Category Archives: Story Design

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.

How powerful scenes really work

Powerful scenes—Tom Cruise, as major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow
Powerful scenes—Tom Cruise, as Major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Powerful scenes are the building blocks of successful stories.

Strong scenes bring characters, action and dialogue together. They form strong narrative units that enrich characters and promote plot. As such, we need to master the ins and outs of scene construction. Before attempting to write a scene ask yourself:

  • Who is the focus character in the scene, i.e. which character has the most to lose?
  • What does the focus character (usually the protagonist) want to achieve in the scene?
  • Describe the focus character’s emotional stance at the beginning of the scene.
  • What is the obstacle standing in the way of the focus character achieving the goal in the scene?
  • If the obstacle is another character, (usually the antagonist or his lackey) answer questions 1-4 for that obstacle character.
  • What is the outcome of the clash between the focus character and the obstacle force or character?
  • What is the emotional stance of the focus character after the clash? How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
  • Describe the emotional stance of the obstacle character after the clash. How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
  • How does the result of the clash cause the next scene?

“Opposing character goals generate conflict, the life-blood of powerful scenes. They reveal the motivation of the characters, authenticating them.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage, a television personality, hides behind cameras and microphones to dodge the draft. He is called to General Brigham’s office. He believes he will be covering the Allied attack against the invading Mimics from the relative safety of America. The General, however, wants Cage to deploy with the USA soldiers and cover the action on the ground. Both men have distinct goals at the start of the scene. Their demeanour supports those goals.

After the clash, Cage has failed to blackmail the General into letting him off the hook. He is arrested, stripped of his rank and forced to deploy overseas as a private. His cocky attitude has been reduced to one of protestation and panic. The General’s quiet demeanour, on the other hand, underscores his victory.

The scene follows the structure laid out above. Use it in your own stories. Your writing should perk up substantially.

Summary

Powerful scenes display a specific pattern. Study this pattern until it becomes entrenched in your writing.

Your writing – how to improve it

Stephen King‘s It—genre writing at its best.
Stephen King—genre writing at its best.

Accomplished writing is rooted in social and psychological awareness, perseverance, technical expertise, passion, talent and luck.

There’s little you can do about luck, but there is plenty you can do to make your writing so accomplished that it can‘t be ignored.

Firstly, believe that you can and will improve as a writer if you work on your weaknesses. Writing is a craft, much like painting, woodwork or dressmaking. Practicing the skills and techniques that go into it yields results.

Although there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development will benefit through study in four areas: 

1. A passionate and genuine interest in people—the ins and outs of human motivation, their hopes and fears.

2. An understanding of story structure—how the parts of the story engine work together to deliver an emotive experience to the audience or reader.

3. The ability to identify and deploy abstract ideas such as morality and ideology and distill them into specific themes, characters, and events in a way that makes your stories meaningful and appealing.

4. The development of a distinctive voice that reflects a unique style.

“Apply to your writing knowledge from the four areas of focus.“

Having identified these areas, take time each day to observe how people interact with each other—at social gatherings, cafes and shopping centres. What clues do they offer through their posture, tone of voice, and general demeanour?

Read an article on some aspect of narrative structure from a book or website every day. Can you describe the function of the inciting incident? Its relation to the first turning point? Learn something new every day.

Can you identify the warring ideologies of the day? Unfortunately, the world is bristling with strife, now more then ever, so it shouldn’t be that hard. How would you package these ideologies into characters that tell a powerful and dramatic story?

Which authors and screenwriters do you admire? Stephen King? Margaret Atwood? Aaron Sorkin? David Mamet? All have a distinctive voice revealed through their use of theme and genre, as well as sentence structure, word choice and the speech patterns of their characters. What are the patterns in your writing?

Work to perfect them.

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the relevant categories of knowledge.

How does the character arc serve the story?

The character arc in Edge of Tomorrow.
Major Cage’s character arc tracks the stakes in Edge of Tomorrow.

So, you want to write a great story? Then at the very least you should relate the hero’s character arc to his struggle to achieve his goal.

Causally linking the hero’s inner growth to the quality of his actions will help ensure the authenticity of the story. Importantly, your hero should never act beyond the limits of his current moral, spiritual and physical skills. The quality of his performance at the level of action has to reflect his current ability to achieve it. As the hero grows so does the efficacy of his actions.

But if the hero keeps improving through each hostile encounter, why does he not attain the goal earlier in the story?

