Tag Archives: screenwriters

Plot through character—how to write it

The Spire-plot through character
The Spire projects plot through character.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that successful stories are written from the inside out – plot through character. That is to say that action and plot are projected from the emotional, physical, moral, and spiritual perspective of the protagonist.

The external events of a story are, of course, of great importance—they are what draw readers and audiences into the story in the first place—but without a deep involvement with the protagonist’s obsessive desires, fears, foibles, successes and failures, the story falls flat.

If we don’t care about the characters’ hopes and fears, if we won’t share in his pleasure and pain, we won’t care about his involvement in the plot.

Characters respond to life-threatening challenges in unique ways because they have a sense of ‘felt life’—they have a backstory, a personality, a set of hopes, fears and obsessions. It is these treasures that make a story compelling.

“Plot through character refers to a technique whereby the writer filters the protagonist’s action through her inner life—her hopes, fears, flaws and obsessions.”

In William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is a man consumed by the desire to extend the cathedral’s magnificence by building a spire at the top of the existing structure. He ignores the advice of his master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning a place of worship into a building site, with catastrophic consequences. Events are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological sensibility, making his experience our experience, while simultaneously showcasing his folly.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a theoretical physicist obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical problem that could allow for time travel into the past in order to undo an event that cost his wife her life. This obsession prevents him from living the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him. It takes a cataclysmic cyclone to force him to recognise the deeply buried truth about his past—a truth that has the potential to set him free. Or kill him. This climactic event can’t be dealt with externally, at least not initially. It has to be dealt with from within. The process of laying Benjamin’s inner conflict bare, written in the first person present tense, draws us into his world and keeps us immersed in his story.

Summary

Filter your plot through your protagonist’s inner life. It will make your story more believable and engaging.

So, you’re a budding writer?

Wild, Wild West draws on Western and Science-Fiction tropes, expanding the palette of what budding writers could write about.
Wild, Wild West draws on Western and Science-Fiction tropes, expanding the canvas for budding writers.

In my introductory classes on storytelling I often ask budding writers, why do you want to write?

The answers vary – a love for storytelling, a love for reading and movies, the need to make money, the belief that ‘I think I’d be good at it’, and the like.

The next question I ask is: What do you want to write about?

The answer is not as forthcoming, especially for new writers who have not yet found their niche. Some write in certain genres because of their popularity. But strict adherence to genre can often constrain the imagination. A western utilises must-have items such as guns, horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, although such stories can be made more flexible through genre-mixing. For example, Wild, Wild West, blends science-fiction and the western, expanding the canvas.

“Budding writers, on their way to finding their unique style, would do well to identify the themes that they feel passionate about and make them their hallmark.”

There are also writers who prefer to avoid sticking to specific genres, dwelling instead on the ethereal spaces between genres—writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. Their stories tend to distinguish themselves not through the spectacle of explosive events but through a unique style, imaginative language, and an unwavering focus on detail.

Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked that she finds inspiration everywhere—that people make up their own stories about life and the world, according to their taste or chance encounters.

Others use more deliberate methods.

Ransom Riggs collected old photographs as a child because he was fascinated by photography. It wasn’t long before he noticed patterns in these photos. The patterns inspired an idea for a factual book. Prompted by his editor, however, he repurposed the idea as fiction, something he had never written before. The result? Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer is to write about the themes I care most about. After all, it is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound. Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Before the Light, a science-fiction novella, for example, is a tale about a quantum computer conflicted over revealing what it has learnt about the origins of the universe because it fears the effect this will have on a divided humanity on the brink of war.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative resonates with emotions that we recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right. 

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and personal discovery. 

My advice to emerging writers then is to write about recurring themes as an aid to developing their unique voice.

Summary

Budding writers should develop the themes they are most passionate about, even as they seek to develop their own distinctive voice.

Story Magic- how to conjure it

Story Magic in Gladiator
Story magic in Gladiator

Story magic is conjured through the spell of structure.

Structure shapes narrative events by regulating the flow of information through a series of well-placed twists and turns, counterbalancing suspense with surprise, lighter moments with darker ones, while simultaneously showcasing character.

