Category Archives: Story Design

Powerful Emotions – add them to your stories

Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.
Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.

Stories that do not engender powerful emotions are unlikely to be popular. Make us cry or make us laugh, but don’t make us yawn. This sentence should be tattooed on the forehead of every fledgling writer.

William M. Akers agrees with me: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time,” he writes in his book, Your Screenplay Sucks.

But how does one master the use of powerful emotions in writing? For a start we should look for appropriate places to create emotionally charged moments as often as possible.

“Story characters who solicit powerful emotions in readers or audiences directly contribute to the success of any tale.”

In Breaking Bad, Walter White supplements his meagre teacher’s income by working at a carwash. The idea that someone whose work once helped a team of scientists win the Nobel Prize now has to teach chemistry classes to unappreciative high-school students captures our sympathy. But the writer of the TV series takes it a step further: A couple of students spot Walter at the carwash squatting on his haunches, polishing tires. We experience Walter’s humiliation directly and this causes us to empathise with him more acutely than before.

All emotions are worthy of being foregrounded providing they serve the character and story—compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight suitcase. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We swallow with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.

One of the most moving moments in all of cinema occurs in Dead Poet’s Society. Fired for encouraging students to think for themselves, John Keating is preparing to permanently vacate his beloved classroom under the critical gaze of the man who fired him. Suddenly, one after another, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support of him, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a victory for Keating and his teachings, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too.

Although we tend to remember many finely crafted scenes that reveal essential plot information, scenes that are supercharged with emotion we remember forever. 

Summary

Supercharge your scenes with powerful emotions, and do it often. Your stories will be all the more memorable for it.

Genres—what are they?

Mixed genres in Cowboys and Aliens.
Mixed genres, mixed messaging?

Genres are categories containing stories that share common characteristics. The categories themselves are not inflexible. They absorb novel features from other genres and adapt to suit.

For writers, genres are recipes for concocting tales based on past exemplars. The Western, for example, showcases a number of recurring elements, such as saloons, side-arms, and horses.

For audiences a genre is an indication of a certain sort of story.

“Location, time-period, clothing, props, and language are some important markers that constitute points of difference between genres.“

Yet, a genre is neither set in stone nor used exclusively in telling a story. In the Science Fiction/Western, Cowboys and Aliens, two ‘hard’ genres are juxtaposed unexpectedly, which, in this instance, might explain the film’s failure at the box-office.

Certain genres, however, combine seamlessly. Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Comedy/Love Story ones such as Crazy Rich Asians use genres so effortlessly that they almost manage to merge them into one.

Some films are even more prolific in their use of genre-mixing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story, has achieved cult status, perhaps because it parodies categories of all sorts.

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genes to their offspring. Because there is a requirement for novelty and originality, however, the code never stays exactly the same for too long. Mutation creeps in, which, if successful, get passed onto the next iteration.

We see this evolution in the Western, for example, where the protagonist goes from being a tough and decisive man in El Dorado, to an ambivalent and racist one in The Searchers, and finally, to a full blown anti-hero in Unforgiven – a killer of women and children.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide one’s expectations by referencing existing stories. Genre helps audiences choose which stories to consume by promising more of the same, as much as it helps writers reference and update old tropes.

Summary

Genres are story categories that share similar characteristics. Genres not only assist audiences in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blueprint to emulate and adapt.

Twin Premises – Planning Your Story

Macbeth and the twin story premises
Macbeth, like all great narratives, flows from
twin premises.

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message and its affects. But how does this work and why should a writer care?



For pantsers about to commence the writing of their story, the answer is that they might not care. Pantsers write from the seat of their pants, allowing inspiration to dictate their narratives.

Plotters, on the other hand, need to work out the story before hand, often meticulously planning every scene before beginning the actual writing of their screenplays or novels.

There are some, however, for whom the approach lies somewhere in between. Inspiration can indeed swoop in at any moment and take over the writing process, but in its absence, they need the security of a map. They’ve set sail too many times only to wash up on the rocks without one.

