Tag Archives: writer

The story start – how to find it.

The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.
The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.

How do you choose your story start? What sort of incident do you use? Is it a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters? 

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings is one. Speed is another. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the storythe point of attack.

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is the genre? Are you writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when you know the answer to those questions can you know what note to strike in your opening.

“A great story start is one which most affectively establishes mood while maintaining the reader’s or audiences attention.”

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue. 

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back. 

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you want to strike in your tale to help you determine your story start.

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Plot or Character?

Plot or character? Both are essential in to the success of Gladiator.
Plot or character? Both are essential to the success of Gladiator.

Fledgling writers often ask: what drives a story, plot or character?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than say European art film that concentrates more on character. 

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because both are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other.

The following analogy is helpful: Character is to plot as a prism is to a beam of light passing through it. The plot is refracted by character.

“Plot or character? That’s the wrong question. Both serve the narrative. Both are tools writers ought to use in equal measure to tell a story.”

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena? 

Much more fitting is that Maximus use the Emperor’s sword, dripping with his own blood, and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it. 

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story shines through the prism of character.

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Rewrite your story – the first stage

The book deals with the rewrite step by step.
The book deals with the rewrite step by step.

How do you rewrite or edit a story? In his book, Screenwriting, Raymond G Frensham, offers six types of focus associated with the rewriting of a screenplay: comprehension, structure, characters, dialogue, style, and polishing. Although opinions differ about the exact number and order of rewrites, Frensham’s view offers some useful insights for novelists too.

In this post we examine the first stage of the rewriting process and offer some suggestions for implementing the process. I will be looking at the other stages in future posts. 

“Commence the rewrite by asking a series of questions in order to expose the strengths and weaknesses of your story.”

The First Rewrite: Enhancing Comprehension

In seeking to make your story as understandable as possible, ask the following questions:

1. Is my story the best vehicle for expressing my dramatic and emotive intent? Would changing the setting or characters or genre improve the impact and effectiveness of my tale?

2. What information does the audience need to know in order to understand the story? Is the information revealed at the appropriate stages?

3. Can I strengthen the story by more strongly referencing its genre, for example, does my action film contain enough action, my love story enough love (or hate), etc.?

4. Are my characters’ actions motivated by their situation, background, and personality type?

5. Have I chosen the right structure for the type of story I’m writing? Is a three-act structure the best vehicle for my particular tale, or would a two, four, or five act-structure be better?

6. Whose story is it? In other words, through whose eyes is the audience experiencing the story?

Summary

The process of completing a screenplay involves several stages, each with its own focus and tasks. This post examines the first stage of the rewrite, namely, enhancing story comprehension.

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A matter of Style

A matter of style - Hemingway va Faulkner
A matter of style – Faulkner and Hemingway could not be more different in style, yet both are literary geniuses who mastered their craft.

ONE of the first things we notice about writers is their style – the way they arrange words on paper or the screen, the way they choose specific words over a myriad of others. 

In the slim volume, Elements of Style, Strunk and White point out that style reveals not only the spirit of the writer but very often his or her identity too. Style contributes to the writer’s ‘voice’ – his attitude towards his characters, the world and its ideology.

To illustrate, here are two passages by two great writers on the subject of languor. The first is quintessential Faulkner:

“He did not still feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in the supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body’s pleasure instead of the body thrall to time’s headlong course.” 

“Style is the fingerprint of the creator. We recognise the writer by its palpable presence.”

Now Hemingway:

“Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurich. He would go to sleep while he waited.”

The difference in style is striking, yet both passages are equally effective. The first is loquacious, almost verbose. It underpins the subject matter through its slowness, its inactivity.

The second is brief, laconic, yet its very brevity communicates Manuel’s languor through the truncated, sluggish drift of his thoughts.

Two very contrasting styles! Two powerful pieces of writing.

But how do the new writers set about developing their own style? 

Discovering what sort of writing appeals to you is a first step. Giving yourself time to find and develop your individual voice through trail and error is the second. The journey is long and hard, as the saying goes, but the rewards are worthwhile – because at the end of it you you will create work that is memorable and unique.

Summary

Find your writing style by identifying and immersing yourself in stories you admire, then work to develop your own voice through trail and error. And never, ever give up.

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Significant action or dialogue?

The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue
The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue.

DIALOGUE, like significant action, is a crucial part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, and, at its best, draws us into the inner life of the characters.

Sometimes, however, scenes are better served through action alone.

Who can forget the laconic Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gunslinger whose draw is faster than lightning? As he faces man after man, daring each to draw, the tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, through unflinching gazes, and through twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns. No need for dialogue here.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence from ape to spacefaring humanity is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

“Deciding whether to favour dialogue or significant action in a story is, more often than not, a stylistic choice.”

