Category Archives: Story Design

Scene Tonic for Stories

Scene tonic for stories? Why would you need it?

Chinatown —no scene tonic needed
Chinatown’s scenes are so well written that no scene tonic is needed.

How many times have we come across this scenario? Our hero needs to uncover information about someone, or something. He googles it, goes to his local library, zips through old newspapers, records.

Yawn.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers suggests the only memorable thing about such scenes would be if the computer blew up in his face, or a library shelf collapsed and hit him on the head.

Staring at computer screens, or paging through records makes for dull scenes. It is much better to have your character corner a grumpy librarian and try to solicit the information from her, or try to bribe a shady cop, or talk to the local priest.

Now, you not only get the information necessary to drive your story forward, but you layer the scene with tension or humor via the subtext rooted in the reluctant informant. The result is a richer, more dramatic and entertaining event. Even if your character fails to extract the information, he generates interest.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson has to deal with a sour, officious clerk. He asks if he can check out a book of records from the facility and is told this is not a lending library. He then asks the clerk for a ruler. “A ruler?” the man snarks back. It’s to help keep his eyes focused on the lines of text, Nicholson replies. The clerk slaps a ruler on the desk in front of him. Nicholson grabs it and hurries back to the records book. He coughs loudly, simultaneously tearing a page from the book with the aid of the ruler.

Good writing!

In the example above, there is no scene tonic needed—not only does the hero get the information he needs, he makes a fool of the unlikable clerk.

Interaction between characters is always superior to eyeballing screens, or flipping through pages in a book. Scour your story for such scenes and try to inject human conflict into them, even if that conflict is small. Your scenes will be better for it.

Summary

A scene tonic is needed if information gathering becomes boring. Extracting information from another character is better than extracting it from the internet or a book. At the very least, have your hero try to convince others to help him acquire it.

Lacklustre Scenes—how to fix them

Lacklustre scenes are scenes which almost work. Almost, but not quite. We’ve all written them at one time or another.

Eliminating lacklustre scenes—Before the Light book cover
Novellas such as Before the Light, are even less accommodating of lacklustre scenes, due to its length.

The subtext seems to be in place. The dialogue seems to be communicating the plot and revealing character. Yet, something seems amiss. The writing seems too unimaginative, too lacklustre.

In one of my recent classes a student presented me with several lacklustre scenes. She had a strong female character giving instructions, in her high-tech office, to a male employee about some top-secret project. Everything seemed in place, yet the scenes seemed stolid, dull. Something was definitely wrong.

The usual remedy in fixing lacklustre scenes is to change the location, or timing, or to prune on-the-nose dialogue, and, in more stubborn cases, to change or introduce a new character.

Luckily, here, a change of location did the trick. Instead of having the woman instruct her employee in her office, I suggested she does this in a hothouse while trimming exotic plants. That way each comment could be accentuated by a snip of her pruning clippers. This would immediately add a deeper layer of subtext to the scene.

The student thought about it and ultimately decided to move a couple of the lacklustre scenes to an aviary, which worked just as well. It allowed the warm tone of the setting to add an interesting spin to the dialogue. 

The result was an inspired scene that ticked all the boxes. Not only did the character’s actions grant an element of irony to the woman’s tough demeanour, the new environment lent visual variety and contrast, too.

Sometimes subtext, ordinarily a good thing, can be too subtle for its own good.

In my latest novella, Before the Light, I had a crucial scene in which the subtext, containing the meaning of the entire story, was too deeply burried. My editor pointed out that the reason why Icarus, the super quantum computer that holds the fate of the world in its brain, makes the choice that it does, was just too hidden for readers to see. Without such insight the scene felt limp. I had to rewrite it, keeping some of subtlety, but simultaneously leaving more clues for attentive readers to discover.

The scene immediately sprang to life. It became the punchline of the story.

Summary

Consider changing the location, timing, background action, or replace a character altogether to pump up stolid, lacklustre scenes.

Hero on a Journey of Discovery

A student recently asked me how she could bolster the credibility of the actions of her hero in a story she’d written. 

Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey
Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, she could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes. 

Assuming the decisions and actions of your hero respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves that a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc. 

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, that his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats. 

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis. 

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie the actions of your hero to his developmental arc to ensure his inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

Action, description, dialogue

Action, dialogue and description in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Action, dialogue and description in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Blending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well.

Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too. 

But too much dialogue can disconnect the reader from the physical environment of the scene. Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description.

Characters casually engaging in trivial action—leaning, smiling, clearing their throats, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo.

The phallic shape of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

Integrating action, dialogue and description:

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour.

References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text: 

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still. 

Summary

Integrating your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

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.