Category Archives: Story Preparation

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.

Story Summary from Story Premise

Gladiator provides a fitting example of story summary discussed in this article.
Gladiator draws on a classical story structure that involves a sacrifice.

How do you extract your story summary from your story premise?

In last week’s article I discussed ways to improve your story premise by sifting it through several story-boosting filters.

In order to hold an entire tale in the palm of your hand, however, you need to add a couple more elements to it—the ending, and a big story event that turns the fortunes of the hero, for good or ill.

Know your ending

The ending is the bullseye of the story. It gives direction to the narrative events that comprise the tale and defines the theme.

Back to our concrete example. The premise for the story is: 

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.

This says quite a lot already about the tale, but it doesn’t give me the ending. What kind of ending do I want? Well, in an up ending, the hero would triumph over his nemesis, ensuring survival for himself and his followers. 

This is uplifting, but predictable. 

down ending, on the other hand, sees the hero winning the day, but having to sacrifice his life to do it. Much like in Gladiator. I like that ending more.

Know the hero’s life-altering insight

So, how would the hero defeat his nemesis? Remembering that the antagonist is a cannibal, it might be fitting that he offer up his body in exchange for the lives of his followers. 

Gruesome, but powerful. 

Let’s say the nemesis, who wants to humiliate the hero by having him willingly kneel before him in front of his own followers, accepts his offer.

“To expand a story premise into a story summary add an appropriate ending preceded by an event which unveils a big secret that turns the hero’s fortunes.”

Of course, our hero is altruistic, not stupid. Stupid heroes don’t make for good reading. He knows the villain will not keep his word, but in a variation of the Trojan Horse ploy, he secretly swallows poison before offering himself up for the feast, ensuring that the enemy won’t survive the night.

With this ending in mind I can turn the premise into a mini-summary, providing a blueprint for the entire story:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh. A series of escalating close-shaves forces our hero to negotiate a deal, whereby he willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if the cannibal leader agrees to let his followers live. The cannibal, who is obsessed with the idea of his enemy accepting a humiliating defeat, agrees. The hero, who has foreseen his own death in a prophetic dream, knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others—but he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stores, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe will be wiped out after the feast, allowing his own followers to escape.

Sure, it’s a dark, painful move to kill off the protagonist, reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre, but I like it. It has gravitas. It appropriates the enemies’ practice of cannibalism and uses it to defeat them. Additionally, it points to a synergy between narrative elements, such as the use of the secret, that draws on Aristotle’s idea of unity in dramatic structure. Finally, it provides the theme of the story: Sacrifice of the one ensures the survival of the many.

Summary

Expand your story premise into a story summary by adding an ending preceded by a fitting and powerful event that turns the hero’s fortunes.

Your Story Premise – how to improve it

How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.
How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.

Nailing your story premise from the get-go can save you a lot of frustration later. A great story premise serves as the basis from which to grow your entire tale.

There was a time when I’d get an idea for a story and start writing right away, letting the muse guide me. The Nostalgia of Time Travel was such a muse-inspired story. But since then, running aground at sea made me think again. Sure, I still encourage the muse to ride on the mast and sprinkle her magic down on me, but I no longer set sail without a story map.

That map is the story premise—a compacted form of the tale, containing essential ingredients that act as a checklist for a yet-to-be-written story.

“Inevitably, your story premise improves when it hints at the secrets, wounds and flaws of your hero, the power of his nemesis, and the difficulty of attaining the story goal.”

There are many opinions about what constitutes a great premise. Here’s mine:

A story premise ought to: 

  1. Introduce a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming outer challenge.
  2. The pursuit of the challenge must be complicated by the hero’s secret, a wound or a flaw.
  3. The story premise must include a powerful and intriguing nemesis.
  4. It ought to exude a sense of verisimilitude, no matter how fantastical the story.
  5. It should hint at a theme that is both personal and universal.
  6. It must fascinate or intrigue.

Take the sentence: After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster must lead a band of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain.  