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character, come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggests that he is disconnected from the world better than any words can.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in the verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very presence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

The absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on significant action.

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Plot types in stories

Plot types. The Shawshank Redemption is one of many examples of the escape type.

HOW many plot types are there in stories? Here are some suggestions to get you going.


1. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away: Escape Plan, The Shawshank Redemption.

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by following her to the ends of the earth if needs be: Taken.

3. The Redemption: The hero has to free himself from the internal and external consequences of a past action through atonement. This usually involves gaining insight about his past through a series of increasingly challenging actions: The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Atonement.

4. The Quest: The protagonist goes on a journey to acquire or protect something of great value. The story usually describes the character’s vicissitudes and ultimate growth during this journey: Lord of the Rings.

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It usually involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth and redemption through a sacrificial act: Dangerous Liaisons.

6. The Revenge/Payback: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist: Unforgiven, The Count of Monte Christo.

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked in together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person: Face Off.

“What plot types drive your stories?”

8. The Adventure: The Hero travels to exotic lands and experiences extraordinary events—typically in search of some sort of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well: Raiders of the Lost Arc.

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously outgunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person. It can be a force of nature which threatens the life of the protagonist. Deep Impact, Twister.

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution: The Great Train Robbery, Ocean’s Eleven.

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story. It invites us to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death: Sherlock Holmes.

12. The Chase: In this type of plot the pursuit drives the events and character relationships. For tension to be maintained the chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased: World War Z, The Fugitive.

Summary

Plot types help you write your story by setting up certain requirements and expectations. This article suggests twelve such types.

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Improbable action? How to render it believable.

Interstellar - making character action believable.
Interstellar – making improbable action seem believable.

How do you make improbable action appear believable? 

In his book, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Dwight V. Swain offers us two principles that underpin verisimilitude in stories – justification for everything that happens in the tale and a proportional response from the character to the events that confront him.

Justification boils down to the readers and audiences believing that given a specific personality type, a character would react to a challenge, to any sort of stimulus really, precisely in the way that he does. In short, if your readers understand why your character acts in a specific way, they will experience his or her actions as believable and appropriate.

But it is also important to render a character’s actions in proportion to the stimulus that initiates them. 

“Improbable action can be made probable by having it spring from the twin launchpads of justifiability and proportional response.”


Exaggerated, unmotivated behaviour, under normal circumstances, can spoil a scene. If a girl turns down a casual request for a date from a man she hardly knows and he then proceeds to burst into tears, his behavior would be considered an overreaction. 

If, on the other hand, a child were to run into a room, screaming and bleeding, and her mother were to ignore her in order to finish her bridge game, we would consider her behaviour as an underreaction. 

Over and under reactions are major flaws that undermine believability in stories.

In interstellar, the earth is dying. Humanity needs to find another home. Cooper, a conscientious, widowed engineer and former NASA pilot turned farmer, lives on a farm with his father-in-law, his 15-year-old son, and his 10-year-old daughter, Murphy.

After a dust storm, strange patterns appear in the dust in Murphy’s bedroom. Cooper realises the patterns were caused by gravity fluctuations that represent geographic coordinates in binary code.

Cooper follows the coordinates to a secret NASA facility headed by Professor John Brand, where he learns of the existence of a wormhole. When he is re-recruited by NASA to fly a mission through the wormhole to confirm the planet most suitable for mankind’s survival, he promises his distraught daughter that he will come back at any cost. This promise creates the motivational spine of the story. It helps Cooper’s actions to appear both justifiable and proportionate, despite the improbable nature of events in the story. It does this by balancing his duty to humanity with his unbreakable promise to his child.

Summary

Improbable character action can be rendered believable by making it justifiable and proportional to the events that initiate it.

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Evoke emotion if you want your stories to succeed.

Being able to evoke emotion is a must for masterful writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty reminds us that the ability to evoke emotion around the characters in the stories we write is the single most important skill to master. Here’s an extract from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Fly, that does just that.

A fly has fallen into an ink pot and can’t get out. The other character, referred to only as the boss, watches it struggle with glee.

“Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the ink pot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. The boss took up a pen, picked up the fly out of the ink, and shook it on a piece of blotting paper. For a fraction of a second, it lay still on the dark patch that oozed around it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings … it succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face. Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other, lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.

“Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It is one of the keys to successful writing.”

But then, the boss had an idea. He plunged the pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting paper, and, as the fly tried its wings, down came a heavy blot. What would it make if that? The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself froward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.”

