Category Archives: Story Design

Scene transitions in stories — how to write them

Memorable scene transitions
Perhaps the most famous scene transition in film history–the jump cut from 2001 A Space Odyssey

Scene transitions in stories, as in life, don’t get the attention they deserve. 

Maybe that’s because they are transient states, in-between bits we must get through to get to the nitty-gritty. 

When we think back on our lives, we tend to jump from accomplishment to accomplishment, failure to failure, leapfrogging over the small transitions that got us there in the first place.

Yet, stories rely on transitions. Transitions are the precursors to life-altering events. Handled badly, they make the episodes in a story appear unintentionally jagged and disconnected.

Here are three techniques, chosen from a basket of others, that may help alleviate this common problem – repetition, continuity, contrast.

1. Transition by repetition. A word, action, or response is repeated in consecutive scenes. 

In Final Destination 5, a detective interrogates several suspects. To avoid lengthy and superfluous repetition, the detective asks a question in one scene, which is then answered by a series of different characters in consecutive scenes.

“Memorable scene transitions are links where the connection between narrative beats is foregrounded, pointing to the virtuosity of the overall writing style.”

2. Transition by continuity. This technique can help bridge events separated by a small or large gap in time and space, 

In 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick famously jump-cuts from a bone being thrown up in the air, to a space station floating in space. Both bone and space station are tools in different stages of human development, but are separated by a span of millions of years. The visual link between the two shots, reinforced by the continuity of image size and movement is so strong that it allows us to make the transition in an instant. 

In a similar vain, a character could begin a sentence in one scene, perhaps in medieval times, while someone else completes it in another, hundreds of years hence.

3. Transition through contrasting words or actions. Here, the expectations created at the end of a scene are immediately reversed in the one following it. 

Imagine, for example, a scene in which your character, a boxer, George, is trashing his opponent during a pre-fight weigh-in. Cut to the next scene where his opponent lands a thunderous punch to the jaw, knocking George out cold.

Exercise: Think back to a story you’ve written but not yet published. Identify two scenes where the transition seems luck-luster. Create a fitting transition using one of the three techniques mentioned in this article. Let the emotion you want your audience or reader to experience at the moment of transition be your guide.

Summary

Use repetition, continuity, or contrast to create effective and memorable scene transitions in your stories.

Five points to consider prior to pantsing a new story.

Nabokov believed that any new story starts with a ‘throb’
or a ‘glimmer’ of recognition.


What’s the quickest way to get into a new story?


Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.

Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.

“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”

Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:

  1. Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
  2. Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
  3. Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
  4. Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
  5. State the theme of the story.

These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.

Summary

Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.

Preparing your story – how to get started

Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.
Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.

If you could summarise areas of writing as a way of preparing your story, what would they be?

For me the story premise and theme form the foundation of all accomplished writing. I spend time on ensuring that the story premise is the best it can be before starting on a new manuscript.

“Preparing your story refers to the initial process you undertake prior to commencing the writing of your screenplay or novel.”

A story premise, we are reminded, can take the form of a what-if statement: What if the DNA of a Jurassic animal is discovered, fully preserved, in a mosquito caught in a dollop of ancient tree resin? What if the DNA can be used to clone the animal?

The best story premises are engaging, original, and fit the mood of the times. The best themes, on the other hand, espouse social or moral truths that are universal. In the example above, the theme might be colloquially summed up as: Don’t mess with nature or it will mess you.

Characters come next. How many characters do I need to achieve the maximum dramatic impact; to explore the theme from a number of different points of view? Too many characters and the theme becomes muddled. Too few and it remains under-explored.

In Jurassic Park we have the hero, his love interest and his supporters arguing for one side of the theme—respect nature. Arguing for the opposite side—exploit nature for gain, we have the antagonist and his crew. But of course the real antagonist is the T-Rex, the rod of God striking down humans for their greed and arrogance.

Next, are the character arcs. How do the characters change, especially the protagonist? How does the protagonist’s wound get in the way of his goal? What does the character have to learn, or heal, in order to defeat the antagonist? When thinking about any character arc try to relate it to the theme of the story, remembering that the theme is the pilot that flies the tale to its final destination.

In The Land Below, Paulie, the story’s reluctant hero, has to overcome his lowly social status as an orphan and lead a band of rebellious teenagers to the surface against the opposition of the ruling elders. To do this he has to accept his leadership role by acknowledging his past.

I next expand the story premise into a beginning, middle and end—Act I, II and III. I generate the main story beats and place them into a logical sequence within each act. The beats now have a direction, all pointing to the theme.

Lastly, I think about how I will write each scene based on such beats. I remind myself that most scenes should start late and end early. I ask, what goal must each character try to achieve in each scene? How does this goal fit into the character’s overall purpose?

But because the character has both an outer and an inner life I also ask: What is the character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene and how is it conveyed to the reader through his demeanour?

How do the competing goals of the characters in the scene create conflict between them? What are they hiding from each other? Finally, what is the outcome of the conflict? Who is the winner and who is the loser? How does the outcome of the scene change their original demeanour?

