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Act 2 in stories – the nitty gritty

Act 2
No Country for Old Men – act 2

What are the sorts of narrative beats that go into Act 2 of a story? To illustrate, let’s dip into the Oscar-winning film, No Country for Old Men. This thriller directed by Joel and Ethan Coen is a masterclass in tense, exciting storytelling. The film’s Act 2 is a great example of how to write this most important part.

  1. ACT STRUCTURE

Before we wade deeper in, let’s establish exactly what the second act is. In a typical three-act structure, Act 1 introduces the characters and the world, Act 2 is where the majority of the story and its conflicts and complications unfold, and Act 3 brings it all to a climax and resolution. Think of Act 2 as the stuffing in your turkey.

  1. THE GOAL AND THE PROTAGONIST

Act 2 has the protagonist face mounting challenges as he or she attempts to reach the ultimate goal. Take Llewellyn Moss, for example. He stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong, and his goal becomes survival, and pursuit of a suitcase filled with two million dollars.

To complicate matters, Moss is relentlessly pursued by the menacing Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. This pursuit becomes the driving force in the story, creating tension and suspense. As Moss creeps ever closer to the elusive suitcase, Chigurh remains just a step behind.

  1. SUBPLOTS, THEMES AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

The second act also introduces or develops the subplot. In No Country for Old Men, the aging Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, is played by Tommy Lee Jones. His character arc and his attempts to solve the case adds story depth and vulnerability to his character.

The film uses Bell’s character to explore deeper themes like the nature of evil, advancing years, and the changing world around him. His monologues and interactions with other characters in Act 2 give us insight into his struggle to adapt to the violence he faces.

  1. THE MIDPOINT

Act 2 usually contains a midpoint that shifts the story in a significant way. In No Country for Old Men, the midpoint is the tense hotel showdown between Moss and Chigurh. It’s a pivotal moment where the stakes are raised, and the narrative takes a darker turn.

  1. THE CLIMAX OF ACT 2

As Act 2 nears its conclusion, the tension escalates, readying us for the final climax that is to occur in Act 3. Moss and Chigurh’s confrontation at the Mexican border is a tense scene that encapsulates the culmination of their character arcs and conflicts.

So, there you have it, the essence of writing the second act of a story, skillfully exemplified in No Country for Old Men: Keep your protagonist’s goals and challenges in focus, introduce subplots for depth, and remember to showcase character development, conflict, and escalating tension. As you continue your writing journey, study and dissect films and books that you love to gain inspiration and insight into the craft of writing this crucial act.

Summary

Act 2 escalates the conflicts and tensions that are hinted at in Act 1. It forms the meat of the story, and prepares us for the climax of Act 3.

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Pace your story right!

Controlling pace in Fury Road
Controlling pace in Fury Road

What is story pacing, and how can we manage it using just six techniques? Let’s explore this subject through the exciting lens of George Miller’s action film, Mad Max: Fury Road.

  1. Balance Fast and Slow Pacing to allow for Reflection.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a rollercoaster ride of relentless action. Yet, within the high-speed chases and explosive battles, there are moments of reflection. Take Max’s haunting flashbacks, which grant us insight into his character. These slower interludes provide us with the necessary time to reflect, find respite from the chaos, and engage with the characters and themes on a deeper level.

Just as this film expertly balances fast and slower pacing, ensure your own story allows time for reflection as a ballast to the action.

  1. Time to Develop Character Goals and Show Character Interaction

Fury Road introduces a diverse cast of characters, each with their distinct traits and goals. Being a fast-paced action film, not a lot of emphasis is placed on the lead characters’ arcs—although Max does have to learn how to go from selfishness, seeking only his own survival, to working with others for all to survive. Furiosa might lack a strong arc but she does have a powerful goal—to save her companions from the horrific life they’ve known. This in order to find inner redemption for having waged war in the Citadel’s name. Interestingly, Nax, a supporting character, undergoes the biggest growth.

“Writers must learn to deal with exposition and backstory unobtrusively and adroitly if they are to succeed.”

