Category Archives: Story Structure

Pace your Story by Writing Contrasting Scenes.

The Godfather achieves one of the most disturbing scene sequences in all of cinema through the pace of the intercutting of a baby being baptised in a Catholic Church with the violent murder of the Corleone family’s enemies across the city.
Mastery of pace: The Godfather achieves one of the most disturbing scene sequences in all of cinema through the intercutting of a baby’s baptism in a Catholic Church with the violent murder of the Corleone family’s enemies across the city.

How do you determine the pace of a story? How many scenes do you include in a good script? The two questions are related.

Some screenplays have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred. In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Some scenes are extremely short. They include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or bridging scenes such as entering a lift. These scenes are meant to locate a character in a specific time and place or get her from A to B. Most scenes engaged with plot and character development, however, span several pages.

Film scripts that are comprised of a handful of long scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that includes hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

“Contrast one scene with another to regulate the pace of the story. Your scenes will feel less monotonous and more engaging for it.”

One way to pace a story is to balance scenes through contrast and length. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones. 

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This speeds up the action and prevents a sense of sameness that leads to boredom. 

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In The Godfather, a Catholic baptism in a church is intercut with the Corleone family’s enemies being gunned down across the city in a frenzy of violence. The slow-moving church ritual is in sharp contrast to the mob violence. This creates shock and awe in the audience. Having brutality play out at length on its own would have produced a monotonous beat.

Contrasting the pace, length and texture within and across scenes, then, creates an appropriate rhythm and movement—quite simply, the scenes feel right. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to monotony and boredom.

Exercise: Read through several scenes you’ve written. Does the pace, texture and mood vary from one scene to the other, or do the scenes feel the same in these registers? If the latter, try changing the above-mentioned parameters in consecutive scenes and watch your story perk up!

Side note: If you’re interested in learning more about the hero’s arc, with examples from the movies, check out my latest video on YouTube! How to Write the Hero’s Arc.

How turning the story engages the audience

The Matrix is a master class on turning the narrative to achieve intrigue, surprise and engagement.
The Matrix is a masterclass on turning the narrative to achieve intrigue, surprise and engagement.

Turning points in stories are events that twist the narrative in unexpected ways.

There are two types—major turning points that occur towards the end of the first and second acts, and a medley of minor ones that twist dramatic beats to create a zig-zagging effect within an act.

Here is a list of the sort of twists and turns that can occur in the narrative. Determining what sort they are depends on how strongly they turn the plot:

1. An unexpected problem arises which causes the hero to approach his goal from a different direction.
2. An important resource is lost.
3. A sidekick or friend swaps sides.
4. A lie is revealed.
5. A past mistake resurfaces to complicate matters.
6. The trust in a friend is lost.
7. An alternative plan emerges to rival the existing one.
8. The hero loses faith in his ability to achieve the goal.

“Turning the story through the use of surprise keeps the tale unpredictable and the audience engaged.”

Again, the beat type is determined by where it occurs in the narrative and how strong it is—how severely it causes a change in the original plan (such as an unexpected problem derailing the hero’s path to the goal). Story-altering beats are known as turning points.

In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s realisation that his life has been nothing more than a simulation, is a major turning point that spins the story into the second act. 

A twist such as the hero losing faith in his ability to achieve his goal, however, represents a temporary pause in his journey. It does not reach the level of a turning point, but is a good candidate for a mid-point, where, typically, the hero questions his strength and ability to pursue the goal.

Other twists, such as a lie being revealed, or a sidekick changing sides, represent an ajustement to the path, but do not necessarily constitute a derailment. 

Exercise: In a story you have written—is the event at the end of the first or second act strong enough to cause the next act? Do the smaller dramatic beats within your acts contain elements of surprise?

Summary

Turning the flow of your narrative helps to keep your readers and audiences engaged in your story.

Character actions and the character arc

Perfectly Calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.
Perfectly calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.

I have often talked about the need to align your hero’s actions against the character arc if a story is to be believable. I emphasised that the quality of a character’s actions depends on that character’s state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity, often through pain and suffering.

But where and how does the writer incorporate this alignment?

The short answer is that the alignment should be checked at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution. 

Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.

It is now easier to align actions and events on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.

“Character actions feel authentic when they arise as a result of the state of moral and technical knowledge at specific points along the character’s arc.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage, struggles to defeat an alien enemy that can see into the future. Cage is killed, but his reality is reset, affording him an opportunity to try again. But to no avail. He keeps getting things wrong. He keeps dying. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves and decides to sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation. His actions have been perfectly aligned to his character arc.

In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the truth about his inability to escape his environment only when he embraces his identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist. His previous actions have been ineffective largely because of his lack of self-awareness.

In both cases actions that lead to progress only occur when the deeper truth about a character’s inner life is exposed and understood.

