In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to orchestrate story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.
Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge.
This can occur within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.
If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.
Story rhythm in the climax
If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other.
McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony.
Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).
Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. Correlation can also exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.
ONE of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.
Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale—to keep the rope tight.
There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see these twists coming, or seem the as comprising the story’s underlying architecture.
Hiding structure through strong emotion.
One of the better ways to hide structure is through the adroit use of powerful emotions. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.
Story structure should be hidden behind strong emotion if we are to avoid the accusation of predictable and formulaic writing.
In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.
We are dealt a double blow. We feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.
In my YA novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. Emotions run high. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.
I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.
Hide the underlying structure of your story behind strong emotion that is motivated and timely.
YOU’VE HEARD it said that writing is to rewriting. But what exactly does that mean? How precisely do you go about writing the second draft of your story?
Opinions vary, but according to Syd Field, the second draft ought to, at the very least, address the structural integrity of your story.
I took his advice when writing the second draft of my second novel, The Level.
Field suggests that we approach the second draft in this way:
The Second Draft
Allow the first draft to simmer for a few weeks then come at it afresh. First off, locate and examine the main structural entities in your story:
Do you have an introduction to the ordinary world? Has the protagonist been introduced in his daily environment before things go south?
Next, find your inciting incident. Does it indeed “incite” your story? Could another incident have been more effective?
Locate your first turning point at the end of the first act. Does it set the main goal of the story in a way that is related to the inciting incident but is sufficiently stronger and moves in a different direction to it?
The second draft adjusts and repositions the narrative elements in your story—it ensures that the structure of the story is the best it can be.
Find the second turning point. Does it turn the story around in an unexpected way, adjusting the overall goal set at the first turning point?
Jump back to the midpoint next. What event forces the hero to face his inner conflict and decide between quitting or going on, against stiffer opposition?
Pinch one and two are checked next. Does your longer second act contain at least two supporting scenes or scene sequences on either side of the midpoint that reiterate and reinforce the pursuit of the goal?
Examine the confrontational scene in your third act between your hero and antagonist. Is it set in an environment which favours the antagonist and disadvantages your Hero, thus upping the tension and stakes?
Look at your resolution scene. Does it indeed resolve the issues posed by the dramatic questions of the first, second, and third acts?
Finally, check your theme – the theme can only emerge after the outcome of the final conflict has been decided: do good guys finish first, or does evil prevail? Is the answer what you had intended when you wrote the first draft? If not, could the story be improved if you allowed it to end differently, despite your original intentions? Remember the creative process has a life of its own. Sometimes it’s easier to follow the muse than to ignore her.
The second draft adjusts and repositions wayward narrative elements in your story. It improves the structural integrity of your tale.
BELIEVABLE and engaging characters are essential to most successful stories.
While it is true that certain genres such as Action Adventure or Science Fiction adopt a more plot driven approach, others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character driven.
All stories, however, require convincing characters to complement an effective plot.
Pointers to building engaging characters.
As Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are important characteristics that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on.
Importantly, most traits have a moral or ethical flavour. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst to act in a cowardly manner is to be devoid of righteousness.
Additionally, engaging characters change and grow. They learn from events around them.
How does change affect existing traits? It reorders the hierarchical prominence of certain traits over others.
Typically, a traditional protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits.
In an “up ending” the protagonist de-emphasises his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localised and manageable way.
In the film Knowing, John Koestler, an astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world.
This eventually causes John to in entrust his son’s future to a group of alien observers who offer to take the boy and his young friend Abby to another planet to ensure humanity’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been kicked down the ladder by his newly promoted trait of faith, not in science this time, but in his belief that the aliens will secure his son’s future.
Traits have an ethical or moral flavour. They are fundamental to the formation and growth of engaging characters.
WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.
In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.
Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’
Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.
The screenwriting mentors:
For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.
Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’
Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.
Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.
Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.
Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.
Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.
Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.
McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.
Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.
Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.
This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.
Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.
Many things—-maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on.
But is there one element in particular whose absence would make a story significantly weaker?
A story that fails to solicit emotion on the part of the reader or audience is headed for oblivion.
A story filled with characters who leave us cold is probably not worth writing. It may be overflowing with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy, but who cares? If your focus is more on such insights than the emotions in a story, go publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or give a talk at your local philosophical society. Your efforts might go down better there.
A story is, of course, capable of conveying deep, world-changing ideas, but only if the emotion in it causes us to care enough about the events and characters in the tale to delve deeper into the text in order to ferret out such ideas.
So, how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we must nurture throughout our writing careers. It does not come overnight.
Emotion makes for a good story
If I could give one bit of advice to kick-start the process it would be to make your lead characters worthy, interesting and caring people who find themselves in worsening situations of undeserved misfortune. This is the first step in creating empathy for your characters, and therefore, in wanting to get to know and care for them.
One of the most important requirements of a good story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.
