the Jedi Light Sabers, or the hi-flying cars and taxis in The Fifth Element and Minority Report? In terms of lighting, Film Noir, for example, utilises a stark chiaroscuro style to dramatise seedy streets, alleys, rain-coat wearing detectives, and the femme fatale.

But beyond the physical elements, narrative conventions also apply. Sad or tragic endings form part of the narrative tradition of tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, while “up endings” are traditionally associated with comedies and musicals, although exception do occur, as in Evita.

Things get interesting when genres mix, as in Blade Runner, which utilises conventions from film noir and science fiction. Indeed, the mixing of genres presents writers with the biggest opportunity for dressing up old stories in new clothes. Done well, the result is a tale that draws on tradition and novelty to produce narrative that is fresh and rooted in verisimilitude.

Summary

Genre is both a creative tool helping writers shape their stories based on what has gone before, and a marketing tool used by marketers to tell audiences what to expect in a film or novel.

World Building in Stories

World Building via Dean Kontz

Dean Kontz explores world building in his book, Writing Popular Fiction

In his book, Writing Popular Fiction Dean Koontz offers writers useful advice on a number of aspects that go into writing a well-crafted story.

In this post, I want briefly to look at one aspect of the writer’s toolkit à la Koontz: World building markers of near-future worlds (as opposed to words set in the far-distant future.)

Writing about our world, as opposed to writing about a completely alien planet, is more difficult because not everything can be made up; our crystal-ball gazing has to ring true. Near-future worlds have to contain enough extrapolated but recognisable elements to convince us of the verisimilitude of such worlds.

World building requires the ability to predict then project the outcome of trends and defining issues, or, at least, the ability to sound convincing.

Here are some markers, suggested by Koontz, to get you thinking.

Getting started on world building:

Moral Codes

What is considered acceptable today, wasn’t mildly acceptable, even in the West, a few decades ago. One only has to look at the issue of gay rights to realise the extent of the shifts currently underway.

Domestic Politics

Will current political systems still be defined by polarities seen in countries such as the Untied States (Democratic/Republican), Australia, and the UK (Labour/Liberal)?

World Politics

Will the U.S. continue exist as a dominant power? Will Russia or China? Or, will a new power have risen to prominence. Brazil perhaps?

Religion

Will the U.S. remain predominantly Christian, or will another religion rise to displace it? Perhaps science will eventually weaken religion to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant? Or perhaps the reverse is true: the resurgence of monolithic religion?

Personal Lives

This is, perhaps, the most important and detailed category.

How will our homes change? Our clothes, music, transportation? What types of food will we eat? Will marriage still exist as an institution? Will the number of children be limited by the sate? Will the smoking of cannabis be legalised? Will the moon and Mars harbour human colonies? Will space travel be made accessible to common folks? Will cancer, dementia, disease in general, be cured or will new diseases arise?

These are some of the categories, which, Koontz suggests, are useful in helping the writer to sketch in the background of a world that is both familiar and strange—a world that allows one’s characters to live and breathe in the imagination of the reader.

Summary

In thinking about world building of near futures, concentrate on key markers that define a society. This post suggests what some of those markers might be.

How crisis leads to the story climax

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

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WHAT is the story crisis and how is it related to the story climax?

This post traces variations of this most important relationship.

The story climax is generally preceded by a crisis resulting from a dilemma in which the Protagonist faces a final life-changing decision. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

In some stories the crisis may be spatially and temporarily separated from the climax, although they are intimately linked in filmic time and space.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she finally gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Although crunch decisions  and climactic action usually follow closely together towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic events to occupy different spatial and temporal settings. They should always, however, feel as if they are inexorably linked.

Crisis and climax in Kramer vs Kramer

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

Summary

The crisis forces the Protagonist to take a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

The Dramatic Question in Stories

The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham

The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham

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IN a previous article I discussed how each act in a story is driven by a question it needs to answer. In the first act of The Matrix that question is: What is the matrix? In the second: Is Neo The One? And in the third: Can Neo defeat agent Smith and his cronies?

But just as there are questions that frame each act, so there are questions that frame each episode and each season of a television series.

 

 

The Dramatic Question in a TV Series

In Gotham, the first season’s overall question is: Who will win the mob war, and how will that affect Jim Gordon’s attempt to clean up the city, as he continues to solve specific crimes, while the overall series question is: How does Bruce Wane’s attempt to find the killer of his parents shape his transformation into the Batman?

Each episode typically features a villain-of-the week and is driven by the dramatic question: How is this villain to be defeated? But the episode must also acknowledge the season’s question: How does the defeat of the villain affect the mob war? The death of the witness to the Wane’s murder, for example, would impact the entire series question — not that Cat is about to be killed off by the writers.

The dramatic question also applies, with minor adjustments, to a book series.

A book series, too, asks at least two overall questions. In my book series, The Land Below, the first novel’s dramatic question is: Will Paulie make it to the surface? In a future book, The Land Above, the question might be: How does Paulie, and his companions, survive the horrors that lurk on the surface?

Each story in a series, then, is governed by several interlocking questions that not only drive a specific episode, but help keep the entire series on track.

Summary

Sketching in the dramatic question for a series, season, or episode, prior to commencing the actual writing of the screenplay or book, is the first step in mapping out the direction of your story and its characters.

Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity in Writing

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

If brevity, clarity, simplicity are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is full of laconic one-liners that crisply capture the essence of the characters.

Who can forget the Sundance Kid’s film-defining line: “I’ll do anything you want me to but I won’t watch you die.”

Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short.

Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, there’s nowhere better.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays: the use of verbs that capture the essence of character in the action block, and the use of metaphor in character descriptions.

Here are three examples of weak verbs:

1. Benjamin looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he frown, gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

2. Claire enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Claire enter the room? Does she stride, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

3. Olivia stands waiting.

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care.

Brevity, clarity, simplicity at work

Consider this character description from one of my stories:

I started with: “SAMUEL is big and muscular, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “SAMUEL is built like an earthmoving truck, but can turn on a dime.”

or…

“A well-dressed John Flyn pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“John Flyin pads into the room, a panther in an Armani suit.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Use brevity, clarity, simplicity in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

The Story Ending

Story Ending in The Matrix

Story Ending in The Matrix

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FLEDGLING writers are often told that they should know the story ending before they start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind.

But why should this be the case? What’s so important about the story ending?

Think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, it confirms its theme – its raison d’être.

The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, is only proved as a result of the final showdown between the hero and his nemesis at the end of a story: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly themed stories.

How the Story Ending Shapes the Tale

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, shapes the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further influences the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining the dots , then, will result in an interesting zigzagging line which climbs upwards to a powerful ending.

Summary

Crafting the story ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.