Category Archives: Story Design

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.

Structure Checklist for Stories

A story structure checklist helps us focus on important aspects of story construction. Here is one such list on story structure from Michael Hauge’s book, Writing Screenplays that Sell.

Story structure in The Karate Kid
Story structure checklist in The Karate Kid

1. Does each scene, event and character contribute to the protagonist’s outer motivation. The beginning of the story poses an overall question in the viewer’s/reader’s mind that will be answered by the end of the story. In The Matrix, for example, the overall story question is; Is Neo The One?

2. Is each hurdle and obstacle in the protagonist’s path to his goal, greater than the last one?

In The Matrix, the structure checklist receives a tick — Neo’s journey is strewn with obstacles, from not knowing how to fight, from a lack of self-belief, to finally being shot in the chest by agent Smith.

3. Does the pace of your story accelerate to the climax? In the third act of the The Karate Kid, the scenes are spaced closer and closer together—reconciling with Ali, being admitted to the tournament, participating in the initial matches, suffering a broken knee, and taking part in the final match.

4. Is the emotional through line made up of peaks and valleys? In The Karate Kid, the tournament scenes are interspersed with quieter scenes of plotting by the Cobras, coaching, and fixing Daniel’s leg.

5. Is your story chock-full of anticipation? The karate tournament, which we know about from the start, the fights with Johnny, the anticipated attacks after the party, all add to the overall sense of anticipation in The Karate Kid.

6. Are there surprises and reversals to our anticipation? In The Matrix, our expectation that Neo is indeed, The One, undergoes several reversals when he fails to jump across buildings, or when his meeting with the Oracle seems to indicate the contrary.

7. Does the story create curiosity? In The Karate Kid, we wonder how on earth Mr. Miyagi will manage to teach Daniel the requisite skills to stand up to his brutal opponent.

8. Are your characters, timing, and situation credible? The three month period provides enough time for Daniel to acquire fighting skills under the expert tutelage of Mr. Miyagi, but the time is adroitly condensed by the screenwriter so that the audience can stay involved. 

9. Are the events in the story sufficiently foreshadowed? Q. How can we possibly believe that a boy with a broken knee and three months training can win a tough tournament? A. By introducing a secret weapon in the form of the Crane Stance and Mr. Miyagi’s healing abilities.

10. Does your story have an effective opening and ending? The Karate Kid uses a new arrival opening from New Jersey to Van Nuys to introduce Daniel, which is appropriate to the slow build up of the story. The final match, a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, is an appropriate climax which settles the overall question established early in the story: Can Daniel win against all odds? 

Summary

The story structure checklist focuses the writer’s attention on important aspects of story construction. Familiarity with such a list makes the task of troubleshooting one’s tale that much easier.

Theme as the Controlling Idea

What is meant by the controlling idea in Stories?

Controlling idea in Groundhog Day
Controlling idea in Groundhog Day: Cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness

A story typically comprises of a sequence of linked events, centering on a protagonist who pursues a difficult goal against a rising tide of obstacles orchestrated by the antagonist, (or antagonistic forces). In achieving the goal, the protagonist has to overcome an inner weakness or limitation, which results in his/her becoming a wiser and more accomplished person.

But how do we, as writers, select the most appropriate incidents to relate? Certainly, verisimilitude, suspense, drama, excitement, and uniqueness play a role. But how do we choose between two actions of equal weight, in terms of this list? One way is to let the theme or controlling idea guide us.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee defines the theme, or controlling idea, as he prefers to call it, as a statement expressed in a single sentence that describes how and why life undergoes a change in value by the end of a story.

McKee explains that the controlling idea has two components: value and cause.

The controlling idea identifies the change from a positive to a negative value (or vice versa) at the story-climax as a result of the protagonist’s final action, and provides the main reason for this change.

Value plus cause, McKee informs us, captures the meaning of the story.

Value is the positive or negative charge found at the end of the story. In an up-ending, good triumphs, as in Groundhog Day, where cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness; in a down-ending, negative values prevail. In Dangerous Liaisons, passion turns into self-loathing, resulting in hatred that destroys.

Cause, on the other hand, provides the reason why the protagonist’s world has been transformed into a positive or negative value. In writing a story, we work back from the end value, to the beginning, and trace the causes within the character, society, or environment that has brought about this change.

In Peter Falk’s Columbo, for example, we track back from the theme or controlling idea — Justice is done because the protagonist is cleverer than the criminal — selecting for inclusion only those story beats that serve the theme.