Summary

Calibrate character actions along the pivotal points in your story to keep them in sync.

Desire and fear in stories

Desire and fear in Breaking Bad—one of the best tv series ever!
Desire and fear in Breaking Bad—one of the best tv series ever!

Since character is fundamental to storytelling, it is helpful to understand the intricate relationship between character, action and story on a scene-by-scene basis—and that involves understanding the role of desire and fear in initiating action.

I propose a schema in which the writer inputs both the character’s (1) desire for the goal, and (2) his fear in trying to achieve it, (informed by present challenges as well as past wounds), into a kind of story-mixing device which then (3) motivates the character, resulting in (4) action. Action, in turn, blends with that of other characters, resulting in (5) narrative events that comprise the story.

Too often, we get lost in the story we want to tell. This can turn our characters into mere puppets serving the plot. What is useful about this schema is that it forces us to think about a character’s motivation for the actions he initiates. It draws our attention to the character’s inner life—his wounds, hopes and fears. 

“Desire and fear plug into motivation, which initiates character action.”

Further, if we apply the schema at the major turning points of the story—the first turning point, the mid point, the second turning point and the climax—we can more effectively combine the physical journey of the tale with the inner journey of the protagonist and other characters. 

Additionally, the schema is expandable. It forces us to think about the character’s  past—to ask, what are the roots of his hopes and fears? In short, it encourages us to think about backstory elements that help explain his motivation.

Consider the scene in which Breaking Bad’s Walter White steps inside the den of the psychopathic drug dealer, Tuco, to retrieve the meth Tuco stole from his partner, Jesse Pinkman after beating him up. What Walter really wants, however, is for Tuco to distribute his meth. Walter is patted down by Tuco’s goons and seems destined for the same treatment Jessie received.

What is Walter’s motivation for such a seemingly foolish, suicidal mission? 

Let’s analyse this powerful scene in terms of our schema: Walter’s (1) desire is to get Tuco to pay for the meth he stole, compensate Jesse for the beating he gave him, and agree to distribute the meth Walter and Jesse produce. His (2) fear is that Tuco will kill him there and then! His (3) motivation for the (4) action that follows stems from his growing confidence, based on the quality of his product and the opportunity to build up his meth business through Tuco.

He threatens Tuco that if he does not let him leave unharmed he will blow every one up with the chemicals he has brought with him disguised as meth. To prove his point he throws a shard of ‘product’ on the floor causing an explosion. (5) The result is that not only does Tuco pay Walter for the meth he stole from Jesse, he pays for having beaten him up too. What’s more, Tuco orders a large shipment of meth from Walter and agrees to pay up front for it! Walter has more than succeeded in gaining his goal.

This is a brilliant scene, from a brilliant series, and one that can be understood by applying the input-output schema I have offered above. 

Exercise: Pluck out the protagonist from one of your stories. Ensure that your protagonist exhibits a mixture of desire and fear which motivates his actions, especially at the turning points.

Summary

Input a character’s desire and fear into the mix to determine that character’s motivation for action.

The status of well rounded characters

A rich resource for writing well rounded characters.
A rich resource for writing well rounded characters.

I have written at some length about the importance of well rounded characters since they are foundational to storytelling. Today I want to focus on a word that points to an essential aspect of character dynamics—status

Thinking about well rounded characters and their interaction in terms of a social, cultural, economic and physical dynamic is helpful because it often resolves into a conflict predicated upon differences in status.

In this sense the status of a character, relative to others, directs his response to a threat or bounty.  It is a powerful generator of subtext—a boon to any story.

Status is in itself neither good nor bad, but it does mean that the character exhibiting it is the prime mover in a scene. The status-laden character’s desire for a specific goal drives the beats in a scene. It also means that this character has the most to lose if his status is diminished and will therefore fight to keep it.

“Well rounded characters exhibit behaviour that reflects their status.”

In his chapter, What No One Is Teaching You About Characterization (The Complete Book of Novel Writing: Readers Digest), Steven James provides a list of polarities that define the status of characters.

The list could be extended almost indefinitely, but you get the idea. The point is that power is communicated through a variety of physical and psychological signals expressed in carefully chosen words and actions. These signals can be exhibited by villains and heroes alike. Be sure to fully utilise them in your scenes as your characters vie for dominance or survival.

Exercise: Select several scenes you have written. Can you identify the status of each character? How does the power dynamic between them shape their interaction? How is this communicated to the reader?

Summary

Well rounded characters lie at the foundation of impactful writing. The status of each helps to determine the power dynamic between them.

The power of setting – how to tap into it

The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.
The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.

ONE way to tap into the power of setting in your stories is to place your characters in locations that add to the mood, and more specifically, locations that raise the tension.

