Category Archives: Story Design

Story Templates

Frankenstein as one of many story templates
The Frankenstein tale is one of several story temples writers use to guide their stories.

Much has been written about the number of story templates out there. I do not intend to go into the merits of each offering here. I do, however, want to suggest that most stories fall within nine general types.

What I mean is that although the names, places, and finer grain of each individual story differ from those of the original, the basic structure of the narrative follows a similar pattern. Here are some influential stories that have so captured our imagination that they have created story types:


1. Cinderella

Dreams do come true, despite initial setbacks from wicked or opposing forces: RockyPretty Woman.

2. Romeo and Juliet

Boy meets/wins/has girl, boy looses girl, or boy finds/doesn’t find girl: When Harry Met SallySleepless in Seattle.

3. Faust

Selling your soul may bring short term riches and success, but there’s always a price to be paid, leading to ruin and damnation: Wall StreetFatal Attraction.

“Story templates are narrative and thematic patterns born out of some of the most successful stories of all time.”

4. Circe

The spider and the fly; the victim and the manipulator; the temptress ensnaring the love-struck, or innocent victim, often seen in film noir: Body HeatThe Postman Always Rings Twice.

5. Orpheus

The theft of something precious, either lost, or taken away; the search to redeem it, and the tragedy or success which follows it: Rain Man.

6. Tristan

Stories about love triangles — man loves a woman, but he or she is already spoken for: Fatal Attraction.

7. Candide

The hero who won’t stay down; the innocent on a mission; naive optimism winning the day: Indiana JonesForrest Gump.

8. Achilles

The destruction, or endangerment of an otherwise good person, because of an inherent flaw: SupermanOthello, the protagonist in film noir.

9. Frankenstein

Man’s attempt to rise to the level of God, ending in tragedy and failure: FrankensteinIcarus.

Summary

All stories follow a pattern generated from source material. Mixing such material accounts for the structure of most stories being written today.

Establishing Images — what are they?

Establishing images in Wall Street
The movie Wall Street is awash with establishing images that set the tone for the entire story

The purpose of the establishing images is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World.

By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasise the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around him. The quality of change that this ‘ordinary‘ world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of the hero’s success or failure.

But how do we sketch in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One way is through the effective use of appropriate images.

“In Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger suggests that establishing images introduce the tone, time, location, as well as the theme of the story. In other words, they provide the framework of the tale.”

The first minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduce us to the world of business through a series of snapshots of buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with the defining sequence of images of a school preparing for its opening day procession—banners boasting the school’s reputation of discipline, excellence, and moral learning.

Such images, however, also help to establish the sense of conformity that will be challanged by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established time, place, tone, and theme, through an effective use of starting imagery, then, the writers are now able to create plot and subplot from a solid foundation. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Select the right establishing imagery to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

Obstacles and the Foundation of Structure

Obstacles in Source Code
Obstacles as reversals in Source Code

Obstacles in stories. What are they?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, information that ought to be surprising yet inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience or reader guessing, and inevitable because it has the ring of truth about it.

But what specific forms do turning points/obstacles take?

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journey of the protagonist. In the best stories, they are causally related. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has more on his mind than the physical task alone. 

The Specifics of Obstacles

Obstacles may stop the flow of events, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may even reverse the flow, resulting in an about-turn.

“One way to view turning points is as obstacles that block the way to the protagonist’s goal and force a change in direction.”

What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins. 

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog DayRun Lola RunVantage Point and Source Code. Such stories replay events from the same starting point but with variations in outcome.

Deflection or expansion is by far the most common form of obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan. The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one.

Summary

Turning points are obstacles to the status quo. They introduce major new sections of your story, presenting information that is surprising yet inevitable. There are three main types—dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

Good Scenes – How to Write Them

Great scenes in Out of sight
Great scenes abound in Out of Sight

Good scenes are comprised of story units involving meaningful dramatic beats.

The general function of any scene, we are reminded, is to provide the reader or audience with essential information in order to follow the story.

The specific purpose of a scene, however, is determined by what sort and how much information to provide. To do so effectively the writer has to understand that scenes are narrative units of the sort referred to on this and other websites as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and so on.

The specific purpose of the inciting incident, for example, is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, and so on.

Identifying scenes in this way highlights their specific function and tells us where they slot into the story. Particular scenes, therefore, allow us to map information in the right place along the story path.

But what about the nuts and bolts of scene construction itself?

“As a general rule good scenes should start late and finish early, meaning that scenes should not contain excess fat. A scene should fulfill its function and end, allowing the next scene to perform its function and end.”

Scenes should also adhere to the genre stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information. The climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other,

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him. 

Summary

Great scenes correspond to the narrative units discussed in previous posts. Each scene performs a specific task and is located at a specific point within the overall story.

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.

Story Map – what is it?

So, you want to write a story but have no story map. Sure, you have a genre or character in mind. Maybe even the beginnings of a plot. But you sense it’s not quite enough to get you started. So, where to from here?

Story map in Before the Ight
Story map techniques in Before the Light

You need a story map to help you find your way.

It’s worth remembering that stories come from the generation of multiple ideas distilled to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”  In Before the Light, the core idea is: can super-powerful computers be trusted?

But an idea without a story is toothless. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, all of which help the writer determine the genre. 

“A story map assembles all the ingredients necessary to the writing of your first draft.“

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title. 

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one explores the main character and supporting cast, his backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, goal and transformational arcs. Simultaneously, one builds a plot guided by structure—the inciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid-point, climax and resolution. 

Now the writer is ready to create subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions—in other words, to write the treatment, followed by the step-outline.

By the time you have outlined your obligatory or climactic scene, you will have exposed the main theme of the story, since the winner of the final conflict carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, the theme is: human instinct and determination trump artificial intelligence. 

Of course, the first draft is one of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the light of day.

(For a detailed explanation of each narrative element mentioned above, please use the search box to locate relevant articles on this website.)

Summary

Creating a story map helps you plan your story. This article mentions some of the many components of such maps.

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace
Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace

Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition. 

“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown. 

Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.

Exposition—how to write it

American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.
American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.


Exposition is a necessary part of any story. We must know certain facts about a character or event in order to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But an unskillful use of exposition can also slow the momentum of the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA gives several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration. This is a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. But the scene is too static—boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and catchy music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy diversions.

“In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino brilliantly weaves exposition into the forward thrust of the story. A Nazi officer interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the very floorboards where the interrogation is taking place.”

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on cigars they step into the water and discuss things you’d expect to hear a gangster boardroom scene. By portraying the gangsters as fat old men in a pool, Tarantino allows the exposition to slip in surreptitiously. 

In these examples, context, mood, and necessary information are indeed relayed through exposition. The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer. The next three do so more skillfully. They insert subtext in the setting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. 

Summary

Load exposition with subtext or make it part of the forward thrust of the story.

Invitation

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Scene tension — how to achieve it

Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow
Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow

In my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading the writing with contradictory cues to increase scene tension. 

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

“The bad way to try and achieve scene tension is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party shouting the other down at the end.”

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected. 

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands. This is always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up. He towers over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him. Cage retreats. 

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair, startled. 

This small incident emphasises the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue. 

Summary

Create scene tension in your story by having actions play out in counterpoint to threats being delivered through dialogue.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, leave a comment and let’s get chatting.