Category Archives: Story Design

Great Scenes: How to Write Them

Great scenes in Outrageous Fortune

Great scenes abound in Outrageous Fortune

As one of the larger units of story construction, great scenes make for great stories.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge, provides us with a concise list of what makes for great scenes.

Checklist for writing great scenes:

1. How does your scene contribute to your protagonist’s outer and inner journey? Remember the outer goal is extremely important in a story. Rumination (inner journey) is not sufficient to drive your story forward. We need to see the protagonist engaged in outer struggles, if we are to understand his inner conflicts, too.

2. Does your scene, like your story, have a beginning, middle and end? Your scene ought to establish, build and resolve a situation. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some scenes are short and are transitional in nature, intended solely to bridge other more important scenes, but as a general rule, this piece of advice holds true.

3. Does your scene propel the reader into the next? Causally linking one scene to the next at the level of the inner or outer journeys makes for compelling tales. In Outrageous Fortune, the scene of two women in the morgue is resolved only when they realise that the body is not that of their lover. But the end of the scene results in their decision to find him, which, in turn, drives the scenes that follow.

4. What is each character’s objective in the scene? Without an objective the scene is rudderless. In Before the Light each scene is causally linked to the next, making for compelling reading.

Great scenes tick several of this checklist’s boxes.

5. What is each character’s attitude in the scene? Each character wants something, overtly or covertly. (How does this want tally with that character’s need? ‘Big’ scenes ought to explore and reiterate the tension between want and need.) This want, together with that character’s personality traits, creates an attitude, a motivation.

Additionally, characters bleed feelings: they are sad, nostalgic, angry, bored, scared, or turned on, etc. These feelings are revealed directly through dialogue or more subtly, through subtext and action. In Moulin Rouge Satin’s declaration that she does not love Christian, a lie she utters in order to save his life by having him leave, is shot through with irony, sadness and a sense of tragedy.

6. Do many of your scenes contain action, not just dialogue? Talking heads are best left to television soapies and past masters such as Ingmar Bergman. Of course, dialogue is perfectly acceptable in scenes, but stories benefit from the injection of telling action, from small acts such as the lifting of an eyebrow, to the landing of a punch. Imagine your screenplay with the sound off. Is the meaning of a scene still apparent through the action of your characters? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you’d be better off culling as much dialogue as possible. Unless you are Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino, your screenplay should not be talk-heavy.

7. Does your scene serve multiple purposes? Does your scene keep your audience or readers emotionally involved with your protagonist and her journey to her goal? Does it reveal character background, motivation, conflict, anticipation, curiosity, credibility and identification or empathy? Does it contain foreshadowing, premonitions and the like? Again, not every scene can be cramp-packed with the above, but pivotal scenes clustered around and including your turning points, pinches, and midpoint, certainly can.

Summary

A scene checklist focuses on a series of important elements needed to make your story’s scenes great.

The Final Image in Stories

The final image in Before the Light.

The final image in Before the Light.

A truly memorable final image or moment is the crowning achievement of your story.

It acts like a handle with which to pick up the entire tale.

It helps the reader or audience recall the story through the precision of its visual or descriptive composition.

The Final Image

What makes for a great final image? One that captures what your story is really about. It is the exclamation mark that occurs at the end of all great narratives.

In constructing this last image ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does it solve or support the previous unpacking of the story puzzle?

In my most recent novella, Before the Light, the last image encapsulates the entire story. It is of the protagonist, Sam Yeager, holding a small figurine of Icarus against the disc of the sun. Here, Icarus is both the youth in Greek mythology who sought to soar above everyone else and ended up drowning by falling into the sea, as well as the quantum computer which has solved the secret of creation but can never share it with his creators for fear of destroying them.

In The Planet of the Apes, the chief story puzzle is to find out which planet astronaut Leo Davidson’ space capsule has landed on if he is ever to try and return home. The last image of the sunken Statue of Liberty, however, strikingly reveals that he’s been on earth all along.