Sherlock Holmes style scenes in which Columbo uses deductive reasoning to corner the criminal are appropriate for a man of superior intelligence and observation skills. Reaching under his raincoat for a .44 Magnum in order to frighten the criminal into confessing, or beating the daylights out of him, is not, although it is a fitting action for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

Summary

The theme or controlling idea encompasses a change in value plus the reasons for it. Keeping the theme foremost in our minds assists us in writing appropriate scenes that stay on track.

How to Keep Your Story on Track

Lajos Egri on how to keep your story in track.
Lajos Egri on how to keep your story in track.

TO ENSURE that your story remains on track, complete the first draft of your novel or screenplay, then answer the following questions drawn from Lajos Egri’s work on dramatic writing.

Fill in your answers next to the appropriate question then adjust your story accordingly.



Keep your story on track:

1. What is your story’s premise? For example: “Unswerving integrity delivers from disgrace.” Define the moral premise/theme of your story.

2. What is your protagonist’s goal? What does your protagonist want, more than anything?

3. What is your protagonist’s compulsive, 100% trait? What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.

4. What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.

5. Why is the character insecure about this condition? How did he or she develop that insecurity about the condition?

6. How did the character develop the condition about which he is insecure? What is this injury for which the character has a compulsive drive to escape? Backstory here. Provide a specific event or series of events that explain how he developed the condition. Those events caused a chain of reaction/action/reaction. Tell the tale.

7. What is the crisis that upsets the status quo? How does it affect the protagonist?
Why is the protagonist dissatisfied?

8. What is the dire necessity that spurs the protagonist to action and keeps him relentlessly trying to reach his goal? This is something that threatens his special insecurity.

9. How does hesitation to take action threaten to worsen the protagonist’s situation?

10. What decision will he make or action will he take to change things? This is his point of attack, the decision or action that starts the conflict.

11. Is the protagonist fighting for or against the status quo? Does he want to keep things the way they are, or change them because they’ve become intolerable?

12. Who is your antagonist? He must be diametrically and militantly opposed to the protagonist.

13. Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist and his goal? What is the antagonist’s motivation?

14. What is the point of 1) contradiction and 2) conflict between them?

15. What is the unbreakable bond between the protagonist and antagonist? What is so much at stake that they can’t leave each other? Multiple reasons are good.

16. What is the wrong step the protagonist makes that starts the crisis?

17. How does this decision create another problem?

18. What does the protagonist do to rectify this new problem?

19. How does this response create another, worse, problem?

20. How does the final crisis, conflict, and resolution prove your premise?

Summary

Answering the set of twenty questions listed above will help to keep your characters and story on track.

High Concept in Stories

Jurassic Park is a prime example of a High Concept film
Jurassic Park is a prime example of a High Concept film.

High Concept is a term that’s commonly used in Hollywood to refer to a film or story that contains specific characteristics.

Steven Spielberg has referred to High Concept as a high-level idea that can be expressed briefly, allowing one to hold the entire story in the palm of one’s hand.

High Concept, at its most basic, entails three crucial aspects:

1. It contains a core concept that is unique.
2. It appeals to a large audience.
3. It can be stated in a single sentence, allowing us to “see” the overall story at a glance. 

Uniqueness

Of course, no story is truly unique. We’ve often heard that there are only so many stories out there, and they’ve all been told before in one way or another. But this does not mean that elements within these stories can’t be arranged in unique combinations. 

Jurassic Park, is based on one of the most successful high concept ideas of all time.

Jurassic Park is a classical monster movie, but the idea that the monsters spring from the DNA of prehistoric animals, which has been preserved in tree resin, was new and unique at the time. 

Wide Audience Appeal

This is one of the most difficult elements to pin down. After all, if we knew beforehand precisely what would prove popular with audiences or readers, we’d all be millionaires. Having said that, there are sources that we can look to for hints. The top ten most popular books and movies is a good place to start.

Can Be Stated Succinctly

How is it possible that one can encapsulate and visualise an entire story in a single sentence? Well, that’s what’s so marvelous about High Concept – it’s a pithy statement that allows one to intuit the overall shape of the story in a few bold strokes.

The movie Seven, for example, very much a high concept story, can be stated in one sentence: A serial killer selects and murders his victims based on each having committed one of the seven deadly sins. Although the details are missing, we can easily visualise the general thrust of the story, while being intrigued by the idea of the murder plot being based on biblical sin. 

Summary

High Concept is a sentence, describing the story in broad strokes, which encapsulates an element of uniqueness and appeals to a wide audience. Some of the most popular books and movies of all time have effectively utilised High Concept to achieve enduring popularity.

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.