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Theme as the Controlling Idea

What is meant by the controlling idea in Stories?

Controlling idea in Groundhog Day
Controlling idea in Groundhog Day: Cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness

A story typically comprises of a sequence of linked events, centering on a protagonist who pursues a difficult goal against a rising tide of obstacles orchestrated by the antagonist, (or antagonistic forces). In achieving the goal, the protagonist has to overcome an inner weakness or limitation, which results in his/her becoming a wiser and more accomplished person.

But how do we, as writers, select the most appropriate incidents to relate? Certainly, verisimilitude, suspense, drama, excitement, and uniqueness play a role. But how do we choose between two actions of equal weight, in terms of this list? One way is to let the theme or controlling idea guide us.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee defines the theme, or controlling idea, as he prefers to call it, as a statement expressed in a single sentence that describes how and why life undergoes a change in value by the end of a story.

McKee explains that the controlling idea has two components: value and cause.

The controlling idea identifies the change from a positive to a negative value (or vice versa) at the story-climax as a result of the protagonist’s final action, and provides the main reason for this change.

Value plus cause, McKee informs us, captures the meaning of the story.

Value is the positive or negative charge found at the end of the story. In an up-ending, good triumphs, as in Groundhog Day, where cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness; in a down-ending, negative values prevail. In Dangerous Liaisons, passion turns into self-loathing, resulting in hatred that destroys.

Cause, on the other hand, provides the reason why the protagonist’s world has been transformed into a positive or negative value. In writing a story, we work back from the end value, to the beginning, and trace the causes within the character, society, or environment that has brought about this change.

In Peter Falk’s Columbo, for example, we track back from the theme or controlling idea — Justice is done because the protagonist is cleverer than the criminal — selecting for inclusion only those story beats that serve the theme.

Sherlock Holmes style scenes in which Columbo uses deductive reasoning to corner the criminal are appropriate for a man of superior intelligence and observation skills. Reaching under his raincoat for a .44 Magnum in order to frighten the criminal into confessing, or beating the daylights out of him, is not, although it is a fitting action for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

Summary

The theme or controlling idea encompasses a change in value plus the reasons for it. Keeping the theme foremost in our minds assists us in writing appropriate scenes that stay on track.

How to Keep Your Story on Track

Lajos Egri on how to keep your story in track.
Lajos Egri on how to keep your story in track.

TO ENSURE that your story remains on track, complete the first draft of your novel or screenplay, then answer the following questions drawn from Lajos Egri’s work on dramatic writing.

Fill in your answers next to the appropriate question then adjust your story accordingly.



Keep your story on track:

1. What is your story’s premise? For example: “Unswerving integrity delivers from disgrace.” Define the moral premise/theme of your story.

2. What is your protagonist’s goal? What does your protagonist want, more than anything?

3. What is your protagonist’s compulsive, 100% trait? What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.

4. What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.

5. Why is the character insecure about this condition? How did he or she develop that insecurity about the condition?

6. How did the character develop the condition about which he is insecure? What is this injury for which the character has a compulsive drive to escape? Backstory here. Provide a specific event or series of events that explain how he developed the condition. Those events caused a chain of reaction/action/reaction. Tell the tale.

7. What is the crisis that upsets the status quo? How does it affect the protagonist?
Why is the protagonist dissatisfied?

8. What is the dire necessity that spurs the protagonist to action and keeps him relentlessly trying to reach his goal? This is something that threatens his special insecurity.

9. How does hesitation to take action threaten to worsen the protagonist’s situation?

10. What decision will he make or action will he take to change things? This is his point of attack, the decision or action that starts the conflict.

11. Is the protagonist fighting for or against the status quo? Does he want to keep things the way they are, or change them because they’ve become intolerable?

12. Who is your antagonist? He must be diametrically and militantly opposed to the protagonist.

13. Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist and his goal? What is the antagonist’s motivation?

14. What is the point of 1) contradiction and 2) conflict between them?

15. What is the unbreakable bond between the protagonist and antagonist? What is so much at stake that they can’t leave each other? Multiple reasons are good.

16. What is the wrong step the protagonist makes that starts the crisis?

17. How does this decision create another problem?

18. What does the protagonist do to rectify this new problem?

19. How does this response create another, worse, problem?

20. How does the final crisis, conflict, and resolution prove your premise?

Summary

Answering the set of twenty questions listed above will help to keep your characters and story on track.

High Concept in Stories

Jurassic Park is a prime example of a High Concept film
Jurassic Park is a prime example of a High Concept film.

High Concept is a term that’s commonly used in Hollywood to refer to a film or story that contains specific characteristics.

Steven Spielberg has referred to High Concept as a high-level idea that can be expressed briefly, allowing one to hold the entire story in the palm of one’s hand.

High Concept, at its most basic, entails three crucial aspects:

1. It contains a core concept that is unique.
2. It appeals to a large audience.
3. It can be stated in a single sentence, allowing us to “see” the overall story at a glance. 

Uniqueness

Of course, no story is truly unique. We’ve often heard that there are only so many stories out there, and they’ve all been told before in one way or another. But this does not mean that elements within these stories can’t be arranged in unique combinations. 

