Category Archives: Story Design

Coincidence in Stories

Coincidence in Christmas in the film July
Coincidence is used adroitly in Preston Sturges’s 1940 comedy film.

Coincidence and how to use it effectively in stories.

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the structure of the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search—stories are a different sort of animal.

In a story, the reader or audience expects material, especially coincidence, to be adroitly planned and crafted. Casual, haphazard coincidences are viewed for what they are: lazy writing. 

California University’s (Los Angeles) screenwriting graduate program chairman, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough—such as having it launch or end the story, or form part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point. 

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive. 

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive. 

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, runs on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

Story Questions: What are they?

Story questions with William Goldman
William Goldman was at pains to ask the right story questions prior to writing his novels and screenplays.

Asking the right story questions: In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel as well as the stage play.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions: 

Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.

Nine story questions that will help you write a better story

1. Why do I want to write this story?

2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?

3. What is it about? 

4. Who is it about?

5. Why is it about this character rather than some other?

6. What is the importance of background or setting?

7. What is the most fitting genre for the story? 

8. What is the moral of the story?

9. What is the main theme of the story?

In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures. 

Summary

Answering a number of pertinent story questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.

The Role of the Archetype in Stories

Archetype and Story
How to work with an Archetype

In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise—especially with regards how to work with the archetype. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of whom vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue the goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships. 

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially in sagas such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong? 

Do your characters drift? 

Identity the function of each character archetype to see if it is functioning correctly in your story.

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that is the subject of another article.

Summary

Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.

Hollywood Story Structure

Hollywood story structure
The Hollywood story structure promotes the commercial value of a story

A hollywood story: I’m a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets? 

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such a story as a Hollywood story), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage: sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we? 

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble. 

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea. 

Hollywood story structure, then, lays out a set of events involving a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing problems that keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Conflicting Story Characters Make for Better Tales

Conflicting story characters
Rob Roy has strong conflicting story characters to drive the action forward

Conflicting story characters are the engine of your tales. Do you want your characters to drive the story forward? Then push them into situations of increasing conflict. 

In Rob Roy the conflict between Robert Roy MacGregor and Archibald Cunningham involves murder and rape and defines the plot of the story.

Conflict, which is both internal and external, comes from contradiction—contradiction between warring traits inside the character such as fear versus ambition, and contradiction as a result of a clash between two external and powerful wills pitted against each other. Animosity, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition fighting against their opposites make for a powerful conflict. 

Conflicting story character traits heap trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision a character makes another, drawing on those traits, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on.

Conflict provides the causality that drives the story forward, like a stack of falling dominos.

Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others will remain stubborn until they succeed or die. 

As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, because of their physical and psychological traits, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They relentlessly try to achieve their goal, no matter what. 

Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels them toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise. 

The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth as a result of the journey from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most satisfying and successful stories.

Summary

Conflicting story characters promote growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, allowing one trait to gain prominence over the other.

Short Films and Stories — how to write them


Short films
2 + 2 = 5 is one of the best short films I’ve seen in terms of a social and ideological message.

Short films featuring stories that roughly run five to thirty-five minutes in length are one way for new writers to introduce themselves to the film industry. This post, based on Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, discusses the shorter film format and offers some guidelines.

Writing for short films requires different skills from the writer to those demanded by normal length versions.

Like short stories, short films are one of the most difficult formats to master, demanding precision, economy and compactness on the part of the writer. 2 + 2 = 5 is a prime example of this.

1. One of the most important things to understand about short scripts is that the idea should fit its space. A short is not a longer story squashed to fit the allocated time. It’s not a sketch forcibly stretched to fit its format, nor is it a promo for some longer version of a future project. 

2. The cardinal rules of screenwriting, such as making every lime count and showing, not telling, are even more crucial in the shorter format. The writer has only a few pages to tell the story. Economy of form and execution are paramount. Swoop straight into the world and life of your protagonist. Explore some crucial incident in your Hero’s life, which explains, informs and defines the wider story.

3. A twist in the tail tends to be more difficult to pull off in the short story format, since misleads and red herrings are less in evidence. Also, readers and audiences have grown wise and cynical in equal measure and are likely to predict all but the best crafted endings. So, look out for that.

4. Humour tends to work well in the shorter formats too, as long as it is ably managed.

The opportunities for producing short films are far more plentiful than they are with the longer formats. National and international TV stations often have slots for such shorter formats, not to mention the ubiquitous opportunities for showcasing work through the internet on sites such as YouTube. Despite denials, industry executives still see the short film as an opportunity for new writers and directors to showcase their ability. So should you.