“The twin premises provide the blueprint for writing a story. The one premise indicates what sort of events need to occur and to whom. The other shapes the direction of these events into an outcome that reveals a moral lesson.“

An effective compromise, therefore, is to spend time thinking about the events and characters that would go into the story, while simultaneously trying to nail down the point of it all. Which brings us back to the first paragraph:

The Story Premise is a brief outline of the story that encapsulates the events generated by the central conflict, and the desire through-line of the protagonist. The story premise of Macbeth might be: An ambitious Scottish general embraces the prophesy of three old crones and the urging of his wife to murder King Duncan and usurp his throne only to succumb to guilt, paranoia and death.

This gives some indication of the major characters and narrative events that comprise the tale.

The Moral Premise, by contrast, is the theme of the story. It gives direction to the dramatic scenes that comprise the plot. In Macbeth this might be: Ruthless ambition leads to death and destruction while accepting one‘s place in the Great Chain of Being sustains societal order and life. Not a popular theme by today’s standards, but a central moral premise in the Elizabethan era, nonetheless.

The aim of the twin premises, then, is to create enough scaffolding to support the writing of a story. Both premises must be present for the story to work. Whether the yarn will turn out to be quite the Shakespearean masterpiece is, of course, another matter all together.

Summary

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message.

Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

Building Characters in Seven Steps

Building characters in The Godfather
Building characters in The Godfather

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby lays out seven steps to building characters:



The seven steps chiefly apply to the protagonist of the story since the protagonist is the vehicle through which the story is channeled. Truby illustrates these steps through an adroit analysis of several films. Here, we look at his break-down of The Godfather, taken directly from his book, although the pattern applies to any well-written story.

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent 
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Hero: Michael Corleone.

Weaknesses: Michael is young, inexperienced, untested, and overconfident.

Psychological Need: Michael must overcome his sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Moral Need: He needs to avoid becoming ruthless like the other Mafia bosses while still protecting his family.


“The path to building characters that are effective is one that tracks the protagonist’s journey from weakness and need to a new equilibrium, forged through the crucible of battle.“

Problem: Rival gang members shoot Michael’s father, the head of the family.

Desire: He wants to take revenge on the men who shot his father and thereby protect his family.

Opponent: Michael’s first opponent is Sollozzo. However, his true opponent is the more powerful Barzini, who is the hidden power behind Sollozzo and wants to bring the entire Corleone family down. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.

“A strong opponent is someone who finds and exploits the protagonist’s weakness throughout the story.”

Plan: Michael’s first plan is to kill Sollozzo and his protector, the police captain. His second plan is to kill the heads of the other families in a single strike.

Battle: The final battle is a crosscut between Michael’s appearance at his nephew’s baptism and the killing of the heads of the five Mafia families. At the baptism, Michael says that he believes in God. Clemenza fires a shotgun into some men getting off an elevator. Moe Green is shot in the eye. Michael, following the liturgy of the baptism, renounces Satan. Another gunman shoots one of the heads of the families in a revolving door. Barzini is shot. Tom sends Tessio off to be murdered. Michael has Carlo strangled.

Psychological Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael still believes that his sense of superiority and self-righteousness is justified.

Moral Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael has become a ruthless killer. The writers use an advanced story structure technique by giving the moral self-revelation to the hero’s wife, Kay, who sees what he has become as the door slams in her face.

New Equilibrium: Michael has killed his enemies and “risen” to the position of Godfather. But morally, he has fallen and become the “devil.” This man who once wanted nothing to do with the violence and crime of his family is now its leader and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

Summary
Using a seven-step approach to building characters and story is a great way to mould protagonists who drive the plot forward in an organic and integrated way.

Epiphany and Self-Realisation in Stories

The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.
The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.

The epiphany refers to that moment at the end of the character arc where the hero realises a hidden truth about himself. This truth shines a light on a blind spot, flaw or wound, that has hampered progress towards achieving his purpose.