Jurassic Park, is based on one of the most successful high concept ideas of all time.

Jurassic Park is a classical monster movie, but the idea that the monsters spring from the DNA of prehistoric animals, which has been preserved in tree resin, was new and unique at the time. 

Wide Audience Appeal

This is one of the most difficult elements to pin down. After all, if we knew beforehand precisely what would prove popular with audiences or readers, we’d all be millionaires. Having said that, there are sources that we can look to for hints. The top ten most popular books and movies is a good place to start.

Can Be Stated Succinctly

How is it possible that one can encapsulate and visualise an entire story in a single sentence? Well, that’s what’s so marvelous about High Concept – it’s a pithy statement that allows one to intuit the overall shape of the story in a few bold strokes.

The movie Seven, for example, very much a high concept story, can be stated in one sentence: A serial killer selects and murders his victims based on each having committed one of the seven deadly sins. Although the details are missing, we can easily visualise the general thrust of the story, while being intrigued by the idea of the murder plot being based on biblical sin. 

Summary

High Concept is a sentence, describing the story in broad strokes, which encapsulates an element of uniqueness and appeals to a wide audience. Some of the most popular books and movies of all time have effectively utilised High Concept to achieve enduring popularity.

Scene Tonic for Stories

Scene tonic for stories? Why would you need it?

Chinatown —no scene tonic needed
Chinatown’s scenes are so well written that no scene tonic is needed.

How many times have we come across this scenario? Our hero needs to uncover information about someone, or something. He googles it, goes to his local library, zips through old newspapers, records.

Yawn.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers suggests the only memorable thing about such scenes would be if the computer blew up in his face, or a library shelf collapsed and hit him on the head.

Staring at computer screens, or paging through records makes for dull scenes. It is much better to have your character corner a grumpy librarian and try to solicit the information from her, or try to bribe a shady cop, or talk to the local priest.

Now, you not only get the information necessary to drive your story forward, but you layer the scene with tension or humor via the subtext rooted in the reluctant informant. The result is a richer, more dramatic and entertaining event. Even if your character fails to extract the information, he generates interest.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson has to deal with a sour, officious clerk. He asks if he can check out a book of records from the facility and is told this is not a lending library. He then asks the clerk for a ruler. “A ruler?” the man snarks back. It’s to help keep his eyes focused on the lines of text, Nicholson replies. The clerk slaps a ruler on the desk in front of him. Nicholson grabs it and hurries back to the records book. He coughs loudly, simultaneously tearing a page from the book with the aid of the ruler.

Good writing!

In the example above, there is no scene tonic needed—not only does the hero get the information he needs, he makes a fool of the unlikable clerk.

Interaction between characters is always superior to eyeballing screens, or flipping through pages in a book. Scour your story for such scenes and try to inject human conflict into them, even if that conflict is small. Your scenes will be better for it.

Summary

A scene tonic is needed if information gathering becomes boring. Extracting information from another character is better than extracting it from the internet or a book. At the very least, have your hero try to convince others to help him acquire it.

Lacklustre Scenes—how to fix them

Lacklustre scenes are scenes which almost work. Almost, but not quite. We’ve all written them at one time or another.

Eliminating lacklustre scenes—Before the Light book cover
Novellas such as Before the Light, are even less accommodating of lacklustre scenes, due to its length.

The subtext seems to be in place. The dialogue seems to be communicating the plot and revealing character. Yet, something seems amiss. The writing seems too unimaginative, too lacklustre.

In one of my recent classes a student presented me with several lacklustre scenes. She had a strong female character giving instructions, in her high-tech office, to a male employee about some top-secret project. Everything seemed in place, yet the scenes seemed stolid, dull. Something was definitely wrong.

The usual remedy in fixing lacklustre scenes is to change the location, or timing, or to prune on-the-nose dialogue, and, in more stubborn cases, to change or introduce a new character.

Luckily, here, a change of location did the trick. Instead of having the woman instruct her employee in her office, I suggested she does this in a hothouse while trimming exotic plants. That way each comment could be accentuated by a snip of her pruning clippers. This would immediately add a deeper layer of subtext to the scene.

The student thought about it and ultimately decided to move a couple of the lacklustre scenes to an aviary, which worked just as well. It allowed the warm tone of the setting to add an interesting spin to the dialogue. 

The result was an inspired scene that ticked all the boxes. Not only did the character’s actions grant an element of irony to the woman’s tough demeanour, the new environment lent visual variety and contrast, too.

Sometimes subtext, ordinarily a good thing, can be too subtle for its own good.

In my latest novella, Before the Light, I had a crucial scene in which the subtext, containing the meaning of the entire story, was too deeply burried. My editor pointed out that the reason why Icarus, the super quantum computer that holds the fate of the world in its brain, makes the choice that it does, was just too hidden for readers to see. Without such insight the scene felt limp. I had to rewrite it, keeping some of subtlety, but simultaneously leaving more clues for attentive readers to discover.

The scene immediately sprang to life. It became the punchline of the story.

Summary

Consider changing the location, timing, background action, or replace a character altogether to pump up stolid, lacklustre scenes.

