Category Archives: Story Preparation

The strength of language

Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.
Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.

SOME of the most useful writing advice for harnessing the strength of language comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially insightful book, The Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete. Among the greatest practitioners of this skill are the immortals— Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is powerful because their words render up experiences that are just that—specific, definite and concrete.

“Harness the strength of language by studying it diligently in the authors you admire, but also through inspirational gems such as Elements of Style.”

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known, but accomplished writer:

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the use of concrete and specific language. This language can not only evoke a felt experience in short stories and novels, it can also do so in the ‘action block’ of screenplays. Here brief, specific, and concrete description adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

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Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

Strength of language

How symbolic ascension makes your story universal

A story replete with symbolic ascension!

What is symbolic ascension?

Every great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows the story to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent. 

If rendered crudely, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly. 

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At a first encounter the setting, events and specific actions of characters represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

“Symbolic ascension is the process in which actions, events, settings and objects are transformed into universal symbols through repetition and association.”

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier—the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills. 

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself—as does Nick (Christopher Walken). 

Nick’s death precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this spontaneous duality that gives the story its enduring power.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

Catch my latest YouTube video on managing dramatic beats through scene sequencing by clicking on this link!

Symbols – how they operate in stories

The power of symbols is clearly in evidence in Shutter Island
The power of symbols is evident in Shutter Island.

Symbols are narrative objects that have significance over and above their denotative presence in a story.

They manifest as audio-visual images, which recur throughout the story. Each iteration is an echo of a previous instance, reinforcing the main concerns and themes of your tale. These images function in two ways—they are part of the actual “physical” world of your story (denotative), but they are also reflections, or symbols, of your story’s interior concerns—the inner landscape (connotative).

In Shutter Island, symbols add resonance and depth to the story by utilising images of water, the sea, and wind, whipped up into a hurricane, which is closing in on the island housing a mental hospital. The hurricane is an important plot element that ups the ante as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) races to conclude his investigation of the disappearance of a mental patient, who he suspects is hiding on the island, before the storm hits.

“Symbols are representations of elements that have significance beyond their denotative aspect.”

Aggravating the frenetic search for the patient is Daniels’s own deteriorating mental condition, as images of his past life as a soldier, then as a husband and father, flash before him, adding to his overall instability and confusion. The image of the hurricane, therefore, is more than a major plot element. It is also a symbol of his inner landscape, a warning of the potentially tempestuous and uncontrollable behaviour that smoulders in all of us.

In the film, The Piano, images of water, the sea, and mud are deeply embedded into every aspect of the story—they are a part of the setting, which sets the tone and mood of the tale. But these images, drawing on basic psychological analysis, also connote the sexual and emotional tension of the characters, becoming stronger each time we encounter them. The piano perfectly captures the two-fold function of imagery. The instrument is as much a vehicle for the plot, as it is a substitute for Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) lost voice and suppressed passion.

Summary

Symbols are images in narrative that point to a significance beyond their denotative aspect.

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The Power of Dilemma in Stories

The power of dilemma is in full display in Dona Flor and her Two Husbands.

Wherein lies the power of dilemma in stories? What makes for the best dramatic conflict? The two questions are related.


In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

“The power of dilemma is most evident at the turning points of a story.”

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate the risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

The power of dilemma escalates the tensions within your protagonist and the other characters, making the story more gripping.

To watch my latest YouTube video on High Concept click on this link.

Causally Connected Scenes

The Fugitive contains many causally connected scenes.

A scene does not exist in isolation, rather, it is part of a set of causally connected scenes that make up the story. 

In Making a Good Script Great Linda Seger stresses that it is far more effective to think of a scene as being a member of a scene sequence—scenes that are so tightly connected to one another that they create single narrative blocks within the story. 

These sequences might be chase scenes in a city that get progressively shorter until they end in a car crash or getaway; they may build up to the final explosion in The Guns of Navarone; they might culminate in two lovers reuniting as in When Harry met Sally.

“Causally connected scenes are an antidote to a slackening of interest due to a meandering narrative.”

In The Fugitive the first sequence of scenes might be called murder and the sentencing. It forms a tight causal unit that spans eleven minutes. The next sequence could be called the escape, leading to the train wreck. The sequence following that could be labeled after him and include the scenes of Deputy Sam Gerard starting the chase, culminating in Kimble arriving in Chicago. 

The point is that all these scenes are linked by cause and effect, or, at least, action and consequence, that allows no room for loose or weakly connected events.

In my novel, The Level, the protagonist finds himself bound to a sturdy chair in a pitch-black room. To make matters worse he is suffering from amnesia and has no clue how he got there. 

Later, a mysterious woman carrying a lantern appears from the darkness, unties him and gives him a series of clues to follow in order to escape. 

The story is a connect-the-pieces puzzle, fraught with dangerous pit-falls that threaten the protagonist’s every step. Indeed, the entire story is driven by causally connected scene sequences, each of which reveals a part of the puzzle. This serves to maintain the readers’ interest.

Summary

Organise your story into causally connected scenes in order to drive the action and avoid a slackening in your narrative.


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How to come up with winning story ideas

Red Corner is based on a gripping story idea which feeds off the dangers present in communist red China in the 1990’s.

How do you come up with winning story ideas?


