Tag Archives: amwriting

Structure in Stories— a personal perspective

Elmo d Witt and story structure
Elmo de Witt first alerted me to story structure as a foundational aspect of the art of storytelling.


Structure in stories.
Just what is structure and why is it essential to stories? Let me back up a bit first.

Writers love to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal. 

Some time ago, whilst shopping, I ran into a novelist I had a passing acquaintance with. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking about how my view on the subject has matured over time.

It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who almost three decades ago, suggested to me that story structure could be studied, and that one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it. 

“Elmo de Witt once told me that without an understanding of story structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing.“

My initial reaction was negative. I had recently graduated from the London international film school having studied the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.

But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head. 

I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I had, after all, been recently hired as a resident reader and screenwriter at Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know much about Syd Field? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.

Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it.

I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework I found that I didn’t want to. I found that my understanding of structure had freed me from the hit-and-miss aspect of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate more deeply on character, theme, symbol, and story content. 

Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure. 

This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.

That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too? 

Summary

One of the most valuable lessons writers can learn is to appreciate, then apply, story structure to their own tales.

Exposition—how to write it

American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.
American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.


Exposition is a necessary part of any story. We must know certain facts about a character or event in order to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But an unskillful use of exposition can also slow the momentum of the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA gives several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration. This is a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. But the scene is too static—boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and catchy music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy diversions.

“In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino brilliantly weaves exposition into the forward thrust of the story. A Nazi officer interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the very floorboards where the interrogation is taking place.”

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on cigars they step into the water and discuss things you’d expect to hear a gangster boardroom scene. By portraying the gangsters as fat old men in a pool, Tarantino allows the exposition to slip in surreptitiously. 

In these examples, context, mood, and necessary information are indeed relayed through exposition. The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer. The next three do so more skillfully. They insert subtext in the setting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. 

Summary

Load exposition with subtext or make it part of the forward thrust of the story.

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Scene tension — how to achieve it

Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow
Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow

In my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading the writing with contradictory cues to increase scene tension. 

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

“The bad way to try and achieve scene tension is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party shouting the other down at the end.”

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected. 

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands. This is always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up. He towers over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him. Cage retreats. 

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair, startled. 

This small incident emphasises the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue. 

Summary

Create scene tension in your story by having actions play out in counterpoint to threats being delivered through dialogue.

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Moral Premise — how to write it.

Lagos Egri on the moral premise
Lagos Egri on the moral premise

Although I’ve written about the moral premise before, it’s such an important topic that it warrants revisiting. Coming up with a good premise, after all, is the first step you take in creating your story. It’s the seed from which your tale will sprout. Or, if you will, the essential core or meaning of the story you wish to write. It is also the chief theme of your tale. The moral premise is, therefore, the first thing a writer should formulate before beginning to write. A writer must first know exactly what he wants to say, why he wants to say it, and how far he wants to go in saying it. 

The famed teacher, Lagos Egri goes on to mention that if you intend to write a story about greed, for example, you need to know precisely what it is that you want to explore about it and what direction the story will take. Condensing your story to its premise, you have: 

Greed leads to destruction, or greed leads to humiliation, or greed leads to isolation, or greed leads to loss of love.

Use the words that express your idea perfectly, knowing that it is the moral essence of your story. It may be brief and concise, or slightly more descriptive. Your premise should include the basic facts about the character, the conflict and its resolution. 

“The moral premise differs from a normal premise in that the former contains the moral or ethical core of the story.”

It takes the form: Character/Subject + Conflict/Verb + Resolution/Object.

The first part of the premise should represent the dominant character trait. For example: honesty, dishonesty, selfishness, ruthlessness, false pride, etc. 

The second and third parts should represent the conflict and its resolution: dishonesty leads to exposure, or, ruthless ambition leads to destruction, etc. 

A moral premise entails a result. You, therefore, need to know the end of your story before you start to write it. This is because your premise depends on the outcome of the final conflict, typically between the protagonist and antagonist. Only then will you know if greed does indeed lead to destruction, humiliation, isolation, or loss of love in your specific story.

Finally, note that the premise encapsulates a moral aspect, which tends to dictate the kind of ending your story resolves into.