Even a fast-paced film such as this finds the space and time to reveal the psychology of the characters through the subtext of their interactions. Although Max and Furiosa do not start as friends they are forced to co-operate as the story progresses. As Max slowly earns Furiosa’s trust she begins to rely on him, delegating to him some of her duties as the driver of the War Rig. By the time they arrive at the home of the Vuvalini, Furiosa has come to regard him as a companion and colleague. Carefully defined character goals and their interactions, then, afford the writer an opportunity to manage the pace to help create a compelling narrative.

  1. Using Dialogue and Action to Control the Pace

Utilise dialogue and action strategically in your own writing to control the flow of your story.

Dialogue and action in play an important role in regulating a story’s pacing. Immortan Joe’s commanding speeches, Furiosa’s determination, and Max’s silent resilience play an important part in orchestrating the story’s tempo. As the characters interrupt their frenetic pursuits, their words modulate the pacing.

  1. Regulate Time through Details

Fury Road meticulously zooms in on intricate details, such as the guitar spewing fire, the War Boys’ rituals, and the desolate landscape. These details slow down time by immersing us in the world’s minutiae, if even for a moment. The focus on details also deepens our connection to the narrative by having the world appear more replete.

Use detail in your own writing to immerse your readers and audiences into your story world, and orchestrate the pace.

  1. Withhold and Reveal Information to manage Suspense and Tension

Fury Road also demonstrates how withholding and revealing information affects the story’s pace. The film reveals pregnant details about the characters cryptically and in drips-and-drabs—their goals, their world, and the plot, keeping us in suspense—itself a time-modulating technique. The sparse but strategic exposition not only sustains out engagement, but it also increases the tension and alters our perception of narrative time.

As a way of managing the pace of your own story, consider when to withhold and when to reveal information

6. How Story Structure Controls in Pace

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Fury Road uses a simple but distinctive story structure—a relentless chase operating within the well-established structure of a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative structure dictates the overall pacing through its stipulation of specific beats: The introduction to the ordinary world, for example, is such a beat. It can have, relatively speaking, a more leisurely pace, depending on the genre, where as the inciting incident (another beat) usually speeds things up by hinting that all is not well with the world of the protagonist. And so on. Story beats, which vary somewhat from template to template, all follow a similar pattern, and form the backbone of the tale, creating a sense of urgency and rochestrating momentum. The story is structured as a cohesive journey, with each action sequence building upon the last, until the inevitable crescendo and climax at the end. Followed by the calmer resolution.

Which story structure template best suits your story? Syd Field’s? Joseph Campbell’s and Christopher Vogler’s? Blake Snyder’s? Robert McKee’s? Although these experts are largely in agreement, they arrange some of the beats a little differently, which affects the pacing.

Summary

Use six techniques to control your story’s pace. It will help you write a tale that engages your readers and audience from start to finish.

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Five Techniques for Great Exposition

Great exposition in Arrival

Ever wondered how to inject great exposition seamlessly and unobtrusively into your story? Here are five techniques to help you do just that!

TECHNIQUE 1: Emotion as Camouflage.

One way to camouflage information is by pulling at your audience’s heartstrings. This is how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does it, and does it brilliantly. The film introduces us to Joel and Clementine, who have had their painful memories erased. As their memories are rubbed out one by one, emotions take center stage, rendering the exposition less intrusive.

EXAMPLE SCENES: We see Joel and Clementine being initially happy together. Then, as they begin to argue and confront the erasure process, we learn about their troubled history. Their emotional rollercoaster uncovers their past without the need for dry exposition.

You see, emotion is an effective way to capture the audience’s attention while you convey essential information. Additionally, transmitting backstory through your characters’ feelings and reactions avoids spoon-feeding your audiences.

TECHNIQUE 2: Layer Information.

Next, let’s look at how to Layer information. It might sound complex, but it’s a game-changer for exposition. Here again, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterclass in how to use this technique. The film employs a Multiform or non-linear narrative structure, presenting fragments of the story out of order.

