Category Archives: Story Structure

Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity in Writing

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

If brevity, clarity, simplicity are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is full of laconic one-liners that crisply capture the essence of the characters.

Who can forget the Sundance Kid’s film-defining line: “I’ll do anything you want me to but I won’t watch you die.”

Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short.

Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, there’s nowhere better.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays: the use of verbs that capture the essence of character in the action block, and the use of metaphor in character descriptions.

Here are three examples of weak verbs:

1. Benjamin looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he frown, gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

2. Claire enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Claire enter the room? Does she stride, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

3. Olivia stands waiting.

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care.

Brevity, clarity, simplicity at work

Consider this character description from one of my stories:

I started with: “SAMUEL is big and muscular, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “SAMUEL is built like an earthmoving truck, but can turn on a dime.”

or…

“A well-dressed John Flyn pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“John Flyin pads into the room, a panther in an Armani suit.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Use brevity, clarity, simplicity in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood

The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

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ALL great stories have a moral premise – a deep structure that shapes the narrative from below the surface of the novel or film.

The moral premise is why writers write stories. It is the expression of cause and effect seen from an ethical and moral perspective.

“The Moral Premise exists at a level below the plot, shaping narrative actions and their consequences according to its own internal logic.”

Some of the writers have only a vague notion of their moral premise upon commencing their stories. They know there will be good characters, evil characters and in-between characters, and they leave it at that, choosing, rather, to concentrate on the machinations of the plot. After all, the plot is where all the visceral, sticky, fun stuff happens.

Yet, the moral premise is inherent in every story whether we consciously put it there or not. It should, therefore, be as much a part of our conscious intent as the plot. Ignoring it may result in our thinking we are writing one sort of story while we are really writing another.

Even more importantly, the moral premise helps us understand the reason our protagonist acts in the way that he does. It helps us craft the trajectory of the story.

The Moral Premise in There will be Blood

In There Will Be Blood we follow the consequences of what happens when Daniel Plainview, a man with no scruples or morals, gains wealth and power through oil. His initial charitable act of adopting the son of one of his workers who has been killed in a drilling accident, soon gives way to relentless self-interest.

He sends the boy away because he has become deaf in yet another drilling accident and is now a burden to his operations. The boy later returns, but as Plainview sinks deeper into the mire he becomes incapable of maintaining friendships or family bonds.

He murders the man who has claimed to be his long-lost half-brother when he discovers he is an imposter. He rejects his adopted son when he learns that he wants to make his own way in the oil business. And finally, he murders Eli Sunday, the evangelist with whom he has been butting heads over land and oil.

If we take the moral premise of the film to be that the pursuit of wealth and power, at the expense of love and family, leads to loneliness and defeat, we can place each scene in the story along a trajectory that finally ends in Plainview lying drunk in the bowling alley in his home – bloodied, spent, alone. In a sense, he is as dead as the body of Eli Sunday sprawled next to him – the man he has just murdered with a bowling pin.

Summary

The moral premise guides the writer in identifying and placing narrative incidents along a trajectory in a story.

How to Contrast Scenes in Scripts and Novels

ScriptsHow many scenes are necessary in writing good scripts? In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger notes that this number varies. Some 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.

Contrasting Scenes in Scripts and Novels

Some scenes are extremely short. Those include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or the inside of a vehicle. These are meant to place the viewer or reader in a specific time and place. Others, engaged with plot and character development occur over several pages.

Film scripts that comprise of only a handful of 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 runs into hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

The secret to a well-paced story is to balance scenes through contrast. 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 prevents the 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 my own novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, scenes that enact the slow pace of a man in physical and moral stasis are contrasted with the immense force of a category five cyclone that threatens to destroy the protagonist’s world.

Summary

Contrasting the number and texture of scenes creates rhythm and movement. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to stasis and boredom.

What is Storytelling?

StorytellingStorytelling, as Robert McKee succinctly tells us, is the creative demonstration of truth.

A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then probe your idea … without explanation.

The Moral Theme in Storytelling

This idea, I would further argue, must contain a moral premise – a guiding moral principle that traces the consequences of character actions in the story. We can also think of this as the theme of the story.

Think about the crime genre. What idea, or moral premise lies at its core? How about: Crime does not pay?

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite and on-the-nose dialogue. Do not write:

“You see, Frank? I told you. Crime does not pay!”

Terrible.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, or crimes, then expose the consequences.

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how crime, in this instance, manufacturing meth, draws in those directly involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from several angles. The protagonist represents one angle. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining angle, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proved – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral idea, wins or loses the conflict to the antagonist.