These questions help to keep scenes focused.

Taken as a whole, these steps are enough to get me started on a new story. Perhaps you may find such an approach useful too?

Summary

Review essential skills and clarify foundational elements as a way of preparing your story prior to writing it.


How does location influence your story?

Location influence – this is particularly apparent in Interstellar.

How much does your choice of place or location influence your story?

The short answer is—significantly. My advice, therefore, is to write about places you are familiar with in order to retain a sense of realism.

But this is not always possible. Your story might demand exotic locations you’ve never visited, or include character types you’ve never encountered. After all, not many of us have flown into outer space or tangled with aliens.

Thankfully, we have research and imagination to rescue us, because, make no mistake, location deeply influences plot and character. Without an understanding of the physics of acceleration on weightlessness, stories such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys, Interstellar, and countless of others, would not have been as convincing.

“The influence of location on your story should not be underestimated. Location shapes the narrative by placing unique temporal and spatial constraints upon it.”

In Before the Light, much of the plot taps into the challenges that space presents to the crew of the space station, Gravity. The story which unfolds in this inhospitable environment, coupled with a seemingly rogue quantum computer, would not be as effective if it took place on earth.

The Great Gatsby required an understanding of 1920’s America, including prohibition, in order to tap into the ambience and motivation of the plot and characters.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula would not work without the cavernous castle in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, or the English setting of the protagonist’s love interest.

In short, write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the locations you intend to describe, watch documentaries on the subject, or conduct interviews with people who are familiar with it. Your writing will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Since location does indeed influence the story, write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps through imagination and meticulous research.

Strong Emotions – how to use them in your stories.

Strong emotions - F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master at using emotions to draw his readers into his narratives, as evidenced in stories such as This Side of Paradise.

Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.


Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.

“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …” 

”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”

What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.

He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.

Summary

Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.

Plot through character—how to write it

The Spire-plot through character
The Spire projects plot through character.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that successful stories are written from the inside out – plot through character. That is to say that action and plot are projected from the emotional, physical, moral, and spiritual perspective of the protagonist.

The external events of a story are, of course, of great importance—they are what draw readers and audiences into the story in the first place—but without a deep involvement with the protagonist’s obsessive desires, fears, foibles, successes and failures, the story falls flat.

If we don’t care about the characters’ hopes and fears, if we won’t share in his pleasure and pain, we won’t care about his involvement in the plot.

Characters respond to life-threatening challenges in unique ways because they have a sense of ‘felt life’—they have a backstory, a personality, a set of hopes, fears and obsessions. It is these treasures that make a story compelling.

“Plot through character refers to a technique whereby the writer filters the protagonist’s action through her inner life—her hopes, fears, flaws and obsessions.”

In William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is a man consumed by the desire to extend the cathedral’s magnificence by building a spire at the top of the existing structure. He ignores the advice of his master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning a place of worship into a building site, with catastrophic consequences. Events are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological sensibility, making his experience our experience, while simultaneously showcasing his folly.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a theoretical physicist obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical problem that could allow for time travel into the past in order to undo an event that cost his wife her life. This obsession prevents him from living the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him. It takes a cataclysmic cyclone to force him to recognise the deeply buried truth about his past—a truth that has the potential to set him free. Or kill him. This climactic event can’t be dealt with externally, at least not initially. It has to be dealt with from within. The process of laying Benjamin’s inner conflict bare, written in the first person present tense, draws us into his world and keeps us immersed in his story.

Summary

Filter your plot through your protagonist’s inner life. It will make your story more believable and engaging.

Story Magic- how to conjure it

Story Magic in Gladiator
Story magic in Gladiator

Story magic is conjured through the spell of structure.

Structure shapes narrative events by regulating the flow of information through a series of well-placed twists and turns, counterbalancing suspense with surprise, lighter moments with darker ones, while simultaneously showcasing character.

But how closely must one focus on the nuts and bolts of structure while engaged in the process of writing itself? Surely it’s difficult to be creative while entertaining such distractions?

“Seeking to conjure story magic without a wand is a hit and miss affair. You could have it in you, but you probably don’t.”

The point is that the magic of the story is forged inside the cauldron of structure. So, while it may seem that scenes flow spontaneously from our brains, for most of us, such scenes, spring from a deep knowledge of the craft. We should study story structure at every opportunity.

We all have different ways of accessing this knowledge. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘inciting incident’ and ‘first turning point’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to range over past exemplars to glean how other writers have navigated similar terrain.

A screenplay such as Gladiator did not spring fully formed from the minds of Ridley Scott, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson. The story was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book, Those About to Die. The film script itself was first written by Franzoni, but was bought by DreamWorks, and Ridley Scott was signed on to direct the film. Its solid structure, a collective effort, is so deeply embedded in the story that it remains largely invisible to the audience—no doubt one of the contributing factors of the film’s success.

I have previously noted that my own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence—a lack of rhythm, which tells me I may have missed a structural beat, that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my imagination, I often jut out an elbow, or thrust out a hip as I try to predict changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance, a kind of free flowing stream that bestows shape through bends, turns—through changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth—that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not break the spell.