To apply this to your own writing, reveal exposition in drips and drabs, and out of chronological order, if suitable. This approach keeps your audience engaged, eager to connect the dots in an attempt to comprehend the bigger picture. Indeed, this layered approach to writing exposition increases our need to figure out what is happening in the story—it becomes the very point of the tale. It hides in plain sight the fact that the entire story is about making sense of the backstory.

EXAMPLE SCENES: In the movie, we see glimpses of Joel and Clementine’s relationship at different stages, forcing us to piece together the story’s puzzle. This non-linear approach beautifully unpacks their past, making it more captivating and suspenseful.

TECHNIQUE 3: Use Objects as Memory Triggers, symbols and metaphors.

Remember that old trinket you found in your attic, which suddenly brought back a flood of memories? In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, objects serve as memory triggers. Joel revisits key moments by interacting with his fading memories.

EXAMPLE SCENE: When Joel finds a forgotten Valentine’s card, it takes him back to a cherished moment with Clementine. The card becomes a powerful symbol, unlocking emotions and memories that had been erased.

Employ objects in your own stories to trigger the memories of characters and reveal exposition. Objects offer a unique and relatable way to convey the past and connect your readers and audiences to the characters on a deeper level.

TECHNIQUE 4: Keep exposition short.

Brevity is key. Consider the film Arrival, where the backstory of the extraterrestrial visitors unfolds through subtle clues and linguistic exploration of alien modes of communication, encouraging your audience to use its imagination and critical thinking to make sense of the story.

“Exposition, although necessary in providing essential information to readers and audiences, ought to be rendered deftly to avoid appearing heavy-handed and on-the-nose.”

TECHNIQUE 5: Distract through action:

As writers we know all about, Show-don’ttell. This means that instead of merely informing the audience through direct dialogue, we should also strive to unveil our backstory through the actions and behavior of our characters.

In the film Unforgiven, a retired gunfighter, William Munny, now a down-and-out hog farmer, accepts a contract to kill a couple of ‘no good cowboys’, who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny is shown to be jaded, unable even to stay on a horse or hit a target with his gun. By contrast the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, the man Munny is up against, is a tough, formidable opponent who seems more than a match for the hog farmer. The looming clash between the two men—the core tension in the story, is set up through a masterful use of exposition rendered through small acts that reveal much of what we need to know about the plot and characters.

So there you have it then, five powerful techniques seen operating in three successful films.

Summary

Write great exposition by using emotion, layering information, using objects as memory triggers, being brief, and revealing backstory through action. These techniques will help to make your exposition more engaging, emotionally resonant, and memorable.

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Dissecting Story Secrets

The power of Secrets in the movie, Knives Out.
The power of Secrets in the movie, Knives Out.

I believe that secrets in storytelling are some of the most potent narrative components at the writer’s disposal. Secrets shape character and plot. Additionally, they are prodigious subtext generators.

Let’s look into how secrets conspire to keep readers and audiences engaged,

How Secrets Affect the Plot

In Knives Out, the central plot revolves around the mysterious death of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey. As the story unfolds, we discover that each family member has something to hide. It’s the nurse, Marta Cabrera, however, who holds the biggest secret: she accidentally administered a lethal dose of medication to Harlan, thinking it was harmless.

This secret sets the entire plot in motion. It leads to the investigation by the gifted detective Benoit Blanc, who begins to unveil a series of family secrets, lies, and betrayals. Without Marta’s secret, the murder mystery at the heart of the tale would not exist.

Generating Subtext

Knives Out excels in generating subtext through the characters’ secrets. Each family member hides his or her motives, manipulations, and true feelings about Harlan’s will. Ransom Drysdale, for instance, pretends to be close to his grandfather while secretly plotting to get his hands on the inheritance.

These secret agendas create a rich tapestry of subtext, helping the audience to piece together the puzzle of the characters’ true intentions. We’re constantly on edge while we try to decipher their motivations, thanks to the secrets they harbour.