In my novel, The Land Below, for example, the correctness or incorrectness of Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine, a decision which will result in his being banished from the community, can only be established at the end of the novel.

If things go well for Paulie and his followers, then the theme of the story might be: Courage, imagination and steadfastness lead to freedom. If things go badly, then the theme might be: daydreams and stubbornness lead to defeat.

As with all stories, the outcome can only be established at the end. It is only then that the reader can definitely say what the story has really been about.

Summary

Storytelling is the process of narrating events that prove a moral theme.

Exploring the Story Network III

Story Networks

In this third and final post on understanding story networks, we look at the dynamic relationship that exists between the 2nd turning point, climax, and denouement.

The 2nd Turning Point & Climax

The 2nd Turning Point spins the story around in a new direction by introducing fresh information, which, in turn, announces and seeds the third and final act. The purpose of act iii is to bring matters to a head, preferably in a final do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist (Hero) and the antagonist, resolve loose ends, prepare the way for a return to the ordinary or changed world, and offer a moral statement in the form of the theme. The relationship of the 2nd turning point to the climax is one of growing dramatic intensity along the path set out by the 2nd turning point, revved up by a constant upping of the stakes, which by definition, involves twists, turns, and surprises, albeit of a less severe nature than those of the turning points themselves.

The Climax and Denouement

Resolving loose ends is precisely the function of the denouement. The final battle between the Hero and antagonist has ended, the Hero has returned in victory or defeat to a changed, or ordinary world, and the theme of the story has been determined. The relationship between the climax and Denouement, is, therefore, one of resolution and explanation.

Summary

The relationship of the 2nd turning point to the climax is one of mounting intensity, inflected by small twists and surprises; the relationship between the climax and denouement is one of resolution and explanation.

This series of posts has examined the main structural nodes of a story, not as lone units performing static tasks, but as nodes whose full function is revealed only when viewed collectively as a dynamic network, with each node defining itself by virtue of its relationships to the nodes before and after it.

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Exploring the Story Network II

Network Connections

Network Connections

The main structural hoists between the 1st and 2nd turning points are: the 1st pinch, the midpoint, and the 2nd pinch. In this post, we explore the dynamic relationship that exists between these structures.

1st Pinch, 1st Turning Point, & Midpoint

The 1st pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs about halfway through the first part of act ii and the midpoint. It helps to keep things moving by propelling events toward the midpoint and the moment of illumination that occurs there. The 1st pinch feeds off the 1st turning point, reminding us of what is at stake. Its relationship to the 1st turning point, therefore, is not of one of surprise or deviation, but of reiteration. This is because the 1st turning point has already changed the story’s direction and the task of the 1st pinch is to keep the story on track by subtly and adroitly reminding us of this fact, not to surprise us by introducing yet another change in direction.

2nd Pinch & 2nd Turning Point

The 2nd pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs halfway between the midpoint and the end of act ii. As with the 1st pinch, the 2nd pinch keeps the story on track by revisiting, through a single scene, or scene sequence, the (changed) concerns of the story and propels it towards the 2nd turning point. The relationship between the 2nd pinch and the 2nd turning point, however, is now one of deviation and surprise, since the task of the 2nd turning point is to spin the story around in a different direction by introducing a new challenge, or by deepening the existing one in a game of rising stakes.

1st & 2nd Pinch Symmetry

Sometimes a strong symmetry obtains between the 1st and 2nd pinch. In his book, The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field points to an example of such symmetry in the film, Thelma and Louise. The 1st pinch occurs when the two girls pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt) who then proceeds to steal their money (at the Midpoint). The 2nd pinch occurs when J.D. is picked up by the police and rats on the two women by telling the cops that the women are headed for Mexico, thus sealing their fate.

Summary

Pinches 1 & 2 are scenes or scene sequences that keep the story on track by reminding the reader or audience of the central concerns of the story initiated by the 1st turning point. The relationship of the 1st pinch to the 1st turning point is one of reiteration; that of the 2nd pinch to the 2nd turning point is one of surprise and deviation.

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Exploring the Story Network I

Structural Links

Structural Links

Understanding story structure involves different stages of learning. The first stage is to identify, name, and understand the function of each narrative component. We learn that a turning point, for example, spins the story in a different direction, and we learn that in a typical story there are two such turning points. But looking at individual elements in this way provides us with a static picture. It tells us what the elements do, and where they occur, individually, but not how they interact with each other to produce a cohesive and dynamic narrative. This is very much a case of the sum of the parts being less than the whole: we cannot unlock the full meaning of a text unless we trace the links between the narrative elements, understand that they form a network, and explore how that network functions. Individual structural units, seen in isolation, therefore, surrender less information than they do when studied as a network. The following series of posts tries to remedy this situation by exploring these important interrelationships, starting with the inciting incident and the first tuning point. For the purposes of this post, the typical starting point – the ordinary world – is treated as given.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident, we are reminded, is an event that gets the story rolling. It usually occurs after the ordinary world of the Hero has been established and takes the form of a disturbance to the status quo of this world. The inciting incident is often mistaken as the start of the story, precisely because it jump-starts the tale by relating its first significant event. In media res beginnings, the inciting incident replaces the introduction to the ordinary world, injecting a sense of excitement and urgency at the start of the story at the expense of context.