2. Does it answer, or support a previous answer to the central dramatic question of the story?

In the same movie, this image also answers the chief dramatic question:
What allowed apes to gain evolutionary ascendency over man?
Answer: Time.

3. Does it reveal the protagonist’s hidden hope, ambition, or fear?

Davidson’s hopes of ever returning home come to naught. He is already home—in earth’s bleak future.

The power of a truly memorable final image lies in creating a snapshot of the entire story in the minds of those who encounter it.

Summary

The final image, line, or moment of your story ought to act as the exclamation point of your tale, revealing the essence of your story.

Turning Points in Stories

Turning Points in Die Hard

Turning Points in Die Hard

I’ve talked, more than once, about turning points in stories. This post takes another look at this all important topic, adding what, I hope, is fresh insight.

A turning point occurs when something big happens in a story to spin it around in an unexpected direction. This takes the form of new information granted to the protagonist and audience.

I’ve indicated that an action-orientated turning point should be supported by a strong inner motivation. I’ve suggested that such motivation is nested in the inner journey. So, if we draw a zig-zagging line to represent the outer journey as the physical series of actions and events, the inner journey is the line that rides below it, tracking it in parallel. The turning points are the horizontal lines intersecting the two.

Examples of Turning Points in film

But what form should this new information take? Specifically, should it come from the outer journey—such as news that a solar flare seems set to destroy the earth in the film, Knowing? Or should it spring from the inner journey of the hero, as in Oblivion, when Tom Cruise’s character realises that the flashes of memory that have been plaguing him are actual memories of his wife (albeit, as we’ll later find out, through the medium of resonance, which unites his clones).

Does it really matter, which comes first, you may well ask, since the outer and inner journeys meet at the turning points anyway? My personal view is that it does.

Turning Points that come from the inner journey to intersect with the outer journey, contain more of an “Aha” moment.

Such turning Points draw our attention to the character’s background and motivation and makes us care more about his predicament. It makes the action more meaningfully, right off the bat. It bestows empathy and verisimilitude.

This is not to say that pure action can’t give rise to a turning point. Action films such as Die Hard and the crop of superhero films such as Batman and Superman often take that route. Still, letting the turning point spring from the inner journey heightens the authenticity of the protagonist’s actions. It may therefore be the more appropriate place to mine for turning points in drama-ordinated genres.

Summary

Turning points that spring from the inner journey increase character authenticity and verisimilitude in stories.

How to Write the Story Midpoint

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

Although much has been written about the story midpoint, not least in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: He can choose to turn back from the path he has been following, or press on with renewed insight—stemming from an event that has caused him to reassess his approach to it.

In my newest novella, Before the Light, about A.I. and the origin of the universe, the midpoint occurs when the protagonist, Sam Yeager, decides how best to proceed against the plot to destroy the quantum computer he helped to program.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or action scene.

What the midpoint does do is:

Cause the Hero to reassess the quest

Have him consider giving up

Lead him to the realisation that he must continue

Have him formulate a new or more specific plan of action and commit to this new goal in a way that he can not back out of

Cause him learn something new about his innermost self.

Story Midpoint Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on his outer life: if he was not in control, he seizes control, if he was uncommitted, he becomes committed, if he was a victim, he decides to hit back, if he was hunted, he becomes the hunter, if he was delusional, he starts to deal with reality, if he was defeated by the goal, he begins a new struggle to achieve it.

In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads him to  achieve the story goal.

Summary

The story midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses his situation, regathers his strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.

How the Hero Sells the Story

The changing hero in Edge of Tomorrow

The changing hero in Edge of Tomorrow

The transformational arc of the hero is the moral and ethical backbone of many memorable stories.

Handled well, it validates the hero’s actions and helps to sell the story.

But crafting an effective transformational arc often proves difficult for new and inexperienced writers.

What exactly is it that changes in the hero? What causes the change? How does this affect the plot? These are some of the most pressing questions writers face when working with the hero’s transformational arc.

Let’s examine each question relating to change in the hero in turn.