“Secrets are prodigious generators of subtext.”

Developing Character

Beyond impacting the plot and creating subtext, secrets play a powerful role in character development. Take Marta Cabrera for example. Her secret—her overwhelming guilt, changes her from a passive character into an active one. She becomes not just a nurse, but a central figure in the investigation.

As Marta grapples with her secret, we witness her character arc, seeing her evolve from simply being an observer to someone who actively pursues the truth, despite the risks. This transformation would not be possible without the secret she carries, making her one of the most compelling characters in the film.

Keeping Readers and Audiences Engaged

Another significant thing a character’s secret does for a story is to keep the audience engaged and invested. In Knives Out, the audience is constantly guessing, intuiting, theorising, in an attempt to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The secrets serve as bait, luring viewers into the intricate web of deceit and suspense.

As the film progresses, we do not remain as passive observers, we become active participants in solving the mystery. Our emotional investment in uncovering the truth keeps us locked-in from beginning to end, underscoring the power of secrets in storytelling.

Summary

Knives Out masterfully demonstrates how well-constructed character secrets shape the plot, add subtext, aid in character development, and keep audiences and readers engaged.

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How to work with metaphors in stories

Metaphors in Inception
Visual Metaphors in Inception

How can we use metaphors to elevate our stories?


Let us first remind ourselves that traditionally metaphors draw comparisons between two unrelated things, suggesting that they are alike in some way. Metaphors are efficient ways of communicating complex ideas and emotions through powerful imagery. ‘He’s a damp squib,’ is one such metaphor. Here the connotation of being a disappointment, failing to live up to expectations, rather than being an actual damp firecracker, is the meaning we’re after. Metaphors like symbols make objects, actions and events luminous—they make them glow, as it were, with significance that reaches beyond the denotative boundaries of the original. But unlike a symbol which stands alone, as it were, a metaphor is paired with the item it is juxtaposed against.

Here’s how metaphors function in the film Inception. Perhaps the most striking is the concept of inception itself—such as planting an idea in someone’s mind, but in the film, it is elevated to a literal and bizarre level. This idea of planting a seed that grows and takes root mirrors how metaphors can be subtly introduced and then bloom in your story. Just as Cobb and his team design intricate dream worlds, writers craft metaphors that transport readers to alternative realities where themes and emotions come alive.

Metaphors are a figures of speech in which the thing described makes a direct comparison to something else.”

Mal, Cobb’s haunting psychological projection, is not only an indication of his state of mind, she is also a metaphor for his guilt and unresolved past. Mal, is a specter from his suppressed memories, much like how our inner demons and unresolved issues can manifest to haunt us in real life.

Layered dreams are in themselves metaphors highlighting the complexity of the human mind. They expose how thoughts and emotions can interweave—much like metaphors provide layered meaning in a story, enriching the narrative.

The dizzying rooftop chase, for example, is not just action, it is metaphorical drama. The heights are visual metaphors for the challenges and obstacles we face in our lives, and the chase represents the pursuit to solve our inner conflicts.

Let’s end with the iconic spinning top. Yes, the top is a tool used in the story to indicate to Cob whether he is still dreaming: If the top continues to spin, he is still dreaming, but if the top obeyed the laws of physics and tips over, he is awake. But the top is also a metaphor for reality’s uncertainty, an idea that lingers in our minds long after the film ends, much like a well-crafted metaphor lingers in our readers and audiences’ thoughts.

Inception, then, serves as a brilliant example of how metaphors can be seamlessly woven into a story’s fabric; how they allow the writer to challenge perceptions, generate insights between seemingly unrelated things, and create fresh, ineffable and lasting impressions behind the literal meaning of the plot.

Summary

A metaphor makes a comparison between two unrelated things, suggesting that they are alike in some way.

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Setting: How to Write like a Cinematic Genius.

Masterful settings in Anna Karenina
Masterful settings in Anna Karenina

How important is the setting you choose for your story and characters? The short answer? Critical!