In the absence of hindsight, use High Concept:

1. Set your story in a unique or challenging environment such as communist China, (Red Corner).

2. Ensure that your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One where POTUS is held hostage on his plane, or 12 Monkeys in which a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

3. Choose the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemmaJohn Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Select a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursueMemento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

“Winning story ideas benefit by drawing on High Concept.”

Of course, success depends on your getting many other factors right too, but using these suggestions will increase the commercial potential of your story.

I used some of my own advice in my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre of hard science-fiction upon its release. Here’s the core idea:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to possess it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The concept formed the basis for an intriguing story, as indicated by the book sales.

Summary

Use High Concept to generate winning story ideas with high commercial potential.

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The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

An important requirement in writing is that we deploy a sympathetic protagonist in our story, since the protagonist is the character through whom we experience the tale. 

This does not mean that our protagonist has no weaknesses in his or her character. Indeed, character flaws are what make for a strong character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful to rightful action that drive the story.

But, creating a sympathetic protagonist has become more and more challenging. For who, after all, are our real-life models? Scandals involving politicians, military and religious leaders have eroded our trust in those exemplars.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc. 

“A sympathetic protagonist is at the center of readable and watchable stories.”

The notion of a flawed protagonist, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – MacbethOthelloHamlet. These tragic protagonists are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes in recent times, is noteworthy.

DexterBreaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few of the protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe. 

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters achieved this? Here are some suggestions.

1. The protagonist finds himself/herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune: 

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can’t afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay for his bills.

2. The law-breaking protagonist is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to kill and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he keeps outsmarting both the police and his criminal victims.

3. The protagonist acts for a cause other than his own: 

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Summary

Understanding how these characteristics operate in deeply flawed protagonists, then, helps to soften our critique of them.

Click on this link to watch my latest YouTube video on how secrets make for great stories.

Layered writing

Layered writing in Moulin Rouge
Layered writing in Moulin Rouge

A common weakness amongst student writers is a lack of layered writing. In its place is an indulgence of dialogue and action that plays off on the surface, at the level of plot—with more telling than showing.

Typically, this is external action without the sense of an inner life. To remedy this weakness I advise that writers create internal conflict as something that the reader or audience is made aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, or fear because they will be privy to something that the character may only become aware of later.

“Layered writing means that a story is driven by the inner life of the characters as much as it is by their external challenges.”

My advice to new writers, therefore, is to write scenes where the action is motivated not only by external goals, but by secrets, wounds and suppressed desires, too, though the characters themselves are often unaware of the truth, creating dramatic irony.

In Moulin Rouge, Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, he might be murdered by the Duke who wants her for himself. So, to protect him, she lies to him, declaring that she does not love him, but will marry the Duke instead. The audience knows that this lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, who is devastated by this.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American mathematician, dreams of one day solving an equation that proves that time travel to the past is possible. But as we realise that Benjamin is well past his prime and is unlikely to ever achieve this, our compassion for him grows.

In both examples, it is what lies under the surface that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the external action is supported by the inner life of the characters makes for engaging stories.

Catch my latest video on making your scenes stand out, by clicking on this link!

What is your story question?

The story question – how long can the Abbott family survive?

The first act of a story performs several tasks, including introducing the story question.

It also introduces readers and audiences to the world of the characters and their role in it. The act contains the inciting incident and the first turning point, and establishes mood and genre.

The central question the story must answer by the end of act three is something that the writer might easily neglect to emphasise in the dash to lay the tracks the story needs to ride on.

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger advises that once the defining question is raised, usually within the first fifteen minutes of a film, and certainly before the first turning point of the story, everything that follows is in response to it.

“The central story question drives the story to its ultimate conclusion.”

A Quiet Place revolves around this central question: How long can the Abbott family survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind, monstrous aliens with a powerful sense of hearing? In Edge of Tomorrow, the question is: Can William Cage survive as part of the allied force fighting the Mimics? In E.T. it is: Will E.T. find a way to go back home?

In a story with an up ending the answer to the central question is usually, “yes”, and favours the hero. 

In a more ambiguous story, however, the answer is not clear-cut. In Donnie Darko, a non-linear film, Donnie is absent from home at the start of the story when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom, so he survives. But the incident is replayed at the end of the tale. This time Donnie stays at home and is killed.

Linking the answer to some deeper revelation that has been previously withheld is a powerful way to bring the outer and inner strands of a story together at the climax. This technique creates an exclamation mark within the final act.

Summary

The first act poses the central story question that is only answered at the climax of the third act.

Watch my new YouTube video on non-linear stories by clicking on this link.

Good Writing Advice?

Is Oscar Wild’s advice about writing to be taken a pinch of salt?

Writing advice is not that hard to find, in fact it’s everywhere. Some of it is very good, some of it not so much. The challenge is to sift through it until you separate the chaff from the wheat.

Princeton University’s Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches Creative Writing and is a multi-award winning novelist, does offer us some good general advice:

1. Write your heart out.
2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
3. You are writing for your contemporaries – not for posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity.
4. Keep in mind Oscar Wild: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice.)
6. Unless you are experimenting with form – gnarled, snarled & obscure – stick to the accepted format.
7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.
8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader – or any reader. He/she might exist – but is reading someone else.
9. Read, observe, listen intently! – as if your life depended upon it.
10. Write your heart out. (Again).

There you have it. Good advice to guide your writing. Take the time to ponder upon it.

Summry

Study the suggestions of accomplished writers to glean good writing advice from their thoughts, statements and works.

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