This goes on until the fly is dead. If we can feel compassion for a fly, imagine what we can feel for animals and humans.

The writer may often amplify an emotion by providing new information to the reader but hide it from a character who may not yet understand it, such as a child. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I use this technique subtly to suggest a sense of unease in the relationship between a mother and her brother-in-law, as experienced through the sensibility of a child:

“One hot afternoon, my father’s older brother, Fanos, a mechanic with the merchant Greek navy, sailed into our lives, without warning, like a bottle washing out to shore. He carried a small black suitcase in his right hand. The hand was stained by a faded blue tattoo of an anchor that started at the wrist and ended at the knuckles. I found myself staring at it at every opportunity.

Would it be fine if he stayed with us for several days, while his ship underwent repairs at the port of Piraeus, he wanted to know? 

My father, who seemed both pained and glad to see him, said it would be, if that was all right with my mother. My mother had nodded and rushed out to the backyard to collect the washing from the clothes line. She had trudged back in and made straight for the bedroom where she proceeded to fold, unfold, and refold the clothes. She did this so many times that I thought she was testing out some new game, before asking me to play.” 

The boy may not understand the underlying conflict, but the reader does and that makes it doubly effective.

Summary

Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It will draw readers and audiences into your stories.

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How to Establish Dramatic Context in Stories


A biblical dramatic context is established in Legion.

During my classes on story, I often talk about dramatic context, about the multiple layers that go into the crafting of a tale.

The inciting incident, turning points, pinches, and midpoint, are narrative units that help the writer to formulate, position and strengthen narrative incidents by locating them within a specific dramatic context—within the beginning, middle, and end; each unit has a specific function within each dramatic context. 

Syd Field reminds us that another way to think of the dramatic context is in terms of its purpose: The purpose of the beginning is to set up the story, the middle is to create confrontation and complication, and the end, to bring about a resolution. But here’s the useful part: Each context can be formulated in terms of a specific question to guide the writer in creating scenes that, in effect, answer this question.

“The dramatic context organises story events by posing them as act-specific answers to act-specific questions.”

In the movie Legion, Archangel Michael disobeys God’s command to wreak vengeance on Man for his perpetual disobedience. Instead, Michael cuts off his wings, making himself human, and appoints himself protector of a waitress at a remote dinner, Charlie, and her unborn child, who, he declares, is mankind’s last hope. In choosing this path, Michael pits himself against the hordes of horrific angels led by Archangel Gabriel who have come down to earth to kill the unborn child. This causes Michael to sacrifice himself for his cause, a sacrifice, which, ironically, leads God to restore Michael to his former self, intact with wings and angelic powers. Michael then defeats Gabriel and saves the child, and by implication, mankind.

The film’s setup asks and answers the question: What is the purpose of the strange happenings occurring around the remote diner? The confrontation (middle), asks and answers the question: will Archangel Michael and his motley crew prevail against the hordes? The resolution (end) asks and answers the question: having beaten the horrific hordes, will Michael overcome the final obstacle by defeating Gabriel, thus saving the child and the world? Writing scenes that collectively pose and answer these questions provides a road map to your story which helps to keep it on track.

Summary

The dramatic context defines the kind of incidents that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Each can be formulated in terms of a question.

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Show me don’t tell me.

I said, show me. So he did!
I said, show me. So they did!

The skilful use of body language to display character intent both in screenplays and novels is a necessary skill, since it forms part of the show-don’t-tell arsenal of techniques that makes writing visual.


Take the following snippet from my novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

To put you in the picture – Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist of the story, watches an apparition, a version of himself, slumbering in a deckchair in his candlelit room while a cyclone approaches.

I could have written:

I stare at the slumbering figure intently. He seems pained, buffeted by raging nightmares. I can’t help but wonder about the extent of fear and regret tormenting him.

Pretty lame, right? Instead I wrote:

I study the ashen-faced man slumbering in front of me. His lips tremble. His eyes rage behind closed eyelids. His jaw grinds down on the bones of all the years.

This is better.

“Show don’t tell is one of the most powerful writing techniques in the writer’s toolkit.”

Although the body language centers around small actions, such as trembling lips and a grinding jaw, and throws in a metaphor to boot, it does a better job at conveying the tormented inner life of the sleeping figure. It obeys that much vaunted bit of advice of showing the reader the clues and letting her work out the emotion for herself, rather than handing it to her in a platter.

The use of body language to convey the inner state of a character is a powerful technique that helps to keep an audience or reader engaged in the story. It should always replace a spoon-fed description of a character’s emotions.

Summary

Use body language to describe a character’s inner life, and do so through the show don’t tell technique.

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