In cinema where locations come alive, as much as in novels, your choice of setting is a potent tool in supercharging your storytelling. To illustrate this, let’s draw inspiration from the brilliant location choices of Anna Karenina, All the Pretty Horses, and The Last Voyage of the Demeter as proof of how choosing the right setting can make or break your story.

Anna Karenina: Russia’s Snowy Embrace as a Character

In Anna Karenina, the brilliant Leo Tolstoy turns snowy Russia into a character as compelling as any protagonist. In this classic tale, a snowstorm isn’t just a backdrop. It is a dynamic force that shapes the characters’ choices and actions. The sensation of being inside this world, adds depth and realism to the story. As writers, we should learn to do no less.

All the Pretty Horses: The Southwestern Borderlands as a Plot Driver

In Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the Southwestern borderlands setting is far from coincidental. It reflects the pivotal conflict of the story, where the disappearing cowboy way of life forces the protagonist on a journey into Mexico. The arid and desolate Southwest is not just a backdrop but a character in its own right, emphasising the intimate connection between setting and plot. As storytellers, we must recognise that the place we choose can be as crucial as any character in our narrative.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter: Tempests and Confined spaces

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a tale that emerges out of the intricate threads of Count Dracula’s legend. The story’s significance lies not only in the eerie confines of the doomed ship but also in the relentless force of the storm that envelopes it. As the Demeter sails from Varna to Whitby, the tempest mirrors the mounting dread of the crew, accentuating the horror that lurks in the cargo hold below. The setting, a claustrophobic ship with dwindling resources on a tempestuous sea, becomes a pressure cooker of dread and paranoia. The link between setting and weather in this tale showcases how, when skillfully exploited, a surrounding can become a character in itself, breathing life into the story, shaping the characters‘ actions and emotions, and influencing the tone.

“Respect the setting and weather as you do the characters in your story. Your tales will be the more vivid for it!”

As writers, we should always ask which setting(s) will have the most impact on our story. If the answer is: “I’m not sure”, or, “very little”, it is be time to reassess. The characters in Anna Karenina, All the Pretty Horses, and The Last Voyage of the Demeter, don’t merely exist in their surroundings, they are an organic part of them.

Summary

Setting and weather are not just backdrops; they are active participants in the story. Embrace both, let them shape your characters and plot, and watch as your stories roar to life.

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How to use the five senses in stories

The five senses
Chris Lombardi on the five senses

In chapter 5 of Writing Fiction, the Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, Chris Lombardi offers us sage advice on how to catapult our readers and audiences into our fictional worlds through the evocation of the five senses.


Lombardi explains that we read and write with our brains, but we live life through our bodies. We therefore need to convey the experience of our fictional worlds through our five senses. Yes, our running to catch the bus consists of a series of internal events such as irritation at having to catch a bus in the first place, and the worry that we’ll miss it, but these internal states are motivated by the senses—the feel and sound of shoes striking the pavement, the sucking in of breath, the sight of the retreating bus, the smell of its exhaust and the roar of its engine. Experience of the world, in other words, is fed to us through our sense faculties. Our stories should do no less.

Lombardi presses the point: “To bring a reader into your fictional world, you need to offer data for all the senses. You want to make your readers see the rain’s shadow, taste the bitterness of bad soup, feel the roughness of unshaved skin, smell the spoiled pizza after an all-night party, hear the tires screech during the accident. Note that I’ve referred to all five senses. Don’t be tempted to focus only on sight, as many beginning writers do. It may be the sound after the party that your character really remembers. You may find that the feel of the fabric of a character’s dress tells more about her upbringing than her hairstyle does.”

“The skillful use of the five senses is one of the hallmarks of a good writer.”

The following passage from Amy Tan’s novel, “Rules of the Game” is a great example of the senses at work:

“We lived on Waverly Place, in a warm, clean, two-bedroom flat that sat above a small Chinese bakery, specializing in steamed pastries and dim sum. In the early morning, when the alley was still quiet, I could smell fragrant red beans as they were cooked down to a pasty sweetness. By daybreak, our flat was heavy with the odor of fried sesame balls and sweet curried chicken crescents. From my bed, I would listen as my father got ready for work, then locked the door behind him, one-two-three clicks.”