This gives the reader an idea of the story, but it is colourless and thin. Filtering the idea through the first of our six must-haves we get:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster reluctantly steps up to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain, when no one else will.

“If your premise does not grab your attention from the get-go, neither will your fleshed-out story—at least not without many unnecessary rewrites.”

Not there yet? How about:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret has to lead a group of teenagers through dangerous terrain to a new place of safety.

Better, but not quite there yet:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.

Although this premise, based on my forthcoming novel, The Land Above, must be refined further it is a more effective snapshot of the potential story than the first version. It addresses the main requirements on the list: 

  1. It contains a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming challenge.
  2. It tells us that the hero hides a secret, suggestive of a wound, weakness or flaw.
  3. It includes a terrifying and motivated antagonist. 
  4. It feels authentic, given the genre. 
  5. It contains a theme that is both universal and personal—individual and group survival.
  6. It is intriguing.

Running your story premise through these filters will undoubtably improve the potential of your story.

Exercise: Write down your story premise in a single sentence. Don’t be too critical at first, just capture the thrust of your tale. Then, apply the six filters suggested above. The sixth version of your premise ought to be much improved.

Summary

Come up with a single sentence snapshot of your story premise. Improve it by applying the six filters discussed in this article.

Scene transitions in stories — how to write them

Memorable scene transitions
Perhaps the most famous scene transition in film history–the jump cut from 2001 A Space Odyssey

Scene transitions in stories, as in life, don’t get the attention they deserve. 

Maybe that’s because they are transient states, in-between bits we must get through to get to the nitty-gritty. 

When we think back on our lives, we tend to jump from accomplishment to accomplishment, failure to failure, leapfrogging over the small transitions that got us there in the first place.

Yet, stories rely on transitions. Transitions are the precursors to life-altering events. Handled badly, they make the episodes in a story appear unintentionally jagged and disconnected.

Here are three techniques, chosen from a basket of others, that may help alleviate this common problem – repetition, continuity, contrast.

1. Transition by repetition. A word, action, or response is repeated in consecutive scenes. 

In Final Destination 5, a detective interrogates several suspects. To avoid lengthy and superfluous repetition, the detective asks a question in one scene, which is then answered by a series of different characters in consecutive scenes.

“Memorable scene transitions are links where the connection between narrative beats is foregrounded, pointing to the virtuosity of the overall writing style.”

2. Transition by continuity. This technique can help bridge events separated by a small or large gap in time and space, 

In 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick famously jump-cuts from a bone being thrown up in the air, to a space station floating in space. Both bone and space station are tools in different stages of human development, but are separated by a span of millions of years. The visual link between the two shots, reinforced by the continuity of image size and movement is so strong that it allows us to make the transition in an instant. 

In a similar vain, a character could begin a sentence in one scene, perhaps in medieval times, while someone else completes it in another, hundreds of years hence.

3. Transition through contrasting words or actions. Here, the expectations created at the end of a scene are immediately reversed in the one following it. 

Imagine, for example, a scene in which your character, a boxer, George, is trashing his opponent during a pre-fight weigh-in. Cut to the next scene where his opponent lands a thunderous punch to the jaw, knocking George out cold.

Exercise: Think back to a story you’ve written but not yet published. Identify two scenes where the transition seems luck-luster. Create a fitting transition using one of the three techniques mentioned in this article. Let the emotion you want your audience or reader to experience at the moment of transition be your guide.

Summary

Use repetition, continuity, or contrast to create effective and memorable scene transitions in your stories.

Five points to consider prior to pantsing a new story.

Nabokov believed that any new story starts with a ‘throb’
or a ‘glimmer’ of recognition.


What’s the quickest way to get into a new story?


Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.

Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.

“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”

Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:

  1. Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
  2. Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
  3. Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
  4. Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
  5. State the theme of the story.

These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.

Summary

Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.

Preparing your story – how to get started

Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.
Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.

If you could summarise areas of writing as a way of preparing your story, what would they be?