IN her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger reminds us that in reading through scene after scene in a conventional novel or film script, we occasionally observe that something feels off with the story.
At best, the tale seems to have grown limp. At worst, it has ground to a halt. Yet, when we think about each scene individually, there seems little wrong with any one of them. This can be particularly marked in a long story.
The problem, more often than not, lies in a scene being disconnected from the story by being merely descriptive and static.
“A good scene must, at the very least, contribute to the forward thrust of the story.”
Compare the intensity of films such as Schindler’s list and Dances with Wolves to The Last Emperor and Hope and Glory.
The last two films certainly contain their own magic, but they feel long and drawn out because they are filled with static and descriptive scenes rather than scenes that propel us inexorably towards a specific goal. Such scenes slacken a story because they lack outer and inner momentum.
Checking your Scenes
In trying to avoid this pitfall in your own writing, ask yourself five crucial questions, and make sure the answers are in the affirmative:
1. Is each scene absolutely essential in my story?
2. Does each scene drive my story forward?
3. Are most of my scenes cinematic – do they conjure up images in the minds of the readers?
4. Do most of my scenes involve ongoing character relationships?
5. Do I enter a scene late and leave early, after the point has been made?
There are other articles in this website that provide more replete checklists, but the questions mentioned above are some of the most crucial.
Run your scenes through a checklist to ensure that they fulfill their essential functions within your story.
Dialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.
Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.
But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.
For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.
Dactions for novels and screenplays
Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.
If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.
If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.
Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.
This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.
Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.
IN ONE of my recent classes on storytelling I invited my screenwriting students to come up with three loglines, before choosing the best amongst them.
Some were more enticing than others. Fresher concepts, new angles on old ones, dangling questions that demanded answers.
Others, not so much.
The Essence of Loglines
When the dust had settled and the best loglines stood shoulder to shoulder one thing seemed obvious. They all foregrounded concrete, outer journey elements of the story while simultaneously revealing essential aspects of the inner journey – the reasons and explanation of why the hero acts in the way that he does.
Being loglines, they did not go overboard in fleshing this out. They provided just enough information to intrigue the reader.
Loglines and high concept have this in common: They allow the reader, in the words of Steven Spielberg, to hold the story in the palm of her hand – to glimpse, in one fell swoop, what the story is about – although high concept focuses on elements of uniqueness and originality far more than any ordinary logline.
So it is with any commercially viable story. Without a concrete, palpable plot in which the hero has to struggle in physically challenging spaces against a powerful villain to achieve his goal, there is no story to tell.
The point is important. If the reader can not see the physical arc of the story in a logline she will probably not be interested in reading the rest of the tale in order to reach its themes and concepts.
This is not to say that the inner journey is not of vital importance. Many of the greatest stories ever written had powerful inner journeys – Lord of the Rings, The Spire. But it is to say that the inner journey will only be of interest if the vehicle that carries it, the outer journey, is concrete and palpable.
The logline, “The Land Below is a post-apocalyptic story concerning a young orphan boy who embodies the themes of survival versus freedom,” is not as good as:
“The Land Below is the story of a lowly orphan boy who secretly plots to escape his suffocating post-apocalyptic existence in a converted goldmine, knowing that if betrayed, he will be executed for fermenting resurrection against the social order.”
In the second logline the themes of survival and freedom are still present, but they emerge through the visceral and emotive use of concrete, palpable words such as “plots”, “suffocating”, “goldmine”, “betrayed,” “executed,” and “resurrection”. The logline allows us to hold the story in the palm of our hand.
Write effective loglines using concrete, emotive, and visceral language that creates a snapshot of your hero’s outer journey, while simultaneously hinting at his reasons for undertaking it.
IN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about the general design mechanics of scenes. What sorts of functions must occur in a scene to make it effective – especially a pivotal scene such as one containing a turning point? And how are these functions grouped together?
I find it helpful to organise functions into separate layers. The first two are straight forward. On one level scenes must showcase actions such as the hero’s response to some challenge laid down before him. Actions comprise the so-called outer journey – the plot.
But on an underlying level scenes must also support the plot by showing that the hero’s actions are consistent with his inner journey. In other words, that his motivation arises naturally from his values, beliefs, background.
Additionally, the hero must show personal growth. He must exhibit an ability to learn from the mistakes he makes in pursuing his goal, if he is finally to achieve it.
Involving Readers and Audiences in Your Scenes
These two levels in a scene are indispensable to each other. They really make up a single dramatic unit – action and its motivational core. But there is another layer we can add to a pivotal scene to make it even more effective. We can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.
If we, as an audience, are aware of something that the hero is not, such as that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, then we generate tension which is dissipated only when the hero learns this himself.
Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.
In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.
Not all scenes and genres are susceptible to this sort of treatment. Sprinkled here and there, however, the technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps our readers and audiences engrossed.
Reveal more information to your readers and audiences than is known to your protagonist in specific scenes in your story to help spike up the tension.