Summary

Short films and stories require a different approach to that of feature scripts and novels. This post briefly looks at some of these differences.

Story Through Character

Story through character in Scarab 2
Story through character in Scarab 2

Story through Character. But what comes first, character or story? Does story create the character, or character create the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side. The topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer crafting what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of writing story through character. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story?

The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing the scenes.

In my science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously.

In Scarab 1, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react rather than initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.

Summary

Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

Character identification in stories—how to achieve it.

Rob Roy uses great character identification
Rob Roy is a great story made greater through the use of strong character identification

A well-crafted film script or novel contains strong character identification—characters we can identify with. At the very least, it allows us to identify with the protagonist , if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification I mean the tendency to experience part of a character’s achievements, failures, foibles, likes and dislikes, as if they were our own.

Identification is not the same as liking the character, although, in a traditional story, it is one of the most important elements.

Because character identification helps to draw us into the story more effectively than is otherwise possible, it is one of the most important story-telling skills to master.

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hague lays out several ways to achieve this. Here’s six of the most important:

1. Create sympathy for your characters. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve identification with a fictional character. A character that has been made the victim of some undeserved misfortune is a someone we can root for — Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Rob Roy are all people that did not deserve the punishment meted out to them.

2. Place your character in peril. Worrying about a character’s well-being draws us closer to him. In The Matrix we worry that Neo’s conflict with agent Smith will result in his death. This forces us identify with his predicament even more.

3. Make your character likable. The more we like someone the more likely we are to root for him. A character that is funny (Inspector Clouseau), good (William Wallace), or merely skilled at what he does (Dirty Harry), posses traits that make him likable. 

4. Make your character powerful. Readers and audiences are fascinated with powerful figures. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, holds our interest precisely because his is a powerful enemy.

5. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for someone worthy to root for. The sooner you bring him into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with him can begin.

6. Give your character flaws and foibles. We often identify with a character who is quirky, awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. In my best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist refuses to get rid of his old bell-bottom trousers and keeps a bowl filled with milk for his dead cat as if she were still alive.

Summary

Achieve a stronger and more engaging story by creating character identification with your protagonist through these six techniques.

The Page Turner—how to write it.

Page turner
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a great page turner.

The page turner. It’s every writer’s dream to write a novel or script that the reader simply can’t put down until the last page. But how do we go about achieving this result? Below are some suggestions.

Include hooks whenever possible: A hook is an action or event that draws us into the story in an compelling way. Use hooks to kick-off your story, as well as to bolster interest at the beginning or end of your scenes. 

Write with attitude: Use punchy, or concrete language, depending on the subject matter, that bristles with attitude. Middle-of-the road, or non-comital language is boring. What is the writer’s attitude towards the events being described? What is the character’s? Make sure attitudes are strongly revealed.

Write in a way that creates suspense: The famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock, was renowned for creating suspense in his movies. He said that surprise lasts for a few seconds, but suspense may carry the whole scene, or even the entire movie.

Create Anticipation: Anticipation causes us to want to know what the next action, event, or outcome of a situation is likely to be. It differs from suspense in that it does not necessarily involve a threat, or danger.

Anticipation may be introduced in dialogue, through a character talking about a forthcoming event, in a conversation with another, or through a major story goal being set—such as the hero winning or failing to win the prize at the end of the tale.

Create Uncertainty: Introduce uncertainty about the outcome of specific events, your Hero’s ability to achieve her goal, or the way the story will end. The reader will keep turning the pages in order to find out.

Write with emotion: Writing with emotion means that your characters makes us feel their joy, pain, and sensitivity as if they were our own. My mentor, the South African film director, Elmo De Witt used to say that a story without emotion is a story that doesn’t get read. He couldn’t have been more right. Inject emotion into your writing and watch those pages turn.

Although there are others, these six simple techniques, deftly handled, will help to turn your story into a page turner that readers will find hard to put down. 

Summary

Hooks, attitude, suspense, anticipation, uncertainty, and emotion are six ways to help you create a page turner. Use one or more of these techniques whenever possible.

Scene Description — the basics

A scene description sets the mood, action and character of a scene

What is meant by scene description? In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen. 

Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function.

A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer and actor how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light, and move through the set.

The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.

Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.

Three Levels of Description

For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:

A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.

B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.

C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.

The Basics of Scene Description

Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.

1. Describe your scenes in the present tense. 

2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.

3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.

4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.

5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words say more about the character than could be said in one rambling paragraph.

Summary

Scene description in a screenplay acts as instructions for creating viable scenes; it draws in the reader through its vividness and appropriateness.