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Understanding Layered Conflict in Stories

Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.
Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.

Conflict, especially layered conflict, is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative cause and effect and provides fuel for the tale. Conflict arises from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. Here are three types of conflict: external, internal, and mixed.

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone. 

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club where the conflict is between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits). 

Mixed conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles. 

One of my favourite films, The Matrix, is a great example of how conflict plays out across the layers. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo experiences conflict between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept that he is The One that he is able to resolve his inner conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith, and the machines, which have enslaved humanity. Neo’s struggle to attain the story goal, then, is pitted against a multilayered conflict.

Summary

Layered conflict is the fuel that powers your story. The layers can be described as external, internal, and mixed.

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How symbolic ascension makes your story universal

A story replete with symbolic ascension!

What is symbolic ascension?

Every great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows the story to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent. 

If rendered crudely, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly. 

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At a first encounter the setting, events and specific actions of characters represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

“Symbolic ascension is the process in which actions, events, settings and objects are transformed into universal symbols through repetition and association.”

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier—the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills. 

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself—as does Nick (Christopher Walken). 

Nick’s death precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this spontaneous duality that gives the story its enduring power.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

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Symbols – how they operate in stories

The power of symbols is clearly in evidence in Shutter Island
The power of symbols is evident in Shutter Island.

Symbols are narrative objects that have significance over and above their denotative presence in a story.

They manifest as audio-visual images, which recur throughout the story. Each iteration is an echo of a previous instance, reinforcing the main concerns and themes of your tale. These images function in two ways—they are part of the actual “physical” world of your story (denotative), but they are also reflections, or symbols, of your story’s interior concerns—the inner landscape (connotative).

In Shutter Island, symbols add resonance and depth to the story by utilising images of water, the sea, and wind, whipped up into a hurricane, which is closing in on the island housing a mental hospital. The hurricane is an important plot element that ups the ante as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) races to conclude his investigation of the disappearance of a mental patient, who he suspects is hiding on the island, before the storm hits.

“Symbols are representations of elements that have significance beyond their denotative aspect.”

Aggravating the frenetic search for the patient is Daniels’s own deteriorating mental condition, as images of his past life as a soldier, then as a husband and father, flash before him, adding to his overall instability and confusion. The image of the hurricane, therefore, is more than a major plot element. It is also a symbol of his inner landscape, a warning of the potentially tempestuous and uncontrollable behaviour that smoulders in all of us.

In the film, The Piano, images of water, the sea, and mud are deeply embedded into every aspect of the story—they are a part of the setting, which sets the tone and mood of the tale. But these images, drawing on basic psychological analysis, also connote the sexual and emotional tension of the characters, becoming stronger each time we encounter them. The piano perfectly captures the two-fold function of imagery. The instrument is as much a vehicle for the plot, as it is a substitute for Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) lost voice and suppressed passion.

Summary

Symbols are images in narrative that point to a significance beyond their denotative aspect.

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The Power of Dilemma in Stories

The power of dilemma is in full display in Dona Flor and her Two Husbands.

Wherein lies the power of dilemma in stories? What makes for the best dramatic conflict? The two questions are related.


In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

“The power of dilemma is most evident at the turning points of a story.”

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate the risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

The power of dilemma escalates the tensions within your protagonist and the other characters, making the story more gripping.

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How to come up with winning story ideas

Red Corner is based on a gripping story idea which feeds off the dangers present in communist red China in the 1990’s.

How do you come up with winning story ideas?


In the absence of hindsight, use High Concept:

1. Set your story in a unique or challenging environment such as communist China, (Red Corner).

2. Ensure that your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One where POTUS is held hostage on his plane, or 12 Monkeys in which a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

3. Choose the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemmaJohn Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Select a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursueMemento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

“Winning story ideas benefit by drawing on High Concept.”

Of course, success depends on your getting many other factors right too, but using these suggestions will increase the commercial potential of your story.

I used some of my own advice in my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre of hard science-fiction upon its release. Here’s the core idea:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to possess it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The concept formed the basis for an intriguing story, as indicated by the book sales.

Summary

Use High Concept to generate winning story ideas with high commercial potential.

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The moral of the story – how it drives the tale

Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral premise: Crime leads to ultimate loss.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral of the story: Crime leads to ultimate loss.

A story is the result of a central idea, the moral of the story, that has been turned into powerful and visible action and projected on the page or screen.

The story’s events arise out of a mixture of character action motivated by outer challenges. It is the means by which the writer first expresses, then probes an idea.

Another way to put it is that character action must be driven by a moral premise – a guiding principle that traces the consequences of the action of characters in the story, as they try to achieve their goal. We can also think of this as the theme of the story. 

Think about the crime genre. What idea, or moral premise lies at the core of genre? How about: Crime does not pay?

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite, on-the-nose dialogue, such as:

“You see, Frankie, my boy? It’s as I always said. Crime does not pay!”

This is too direct.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, then expose the character to the consequences of her actions.

“Every tale needs a clearly defined moral of the story to drive it. Its absence leaves the story rudderless.”

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how the crime of manufacturing meth, pushes those involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from differing perspectives. The protagonist represents one perspective. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining perspective, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proven – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral view, wins or loses the fight with the antagonist.

In The Land Below, for example, the judgement of whether Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine to reach the surface, can only be established at the end of the story. 