The First Turning Point

The first turning point is the true start of the story because it presents new information which forces the Hero to respond to a challenge, opportunity, or threat, hatch a plan, and embark on a series of actions to implement this plan which affect the entire story. It differs from the inciting incident in that it introduces information that spins the story in a different direction than that suggested by the inciting incident.

Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: First Link in the Network

The relationship of the inciting incident to the first turning point, is, therefore, one of deviation resulting from a surprising and unexpected change – a rotation, or alteration to the path initiated by the inciting incident. One can only understand the inciting incident, therefore, by relating it to the ordinary world before it, and the first turning point ahead of it, just as one can only understand the first turning point in relation to the inciting incident and the structural nodes ahead of it – but more of that in next week’s post.

Summary

Understanding structure relies not only on an understanding of discreet structural units, but of the links that exist between them. Each structural node exists in a dynamic relationship to the other nodes in the narrative network and can, therefore, only be understood in relation to the overall network.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure II

This is the second and final installment of The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure.

Must-Have Scenes

Must-Have Scenes

Second Pinch

As mentioned previously, pinches are scenes located within act II that remind us of the major concerns of the story. Their main propose is to keep the story on track. If the first pinch in The Matrix has Neo fail to leap successfully to the adjacent building, the second has him reel in a helicopter via an attached cable. The second pinch is related to the first, then, in that it revisits and develops the concerns posed by the first.

The Second Turning Point

As with the first turning point, this structural device turns the story around in an unexpected way. Up to now, the Hero has accepted a challenge or opportunity, acquired a goal, grown through moral insight, and pressed forward towards achieving that goal, despite mounting obstacles. Now, a new situation arises – usually prompted by antagonistic forces – that ups the stakes, forcing a reassessment of, and adjustment to, the original goal. The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny learns that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), his best friend, has died at the hands of the sheriff; Munny, who has already fulfilled his contract, has no choice but to expand his goal and seek revenge on all those who participated in Ned’s death.

The Climactic Scene

This scene, also known as the must-have confrontational scene, pits the Hero and antagonist against each other in a fight to the finish (either literally, or metaphorically). Its outcome establishes the theme of the story – for example, that good triumphs over evil. In The Matrix Neo is resurrected through the power of love and faith, symbolised by a kiss.

The Resolution or Denouement Scene

In a typical conventional story with an up-ending, the Denouement Scene ties up loose ends, answers earlier questions, and unites the Hero with his community and love-interest. In a down-ending, the Hero is defeated in some important way – he may, for example, win the battle but lose the war, lose some moral or spiritual aspect of himself, fail to win the girl, leave questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Here, the theme may well be that evil triumphs over good, or that good guys finish last.

The Realisation Scene

I’ve left the mention of the Realisation Scene (see past post) till last, not because it necessarily occurs at the end of the story, but because it is a scene that injects new information about the plot – it allows the Hero to get at the truth. Most typically, the Realisation Scene (and its decision/action consequences) occurs at the first turning point, or the midpoint, or even as late as the second turning point, although this is less common, since it places the engaging and dynamic realisation-decision-action cluster towards the end of the story.

Summary

Story structure comprises of certain must-have, or master scenes, which form the undercarriage of the entire tale. Additionally, linking and transitional scenes abound. Other important scenes include the realisation-decision-action cluster, which can occupy any one of several points in the story, depending on the individual needs of the story itself.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure

Nuts & Bolts

Nuts & Bolts

For sometime now, I’ve been posting articles about such narrative elements as the introduction scene, the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the first and second pinches, the midpoint, realisation, decision, action, obligatory, and denouement scenes – in short, about the structural underpinnings of most stories. Of course, other linking and transitional scenes are dispersed in between these larger ones, but together, they coalesce to form a solid template for an entire tale. In this two-part post, I want to bring these elements together in order to present a snapshot of the overall shape of a typical story. What follows, then, is a simple, but useful summation of story structure:

Introduction Scene

With the exception of a medias res beginning (see past post), a typical story often starts with an introduction to the ordinary world of the Hero – this is the world before the initial disturbance. Here we learn about the Hero’s life and environment as it has existed for some time. This is our opportunity to get to know and empathise with the Hero in his or her natural habitat. In Unforgiven, for example, we see retired gunslinger and now struggling pig-farmer and widower, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), fighting to make ends meet in order to feed his two young children, and we begin to empathise with his plight.

