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Start Writing, but How?

Start writing - Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker’s hidden lineage provides a great springboard to start writing a great character

How do you start the writing process? Do you develop your characters and backstory first before growing the plot, or visa versa? Or does the pantser in you choose a genre and strike off immediately, finding your characters and story as you go along?

There is probably no single answer to that question. So much depends upon the personality and style of the writer. I can tell you what my approach is, though.

I fall somewhere between being a pantser and plotter. Some structural pre-planning of the story is needed, especially for screenplays, to guide my writing, but I don’t want to suffocate any spontaneous creativity that might occur when I’m half-way up the mountain.

I start by knowing which genre I want to write in. Drama? Science fiction? The mood, characters and plot will differ greatly based upon genre.

I then think about the protagonist and his goal. What problem does he have to solve in order to save himself, his loved ones, the world? Crucially, I think about an impediment or reluctance stemming from some past wound or secret that the character harbours. This plants the seed deeper into the soil and allows me to grow my story in a more rooted and viable way.

Before you start writing ask yourself, “What is my protagonist’s weakness or wound? How does this weakness make him suited, or unsuited, for the task ahead?

In The nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos needs to solve a intractable mathematical problem in order to achieve his goal—undo a past event that cost his wife her life. But his nostalgia and a deeply suppressed secret about his past gets in the way of achieving that very goal.

Luke Skywalker has a terrible secret that he himself is unaware of. He is the son of Darth Vader, the very man who threatens the Rebellion. Luke’s pedigree explains his facility with the Force, but it also makes him vulnerable to the dark side. The tension between the goal and an inherent weakness is a great generator of any story.

Summary

Start writing by exploiting your protagonist’s weakness or vulnerability. You’ll not only create twists and turns in your plot, you will also allow your characters to act in a more unique and authentic way, adding to their credibility and hence to the overall success of your stories.

Television Series Bible checklist

TV Series Bible - stranger things
The Television Series Bible was essential in getting a show like Stranger Things off the ground

A Television Series Bible is a marketing document containing an outline for a new television series. It has to inform, entertain and captivate the reader if it is to have a chance of going into actual production. Here are some pointers.

  1. Do you have a strong concept, preferably a high concept, upon which your series is based? Remember that the series bible is a pitching document. It must capture the producers’ imagination and engage their emotions from the get-go. What if someone had pitched Jurassic Park as a tv series back in the day? I can’t think of a studio not snapping it up.
  2. Have you included a crisp logline for the show, and a captivating one-page pitch—essentially a synopsis of the series—that establishes the story world, goal, theme and tone of the show? The set-up logline for Breaking Bad might be: When a docile,  cash-strapped chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he starts cooking meth to provide for his family with the intention of stopping when he has accrued enough cash. But pride and ambition result in a change of plans.
  3. Does each season have a clear season question that is answered only at the end of that season? Does the entire series have a series question that is answered only at the end of the series? The season and series questions are compasses that guide each episode as it marches towards answering those very questions. For example, in Gotham, one season question might be: Who will win the hoodlum war amongst the rival gangs? The series question might be, will Bruce Wayne survive to become the Batman—and in what shape or form?
  4. Have you included short character biographies and episode synopsis, as well as ‘snapshots’ of intriguing objects from each episode—a picture or sketch of a gothic, jewel-encrusted crucifix side-by-side a pair of long fangs, for example, may go a long way in capturing the glance of a producer. What about a blood-stained suicide note to a lover?
  5. Is your bible design germane to the subject matter? Is it attractive to the eye? Textured backgrounds with lots of sketches are fitting for period or fantasy pieces. Neon colours and backgrounds are more appropriate for science fiction.
  6. Have you made clear in the character biographies what’s at stake for the important characters, both internally and externally? In other words, do we know what the protagonist’s goal is? Do we know why the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, oppose this goal? And importantly, do we know what shortfall the protagonist has to make up in terms of a secret, a wound, and/or a moral or physical flaw, in order to achieve the goal? The character’s developmental arc is tied up with the plot arc. Both have to be conceived as two sides of the same coin.
  7. Have you included a short synopsis of a second and third season? You need to show producers that your series has legs. Hence the importance of the series question. In Breaking Bad, the series question is: Can Walter White survive his cancer, ruthlessness and greed? Showing how you intend to develop your series is an important aspect on whether your series will be picked up or not.

“Television series bibles vary in style and content. The thing that makes the best bibles stand out is precisely an element of uniqueness rooted in their design style and subject matter.”