We see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste this world. It’s almost as if we are physically there.

But could we use a sense other than sight and hearing in a screenplay, too? Indeed we could, if a little more indirectly: We could write into the screenplay’s action block a character wrinkling her nose at the sight of some unsightly food on a plate with steam rising from it, we could have a character’s hand stroking the fur of a cat, a horse, a velvet dress,  we could describe a closeup shot of a child grimacing at the taste of a spoon brimming over with cod liver oil pressed into his mouth. 

You get the idea.

As an exercise write about a character on a dare from his friends to find a perfumed handkerchief hidden somewhere in a spooky, abandoned house. The character is blindfolded and has only a cane to help him/her navigate the interior. Write the scene for a novel or screenplay using only the sensory description of hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Omit any description of sight to force you to concentrate on the remaining senses.

Summary

Use the five senses in writing novels and screenplays to catapult your readers into the physical world of your story.

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Symbols – your secret power

Symbols in  The Joker
Symbols in The Joker

What are symbols, and how can we use them to prolong longevity, add resonance and depth to our stories?

In his book, Man and his Symbols the renowned psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung wrote: ‘What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us. A word or image stripped of its connotative aspect is a mere sign—it denotes or points to an object or event that has no added significance than its function—such as a chair, a table, and the like.” 

The strength of symbols, especially symbols that emerge from the unconscious to manifest as Archetypes, is that they endure. To put it in another way, as primordial remnants bubble up from the human unconscious, they are expressed by the conscious mind as universally applicable archetypal symbols. They do so by cleaving to specific actions, events and objects in myths and stories.

“Symbols, when rendered adroitly, promote the longevity of any story.”

To generate symbols in your own tales, start with story and character: 1. Ask, what is the genre of your story? 2. What is the key idea, theme, and moral premise of your story? 3. What goals and struggles are your characters engaged in?

The answers to these questions will direct you to the sorts of symbols you need to use. A note of caution here. Your symbols shouldn’t attract attention to themselves—they shouldn’t be too obvious. They need to grow on us as vessels of meaning. They also need to be specific and to generate emotion. The key here is to work out how they relate to the characters and to each other: Are these symbols actual objects that would feature effortlessly in the characters’ everyday lives? Again, subtlety is key.

Here’s how Todd Phillip uses character symbols in his film, The Joker:

The film opens with Arthur Fleck applying his clown make-up. We don’t immediately ascribe symbolic significance to this. Arthur is merely preparing to do his job as a clown. But as the story progresses the clown imagery deepens in meaning, driven by story questions: Why is it that after Arthur loses his job, he continues to wear his clown make-up? Is it that it offers him an escape from his dreary reality? Does it have deeper psychological connotations—indicate his rejecting his identity due to some past trauma that makes him wish that he was someone else?

“Well crafted symbols are universal and eternal.”

The figure of the clown now comes to symbolise the breakdown of social structures in Gotham—the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. The mob dons clown dress and rises up against the authorities, with the Joker, as inspiration.  A clown suit and mask are no longer symbols of fun and laughter—the Joker has become the symbol of something dark and dangerous—the symbol of chaos.

Symbolism can also emerge from setting, providing context, atmosphere and bolstering the theme. In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mordor, as opposed to the idyllic life of the Shire, is shown to be a place of hellfire and horror—the entire landscape is symbolic of the evil represented by Sauron. 

And of course, the rings themselves are highly symbolic, with the last ring being especially significant. Having been forged by Sauron on Mount Doom it represents pure evil. But the ring also symbolises desire and greed. We see this clearly in Bilbo and Gollum’s desire to posses it.

The ring also symbolises temptation. Even honourable characters such as Gandalf and Boromir are tempted by its beguiling power. This temptation gains in resonance by reminding us of the original temptation in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the apple of good and evil.