Inciting Incident

Now, into this world, comes an unexpected opportunity, challenge, or threat, which disturbs the status-quo. The Hero may at first choose to ignore this event, or he/she may respond to it immediately. This is the inciting incident and is the event that kick-starts the story. In Unforgiven, the inciting incident occurs when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) asks William Munny to help hunt down and kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, an offer which Munny originally rejects, then decides to accept.

First Turning Point

The first turning point is a powerful structural event that spins the story around in a different direction; it avoids predictability and injects freshness into the tale. In The Matrix, the first turning point occurs when Neo (Keano Reeves) learns that the world he thought was real is actually a computer simulation, and that his body (and most other bodies) is slumbering inside a machine-constructed cocoon which continuously siphons energy from it. This new information necessarily changes the course of Neo’s life.

First Pinch

The first pinch typically occurs in the first half of act II, between the start of the act and the story’s midpoint. The pinch is a scene which reminds us of what’s at stake, thus helping to keep the longer act II on track. In The Matrix, a pinch occurs when Neo fails to leap successfully to an adjacent building and plummets to the ground. This reminds us that his training is not yet complete, but it also prompts us to ask whether Neo is indeed The One – the underlying question of the entire act and the story as a whole.

The Midpoint

The midpoint, also referred to as the moment of (moral) illumination (not to be confused with the realisation scene), occurs about halfway through act II, in effect, splitting this longest of the three acts into two units; in Braveheart, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), spends the initial part of the story avoiding involvement in the politics and troubles of his country. But at the midpoint, he receives a knighthood. This event, which is an outer manifestation of his acceptance of a moral duty to involve himself in the plight of his country – to help lead it to freedom from England – demarcates a change of attitude in Wallace. Henceforth, his actions, and the entire course of the story, will be informed by this moment of moral illumination.

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure concludes next week.

Summary

Story structure comprises of a set of must-have scenes that are interlinked by smaller transitional ones to form an overarching structure. Understanding the function and purpose of each scene provides the writer with a formal template for crafting a unique story at the level of content.

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Dramatic Structure: The Power of Three

Three Act Structure

Three Act Structure

We often refer to classic Hollywood screenplays as having a three act structure — the arrangement of a story around three pieces of narrative real-estate — but the root of this idea lies with Aristotle, and his notion that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This arrangement lies at the basis of almost all the traditional dramatic structure in storytelling, including the novel.

The Function of Each Act

Each act has a specific structural function to perform, which it does by organising the pace and depth of the information it releases to the reader or audience.

Act I

The function of act I is to set-up the story. It does this by establishing the main characters, time-period, and setting in which the story unfolds, and defining the goal, and the conflict which arises from the pursuit of the goal. This act, which contains the inciting incident — an event that sets it all in motion, sets the protagonist on his/her way to achieve the goal.

The act also defines the first step in examining the theme of the story. In The Matrix, for example, that question is whether human ingenuity, spiritual strength, self belief, and endurance, can defeat the seemingly impervious strength of the Machine world.

Act II

Act II is primarily concerned with developing the seeds that have been sown in the first act. This act deepens the conflict resulting from obstacles to the goal, while simultaneously developing the protagonist, and other characters, in response to these obstacles. This act is balanced by the mid-point, a moment in the story in which the protagonist considers whether or not to throw in the towel and turn back from the goal in the face of mounting difficulties. This decision is encouraged by an event which reveals a secret truth about the protagonist — some hidden strength or quality which equips him or her to face the challenges ahead with renewed resources.

The act continues to probe the thematic question, although it does not yet provide an answer to it. In The Matrix example, the answer to the final outcome of the battle between man and machine see-saws through many iterations, and remains unresolved. Act II is the longest, most intricate, and complicated part of the story.

Act III

Act III typically pays-off, and resolves, through the denouement, the questions and puzzles set up by the previous two acts. It answers the main dramatic question of whether the Hero will succeed in attaining his/her goal. The third act also settles the theme. If the theme of The Matrix is about whether or not self-sacrifice serves the greater good, the third movie in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, settles it in the affirmative, as a result of the final conflict.

Summary

A three act structure allows the writer to craft a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. All three acts have their own function to perform. They collaborate to produce the theme of the story, as a result of the final conflict in the third act.

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