Summary

Making sure that your television series bible addresses most of these pointers will go some way in giving your pitch a chance of being noticed by producers.

Reversals in Stories

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The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable of reversals
The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable reversals.

Using reversals to navigate through the major pivot points is one way to keep our readers and audiences engaged.

Importantly, we need time to lay out essential information in support of plot and character development that will only pay off later. This may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audiences interested.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They create a certain expectation in us, only to surprise us a moment later with another: 

1. A young boy creeps into an abandoned double-story house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading up to the loft. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing larger. The boy shuts his eyes, fearful of facing the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, he hears another sound. He opens his eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast by a stray racoon caught in a slither of light.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room. She finds the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her grounded teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom window. The mother hears the toilet flush. She smiles with relief, but the smile quickly fades when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter. 

“Reversals are used to jazz up flagging dramatic beats between the major turning points in a story.”

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise. 

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a gunfight. Lucky to escape with their lives, the robbers reach safety. They open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

Genre Sells Stories

Genre sells- Terminator 3
The lasting popularity of films such as Terminator is proof that genre sells, if attached to name producers, directors, and actors.

If a certain genre sells more than another, what’s the problem? Identify the most popular one and write in that genre.

The problem is that Hollywood sees certain genres as being in flux.

According to screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge, some genres are currently hard to sell. If your story concept falls within one of those, your effort to acquire seed money from a major studio will be that much harder. 

Here are some of the genres in question: 

Musicals in the mold of Oklahoma are almost impossible to sell. Feature-length, MTV-inspired Flashdance type movies, however, are not.

“If you buy into the idea that genre sells, but are sold on writing in a currently unpopular one, your best bet is to self-finance. Who knows? Your story might just help reawaken a sleeping giant.”

Westerns are currently a difficult though not impossible sell, unless a big name director gets behind the project, as are period films, meaning anything pre-1970s, biographies, and science fiction—due to the high budgets associated with this latter genre. Here, again, the attachment of a specific director to the project can make all the difference—as The TerminatorAliens and Avatar directed by James Cameron, has clearly proven. 

Perhaps the most acceptable of these financially-jittery genres is the horror film, especially if independent financing is sought. 

Of course, in saying this, I do not mean to suggest that films belonging to these genres never get made—only that they are not favoured by the big studios, off the bat.

By contrast, genres representing action adventure, suspense thriller, love story, comedy, drama or any combination thereof, tend to be viewed favourably by Hollywood. If your script belongs to any of those genres, its marketability is high.

Summary

Genre sells means that certain genres are easier to market to studios and independent producers. Choosing a poplar genre maximises the chance of a first-time writer achieving success. 

Story Tone and its Relationship to Theme and Plot

Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

What is story tone? By tone I mean the writer’s imprint of a moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude on the narrative.

In a nutshell, it is the writer’s choice of the genre of the story, and his work within it, that determines the tale’s tone, and not its plot, theme or setting.

If this were not the case a similar setting in a musical, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the classical horror, Frankenstein’s Monster, would produce a similar tone in both cases—not one of levity in the former and one of dread in the latter.

“Story tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is strongly influenced by genre. It does not shift the story’s theme and plot on its own.”

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is no. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comedy can produce as serious a theme as drama or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and moral element, floating above the specifics of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, tonal elements are shaped not by plot, but by genre: The events at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

Summary

Although story tone is deeply rooted in the genre of the tale, it is influenced by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards the story and the method of telling it.

Act-1, etc.

Act-1 as the blueprint of Annie Hall
Act-1 and the dramatic structure of Annie Hall

In The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that act-1 of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is developed by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point.

The primary function of act-1 is to set up the dramatic context of the story, introduce the protagonist, as well as other important characters, their world, and the story goal—the things that the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of act-1 means setting up characters, their situation, and the premise of the story: What is at stake for the protagonist? How is the goal defined? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? More concisely, what is the dramatic question of act-1? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence. 

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I..I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I…I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…”

“Act-1, and indeed, act-2 and act-3, revolves around a short statement. The story examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?” 

The Structure of the Dramatic Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question. In the first act there are really two questions. The first question quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen). The second question concerns the individual act. For example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic question in the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic question of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall the dramatic question is, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question is: what is the final straw that breaks them up? Our task as writers is to answer these questions—a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Tracking act-1 (and indeed, act-2 and act-3) through the dramatic question helps us focus on the progression of our story. It propels us to write material that is purposeful and concise.