Summary

Story magic is conjured through a deep awareness of story structure. Structure shapes the tale but remains invisible to readers and audiences.

Is a strong theme related to age?

Lord of the Flies contains truly strong themes.
Lord of the Flies contains a strong theme.

A strong theme is the reason we write a story. It is what a story is really about, the essence we most want to communicate. The theme contains the moral core of the tale—it shapes each narrative event that occurs in the story. 


A theme is often associated with a specific age group, although at its heart a theme can appeal to any audience depending on how it shapes narrative events.

William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, about boys stranded on an island who revert to tribalism appeals across the board. In some ways this theme has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, which shows that left unchecked, men may descend into irrationality, cruelty and barbarity. What differs is how the theme renders each story.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger breaks down age groups into the following categories: childhood, teen years, young adult, twenties to forties, fifties through eighties, old age, and end-of-life. Let’s take a look at themes associated with childhood.

“At the core of every story about children is a strong theme of self-esteem, trust, and a sense of belonging. Home AloneWar Games, and E.T. are good examples of this.”

A child embarks on a journey which gradually builds up her self-confidence, resulting in a sense of belonging and self-esteem. This growth is typically achieved by overcoming obstacles strewn in the child’s path by teachers, parents, bullies.

The child can deal with these problems in two ways – she can blame herself, become introverted, lose confidence, and grow depressed, or she can project the problem onto others and become rebellious and delinquent. This can effect the child’s family and friends, drawing them into her problems. 

Typically, in an upbeat ending, the child gradually overcomes these obstacles by engaging in purposeful action driven by sustained effort, ingenuity, and courage. The catalyst is usually some meaningful event from the backstory which surfaces at the appropriate moment to help her reverse direction.

Summary

Although themes are universal, they are rendered differently for different audiences through the narrative events they express.

How many characters do you include in your story?

The many characters of Macbeth
There are as many characters in Macbeth as is necessary to effectively argue the theme..

How many characters do you include in your story? Are they friends or enemies of the hero? Do they pop into your head, demanding to be heard? Should you listen?

It all seems like a hit and miss affair, but not if you understand that a character’s function is to argue for or against the theme of the tale.

Here’s what I mean:

Lady Macbeth, for example, sees her husband as deserving of the throne. Claiming it through violence is acceptable to her. The three witches, too, see Macbeth’s ascent as inevitable. From the point of view of such characters the theme might be: Unbridled ambition leads to action that procures the throne.

Banquo and Macduff on the other hand offer a different perspective. Their angle on the theme might be: Usurping the throne through the murder of the rightful king leads to guilt, chaos and death. Macbeth himself, vacillates between perspectives, now recognising that murder is wrong, now seeing his ascent as a kind of birth right, until the final conflict, which finally proves the theme. Shakespeare explores the essence of his story by juxtaposing different opinions from a moral or pragmatic perspective.

“The characters’ primary function at the level of structure is to offer different perspectives on the theme of the story.”

Characters earn their place in the story by offering different takes on the theme, until the final battle ‘proves’ one side right over another. Determining how many characters you need to stage this debate, then, will tell you how many characters you need to include in your story.

Summary

Include as many characters as are necessary to fully explore the different perspectives of the theme. Do they support or oppose the hero?

The Story Question — how curiosity saves the tale

Story questions in Marathon Man
An intriguing story question in Marathon Man: “Is it safe?“

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a good story question has also saved the life of countless of tales.

In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge points out that when a character or event is not fully explained, the reader or audience ploughs on in search for an answer.

Murder mysteries rely on our insatiable curiosity to discover the identity of the killer. Our curiosity increases with each red herring.

A film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit poses its title as a question whose answer drives the entire plot.

Less obvious are examples involving curious objects and actions such as the recurring motif of a peculiar mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the reason behind Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby.

“An intriguing story question generates curiosity in the reader or audience. It keeps us interested in the story.“

The longer the writer withholds the answer to a question the more satisfying the revelation.

In Citizen Cane, discovering the meaning of “Rosebud” whispered by the dying Charles Foster Kane to a reporter, drives the entire story.

In Silverado, the Kevin Kline character, Paten, is often asked, “Where’s the dog?” Our curiosity is piqued. Why do the characters keep asking about the whereabouts of this animal? It‘s only towards the end of the film that we learn that Paten was once captured during a robbery because he tried to rescue a dog. This does not only satisfy the audience’s curiosity over the unanswered question, it increases our sympathy for Paten, too.

One of the most riveting scenes in all of cinema occurs in the film, Marathon Man. The old, drill-wielding Nazi, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, keeps asking a terrified Dustin Hofmann, “Is it safe?” “Is what safe?“ the panicked victim asks, over and over again.

It’s true that the technique of asking questions throughout the tale is not enough to carry the entire weight of the narrative alone. However, used with other structural devices such as turning points, pinches, and the mid-point, such questions propel the tale towards its climax and resolution in a compelling way.

Summary

Prevent your tale from flagging, by posing a story question at strategic points in your tale.