Asking the right story questions: In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel as well as the stage play.
So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions:
Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.
Nine story questions that will help you write a better story:
1. Why do I want to write this story?
2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?
3. What is it about?
4. Who is it about?
5. Why is it about this character rather than some other?
6. What is the importance of background or setting?
In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures.
Answering a number of pertinent story questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.
Writers write. We’ve all heard this succinct advice on becoming a writer.
But how often should we write? Where should we write? Where do we start? Where do we finish?
How long should we write each day?
Answers to these questions fill countless of books, articles, blogs. Often they disagree.
Each writer brings his own approach to the art and technique of writing. Stephen king believes one should write every day. Jeff Somers, the New Jersey sci-fi writer believes it’s pointless to force it. We may agree on general principles, yet disagree on specific habits.
When I write a new novel or novella, I generally won’t stop working unless I complete the chapter I’m working on. The chapters of my novels tend to be short, so the task isn’t that daunting.
Having thought about the forthcoming chapter the previous day—the story beats that have to be struck and the character development that needs to occur—I keep to the task until that last sentence is in place. I end my chapters with a revelation or hook that creates expectation in reader, and this guides my thinking the following day; it makes the process easier — for me.
This might not be the case for others.
A fellow writer, and winner of several writing awards — no slouch in the craft of writing— told me that he often stops writing before completing the scene he’s working on, whether it’s giving him problems or not. He finds that tackling the material the following day brings fresh insight to his writing. I suspect this is because he is more a pantser than a plotter, but the point is well taken. One shoe size does not fit all. There are, indeed, different strokes for different folks.
It’s helpful to keep this in mind as we pour over the voluminous suggestions of experts. Some nuggets of advice are more suited to our particular personalities and circumstances than others. We need to decide which to keep and which to throw away.
After all, how long is a piece of string, anyway?
Study all the advice on how to write in general, including on how long to write each day, but use only what’s best suited to you.
In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise—especially with regards how to work with the archetype. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of whom vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.
The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue the goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.
The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.
The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.
The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.
As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships.
Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially in sagas such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Does your story ‘feel’ wrong?
Do your characters drift?
Identity the function of each character archetype to see if it is functioning correctly in your story.
Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that is the subject of another article.
Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.
A hollywood story: I’m a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.
As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.
But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?
There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.
But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.
The Hollywood Structure in a Nutshell
I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such a story as a Hollywood story), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”
Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage: sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.
For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?
For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.
Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.
You get the idea.
Hollywood story structure, then, lays out a set of events involving a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.
So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.
Hollywood story structure refers to interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing problems that keep the audience engrossed in the story.
Novels, films, games: How could reading compete with the visceral pleasures of big-budget, special-effects-driven films, or the massive growth of computer games that have so captivated our youth?
Yet, the truth is that far from novels, films, games and the like existing in a state of war, creatively, they exist in a state of symbiosis, feeding off each other.
I think this is set to continue in the foreseeable future.
Consider the various skills of the novelist: Philosopher, visionary, psychologist, researcher, casting agent, actor, director, cinematographer, set builder, costume designer, scriptwriter, editor, sound recordist. Indeed, the novelist is the prime creator of the story world—albeit in the virtual sense.
At a time when big films require even bigger budgets, testing the potential success of a film by measuring the success of the novel upon which it is based is a relatively inexpensive way of taking out some insurance against failure—although, clearly, no guarantee against it, as the movie John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, clearly demonstrates.
The point remains, however, that if a novel has done well in the market place, the chances are that a well-made film might do the same. The film maker might then allow the world of the novel to inform the world of the film, although, clearly, adapting a screenplay from a novel is an art form in its own right—often, to the extent that little of that world, other than the bones of the story, remains the same. Even so, the novel does at least, act as a starting point for the film project.
Novels, films, games—the latter both in video and board formats, predate Amazon’s Kindle revolution and the resurgence of reading it inspired, but there were some who predicted the death of the novel as a viable form of entertainment.
In terms of benefit to the novel, people who have seen the film and enjoyed it might now read the novel on which the film is based. Sales of the Game of Thrones series sky-rocketed after the television series hit the screens.
Book-to-film/TV adaptations, such as The Level, often go hand in hand with conversations about the relative worth of one rendition over the other. “The book was so much better than the film,” or vice versa—good publicity for all concerned, which helps to boost sales of the appropriate medium.
As an aside, I might mention that in my classes on screenwriting, I sometimes encourage my students to write their screenplays as novellas, or short stories, first. This encourages them to explore their characters’ actions through the inner voice—something the novel, novella and short story do well. This shifts focus to character motives and goals and results in character action that is more authentic and believable, making for better screenplays.
Novels, films, games and short story anthologies often function in a state of symbiosis, testing and popularising the story through different media.