But how closely must one focus on the nuts and bolts of structure while engaged in the process of writing itself? Surely it’s difficult to be creative while entertaining such distractions?

“Seeking to conjure story magic without a wand is a hit and miss affair. You could have it in you, but you probably don’t.”

The point is that the magic of the story is forged inside the cauldron of structure. So, while it may seem that scenes flow spontaneously from our brains, for most of us, such scenes, spring from a deep knowledge of the craft. We should study story structure at every opportunity.

We all have different ways of accessing this knowledge. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘inciting incident’ and ‘first turning point’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to range over past exemplars to glean how other writers have navigated similar terrain.

A screenplay such as Gladiator did not spring fully formed from the minds of Ridley Scott, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson. The story was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book, Those About to Die. The film script itself was first written by Franzoni, but was bought by DreamWorks, and Ridley Scott was signed on to direct the film. Its solid structure, a collective effort, is so deeply embedded in the story that it remains largely invisible to the audience—no doubt one of the contributing factors of the film’s success.

I have previously noted that my own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence—a lack of rhythm, which tells me I may have missed a structural beat, that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my imagination, I often jut out an elbow, or thrust out a hip as I try to predict changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance, a kind of free flowing stream that bestows shape through bends, turns—through changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth—that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not break the spell.

Summary

Story magic is conjured through a deep awareness of story structure. Structure shapes the tale but remains invisible to readers and audiences.

Is a strong theme related to age?

Lord of the Flies contains truly strong themes.
Lord of the Flies contains a strong theme.

A strong theme is the reason we write a story. It is what a story is really about, the essence we most want to communicate. The theme contains the moral core of the tale—it shapes each narrative event that occurs in the story. 


A theme is often associated with a specific age group, although at its heart a theme can appeal to any audience depending on how it shapes narrative events.

William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, about boys stranded on an island who revert to tribalism appeals across the board. In some ways this theme has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, which shows that left unchecked, men may descend into irrationality, cruelty and barbarity. What differs is how the theme renders each story.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger breaks down age groups into the following categories: childhood, teen years, young adult, twenties to forties, fifties through eighties, old age, and end-of-life. Let’s take a look at themes associated with childhood.

“At the core of every story about children is a strong theme of self-esteem, trust, and a sense of belonging. Home AloneWar Games, and E.T. are good examples of this.”

A child embarks on a journey which gradually builds up her self-confidence, resulting in a sense of belonging and self-esteem. This growth is typically achieved by overcoming obstacles strewn in the child’s path by teachers, parents, bullies.

The child can deal with these problems in two ways – she can blame herself, become introverted, lose confidence, and grow depressed, or she can project the problem onto others and become rebellious and delinquent. This can effect the child’s family and friends, drawing them into her problems. 

Typically, in an upbeat ending, the child gradually overcomes these obstacles by engaging in purposeful action driven by sustained effort, ingenuity, and courage. The catalyst is usually some meaningful event from the backstory which surfaces at the appropriate moment to help her reverse direction.

Summary

Although themes are universal, they are rendered differently for different audiences through the narrative events they express.

The Finalised Manuscript – how to get there.

The Old Man and the Sea and the finalised manuscript.
Ernest Hemingway wrote some two-hundred drafts of
his novel before he had a finalised manuscript.

So, you have a finalised manuscript. But do you really?




Hemingway believed, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” He reportedly rewrote portions of The Old Man and the Sea over two hundred times before he had it published.

“Deciding what constitutes a finalised manuscript can be agonising. There are so many potential tweaks and changes that can be effected. A good check-list can make the task a little easier.”

But how do you know when what you’ve written is a finalised manuscript ready to be pushed out into the world? Other than that warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach, which could be the result of that last glass of Merlot?