Great Characters — How to write them

Great characters in the Godfather
The Godfather is bursting with great characters that keep us riveted to the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA reminds us that there are three fundamental rules for writing great characters:


1. Introduce a scintilla of sympathy even into your most evil of characters.
2. Force your characters, especially your protagonist, to change and grow throughout the story.
3. Avoid stereotypes.

Stereotypes

Let’s start with the last point first: Stereotypes are characters that are predictable through type. Avoid them at all times. The kind priest? Already met him. The hard-drinking Irishman? Him too. The pissed off police captain? Ditto. 

A useful way to avoid stereotyping a character is to think of a type then write the opposite. Imagine a sheriff from the deep south who is not bigoted and stupid, but is bristling with intelligence and dignity, passionate about revealing the truth and dishing out an even-handed justice. Or a nun who is a baseball fanatic and is an expert at game statistics.

“If our story lacks great characters, if we despise them through and through, especially the protagonist, we will dislike the story they inhabit.”

Character Growth

Truly memorable characters start off in one place and end up in another. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman begins as an insensitive, selfish narcissist but ends up as a wise father who puts the happiness of his child first. At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is innocent, principled, moral. By the end he is heartless, bereaved and soulless—a power hungry murderer of many, including his own brother.

Not every character needs to change, of course. Patton stays the same throughout the movie of the same name, although his character is challenged and explained in a way that reveals to us why he is the way he is—an inflexible but powerful warrior to the last.

Sympathy

Well-rounded, complex and conflicted characters are more absorbing than facile, boring ones. But with the interest that comes from lying, scheming and conniving comes the danger of characters becoming unlikable. It is, therefore, important to ensure that some aspect remains sympathetic to the reader or audience.

Oedipus murders his father then performs incest with his mother: horrific actions for a protagonist to indulge in. The writer, Sophocles, ensures that Oedipus remains sympathetic to his audience firstly by showing that Oedipus is unaware of the true facts of his coupling, and, secondly, by having him show deep and genuine remorse upon learning the truth.

In a Bridge on the River Kwai the Japanese commander of the prison camp is a cruel tyrant whose humanity still manages to peep through, if even only once. He violates international laws, holds his prisoners in hot boxes, tortures and humiliates them, yet the writer portrays him as an unfortunate wretch who is tapped in a harsh command structure by permitting us to see him weep. 

Summary

Great characters are an indispensable part of successful stories. Avoiding stereotypes, injecting character growth, and creating sympathy are some of the ways of creating such characters.

Establishing Images — what are they?

Establishing images in Wall Street
The movie Wall Street is awash with establishing images that set the tone for the entire story

The purpose of the establishing images is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World.

By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasise the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around him. The quality of change that this ‘ordinary‘ world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of the hero’s success or failure.

But how do we sketch in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One way is through the effective use of appropriate images.

“In Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger suggests that establishing images introduce the tone, time, location, as well as the theme of the story. In other words, they provide the framework of the tale.”

The first minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduce us to the world of business through a series of snapshots of buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with the defining sequence of images of a school preparing for its opening day procession—banners boasting the school’s reputation of discipline, excellence, and moral learning.

Such images, however, also help to establish the sense of conformity that will be challanged by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established time, place, tone, and theme, through an effective use of starting imagery, then, the writers are now able to create plot and subplot from a solid foundation. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Select the right establishing imagery to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

Good Scenes – How to Write Them

Great scenes in Out of sight
Great scenes abound in Out of Sight

Good scenes are comprised of story units involving meaningful dramatic beats.

The general function of any scene, we are reminded, is to provide the reader or audience with essential information in order to follow the story.

The specific purpose of a scene, however, is determined by what sort and how much information to provide. To do so effectively the writer has to understand that scenes are narrative units of the sort referred to on this and other websites as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and so on.

The specific purpose of the inciting incident, for example, is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, and so on.

Identifying scenes in this way highlights their specific function and tells us where they slot into the story. Particular scenes, therefore, allow us to map information in the right place along the story path.

But what about the nuts and bolts of scene construction itself?

“As a general rule good scenes should start late and finish early, meaning that scenes should not contain excess fat. A scene should fulfill its function and end, allowing the next scene to perform its function and end.”

Scenes should also adhere to the genre stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information. The climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other,

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him. 

Summary

Great scenes correspond to the narrative units discussed in previous posts. Each scene performs a specific task and is located at a specific point within the overall story.

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.