The changing hero

1. What changes in the hero? Typically heroes are good people who have lost their way or have not found it yet. They have potential. They are eminently redeemable.

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage prefers promoting the war effort behind studio cameras rather than taking the fight to the alien enemy in the field. He is smart, determined, good at his job. But he is also a coward. His transformation is from cowardliness to courage.

2. What causes the change? Change comes when external events trigger the hero’s positive character traits.

In The Matrix Neo is obsessed with a central question: What is the Matrix? He is intelligent, strong, and inquisitive, but lacks the self-belief to implement the answers he receives. But when agent Smith threatens to wipe out all resistance and enslave humanity forever, Neo allows Trinity’s kiss to bring him back from the dead and defeat the sentient program.

3. How does this affect the plot? Character growth supports the plot by motivating and explaining the hero’s actions.

The plot arises when the hero pursues a goal but is prevented by his nemesis from achieving it. It is only when he fulfills his potential that he is able to adjust his strategy, defeat his nemesis, and achieve success. The hero’s transformation from cowardliness to courage, self-doubt to self-belief, from ignorance to knowledge, therefore, affects the quality of his actions and the direction of the plot.

Answering a series of questions, such as those posed above, then, is one way of understanding the relation between your hero’s developmental arc and the plot.

Summary

A skilful interweaving of the hero and plot is essential to the quality and success of any story.

What are the Stakes for your Hero?

Stakes and Deliverance

The stakes could not be higher in Deliverence.

 

What are the stakes for you hero?

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger points out that studio executives, producers and story editors are fond of asking this question of every writer.

The answer to this question can make or break a story.

The Stakes

If the risks are weak or unclear, readers and audiences have no reason to care about the characters in our story or see any connection between their experience and the experience of our fictional characters — our characters will not evoke a sense of empathy.

Abraham Maslow devised a seven-part hierarchy to explain what drives us as people, and what the stakes are if we fail to get what we need or seek.

1. Survival: Many excellent stories are about survival. This primal instinct is basic to all animals and we are no exception. By centering our story around the hero’s (or community’s) survival, we’re ticking the first box on the list of creating empathy. The movie, Deliverance, is a fine example of this.

2. Safety and Security; Once our survival needs are met, we seek a safe and secure place to keep the dangers at bay. We lock our doors, build forts, raise armies to guard us. Voyage of the Damned and Country utilise this need in their stories.

3. Love and Belonging: But what is a safe home without love and family? We have a deep need to connect with others. We need to love and be loved in return. In Places of the Heart, Edna desperately wants to preserve her family — a family that comprises of more than just her children. It includes Will, the blind man, and Moses, a black male. This need drives the story to its inevitable conclusion.

4. Esteem and Self-Respect: People desire to be looked up to, respected. But this respect has to be earned through knowledge and hard-knocks. Luke Skywalker earns respect at the end of Star Wars after a series of lessons learnt the hard way.

5. The Need to Know and Understand. We are insatiably curious creatures. We seek to understand how things work, how they fit together. We seek to know what life is, where we came from. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is driven, in part, by such a curiosity, while films such as Back to the Future and The Time Machine show characters perpetually struggling to understand how to travel back and forth in time.

6. The Aesthetic: Once we are secure and confident, we seek to create a sense of order in our lives by connecting to something higher than ourselves. This can be a religious or aesthetic experience, but it often involves the search for epiphany. Films such as Joan of Arc, Amadeus, and Never Cry Wolf, use this more abstract need to drive their stories.

7. Self-Actualisation: Finally, we need to express ourselves — to communicate who we are, to declare our skills and talents to ourselves and the world. Artists and athletes express this need through their desire to finish a work, break a record. The need to excel is strongly displayed in films such as Chariots of Fire and The Turning Point.

Used in combination these needs, instincts and desires form the backbone of many successful stories. They create empathy in readers and audiences, linking their own desires to the dreams, hopes and fears of fictional characters.

Summary

Use Maslow’s hierarchy to help you establish the stakes for your story‘s fictional characters to motivates their actions and experiences.