Conflicting story characters are the engine of your tales. Do you want your characters to drive the story forward? Then push them into situations of increasing conflict.
In Rob Roy the conflict between Robert Roy MacGregor and Archibald Cunningham involves murder and rape and defines the plot of the story.
Conflict, which is both internal and external, comes from contradiction—contradiction between warring traits inside the character such as fear versus ambition, and contradiction as a result of a clash between two external and powerful wills pitted against each other. Animosity, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition fighting against their opposites make for a powerful conflict.
Conflicting story character traits heap trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision a character makes another, drawing on those traits, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on.
Conflict provides the causality that drives the story forward, like a stack of falling dominos.
Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others will remain stubborn until they succeed or die.
As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, because of their physical and psychological traits, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They relentlessly try to achieve their goal, no matter what.
Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels them toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise.
The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth as a result of the journey from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most satisfying and successful stories.
Conflicting story characters promote growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, allowing one trait to gain prominence over the other.
A well-crafted film script or novel contains strong character identification—characters we can identify with. At the very least, it allows us to identify with the protagonist , if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification I mean the tendency to experience part of a character’s achievements, failures, foibles, likes and dislikes, as if they were our own.
Identification is not the same as liking the character, although, in a traditional story, it is one of the most important elements.
Because character identification helps to draw us into the story more effectively than is otherwise possible, it is one of the most important story-telling skills to master.
In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hague lays out several ways to achieve this. Here’s six of the most important:
1. Create sympathy for your characters. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve identification with a fictional character. A character that has been made the victim of some undeserved misfortune is a someone we can root for — Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Rob Roy are all people that did not deserve the punishment meted out to them.
2. Place your character in peril. Worrying about a character’s well-being draws us closer to him. In The Matrix we worry that Neo’s conflict with agent Smith will result in his death. This forces us identify with his predicament even more.
3. Make your character likable. The more we like someone the more likely we are to root for him. A character that is funny (Inspector Clouseau), good (William Wallace), or merely skilled at what he does (Dirty Harry), posses traits that make him likable.
4. Make your character powerful. Readers and audiences are fascinated with powerful figures. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, holds our interest precisely because his is a powerful enemy.
5. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for someone worthy to root for. The sooner you bring him into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with him can begin.
6. Give your character flaws and foibles. We often identify with a character who is quirky, awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. In my best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist refuses to get rid of his old bell-bottom trousers and keeps a bowl filled with milk for his dead cat as if she were still alive.
Achieve a stronger and more engaging story by creating character identification with your protagonist through these six techniques.
The page turner. It’s every writer’s dream to write a novel or script that the reader simply can’t put down until the last page. But how do we go about achieving this result? Below are some suggestions.
Include hooks whenever possible: A hook is an action or event that draws us into the story in an compelling way. Use hooks to kick-off your story, as well as to bolster interest at the beginning or end of your scenes.
Write with attitude: Use punchy, or concrete language, depending on the subject matter, that bristles with attitude. Middle-of-the road, or non-comital language is boring. What is the writer’s attitude towards the events being described? What is the character’s? Make sure attitudes are strongly revealed.
Write in a way that creates suspense: The famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock, was renowned for creating suspense in his movies. He said that surprise lasts for a few seconds, but suspense may carry the whole scene, or even the entire movie.
Create Anticipation: Anticipation causes us to want to know what the next action, event, or outcome of a situation is likely to be. It differs from suspense in that it does not necessarily involve a threat, or danger.
Anticipation may be introduced in dialogue, through a character talking about a forthcoming event, in a conversation with another, or through a major story goal being set—such as the hero winning or failing to win the prize at the end of the tale.
Create Uncertainty: Introduce uncertainty about the outcome of specific events, your Hero’s ability to achieve her goal, or the way the story will end. The reader will keep turning the pages in order to find out.
Write with emotion: Writing with emotion means that your characters makes us feel their joy, pain, and sensitivity as if they were our own. My mentor, the South African film director, Elmo De Witt used to say that a story without emotion is a story that doesn’t get read. He couldn’t have been more right. Inject emotion into your writing and watch those pages turn.
Although there are others, these six simple techniques, deftly handled, will help to turn your story into a page turner that readers will find hard to put down.
Hooks, attitude, suspense, anticipation, uncertainty, and emotion are six ways to help you create a page turner. Use one or more of these techniques whenever possible.
What is meant by scene description? In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen.
Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function.
A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer and actor how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light, and move through the set.
The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.
Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.
Three Levels of Description
For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:
A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.
B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.
C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.
The Basics of Scene Description
Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.
1. Describe your scenes in the present tense.
2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.
3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.
4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.
5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words say more about the character than could be said in one rambling paragraph.
Scene description in a screenplay acts as instructions for creating viable scenes; it draws in the reader through its vividness and appropriateness.
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.
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.