The moral of the story – how it drives the tale

Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral premise: Crime leads to ultimate loss.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral of the story: Crime leads to ultimate loss.

A story is the result of a central idea, the moral of the story, that has been turned into powerful and visible action and projected on the page or screen.

The story’s events arise out of a mixture of character action motivated by outer challenges. It is the means by which the writer first expresses, then probes an idea.

Another way to put it is that character action must be driven by a moral premise – a guiding principle that traces the consequences of the action of characters in the story, as they try to achieve their goal. We can also think of this as the theme of the story. 

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

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite, on-the-nose dialogue, such as:

“You see, Frankie, my boy? It’s as I always said. Crime does not pay!”

This is too direct.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, then expose the character to the consequences of her actions.

“Every tale needs a clearly defined moral of the story to drive it. Its absence leaves the story rudderless.”

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how the crime of manufacturing meth, pushes those involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from differing perspectives. The protagonist represents one perspective. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining perspective, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proven – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral view, wins or loses the fight with the antagonist.

In The Land Below, for example, the judgement of whether Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine to reach the surface, can only be established at the end of the story. 

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 of the story. It is only then that the reader or audience can understand what the story is really about.

Summary

Narrative events describing character action in pursuit of a goal culminate in yielding the moral of the story.

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The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

How to write effective dialogue

Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds
Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds

So much has been said about how to craft effective dialogue that it is difficult to take it all in. This article distills the best advice into four powerful techniques

In his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain, stresses that dialogue performs four main functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

1. Dialogue reveals new information: Tell the audience what it needs to know to follow the story. The trick is to do it subtly. 

Inglorious Basterds is a great example of how to provide information while maintaining the tension. At the start of the movie a Nazi officer, Colonel Hans Landa, interviews a French farmer, monsieur LaPadite, about the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area—a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the floorboards where the interview is taking place! The tension and irony are palpable.

“Effective dialogue performs several functions, and does so in a seamless way.”

2. Dialogue generates emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should generate emotion. Failure to do so makes for flat, listless speech. In the above example, each line spoken by Landa heightens the stakes for LaPadite and his family, since discovering the Jewish family under the floorboards will lead to disaster.

3. Dialogue promotes the plot: Dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously—it should not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that Landa is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that Landa already knows the truth and is merely prolonging the questioning to torment the farmer.

4. Dialogue deepens character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. Colonel Landa, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially feels more like a conversation between friends than an interrogation. LaPadite, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial—part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Taken together, then, these functions make for effective dialogue—a great addition to a writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Effective dialogue performs four functions—it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

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The kind of writer I want to be …

Is Tolkien the kind of writer you want to be?
Is Tolkien the kind of writer you want to be?

One of the most important questions to ask yourself as you commence your pursuit of writing excellence is what kind of writer you want to be?

If you can’t answer this question off the bat, then ask yourself, what type of movies and novels do you enjoy? Art films and literary novels, or action-packed, genre-driven stories? The Piano and The Spire, or Fast and Furious and Gone Girl? The answer to this second question will nudge you into answering the first one—at least at this point of your writing journey.

“Don’t try to imitate writing that is popular, but is not to your taste. Write what you love to read or watch.”

Generally speaking, popular stories tend to focus on the outer journey—the visible struggle of the hero to attain some tangible goal: to save the world or his family; to uncover a hidden treasure; to overcome a difficult challenge and be rewarded with fame and fortune. 

Literary writing, by contrast, focuses on the inner journey—the hero’s struggle to achieve growth while being pitted against outer challenges, which lack the spectacle of, say, an alien invasion, but are nonetheless hugely impactful to the hero. John Steinbeck’s 1974 novel, The Pearl, for example, tells of the discovery of a large pearl that forever changes the life a poor fishing family, and the village they live in.

Some films and novels manage to strike a balance between literary depth and an exciting plot. Lord of the Rings is a good example of this.

For those of us who enjoy a good, rollicking yarn, but yearn for some deeper meaning, striking this balance is helpful. Enjoying stories that excite us through spectacle and momentum does not mean that we can’t delve into the human heart and spirit, too. A balanced approach invokes characters who dream, suffer and hope, as much as it invokes exciting and imaginative action.

Summary

Discover the kind of writer you are, then be guided by the sort of stories you like to watch or read.

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Layered writing

Layered writing in Moulin Rouge
Layered writing in Moulin Rouge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

What Motivates the Protagonist?

Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.
Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.

What motivates the protagonist in your story? The very character that ought to be relentlessly driven?

In The Others, Grace Stewart wants to keep her children and herself safe in their large house until her husband returns from the war. She keeps the curtains drawn and the doors locked, never venturing outside. But strange things keep happening. Doors are heard opening and closing. Curtains are being pulled open. Strange voices are heard.