The epiphany is an internal event that impacts two layers of meaning—the psychological and the moral. The psychological allows the flaw to be confronted—a first step in healing oneself. Importantly, the epiphany allows the hero to gain true efficacy in the world and results in his turning the tables on the antagonist through external action.

But whereas the psychological dimension begins the process of healing the hero as an individual, the moral dimension allows the hero to apply the healing to the whole of society—it universalises the story by associating the action with the moral good.

“As a whole, then, the hero’s epiphany is the moment where self-deception is stripped away. The penny drops. The lesson is learnt. It is the culmination of the inner journey of the character.“

It goes hand in hand with the transformation of ‘want’ into ‘need’. Without this transformation the hero is fighting in the dark, ill equipped to fulfill his goal.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby (who refers to the moment of epiphany as the moment of self-realisation) provides the following examples of transformation:

“In Casablanca Rick sheds his cynicism, regains his idealism, and sacrifices his love for Ilsa so he can become a freedom fighter.

In Dances with Wolves Dunbar finds a new reason to live and a new way of being a man because of his new wife and his extended Lakota Sioux family. Ironically, the Lakota way of life is almost at an end, so Dunbar’s self-revelation is both positive and negative.

In effect, the hero realizes that he has been wrong, that he has hurt others, and that he must change. He then proves he has changed by taking new moral action.”

Summary

The hero’s epiphany refers to the moment in which the hero recognises his psychological and moral shortcomings and acts to overcome his last crisis and gain his true goal.

Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.

With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.

“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”

But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:

“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.

KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”

The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.

Summary
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.


Great Character Description in Stories

Character description in As Good As It Gets
Great character description in As Good As It Gets

How do you write a great character description in your screenplay or novel?


Do you include detailed physical attributes and forays into backstory, thinking you’re building a solid foundation that will pay off later? That might be the norm in pulp films and novels, but discerning audiences and readers are impatient with lengthy descriptions that stop the narrative dead in its tracks.

Your characters have to make a strong impression from the get-go. The best way to achieve this is with brevity, precision, insight, and laser-sharp detail.

“Great character description highlights some inner aspect of the character; it does not solely rest on the way a character looks. At the very least, the description hints at a reality beyond the physical.”

Here are some examples of good character description from novels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Hayes Barton Press, 2005, originally published 1885). Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left. (p. 38)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998). A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair. (p. 46)

Holes by Louis Sachar (2000). They were dripping with sweat, and their faces were so dirty that it took Stanley a moment to notice that one kid was white and the other black. (p. 17)

In all three examples above, the physical description, coupled with simile or metaphor, variously conveys an attitude, demeanour or theme beyond the description itself:

A head miraculously balancing the weight of a tub while moving in quick jerks under that very weight, suggests a skill indicative of classical Indian dance.

Eyes that glinting like black beetles under all the hair lends a sinister edge to the snapshot.

Faces that were so dirty that the race of the owners is not immediately apparent, connotes far more that the denotative description—it plugs into theme, suggesting that tags such as skin colour are superficial and trivial.

Great character description in screenplays

Here are three examples of character description in screenplays:

THE MATRIX (1999) NEO, a man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one. [This is a straight-from-the-hip description of the essence of Neo Anderson. It is a sharp and accurate snapshot of who the man is.]

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997). In the hallway. Well past 50. Unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. [A short, to-the-point summary of the protagonist. Far more powerful than a lengthy physical description about his shortcomings.]

GET OUT (2017) CHRIS WASHINGTON, 26, a handsome African-American man shuts the medicine cabinet. He’s shirtless and naturally athletic. He scrutinizes his reflection with a touch of vanity. [A clichéd, on-the-nose introduction to the character, with the exception of the last sentence, which exposes his narcissism.]

The point is to avoid superfluous physical traits and describe the way a character looks unless it is revealing of personality and plot.

