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How Character shapes action

Character shapes action in Braveheart

Character shapes action and ultimately story. But no two people are exactly the same and, therefore, neither is the motivation behind their actions. 

Slap one person across the face and he might turn the other cheek. Slap another and he might punch you in the gut. A pacifist responds differently to a threat than would a war-monger. Different actions lead to different stories.

Personality shapes action. The inner life of a character is moulded by that character’s genetics, but also her hopes, desires, fears and wounds. It is these differences within a character that create the full tapestry of human response.

But personality is not static. Fears migrate, change, increase or decrease. Hope grows, shrinks, is fulfilled or snuffed out. To write a viable character arc, namely, the growth of the hero from ignorance to knowledge, or vice to virtue, we need to track the transformation of the elements that define personality.

In Braveheart, William Wallace goes from a disinterested farmer to a courageous and engaged rebel leader seeking to overthrow the English yoke. In Edge of Tomorrow Major William Cage goes from a cowardly public relations officer to a fearless soldier willing to die over and over again in order to save humanity by defeating an insidious alien enemy.

“Character shapes action. Write stories that tie the character arc to the plot in order to ensure the verisimilitude of your tale.”

If the above is true then it stands to reason that the growth of character helps to order the sequence of the narrative events that make up the story.

Tracking the change of say, cowardice to heroism through four or five stages, provides a roadmap for creating ‘ action’ scenes that feel authentic and believable. The result is stories that are motivated and well written—never a bad thing in the pursuit of success.

Summary

Character shapes action. Write believable and successful stories by tying your hero’s character arc to the flow of narrative events that comprise your plot.

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.

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.

Realisation, Decision, Action in Stories

Realisation, Decision, Action In You can count on me
Realisation, Decision, Action in You Can Count On Me.

A character decision in stories usually follows a realisation of some hidden truth. A pivotal action springs from that very decision, forming a realisation-decision-action unit. Although the timing varies, these three nodes are tightly integrated.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if a relisation leads directly to an action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear fake. Sandwiching a pivotal action in between realisation and action avoids this error: 

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the Machine World and Agent Smith. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

“Realisation, decision, action: Realisation leads to decision. Decision leads to action. Action defines character. Character creates plot.”

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

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.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story in Noah, the movie.
The moral of Noah centres around God’s judgement of sin and His deliverance for those who trust and believe in Him.

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. NoahCleopatraThe Ten Commandments. As are modern stories, such as Braveheart,  The FirmGladiatorOblivionEdge 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? SevenFight ClubInceptionOceans 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.

Summary

Most stories invoke an ethical and moral foundation, even those that ostensibly seem not to.

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.

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.

Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.