For me the story premise and theme form the foundation of all accomplished writing. I spend time on ensuring that the story premise is the best it can be before starting on a new manuscript.

“Preparing your story refers to the initial process you undertake prior to commencing the writing of your screenplay or novel.”

A story premise, we are reminded, can take the form of a what-if statement: What if the DNA of a Jurassic animal is discovered, fully preserved, in a mosquito caught in a dollop of ancient tree resin? What if the DNA can be used to clone the animal?

The best story premises are engaging, original, and fit the mood of the times. The best themes, on the other hand, espouse social or moral truths that are universal. In the example above, the theme might be colloquially summed up as: Don’t mess with nature or it will mess you.

Characters come next. How many characters do I need to achieve the maximum dramatic impact; to explore the theme from a number of different points of view? Too many characters and the theme becomes muddled. Too few and it remains under-explored.

In Jurassic Park we have the hero, his love interest and his supporters arguing for one side of the theme—respect nature. Arguing for the opposite side—exploit nature for gain, we have the antagonist and his crew. But of course the real antagonist is the T-Rex, the rod of God striking down humans for their greed and arrogance.

Next, are the character arcs. How do the characters change, especially the protagonist? How does the protagonist’s wound get in the way of his goal? What does the character have to learn, or heal, in order to defeat the antagonist? When thinking about any character arc try to relate it to the theme of the story, remembering that the theme is the pilot that flies the tale to its final destination.

In The Land Below, Paulie, the story’s reluctant hero, has to overcome his lowly social status as an orphan and lead a band of rebellious teenagers to the surface against the opposition of the ruling elders. To do this he has to accept his leadership role by acknowledging his past.

I next expand the story premise into a beginning, middle and end—Act I, II and III. I generate the main story beats and place them into a logical sequence within each act. The beats now have a direction, all pointing to the theme.

Lastly, I think about how I will write each scene based on such beats. I remind myself that most scenes should start late and end early. I ask, what goal must each character try to achieve in each scene? How does this goal fit into the character’s overall purpose?

But because the character has both an outer and an inner life I also ask: What is the character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene and how is it conveyed to the reader through his demeanour?

How do the competing goals of the characters in the scene create conflict between them? What are they hiding from each other? Finally, what is the outcome of the conflict? Who is the winner and who is the loser? How does the outcome of the scene change their original demeanour?

These questions help to keep scenes focused.

Taken as a whole, these steps are enough to get me started on a new story. Perhaps you may find such an approach useful too?

Summary

Review essential skills and clarify foundational elements as a way of preparing your story prior to writing it.


How does location influence your story?

Location influence – this is particularly apparent in Interstellar.

How much does your choice of place or location influence your story?

The short answer is—significantly. My advice, therefore, is to write about places you are familiar with in order to retain a sense of realism.

But this is not always possible. Your story might demand exotic locations you’ve never visited, or include character types you’ve never encountered. After all, not many of us have flown into outer space or tangled with aliens.

Thankfully, we have research and imagination to rescue us, because, make no mistake, location deeply influences plot and character. Without an understanding of the physics of acceleration on weightlessness, stories such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys, Interstellar, and countless of others, would not have been as convincing.

“The influence of location on your story should not be underestimated. Location shapes the narrative by placing unique temporal and spatial constraints upon it.”

In Before the Light, much of the plot taps into the challenges that space presents to the crew of the space station, Gravity. The story which unfolds in this inhospitable environment, coupled with a seemingly rogue quantum computer, would not be as effective if it took place on earth.

The Great Gatsby required an understanding of 1920’s America, including prohibition, in order to tap into the ambience and motivation of the plot and characters.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula would not work without the cavernous castle in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, or the English setting of the protagonist’s love interest.

In short, write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the locations you intend to describe, watch documentaries on the subject, or conduct interviews with people who are familiar with it. Your writing will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Since location does indeed influence the story, write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps through imagination and meticulous research.

Strong Emotions – how to use them in your stories.