In stories that resolve in an “up ending” good triumphs over evil. A “down ending” has evil Triumphing over good. In the latter, your premise might well be: Greed can lead to a successful life devoid of suffering. You should be aware, however, that down endings tend to do less well in the realm of popular fiction, although there are always exceptions.

Summary

A moral premise contains the essence or meaning of your story. It is the blueprint that informs the writing of your tale.

Success as a Writer

Juno was an unexpected success.
Juno was an unexpected success.

How do you measure success as a writer? Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

“No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits. Success is all too often elusive.”

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

If your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. But even if they don’t, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Maximise the chances of success while insulating yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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Title, Title, Title.

The title of the film says it all - Apollo 13 poster.
The title of the film says it all.

In today’s competitive market an indie writer needs to keep her eye on at least two targets – writing skills and marketing, and it all starts with the title.

The belief that all a good writer has to do is keep writing—that recognition will come knocking on his door in due course, is optimistic. For every writer that succeeds many others don’t. The truth is that wide-spread recognition, if it comes at all, has to be actively pursued, coaxed, grown.

Entering competitions, doing readings of your work, building a large online presence, giving guest lectures at book clubs and colleges, can help—but start by grabbing your potential reader’s attention through a great title followed by a captivating logline or blurb.

I have discussed loglines and blurbs elsewhere on my blog. Today I want to look at the importance of a story’s title.

“Not only does a title hint at what your story is about, it is an indispensable marketing tool, too.”

I asked a friend of mine, an avid reviewer of kindle books, how she picks which story to read first amongst the many others she receives each day. She told me she lets the title and book cover do that for her.

When I worked for Elmo de Witt Films, one of my tasks was to look out for promising screenplays. There were always dozens of them in a pile on my desk waiting to be read. The ones that caught my eye first were always screenplays with great titles.

The story title as a marketing tool

A great title ticks one or more of the following boxes:

It points to a genre.
It hints at the story behind it.
It has emotional content.
It is not the name of a character.
It sets up a question, hints at a puzzle, intrigues one in some way.

Titles such as, Apollo 13, Rich and FamousGladiatorThe Madness of King George, and Alien leave us in no doubt as to what the story is about. Others, such as Blade Runner, sound so cool and compelling they make us want to know more.

But titles such as K-PaxThe Island, August Rush?

Not so good.

The title, Emma, may have worked for Jane Austen over two hundred yeas ago, but names of (unknown) people don’t generally make for good titles.

I typically come up with ten or more titles for a new book or screenplay and ask family, friends, and students to pick their favourite from the list, before making my final choice. I consider it time well spent.

Summary

Choosing a compelling, eye-catching title for your story is the first small step in getting your novel or screenplay noticed.

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Reveal – ing your Reveals

The reveal is handled differently from the book in the film Notes on a Scandal

How and when do you reveal that big secret in your story? All at once? Through smaller increments and surprises?

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers stresses the importance of placing the reveals at the right place. He uses an example provided by UCLA’s screenwriting programme head, William Froug, about an old man feeding pigeons from a park bench. Should the old man dump the whole bag of crumbs on the grass right away, or scatter a few at a time to keep the pigeons interested longer?

“Placing a big reveal later on in the story, and hinting at it by sprinkling breadcrumbs earlier, is the better option.”

The book upon which the film Notes From a Scandal is based starts with a big scene in which it is revealed that the Cate Blanchett character has had an affair with one of her students. The book handles this information as the inciting incident. It’s a heck of a start to the story, but it does give away the biggest secret right away. The film version handles this differently, revealing the news a little later. It keeps the audience on a string and loads up the reveal with more punch. 

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, screenwriter, William Goldman, saves the small surprise that Butch is from New Jersey until the movie is well under way. He later offers an even bigger reveal when the men are about to hit the payroll guards in Bolivia. During the face-off with a bunch of rough-looking bandits, Butch tells Sundance that he’s never shot anyone before. It’s not a good time to let your partner-in-crime know about your lack of experience, but it is a hugely impactful moment for the audience. 

Imagine, if you will, if Goldman had started the story by having Butch introduce himself to Sundance with, ”Hi there. My name’s Robert Leroy Parker. I’m really from New Jersey. I’ve never shot anyone in my life before!” 

That would be pretty lame, right? Luckily, the screenwriter knew better!