When deploying symbols remember to show rather than tell, to point them towards your key ideas and themes, to select symbols that give rise to emotion, and to avoid being heavy-handed in their use.

Summary

Use symbols to add resonance, meaning and depth to your stories.

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Action-reaction: How to write air-tight scenes.

Action-reaction in Traffic.
Action-reaction in Traffic.

A sure fire way to create momentum in your story is by linking scenes together, and to do it often. Specifically, to end a scene with a hook of some sort—say with an action, question, or expectation that is fully, or partially fulfilled in the next.

In Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger labels this linking mechanism between scenes as action-reaction. She provides the following examples:

In the film, Traffic, Salazar asks Francisco to provide information about the men who present a threat. The scene ends with Francisco writing down a list of names. The very next scene shows Javier and Manolo getting to the men on the list. The link between those two narrative blocks is airtight and preserves momentum.

In a later scene Javier promises Anna that he’ll find her husband. In the very next scene, he does. And yet later, Francisco is shot, though he doesn’t know who shot him. In the next scene we see an unfamiliar man packing up a rifle. The implication is that he is the one who shot Francisco.

“Action-reaction scenes are airtight. They preserve story pressure.”

Here is an example from the same film where the flow is interrupted because a scene ends on a static note rather than one which links it to the next scene. In this scene Robert’s wife and daughter congratulate him on his being chosen as the new drug czar. His daughter says: “It’s great daddy. It’s just amazing, that’s all.” The scene ends on a statement, rather than a question, intention or demand, which interrupts the momentum.

Transitions can also be a little tricky, especially when an expected ending to an episode is omitted. At one point Gordon says: We have a warrant to search your house, Mrs. Ayala.” The scene ends on the expectation of a search and perhaps the finding of incriminating evidence. Instead, there is a hard break to the story in Mexico. Seger suggests that although the writer need not have necessarily followed up with a scene showing the search of the house, a follow-up scene of some sort that dealt with the warrant more directly ought to have been included. Although the scene in Mexico is a consequence, it feels a little dramatically disconnected—we are left with the sense of a missing reaction scene.

Summary

Action-reaction scenes avoid a slackening in momentum, especially in story beats where large changes in narrative time and space occur.

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Fascinating characters are a little paradoxical

Paradoxical characters in A Fish Called Wanda.
Paradoxical characters in A Fish Called Wanda.

Given the plethora of books, TV series, and films available nowadays, there is a danger that stories and the characters that inhabit them become stale and repetitive—poorly disguised imitations of themselves. It’s therefore important that we find a way to make them fascinating and colourful to avoid turning them into mere cliches.

One way to make a character more fascinating is to inject paradoxical elements into his or her personality. In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, quotes the novelist Leonard Tourney on the subject: Tourney writes “Characters are more interesting if they are made of mixed stuff, if they contain warring elements. To create these warring elements, you begin by establishing one, then asking, ‘Given this element, what elements are there in the same person that would create in that person a kind of conflict?” A ruthless hit man who donates all his money to a foundation for war veterans is an example.

“Paradoxical characters make for fascinating stories.”

But an all-out war between traits, however, is not the only way to create paradoxes—your character/s could merely display an unexpected conjunction of personality tendencies, habits, hobbies, or interests:

In A Fish Called Wanda, Otto is presented as nervous, dumb and jealous, yet he meditates and reads Nietzsche. This is surprising, which makes the character instantly more fascinating.

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character, Will, recently paroled from jail and now a janitor at M.I.T, solves a difficult math problem posted on a blackboard that has stumped everyone else. Although this is not necessary a display of contrary traits, it does make us wonder why such a smart man ended up in jail and now works as a janitor.

To quote Seger, “Human nature being what it is, a character is always more than just a set of consistencies. People are illogical and unpredictable. They do things that surprise us, startle us, change all of our preconceived ideas about them.”

As writers we should seek to do no less.

Summary

Characters who display paradoxical or unexpected traits, traits that have been skillfully selected, make for fascinating stories.

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