Summary

When writing a character description stick to the essence of the character. Do not describe superfluous physical traits that are coincidental to the story.

Great Plot from Moral Weaknesses

Great Plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie
A great plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie

How do you generate a great plot from the moral weakness of your hero? You tailor-make the story goal to fit your hero’s weakness. Paring these two narrative events elevates your story to one of poetic justice.

One way to tie the character to the goal is to link it to the moral premise of the story. Ask, what does my character learn by pursuing and eventually gaining the goal?

If your character is stingy, he has to learn to be generous (Scrooge). If he is cowardly and narcissistic, he ends up in a situation where he has to save the world (Edge of Tomorrow.)

There is an ironic relationship between the character’s flaw or weakness and the challenge he is presented with because it is this very weakness that needs to be eliminated in order for him to become whole again.

“The point of a great plot is, at least in part, to teach the hero a moral lesson.”

Few films illustrate this better than Tootsie. In the film, Dustin Hoffman plays a man who has little respect for women, treating them poorly. But he is an out-of-work actor who desperately seeks an acting job. Ironically, he lands a part playing a woman by pretending to be a woman—a role he has to continue playing outside the studio. This exposes him to the sort of mistreatment he has subjected women to in the past. Experiencing this behaviour first hand is a lesson that causes him to grow and change. The plot is fitting because it is geared towards fixing the inner failing of the protagonist.

And so it’s should be with every great story. The plot should showcase the hero’s weakness by placing him in a situation that can only be solved by addressing that very weakness in the plot and in himself.


Summary

Behind every great plot is a protagonist who solves the story problem by addressing an inner weakness in his character.

Fabulous Scenes—how to write them

Fabulous scenes in Unforgiven
The end of one of the many fabulous scenes in Unforgiven

So, you have your logline, a short synopsis of your story, and you’re ready to start writing fabulous scenes. But how to do it?

There are several ways to classify scenes—reactive, proactive, turning point scenes, midpoint scenes, the must-have-scene, and so on. In future articles I will be looking at the specific similarities and differences between each type. Here, however, I want to lay out a general strategy for writing great scenes.

The most important things to know off the bat for writing great scenes are:

1. Who is the central character in the scene?

2. What is the character’s goal in the scene?

3. How does the scene advance the plot?

4. What is the emotion generated by the scene?

5. How does the scene reveal character?

The second thing to consider is the method: How do you intend to convey the above? Through dialogue, action, subtext?

“Fabulous scenes are fabulous because they do the simple things right and let the fireworks emerge from that.”

In Unforgiven, a young, bombastic gunslinger who calls himself the Schofield Kid approaches ex-outlaw William Manny at his farm. He wants to recruit Manny to help him kill a couple of cowboys who reportedly cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Clearly, Manny is not doing well as a pig farmer and needs money to feed himself and his two young children. Manny initially rejects the offer. The scene, which can viewed as the inciting incident, fulfills several of the points raised above:

  1. The focus of the scene is clearly about William Manny who is faced with making a decision.
  2. The goal is to show Manny receiving a ‘job’ offer for which he will receive reward money, and his response to it.
  3. ThIs advances the plot by dangling the possibility of Manny returning to his old ways in order to collect the reward money.
  4. We see Manny as a shadow of the hard-living gunslinger he once was. Instead of lauding his decision not to accept the offer, we are left feeling sorry for him and his poverty-stricken life.
  5. The scene has Manny declare that he is no longer the cursing, hard-drinking killer he once was—that his wife has cured him of his evil ways. There is a sense, however, that Manny yearns for the adventure and freedom of the old days. We sense that he is only fooling himself, and this deepens his character.

The scene uses subtext and the physical demeanour of the characters to juxtapose the flashy, big-talking, Schofield Kid against the seemingly spent pig-farmer. It is a great example of how to use the above-mentioned techniques to write a spectacular scene.

Summary

Fabulous scenes apply an appropriate method for revealing character goals, hinting at hidden emotions, and promoting plot.