Hero on a Journey of Discovery

A student recently asked me how she could bolster the credibility of the actions of her hero in a story she’d written. 

Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey
Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, she could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes. 

Assuming the decisions and actions of your hero respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves that a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc. 

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, that his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats. 

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis. 

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie the actions of your hero to his developmental arc to ensure his inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

Action, description, dialogue

Action, dialogue and description in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Action, dialogue and description in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Blending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well.

Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too. 

But too much dialogue can disconnect the reader from the physical environment of the scene. Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description.

Characters casually engaging in trivial action—leaning, smiling, clearing their throats, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo.

The phallic shape of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

Integrating action, dialogue and description:

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour.

References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text: 

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still. 

Summary

Integrating your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

The flawed Protagonist

There is an interesting tendency in new television series in the past few years to present a flawed protagonist that is not only dark, but often, downright pathological.

The chief difference between the flawed protagonist and antagonist seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dr. Chance, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Dr. Chance as the flawed protagonist

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like the flawed protagonist in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer lies in the notion that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through his eyes. He is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for his dilemmas and motivation.

Flawed protagonists are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient. 

Dr. Chance keeps outsmarting his opponents, with his side-kick’s (D’s) help, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business. 

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and nifty dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He succeeds in staying ahead of his opponents and surprising them with his ingenuity. 

But ultimately, even a flawed protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dr. Chance loves his daughter deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel abuser’s and killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had. 

Making the flawed protagonist likable

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to grow to like the protagonist first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your flawed protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

How to Nail your Story Logline

So, you’ve written your literary masterpiece and posted it up on Amazon with a logline, book cover and description, which, in your opinion, is darned perfect.

The Level — logline
The Level — logline

But if your book is so great and your description so spot-on, why isn’t anyone buying it? You’ve promoted it, so you know readers know its there, but where are the sales?

There is a good chance that your logline—that short description at the top of your Amazon product page meant to set up your story in an intriguing and succinct way, falls short.

It may even suck altogether.

Finessing the Logline

In a logline containing a couple dozen or so words, each word weighs a ton. There is a limit to how much tonnage you can load up on the scale. You’ve got to ensure that each word is there because it makes an invaluable contribution to the overall sentence. Superfluous and ill-chosen words make for superfluous and ill-chosen loglines. If a word doesn’t contribute to tone or meaning, strike it from the sentence.

If your logline fails to hook your readers immediately they will drift over to another page in search of something better to read.

Brevity and precision aside, ask yourself whether your logline paints a picture of what your story is about and poses an intriguing question the reader is dying to have answered.

But there is another crucial thing a logline must do. It must play fair with the reader. Your book cover and logline are the promise you make your readers: Buy my book and you’ll get the sort of story I describe. Fail to do so, or change the genre halfway through the book, and you may disappoint or even anger them, with devastating results when they come to reviewing your book.

Don’t get me wrong. Readers love surprises. They hate predictability. But if you promise your readers a drama, don’t give them a satire. They’ll punish you for it.

The Level—logline

Upon first publishing my sci-fi/mystery/thriller, The Level, on Amazon, which currently is being developed into a feature film by the A-List Australian producer, G. Mac Brown, I offered the following description:

A man, suffering from amnesia wakes up in a pitch-black room, tied to what feels like a wooden chair. He discovers he is a prisoner in an abandoned, labyrinthine asylum hunted by shadowy figures out to kill him. An enchanting woman dressed in a black burka appears out of the darkness and offers to show him the way out, if only he can remember who he truly is. But the truth is more terrifying than anything anyone could have ever imagined.

The book did well, jumping to number 22 on the Amazon top 100 Bestseller list in its category. But a chat with a fellow writer drew my attention to the possibility that my description was missing a vital ingredient: the scifi/technothriller element. In fact, as it stood, the cover and logline screamed: Horror genre! And while there are strong thriller/horror elements in the story, I realised I wasn’t playing fair with my readers.

So, I reworked my logline and came up with the following:

A man with no memory hunted down the twisted corridors of a derelict asylum by murderous figures…

A computer programmer desperate to eliminate a flaw in her code before the software is released to an unsuspecting public…

Two lives bound together by a terrifying secret.

This logline has the elements of the previous one, but adds technology to the broth — a huge part of the story. It plays fair with the reader.

Summary

Using precise, economic language, posing an intriguing question, and playing fair with the reader in terms of genre are some of the most important elements in crafting an effective logline.

Winning Habits for Writers

Winning habits are those habits that make the tasks we have to perform easier by automating them, to a certain degree. Certainly, they give us the momentum we need to embark on our tasks by virtue of repitition. The harder the task, the more the benefit acquired through habit.

Steven King is a writer whose winning habits have catapulted him to deserved fame.
Steven King is a writer whose winning habits have catapulted him to deserved fame.

Going to gym at a certain time of day is one such habit that I find helpful. Sitting down to write each day is another. Here are some suggestions that make for successful writing:

1. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

2. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

One important winning habit to acquire is to write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point is to establish a routine.

6. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage. 

7. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.” 

Summary

Fostering winning habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals as a writer easier to achieve.