Strong emotions - F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master at using emotions to draw his readers into his narratives, as evidenced in stories such as This Side of Paradise.

Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.


Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.

“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …” 

”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”

What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.

He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.

Summary

Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.

So, you’re a budding writer?

Wild, Wild West draws on Western and Science-Fiction tropes, expanding the palette of what budding writers could write about.
Wild, Wild West draws on Western and Science-Fiction tropes, expanding the canvas for budding writers.

In my introductory classes on storytelling I often ask budding writers, why do you want to write?

The answers vary – a love for storytelling, a love for reading and movies, the need to make money, the belief that ‘I think I’d be good at it’, and the like.

The next question I ask is: What do you want to write about?

The answer is not as forthcoming, especially for new writers who have not yet found their niche. Some write in certain genres because of their popularity. But strict adherence to genre can often constrain the imagination. A western utilises must-have items such as guns, horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, although such stories can be made more flexible through genre-mixing. For example, Wild, Wild West, blends science-fiction and the western, expanding the canvas.

“Budding writers, on their way to finding their unique style, would do well to identify the themes that they feel passionate about and make them their hallmark.”

There are also writers who prefer to avoid sticking to specific genres, dwelling instead on the ethereal spaces between genres—writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. Their stories tend to distinguish themselves not through the spectacle of explosive events but through a unique style, imaginative language, and an unwavering focus on detail.

Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked that she finds inspiration everywhere—that people make up their own stories about life and the world, according to their taste or chance encounters.

Others use more deliberate methods.

Ransom Riggs collected old photographs as a child because he was fascinated by photography. It wasn’t long before he noticed patterns in these photos. The patterns inspired an idea for a factual book. Prompted by his editor, however, he repurposed the idea as fiction, something he had never written before. The result? Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer is to write about the themes I care most about. After all, it is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound. Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Before the Light, a science-fiction novella, for example, is a tale about a quantum computer conflicted over revealing what it has learnt about the origins of the universe because it fears the effect this will have on a divided humanity on the brink of war.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative resonates with emotions that we recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right. 

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and personal discovery. 

My advice to emerging writers then is to write about recurring themes as an aid to developing their unique voice.

Summary

Budding writers should develop the themes they are most passionate about, even as they seek to develop their own distinctive voice.

Story Magic- how to conjure it

Story Magic in Gladiator
Story magic in Gladiator

Story magic is conjured through the spell of structure.

Structure shapes narrative events by regulating the flow of information through a series of well-placed twists and turns, counterbalancing suspense with surprise, lighter moments with darker ones, while simultaneously showcasing character.

But how closely must one focus on the nuts and bolts of structure while engaged in the process of writing itself? Surely it’s difficult to be creative while entertaining such distractions?

“Seeking to conjure story magic without a wand is a hit and miss affair. You could have it in you, but you probably don’t.”

The point is that the magic of the story is forged inside the cauldron of structure. So, while it may seem that scenes flow spontaneously from our brains, for most of us, such scenes, spring from a deep knowledge of the craft. We should study story structure at every opportunity.

We all have different ways of accessing this knowledge. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘inciting incident’ and ‘first turning point’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to range over past exemplars to glean how other writers have navigated similar terrain.

A screenplay such as Gladiator did not spring fully formed from the minds of Ridley Scott, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson. The story was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book, Those About to Die. The film script itself was first written by Franzoni, but was bought by DreamWorks, and Ridley Scott was signed on to direct the film. Its solid structure, a collective effort, is so deeply embedded in the story that it remains largely invisible to the audience—no doubt one of the contributing factors of the film’s success.

I have previously noted that my own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence—a lack of rhythm, which tells me I may have missed a structural beat, that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my imagination, I often jut out an elbow, or thrust out a hip as I try to predict changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance, a kind of free flowing stream that bestows shape through bends, turns—through changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth—that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not break the spell.

Summary

Story magic is conjured through a deep awareness of story structure. Structure shapes the tale but remains invisible to readers and audiences.