Margret Geraghty’s, The Novelist’s Guide, offers some suggestions:

  • Does your story start in the right place? Not too soon or too late?
  • Is your first chapter or scene riveting and compelling?
  • Does each scene have structure and purpose?
  • Do most of your scenes or chapters end on a hook?
  • Are your flashbacks absolutely necessary?
  • Have you prepared the reader or audience for surprises through foreshadowing?
  • Are your characters authentic and compelling?
  • Does your protagonist have difficult problems to overcome, leading to the final solution?
  • Does your protagonist solve the ultimate problem by realising something about herself she was unaware of before?
  • Are your characters’ names right for them?
  • Do your characters have their own unique voice – idiom, speech pattern?
  • Are the settings interesting?
  • Do you invoke the senses in your scenes.
  • Is your ending surprising but inevitable?
  • Does it yield the theme you intended?

If you’ve answered no or maybe to any of these questions, return to your manuscript, revise and repeat. If yes, you are ready to publish your story and start on the next one.

Summary

A finalised manuscript is one where the fundamentals of theme, character and plot have been identified and revised.

How does the character arc serve the story?

The character arc in Edge of Tomorrow.
Major Cage’s character arc tracks the stakes in Edge of Tomorrow.

So, you want to write a great story? Then at the very least you should relate the hero’s character arc to his struggle to achieve his goal.

Causally linking the hero’s inner growth to the quality of his actions will help ensure the authenticity of the story. Importantly, your hero should never act beyond the limits of his current moral, spiritual and physical skills. The quality of his performance at the level of action has to reflect his current ability to achieve it. As the hero grows so does the efficacy of his actions.

But if the hero keeps improving through each hostile encounter, why does he not attain the goal earlier in the story?

”The hero’s character arc, his growth towards moral, spiritual and physical power remains insufficient to overcome the worsening challenges he encounters—until his final confrontation with the antagonist.”

That‘s because the hero’s growth is outpaced by the increase in difficulty of each new challenge. The knowledge that the hero brings to each new confrontation is less than the knowledge required to gain the goal—until the final conflict, where the necessary lessons have been fully learnt. It is only then that the hero is able to integrate the separate areas of growth needed to defeat the antagonist.

in Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage has to die countless of times before he acquires the necessary skill to defeat the Mimics that have decimated the earth. It is only when he is stripped bare of his ignorance, and his ability to resurrect himself, that he finally stands a chance at a permanent victory against the invading aliens.

In the best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants, to win Emma’s love, if he is to gain what he needs—to save her life. It is a realisation that takes him most of the story to achieve.

Summary

The hero’s character arc, his growth towards spiritual, moral and practical strength, lags behind the evolving challenges of the plot, until the end of the story.

Powerful Emotions – add them to your stories

Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.
Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.

Stories that do not engender powerful emotions are unlikely to be popular. Make us cry or make us laugh, but don’t make us yawn. This sentence should be tattooed on the forehead of every fledgling writer.

William M. Akers agrees with me: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time,” he writes in his book, Your Screenplay Sucks.

But how does one master the use of powerful emotions in writing? For a start we should look for appropriate places to create emotionally charged moments as often as possible.

“Story characters who solicit powerful emotions in readers or audiences directly contribute to the success of any tale.”

In Breaking Bad, Walter White supplements his meagre teacher’s income by working at a carwash. The idea that someone whose work once helped a team of scientists win the Nobel Prize now has to teach chemistry classes to unappreciative high-school students captures our sympathy. But the writer of the TV series takes it a step further: A couple of students spot Walter at the carwash squatting on his haunches, polishing tires. We experience Walter’s humiliation directly and this causes us to empathise with him more acutely than before.

All emotions are worthy of being foregrounded providing they serve the character and story—compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight suitcase. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We swallow with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.

One of the most moving moments in all of cinema occurs in Dead Poet’s Society. Fired for encouraging students to think for themselves, John Keating is preparing to permanently vacate his beloved classroom under the critical gaze of the man who fired him. Suddenly, one after another, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support of him, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a victory for Keating and his teachings, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too.

Although we tend to remember many finely crafted scenes that reveal essential plot information, scenes that are supercharged with emotion we remember forever. 

Summary

Supercharge your scenes with powerful emotions, and do it often. Your stories will be all the more memorable for it.