“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
THE most memorable stories contain a theme with a strong ethical or moral premise. A story proves the theme by tracking the conflict that ensues between the hero and his nemesis. Both characters represent opposing values. In simple terms, good guys win, or lose, depending on the outcome of that conflict. In so doing they ‘prove’ the theme.
But does this then mean that some stories are not ethical or moral? Is the nemesis’ winning of the fight, proof that unethical and immoral behaviour is rewarded?
Biblical tales, for example, are clearly moral. Noah, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments. As are modern stories, such as Braveheart, The Firm, Gladiator, Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, and countless others. These tales have at their core a moral premise that states that if the hero does the right thing, he will eventually achieve the goal. He will carry the day, save the world, even if he sometimes has to sacrifice himself to do it.
“The story’s moral premise is the pilot of the ship, steering it towards its inevitable destination.”
But what about less obvious examples? Seven? Fight Club? Inception? Oceans 11,12,13? In what sense do these stories espouse ethical or moral values?
This bothered me quite a bit because, deep down, I felt that all great stories promote the best in us rather than the worst. Yet, something rang true about these latter stories. I felt a verisimilitude in them that I associated with great tales.
Then, during one of my classes on story-telling, it struck me. Most stories are indeed moral and ethical, with one proviso. In some, the moral or ethical judgment falls outside the world of the story itself—it is made by an audience or reader based on received cultural, social, and religious values.
Stories in which the villain gets away with it, spreading death and mayhem in his wake, may appear to show that malice, slyness, and cold-blooded determination lead to victory, but few of us would applaud his actions.
A horror story, in which, let’s say, demons succeed in taking over the world, is not necessarily a celebration of evil overcoming good. Rather, it is a warning: If the hero fails to stop evil, this is the result – a horrific world overrun by demons.
The characters within such a story may even celebrate this fact, but audiences, as a whole, won’t, since they bring their own moral and ethical systems to bare upon the tale.
Paradoxically, then, good will always rise above evil even when it seems defeated.
Most stories invoke an ethical and moral foundation, even those that ostensibly seem not to.
In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, information that ought to be surprising yet inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience or reader guessing, and inevitable because it has the ring of truth about it.
But what specific forms do turning points/obstacles take?
External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journey of the protagonist. In the best stories, they are causally related. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has more on his mind than the physical task alone.
The Specifics of Obstacles
Obstacles may stop the flow of events, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may even reverse the flow, resulting in an about-turn.
“One way to view turning points is as obstacles that block the way to the protagonist’s goal and force a change in direction.”
What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins.
Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point and Source Code. Such stories replay events from the same starting point but with variations in outcome.
Deflection or expansion is by far the most common form of obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan. The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one.
Turning points are obstacles to the status quo. They introduce major new sections of your story, presenting information that is surprising yet inevitable. There are three main types—dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.
The great Irish writer, James Joyce, a pantser extraordinaire, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re working on.
When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill the blank page or screen in front of us. Having a roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and gets us to our destination sooner.
Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word. Others like to write from the seat of their pants—pantsing, in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.
Even more useful is also knowing where the midpoint or turning points are. This grants us freedom to parachute down to any point in the story and continue from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the hero and antagonist might suit us better.
“Most writers fall somewhere inbetween the pantser / plotter spectrum, sometimes running on instinct sometimes drawing on a preconceived plot.”
Writing a story from a structural roadmap, however, changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure that we outline in the light of day may not work late into the evening. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planning a story.
Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for no structure at all. There is nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting the midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to some new direction that may suddenly seem more appropriate. This to and fro is part of the writing process. It turns us into more accomplished writers.
Having a roadmap for our stories (plotter), doesn’t preclude allowing our story to develop as we write (pantser). The two approaches work well together.
One way to think of a flaw is as a glitch in a character’s internal makeup that shapes his interaction with the world. In trying to hide or suppress this glitch, the character engages in an inner struggle, which drives the story forward.
A Character flaw may be born out of an internal cause, such as an emotional scar from the past, or an external one, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice.
Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character make for interesting stories that resonate with readers and audiences.
Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, such as the three witches and his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.
“The Character Flaw generates inner conflict in the protagonist. It is a prolific generator of subtext in a story.”
Additionally, a flaw generates questions about the story: What lies and obfuscations has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And, crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point, and climax?
Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey through the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”.
In The Matrix Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self-belief (flaw) to one of belief.