Story Structure and the Craft of Writing

Story Structure in Scarab

Story Structure in Scarab

This is primarily a website that discusses how story structure underpins the art and craft of storytelling.

Its aim is to offer advice on how to get narrative ingredients, such as the various types of must-have-scenes, to flow together in order to form a tale; on why some stories work and some don’t – in short, it is about how an understanding of structure helps us write better stories.

This process is essentially a left-brain activity. Here, I use the terms left and right brain in the metaphorical sense to suggest analytical vs. creative thinking, rather than as a precise anatomical truth.

In terms of story creation, we associate the left side of the brain, in part, with collating and polling story material: of assembling and not, strictly speaking, of spontaneously conceiving. Conception occurs deep within the right hemisphere – the passionate and unfettered area of creativity.

Story Structure and Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

When I originally got the idea for my first novel Scarab, it was rooted in a series of questions: What if a quantum computer, exhibiting human-like consciousness, is used by unscrupulous people to change the laws of physics by utilising quantum mechanics’s “observer effect”, and in doing so, runs foul of a powerful threshold guardian?

What if the hero is a reluctant, middle-aged recovering alcoholic in love with a film student who is looking for a good story to put herself on the map? And what if their endeavours bring them into conflict with these same unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to fulfill their power-hungry ambitions?

These thoughts, which were to form the basis of my novel, had less to do with story structure and more to do with right-brain musings. I let my imagination wander around, gave my characters desires, beliefs, and goals, placed them in interesting environments, gave them a general direction, and let them write their own story while I tried my best to keep up with them.

But if stories spring from the imagination, where does all our hard-won knowledge of story structure come in? Part of the answer is: after the first draft.

This is when one reviews the story in earnest and checks it against structural requirements: does it contain the must-have scenes? Are the structural components such as turning points, midpoint, and pinches, in the right place? If not, would reshuffling them benefit the story?

Integration

There is, however, a longer term benefit associated with the prolonged study of story structure: The more we think and learn about the subject, the more we understand it, the more spontaneous the process of writing becomes. Corrections and adjustments that had to wait for revision to be applied, begin to appear in the first draft. Theoretical knowledge becomes practical knowledge, pointing to an increased integration of two largely different processes born in different hemispheres of the brain. It is this integration, perhaps more than any other process, that marks our growing maturity as storytellers.

Summary

An understanding of story structure helps the writer strengthen the first draft of a story. As the writer’s understanding of structure deepens, so does his ability simultaneously to apply analytical processes in tandem with creative ones – the mark of a maturing skill.

The Ticking Clock in Stores

Ticking clock in Next

Next derives much of its tension from the ticking clock narrative device

A ticking clock in stories is a structural device that imposes a time limit during which a problem has to be solved.

Failure to do so in the allotted time renders the story goal unachievable and the mission a failure.

The ticking clock in films

Examples abound: In Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the pilots flying the aircraft carrying an atomic bomb that will start the next world war have to be persuaded not to drop it.

In Next, Nicholas Cage has to foil the villain’s plans before a nuclear device wipes out LA.

In my own novel, Scarab II: Reawakening, the Hero, Jack Wheeler, has to get to the quantum computer before the appointed time to stop it from running the programme that may destroy the world.

36 Hours has a ticking clock that is even more tightly woven into the story’s structure. The invasion of Europe is but days away. The Nazis have little time to extract the date and landing site of the Allied forces from James Garner. The story might still work by concentrating on how Garner is seduced into talking. The ticking clock, however, imbues the story with a tension that could not be otherwise achieved.

The ticking clock in stories is often, quite literally, a clock counting down to zero before the bomb explodes.

In Armageddon, a shaft has to be drilled and a bomb placed deep into the comet that is headed for earth.

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, the bridge must be built under the most trying circumstances and finished by a specific date. The explosion must occur in time to send both bridge and train crashing into the river. The tension is almost unbearable.

Summary

A ticking clock defines a specific time for the main story goal to be achieved to avoid calamity. The device increases tension and helps to maintain the forward thrust of the story.

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.