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How to come up with winning story ideas

Red Corner is based on a gripping story idea which feeds off the dangers present in communist red China in the 1990’s.

How do you come up with winning story ideas?


In the absence of hindsight, use High Concept:

1. Set your story in a unique or challenging environment such as communist China, (Red Corner).

2. Ensure that your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One where POTUS is held hostage on his plane, or 12 Monkeys in which a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

3. Choose the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemmaJohn Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Select a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursueMemento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

“Winning story ideas benefit by drawing on High Concept.”

Of course, success depends on your getting many other factors right too, but using these suggestions will increase the commercial potential of your story.

I used some of my own advice in my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre of hard science-fiction upon its release. Here’s the core idea:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to possess it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The concept formed the basis for an intriguing story, as indicated by the book sales.

Summary

Use High Concept to generate winning story ideas with high commercial potential.

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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.

To catch my latest YouTube video click here.

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.

Catch my latest YouTube video by clicking on this link!

Audience participation – how to get it

Audience participation in The Fugitive
Audience participation in The Fugitive

Sometimes writers try to solicit audience participation by injecting more action into their stories. They erroneously add a fight scene here or a chase scene there in the belief that it will capture the audience through sheer pace alone. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.

Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to evoke sympathy. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.

At the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. The setbacks take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.

Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story. 

“Audience participation is essential if your story is to succeed. Work at learning the craft until it is mastered.”

How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?

The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.

In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if he stays away from her forever. It is a reversal in expectation that increases our involvement in the story.

Placing your hero in a situation of undeserved misfortune, then tightening the screws, is one technique that is bound to help increase audience participation in your stories

Summary

A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal, increases audience participation in the story.

Catch my latest YouTube video on how to write story hooks by clicking on this link.

Literature versus commercial writing – and the winner is…

To Kill a Mocking Bird is a wonderful example of literature that proved to be a commercial success.

I remember reading several comments on social media that criticised literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies were seen as boring, introverted, and static while the latter were described as pacy and exciting.

Now, it is true that literature and art movies, at their worst, can be torturously boring. But the same is true of popular novels and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against weak plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find many of them to be unreadable and unwatchable. This is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in convention. 

But I also believe that there are things we can learn from literature and art film.

Things such as integrity, uniqueness, and insight that lead to a strong connection with fictional characters.

“Literature need not cede exciting plots to commercial fiction. Literature can combine plot with well-crafted characters to create stories that are simultaneously gripping and insightful.”

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with perceptive observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot is not antithetical to the search for truth and meaning – the purview of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to ordinary readers and audiences while being endowed with deeper layers of meaning – namely, stories that contain exciting and meaningful plots. 

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me.

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Pace your Story by Writing Contrasting Scenes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The presence of epiphany in the character arc

The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The presence of epiphany in the character arc tells us that the protagonist has achieved a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness. This allows him to prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the moment that finally proves that the hero has arrived at his zenith.

Let’s start by restating that the protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, he receives a challenge which he is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that he first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

“The realisation of a buried wound or hidden flaw allows the protagonist to face the outer challenge with increased honesty and clarity. Newfound power is initiated through the presence of epiphany.”

But because the protagonist lacks the emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, he fails to make the right decisions, until his suffering, resulting from his string of defeats, causes him to learn from his mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decisions, therefore, directly impacts the quality of his actions. He can only achieve victory when he has fully achieved maturity—usually by the end of the story. This maturity is indicated through the moment of epiphany—the recognition of some deeply buried truth that has kept him down all this while.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, breaks his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to move forward with what remains of his life.

Exercise: Study the climax in something you’ve written. Is your protagonist’s victory or defeat predicated on his recognition (or lack of it) of a buried wound that has hamstrung him all along? If not, try weaving it into your story from the get-go.

Summary

The presence of epiphany marks the last stage of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.

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The inner life of characters in stories

The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.
The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.

We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?


In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.” 

The inner life is key

Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’

The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.

One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.

Summary

Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.

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How turning the story engages the audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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