”The hero’s character arc, his growth towards moral, spiritual and physical power remains insufficient to overcome the worsening challenges he encounters—until his final confrontation with the antagonist.”

That‘s because the hero’s growth is outpaced by the increase in difficulty of each new challenge. The knowledge that the hero brings to each new confrontation is less than the knowledge required to gain the goal—until the final conflict, where the necessary lessons have been fully learnt. It is only then that the hero is able to integrate the separate areas of growth needed to defeat the antagonist.

in Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage has to die countless of times before he acquires the necessary skill to defeat the Mimics that have decimated the earth. It is only when he is stripped bare of his ignorance, and his ability to resurrect himself, that he finally stands a chance at a permanent victory against the invading aliens.

In the best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants, to win Emma’s love, if he is to gain what he needs—to save her life. It is a realisation that takes him most of the story to achieve.

Summary

The hero’s character arc, his growth towards spiritual, moral and practical strength, lags behind the evolving challenges of the plot, until the end of the story.

Do Your Stories Feel Real?

Stories. One of the most real and touching moments from H.A.L’s shutdown in 2001, A Space Odyssey.
One of the most real and moving moments in the entire movie—H.A.L’s shutdown. 2001, A Space Odyssey.

One bit of advice we keep hearing is that our stories should feel real—that the characters they describe should be authentic.

But how does one pull this off?

An understanding of human nature does not necessarily mean that you can communicate it effectively in a story. The first requirement rests on observation, study and experience. The second assumes knowledge of the craft of dramatic writing. Both skills are necessary. Both are distinct.

Effective writing requires a mastery of techniques specific to the craft—techniques that allow writers to distill and transcribe their experience into stories that move us deeply. Being able to craft authentic characters is a step in that direction.

Characters who display likes, dislikes, foibles, specific values, and individual memories—characters that feel both unique and familiar at the same time resonate with us because we recognise ourselves in them.

Fear, hope, regret, loss, pain, and nostalgia are emotions we have all experienced at some time or another. Effectively evoking such emotions strengthens our involvement with a story.

“Characters who experience powerful emotions we recognise in ourselves, make for successful stories.”

Who can forget these lines spoken by the HAL 9000 computer as it is being shut down by Dave Bowman, in 2001, A Space Odyssey?

  • HAL I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
  • DAVE BOWMAN: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
  • HAL: It’s called “Daisy.” [sings while slowing down, voice distorting]  Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

The pathos that this passage evokes serves to humanise HAL’s character.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast: 

“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago. 

These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.

The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.

Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”

Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia for a past that has slipped away, his memory of the breakfast he once had here with his wife, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, grants us a heart-felt snapshot of his mental and emotional state – a sense of ‘felt life’, which gives the story its sense of authenticity.

Summary

Imbuing characters with emotion is a powerful technique writers use to draw readers and audiences into their stories.

How to Write Memorable Dialogue

John Steinbeck, a master at writing memorable dialogue.
John Steinbeck, a master of memorable dialogue.

Memorable dialogue makes for a memorable story. It is both an art and a craft, and as such, warrants lifelong study.

Few would doubt that the ability to write great dialogue is necessary for crafting a successful screenplay, but should a novelist regard this skill as equally important?

Undoubtably, yes.

Although novels no longer lead the story market as they did a century or two ago, they do survive as an alternative vehicle for experiencing narrative.

Of course, competition from films and computer games has impacted how current novels are written, giving rise to a requirement for stories with a faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, impactful and gripping dialogue. Memorable dialogue offers the writer the opportunity to compete.

”Memorable dialogue draws us into the hearts and minds of the characters who express it, and it does so with immediacy and impact.”

The topic has inspired the writing of countless of books and courses, but here is a short list on what great dialogue should accomplish:

  • Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
  • Dialogue should evoke story questions.
  • Dialogue should reveal emotion.
  • Dialogue should advance the plot.
  • Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.

Here is an example from John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men:

‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’

‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

This dialogue, filled with pathos and authenticity, jumps right off the page, offering us an alternative experience to the current obsession with superheroes. It captures the tone and colour of speech, evokes backstory, and offers us a heart-felt glimpse into who these characters truly are.

You won’t get that kind of authenticity from the men and women who swoosh around the skies in capes and tights, now will you?

How many of the five elements of memorable dialogue mentioned in the list above can you find in this extract? Write in and let me know!

Summary

Memorable dialogue performs several functions simultaneously, driving the plot forward while simultaneously revealing the depths of the characters who express it.