Category Archives: Story Structure

How to Pace Your Story

The Darkest Moment:

The Darkest Moment:

One of the reasons that we, as story tellers, need to master structure is so that we may position our narrative events, the high and lows, tension and release, in a way that keeps our readers and audience on their toes. Too much of a good or bad thing makes for boring stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular structural element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act, way after the midpoint has occurred, the writer needs to craft a low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point, which unleashes the third act, the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom, and others have called the lowest ebb, or the darkest moment of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’s phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet—that he will never find what he seeks and that his destiny will forever remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic, but safe, hometown.

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he earlier thought he wanted to be rid of.

Although these examples are triggered by outer journey events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero down to the deepest depths of doubt and despair, the story positions itself to tell of a final resurgence that is uplifting and engaging—a story with exciting variations, highs and lows which will keep readers and audiences breathless with anticipation.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It occurs before the beginning of the end, and defines the point in the outer and inner journey where the Hero seems the furthest from achieving his goal.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Image: Florent Lannoy
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Write Decision and Action Scenes

The Decision Scene in a story usually follows the Realisation Scene – the subject of last week’s post. The Action Scene, in turn, is most often preceded by the Decision Scene, forming a realisation-decision-action structure. Although this structure varies greatly in stories – other material might intervene – the scenes are causally connected.

Deciding

Deciding

The Decision Scene

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if the Relisation Scene leads directly into action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear abrupt and forced. Sandwiching a Decision Scene between realisation and action, avoids this error:

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo (Keano Reeves) decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the world of Agent Smith and the machines. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

Action

Action

The Action Scene

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Why Obstacles are Good for Stories: Directing Story Traffic

Obstacles

Obstacles

What is Story Traffic?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the development and structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, which should be as surprising as it is inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience/reader guessing, and inevitable, because it has been deftly prepared for by the writer. Another way to view turning points is as obstacles, blocking the way to the protagonist’s goal, forcing a change in direction.

What of the Midpoint?

Typically, a story contains a beginning, middle, and end, and therefore, two major turning points — one which introduces the middle section (or act ii,) and one which introduces the last section (or act iii). But because this middle section tends to be the longest, it often needs to be split further through the use of a midpoint, also discussed previous posts, in effect, creating two more sections. The midpoint, too, may be regarded as a turning point, with one proviso — that it presents the protagonist with a moral choice, a moment of illumination, which once accepted, changes him. Henceforth, the protagonist’s actions take on board this insight, for good or ill, and guide his actions to the story’s conclusion.

What specific forms, then, do turning points/obstacles take? I offer the following for your consideration:

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journeys respectively. In the best stories, they operate simultaneously. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has then to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has clearly more on his hands than the physical task alone.

Obstacle Types

Obstacles may stop the established external/internal flow of events dead in its tracks, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may reverse the flow completely, in a 180 degree about-turn. What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins.

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point and Source Code, to replay the story from the same starting point.

Deflection, or expansion, is by far the most common form of turning point/obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the overall parameters of the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s (Clint Eastwood) intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one, albeit in the same vain.

In Summary

Turning points introduce major new sections of your story by presenting new information that is as surprising as it is inevitable. There are three main types of turning point — dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Strengthen the Middle Part of a Story

In The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the second act of your story, being the longest and the one containing the most conflict and complications, needs special handling. Here, novice, or even experienced writers, are most likely to wonder off track and end up at a dead end. The midpoint, or the moment of illumination, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post, is that moment in which the Protagonist receives new information that allows him or her to proceed from a changed moral or ethical perspective to the second turning point. In the first half, the Protagonist pursues the goal based on negative traits. In the second half, he or she realizes that the best way forward is through the activation of positive traits inherent in his or her personality.

The Pinch

Dividing the second act into two sections allows for additional structure on either side of the midpoint. Field calls this structure the “pinch” in that it brings together the threads in each half in a way which keeps the story on track by driving the action on to the mid-point, and plot point II.

An Unmarried Woman

In An Unmarried Woman, the young, unhappily married Erica (Jill Clayburgh), enrolls in art classes and has an affair with her teacher, Saul. Against her will, she falls in love with him, then discovers she is pregnant. Torn between her lover and her husband, she decides to leave both and raise her child on her own.

The inciting incident occurs when Erica’s husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), asks Erica for a divorce. This leads to the first turning point when she begins art classes and meets Saul (Alan Bates). Pinch I marks the start of her relationship with her teacher. The mid-point occurs when she finally has sex with him. Pinch II describes her realization that she has fallen in love with Saul, while plot point II occurs when she discovers that she is pregnant with his child. These events clearly illustrate the strong relationship that both pinches share with the first and second tuning points respectively — often one of cause and effect: in An Unmarried Woman, Erica’s sexual relationship with Saul is a direct result of her starting art classes (tuning point I), while her realizing that she is pregnant with his child (turning point II) follows from her having fallen in love with him (pinch II). Including these structural entities not only ensures consistency in narrative incident, but also ensures that you have something to aim for as you seek to structure the longest part of your story.

In Summary

Pinches occur on either side of the mid-point. Each is strongly related to the turning point nearest to it, helping to ensure narrative consistency.