If things go well for Paulie and his followers, then the theme of the story might be: Courage, imagination and steadfastness lead to freedom. If things go badly, then the theme might be: daydreams and stubbornness lead to defeat. 

As with all stories, the outcome can only be established at the end of the story. It is only then that the reader or audience can understand what the story is really about.

Summary

Narrative events describing character action in pursuit of a goal culminate in yielding the moral of the story.

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The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

An important requirement in writing is that we deploy a sympathetic protagonist in our story, since the protagonist is the character through whom we experience the tale. 

This does not mean that our protagonist has no weaknesses in his or her character. Indeed, character flaws are what make for a strong character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful to rightful action that drive the story.

But, creating a sympathetic protagonist has become more and more challenging. For who, after all, are our real-life models? Scandals involving politicians, military and religious leaders have eroded our trust in those exemplars.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc. 

“A sympathetic protagonist is at the center of readable and watchable stories.”

The notion of a flawed protagonist, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – MacbethOthelloHamlet. These tragic protagonists are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes in recent times, is noteworthy.

DexterBreaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few of the protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe. 

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters achieved this? Here are some suggestions.

1. The protagonist finds himself/herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune: 

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can’t afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay for his bills.

2. The law-breaking protagonist is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to kill and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he keeps outsmarting both the police and his criminal victims.

3. The protagonist acts for a cause other than his own: 

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Summary

Understanding how these characteristics operate in deeply flawed protagonists, then, helps to soften our critique of them.

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How to write effective dialogue

Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds
Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds

So much has been said about how to craft effective dialogue that it is difficult to take it all in. This article distills the best advice into four powerful techniques

In his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain, stresses that dialogue performs four main functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

1. Dialogue reveals new information: Tell the audience what it needs to know to follow the story. The trick is to do it subtly. 

Inglorious Basterds is a great example of how to provide information while maintaining the tension. At the start of the movie a Nazi officer, Colonel Hans Landa, interviews a French farmer, monsieur LaPadite, about the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area—a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the floorboards where the interview is taking place! The tension and irony are palpable.

“Effective dialogue performs several functions, and does so in a seamless way.”

2. Dialogue generates emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should generate emotion. Failure to do so makes for flat, listless speech. In the above example, each line spoken by Landa heightens the stakes for LaPadite and his family, since discovering the Jewish family under the floorboards will lead to disaster.

3. Dialogue promotes the plot: Dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously—it should not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that Landa is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that Landa already knows the truth and is merely prolonging the questioning to torment the farmer.

4. Dialogue deepens character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. Colonel Landa, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially feels more like a conversation between friends than an interrogation. LaPadite, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial—part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Taken together, then, these functions make for effective dialogue—a great addition to a writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Effective dialogue performs four functions—it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

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Layered writing

Layered writing in Moulin Rouge
Layered writing in Moulin Rouge

A common weakness amongst student writers is a lack of layered writing. In its place is an indulgence of dialogue and action that plays off on the surface, at the level of plot—with more telling than showing.

Typically, this is external action without the sense of an inner life. To remedy this weakness I advise that writers create internal conflict as something that the reader or audience is made aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, or fear because they will be privy to something that the character may only become aware of later.

“Layered writing means that a story is driven by the inner life of the characters as much as it is by their external challenges.”

My advice to new writers, therefore, is to write scenes where the action is motivated not only by external goals, but by secrets, wounds and suppressed desires, too, though the characters themselves are often unaware of the truth, creating dramatic irony.

In Moulin Rouge, Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, he might be murdered by the Duke who wants her for himself. So, to protect him, she lies to him, declaring that she does not love him, but will marry the Duke instead. The audience knows that this lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, who is devastated by this.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American mathematician, dreams of one day solving an equation that proves that time travel to the past is possible. But as we realise that Benjamin is well past his prime and is unlikely to ever achieve this, our compassion for him grows.

In both examples, it is what lies under the surface that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the external action is supported by the inner life of the characters makes for engaging stories.

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What Motivates the Protagonist?

Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.
Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.

What motivates the protagonist in your story? The very character that ought to be relentlessly driven?

In The Others, Grace Stewart wants to keep her children and herself safe in their large house until her husband returns from the war. She keeps the curtains drawn and the doors locked, never venturing outside. But strange things keep happening. Doors are heard opening and closing. Curtains are being pulled open. Strange voices are heard.

In The Land Below, Paulie is determined to reach the surface in search of freedom. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical equation. Jack’s desire in Scarab, is to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.

But truly good stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles. Good stories pit the external against the internal.

“What motivates the protagonist is the conflict between her want and her need, a conflict she doesn’t acknowledge until the end of the story.”

Stories achieve this by hiding a need in the protagonist that is at odds with the want that lies on the conscious level. Think of the protagonist having a conscious desire as his want, and an unconscious requirement for happiness as his need. What drives the drama is the conflict between the two. This conflict is resolved only when the protagonist comes to realise that his need, not his want, is his true goal. Indeed, it is this very recognition that proves that the character has grown and is ready to move on.

In The Others, Grace needs to discover the metaphysical truth about herself and her children. Only then can she identify her true goal.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in forgiving himself. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves only through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires. 

Stories, driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs, fascinate, deepening the tale.

Summary

Good stories are driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs.

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