In The Land Below, Paulie is determined to reach the surface in search of freedom. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical equation. Jack’s desire in Scarab, is to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.

But truly good stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles. Good stories pit the external against the internal.

“What motivates the protagonist is the conflict between her want and her need, a conflict she doesn’t acknowledge until the end of the story.”

Stories achieve this by hiding a need in the protagonist that is at odds with the want that lies on the conscious level. Think of the protagonist having a conscious desire as his want, and an unconscious requirement for happiness as his need. What drives the drama is the conflict between the two. This conflict is resolved only when the protagonist comes to realise that his need, not his want, is his true goal. Indeed, it is this very recognition that proves that the character has grown and is ready to move on.

In The Others, Grace needs to discover the metaphysical truth about herself and her children. Only then can she identify her true goal.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in forgiving himself. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves only through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires. 

Stories, driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs, fascinate, deepening the tale.

Summary

Good stories are driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs.

For my latest YouTube video on how to use metaphors in stories click on this link!

Check it out!

What is your story question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

Good Writing Advice?

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

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

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

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

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

Summry

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

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The Power of the Secret

The power of the secret in Primal Fear
The power of the secret in Primal Fear

One way to get to know your characters is to have them reveal their secrets to you. Place yourself in each character’s shoes and try to have them talk through you—as if you were talking to a psychologist or a priest in a confessional. 

In the chapter on The Secret Lives of Characters (The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne) we are told that, “Characters with secrets have an objective (to conceal), a problem (the risk of exposure), and a motivation (enough at stake to require privacy).” That’s quite a truckload of treasure to help us enrich our stories.

Delve into your character and plot by having the character confess his or her secret, using the format offered below. What does the secret suggest about the character’s values? His or her psychological, sociological and physiological status? Next, write down ten actions the character might undertake to keep this secret hidden from the world.

Example: “I’ve got a secret about something I did in the past. I am Claudius in Ham­let. I killed Hamlet’s father, the king, so I could marry his wife and assume the throne of Denmark.” 

This admission cuts to the heart of the character. It is easy to imagine why Claudius would behave in this way, given the gravity of his secret. His secret not only reveals his lack of values — his desire for power that has made him a murderer — it also explains his present and future actions: He fears disgrace and retribution if he’s found out. Knowing that Hamlet suspects him of the murder of his father, he tries to exile him and plots his death. This is how secrets turn actions into plot. 

“Secrets are prodigious story generators.”

Example: In Primal Fear, defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is representing altar boy Aaron Stamper (Edward Norton) who is charged with murder. Aaron, who purportedly suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), claims his alter-ego “Roy” is responsible. 

Aaron’s secret? “My name is Aaron Stamper and I don’t have DID! I am a sociopath and an exceptionally good actor.”

This secret is so central to the story that keeping it hidden drives the entire tale. The challenge is to keep the audience guessing.

Secrets, then, drive stories – use them to shape character and generate plot.

Summary

What is your character’s secret? Write down ten actions and their consequences that flow from it.

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Who is the pivotal character in your story?

The pivotal character via Lajos Egri
The pivotal character via Lajos Egri

Who is the pivotal character in your story? Lajos Egri defines this character as the one who forces the action.

The pivotal character may take the form of the antagonist, protagonist, love interest, sidekick, mentor, and so on.

This character generates energy from the get-go. He or she is the motivating force, the engine of conflict in a story, confident about the course of action to be undertaken. Othello’s Iago is such a character. His function is to drive the story to it’s ultimate conclusion.

Sometimes the character is relentless because circumstances have placed him in this position. An honest man who steals, for example, does so not for excitement or gain, but because his family might be starving, or he might need money for an operation for his child. But because he is an obsessively driven individual who focuses on his own goal, he can be reactionary and militant.

“The pivotal character forces the action, causing other characters to act.”

Pivotal characters are fixated on their goals and will drag others along with them.

Here are some characteristics and circumstances that make for effective pivotal characters: 

  1. Someone who wants to take revenge on the man who ran away with his wife.
  2. Someone willing to give his life for his country.
  3. Someone who loves a woman but must make money first to marry her.
  4. Someone greedy. His greed springs from poverty. He exploits others because of it.
  5. Someone who obsessively wants to achieve success in a specific job or profession and will stop at nothing to achieve it.

A pivotal character is useful because he grants the writer flexibility—pivotal characters are usually protagonists or antagonists, but not necessarily so. This means the writer can utilise other characters to enrich the story without having to do it through traditional roles.

Summary

The pivotal character can be the protagonist or antagonist, or she can be the love interest, ally or mentor, providing she forces others into action throughout the story.

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