In 2001 A Space Odyssey, the HAL computer turns against its human crew. HAL, who controls all systems on the space station, has even more power over them, given the hostile environment of space.

In Wuthering Heights, the brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect backdrop for the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a character in the story as any of the players.

“Tap into the power of setting by treating it as if it were another character—dangerous and even more ubiquitous.”

In Edge of Tomorrow Lt. Col. Bill Cage’s initial narcissism and cowardliness is accentuated by placing him in a war environment against alien beings. A time loop causes him to relive the conflict innumerable times, a conflict in which he is repeatedly brought back from the dead to learn from his mistakes.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the peaceful village of Mission Beach forms a perfect contrast to the violence of cyclone Yasi and the protagonist’s self-realisation, which occurs at the height of the drama. Setting the story in a busier town or city would lessen the impact.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, situate your characters in spaces that feed the plot and increase the dramatic tension between them.

Exercise: Pick a story that you’ve written. Where does the drama unfold? Does the location add to the danger and tension? If not, consider relocating the story to a more hostile environment

Summary: Utilise the power of setting by having it add to the danger, tension and conflict between your characters.

Character arc structure at a glance

James Scott Bell’s character arc structure.
James Scott Bell’s character arc structure

Typically, a protagonist in a story grows—at the very least he changes. The hero at the beginning of a tale is no longer the same person in terms of his skills and self-awareness he is at the end.


Making this change believable involves aligning the character’s actions to his inner growth. This is a point I have made several times on this site, though it bares repeating:

A change in self-awareness must lead to a change in the quality of a character’s actions.

In his chapter, The Arc Within The Plot (Creating Characters, the Complete Guide: Reader’s Digest), James Scott Bell explores the process in some depth. He provides the following example, which, I paraphrase here:

If your story is going to feature four major incidents in the life of a criminal—the crime, time in jail, a trial and sentence, and an aftermath in prison, create a table with four columns. In the first column, “The Crime,” briefly describe who your character is on the inside.

Next, go to the last column, “Prison.” Describe how the character has changed at the end. What has been his life lesson? Now go back and fill in the other columns to show a progression toward that final outcome. Create incidents powerful enough to justify the shifts in the character.

The character arc structure table will give you ideas for scenes that illustrate your character’s growth, which, in turn, will deepen your story. Start with the first and last events, then go back and fill in the middle parts.

“Use the character arc structure to help make your protagonist’s actions believable by mapping the growth in self-awareness to the lessons provided by outer events.”

In Scott Bell’s example, the columns show growth that culminates in a shift in character values.

The Crime.Jail. Trial and Sentence.Prison.
Initially without pity, cynical.Mistreated, but helped by another con.Has to face the victims of his crime.Compassion and empathy are what is needed in the world.
Changes his opinion of other prisoners.Witness testimony shows him how he’s wasted his life so far. This sets the course for a future transformation. Proven by how he treats a prison guard.
The character arc structure table.

In this example, then, the protagonist has gone from being cynical and callous to someone who regrets his criminal acts and comes to feel compassion for other people—even his jailers. The progression occurs through a series of impactful events. Tabling the events and tying them to inner growth helps to structure a believable transformation of the character.

Exercise: Review a story you’ve written. Can you tabulate four (or more) major events and correlate them to your protagonist’s shifting values and perceptions? If not try to do so.


Summary

One way to lay out the character arc structure is to map major events impacting your protagonist against his inner transformation.

What makes for enduring writing?

Leo Tolstoy and enduring writing.
Leo Tolstoy’s relentless search for enduring values at the expense of religious dogma led to his excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church.

What makes for enduring writing? Is it style or subject matter? Perhaps both?


But if, as is certainly the case, style and subject matter are tied to the changing ethos of the times, how may we judge the merits of the old against the new, given this flux?

Even so, most scholars would agree that the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, and Steinbeck are indeed great writers, even though their work is as different as Baroque music is different from Rock & Roll.

Some timeless, unchanging standard must surely be at play here.

“Enduring writing stays relevant less from style and content and more from the values it encapsulates.”

Although some scholars argue against the validity of universal values, such values do exist and have always done so. Foundational thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love ennoble us as a species. They form the bedrock of civilization.

Throughout history great writers have served as humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the undying relevance of such values. They have written stories that chart the dire consequences of love being supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition, and the like. They have warned us that blind ambition can lead to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth); they have shown how a cathedral’s newly added spire might collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire); they have chronicled how families and villages are torn apart by greed (The Pearl).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal values and the warning against negating them that renders writing immortal.

Long may it continue to do so.

Exercise: Examine a story you have written. Jot down its theme. (The theme usually contains the value system of the tale.) Do the values in your story rise to the level of a universal truth? If not, consider changing the theme to suit.

Summary

Enduring writing contains superlative style and content, but more importantly, it affirms high universal values.

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

Invitation

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Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.