This inner journey—Neo’s character arc—influences each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).
A character flaw directs a character’s response to the world. It helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his actions.
The success of a story largely depends on how well the writer uses the protagonist’s inner and outer struggles, juxtaposed against a powerful villain, to prove the theme.
But it’s not all just about the protagonist. Behind every successful hero lurks a relentless and ruthless villain.
Inexperienced writers tend to develop their heroes and villains separately, instead of crafting them as polar opposites of a single narrative entity.
If your hero is a formidable Kung-fu expert you need an even more powerful villain to stand up to him. Pacific Rim is filled with battle-hardened hero types, driving highscraper-tall machines. The writers, therefore, had to come up with monster-size villains to fight them.
The more powerful your hero, the more powerful your villain needs to be in order to generate risk, suspense, and excitement—to pose a worthy threat to the hero.
Strength, of course, is not merely physical. In Ordinary People, the mom is a formidable and relentless opponent whose implacable determination to take custody of her young son drives the plot forward.
“Never forget that it is the villain that inadvertently spurs the hero to achieve his best in order to win the day.”
Although villains are crafty and tireless plotters, they are not always 100% bad. Remember, villains don’t see themselves as villainous. They feel justified in doing what they do. In their minds, they are merely seeking revenge, righting a wrong, balancing the books, for a perceived injustice perpetrated against them.
Additionally, a successful villain knows how to punch the hero’s buttons. He takes advantage of the hero”s weakness. If your hero is a rich stockbroker, the villain is an even richer businessman who manipulates the market to bring him down. If your hero is a champion boxer, his opponent is a seven foot, three-hundred pound Russian giant.
Remember, then, that the hero and villain form a single unit. Identify the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength, and have the villain take advantage of that weakness—until the last moment when the tables turn and the hero uses the same technique against him.
Lastly, have the final confrontation play out in the villain’s lair—the place that is most advantageous to the villain. It will raise the tension and fill your readers or audience with dread. Providing you have chosen an up-ending, it will also make your hero’s final victory that much sweeter.
The hero and villain are polar opposites, forming a single narrative unit. The hero’s weakness juxtaposed against the villain’s strength complicates the plot and heightens tension.
Eccentric characters in stories, are filled with foibles, kinks and rituals. As are real people in the world. . We often like to do things in a certain way: follow a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, point us to some deeper truth.
Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other specialists, showcase personalities that range from the eccentric to the pathological.
As a writer of novels and screenplays, I too am interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with understanding emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story.
“Eccentric characters, handled adroitly, make for colourful and engaging stories.”
I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do touch on those subjects. The best stories endure because they expose a character’s peculiarities and weaknesses—they offer us good drama, and in so doing, engage our emotions. If stories get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people they describe—colourful characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.
Some years back, I taught a documentary filmmaking course every Friday at a college in downtown Johannesburg. Traffic was bad at that time of morning so I would leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway. Trouble was that the college opened at 8am and I would arrive at my destination way before then.
Luckily, I could while away the time at a nearby Macdonald’s. Call me an early bird, but I was usually the first customer to be served when the doors opened at 6am. Hotcakes with butter and syrup and coffee were just what I needed before that first lecture at 8am.
But sometimes I was pipped at the post by an even earlier bird.
Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There were, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around.
But then, there was the small matter of my favourite spot.
The table, tucked away in a far corner of the shop was flanked on two sides by large windows that looked out into a parking lot dotted with trees. I really liked that spot. I liked it almost as much as I liked my hotcakes.
The trouble was, so did the earlier bird.
Now, good sense would have me gracefully yield my spot to her. First come first served and all that.
But on such occasions I secretly wished I had got there even earlier to stake my claim. Or that she’d been held up by some event or other, granting me first access. I found myself anxiously scanning the interior of the shop for a sign of her, even as I was pulling into the parking area.
Thinking about it now, I can’t help lowering my head in embarrassment. Was I really that petty-minded?
Even so, I believe that such foibles, habits, and rituals, trivial as they are, are useful markers of personality.
At the very least they offer writers an opportunity to inject their experiences into their characters, rendering them more eccentric and interesting. In observing ourselves through such characters, we may even succeed in purging ourselves of some of our more irrational inclinations.
Studying eccentric characters on a daily basis, ourselves and others, helps us write captivating, fictional constructs that bristle with life, eccentricity, and colour.
Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.
Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.
This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.
In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition.
“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”
In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.
In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown.
Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.
The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.