Summary

Withholding crucial information for as long as possible, and releasing it as a well-structured reveal at a dramatically heightened moment, makes for keener audience interest and improves the quality of your story.

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Creative Writing — Art and Craft

Stavros Halvatzis on Creative writing
On creative writing.

Those who have taught creative writing, specifically the novel or short story, will remember being asked, at some time or another, that pertinent but most difficult of all questions: What constitutes good writing? 

The question is pertinent because that’s what teachers of the craft purport to teach. It is difficult because people have been trying to provide a definitive answer to it since first picking up chisels and quills.

Here’s my take.

The First Layer: Spirit, Ethos

I like to separate the craft into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit or ethos of the times, and our view of it.

It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being aware of contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new.

These insights stem from our level of maturity. They can not be hurried.

The Second Layer: Story Structure

The second area concerns the structure of stories.

“A study of creative writing that lacks awareness of the layers that make up the craft is like a rudderless ship loaded with treasure but destined to meander endlessly at sea.”

Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? If not your story may lack a specific direction.

The Third Layer: Words and Sentences

The third layer has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we creating powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so?

Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? All of this affects how the reader experiences our story.

In my opinion, these three layers make up the craft of writing. Together they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the writer. Incorporating this approach when writing a new novel or screenplay increases its chances of success.

Summary

Excellence in creative writing involves mastering the three layers rooted in the micro and macro levels of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author. 

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Essential Characters in Stories

Travis, in Taxi Driver, combines characters is of two essential characters - hero and villain simultaneously.
Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, combines the characteristics of two essential characters – protagonist and villain, simultaneously.

Casting essential characters, such as a protagonist and antagonist is of little value unless you surround them with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story.

Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise—the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types you need to include:

Protagonist

The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments. 

Antagonist

The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Essential characters are the tools through which the writer puts the story premise to the test.

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make him more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine himself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite. 

Summary

Essential characters interrogate your story premise by exploring it from several angles—through the eyes of each character. Opinions differ about the ideal number of types, but the four discussed above set the lower limit.

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Planning your story

Lagos Egri was a big believer in story planning
The famous teacher, Lagos Egri, was a great believer in story planning

Whether you’re a pantser or a pedantic outliner (I’m somewhat of an in-betweener), I believe that having an overall snapshot of your story—properly planning your tale—raises its quality and lessens the time it takes to write it.

Here is the process I followed in planning my post-apocalyptic novel, The Land Below.

Story Planning

I started by writing down my story’s premise. The story premise is a sentence, sometimes referred to as the logline by screenwriters, which captures the essence of your story—what is unique, but believable about it. It highlights its major twists and turns and ties the inner and outer journeys together, in part, through the knot of the moral premise, or theme.

I next tackled the outer journey. This is the what and how of your story. It defines the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story.

The goal, determined at the first turning point, is then kicked around by the midpoint and the second turning point, and is attained, or not, at the end of the final, must-have confrontation with the antagonist. Here I ensured that I had three or four major incidents in mind, including the inciting incident.

The inner journey, by contrast, is why the outer journey happens the way it does. It tries to explain the protagonist’s mental and emotional states and the decisions he takes that lead to the actions at the level of the outer journey.

In planing The Land Below, I made sure I knew who the main characters of my story would be. Each character represents a point of view and drives the plot forward.

The inner journey also shows how and why the character changes during the story. It is a blow by blow explanation of, at the very least, the turning points and the midpoint. This forces the writer to consider the reasons why the protagonist acts in the way that he does. I always ensure that I have written a paragraph or two on the inner journey prior to starting any story.

In the words of Lagos Egri, “The ending proves the theme.” Is your protagonist a good guy who manages to overcome the antagonist and save the world and win the heart of the girl he loves? If so, your theme may well be: Good guys carry the day. I always know the theme of my story before I begin to write it.

A protagonist? Certainly. An antagonist? Check. A love interest? Yes. A mentor? A sidekick? I think of my characters in terms of the function they have to perform in the overall story argument. The details, the flesh and bone stuff, I build from a series of traits and incidents as I went along.

The Land Below went on to win several prizes as a result. You can download a free sample from the novel on my Amazon page.

Summary

Planning a great story premise, the outer and inner journeys, the theme and ending, and cast of characters, are important elements to consider before writing your story.

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