Tag Archives: writer

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

Invitation

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Characterising details – what are they?

Book cover of a nook which contains a chapter on characterising details.
Characterising details—an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Characterising details do not only provide important facts about story characters, they grant insight into their traits through a show-don’t-tell technique.


In her chapter, CHARACTER OBJECTIVE AND CONFLICT (Creating Characters: The complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Mary Kole defines characterising detail as “[a] multilayered piece of information or action that teaches us something deep-seated about a character.”

Height and hair colour are usually not significant details. Far better are small but telling actions that tell us something hidden about a character.

Someone who drops a sweet on the ground, looks left and right to see if he’s being watched, then picks it up and surreptitiously pops it into his mouth, does tell us something significant about that character: that he so compulsively loves sweets that he’s willing to eat germs off the ground to reacquire them, and that he is ashamed or embarrassed by his action. Importantly, it does it through the show-don’t-tell technique, making it a more rewarding reading experience.

“Characterising details are snippets of telling action that shed light on a character’s hidden traits.”

Place descriptions, too, may serve to characterise through a similar technique.

“The house was in desperate need of repair. The floors were damaged and caked with grime and dirt, the wall plaster was peeling, the ceilings were descending into the rooms like great arching sheets of cloth. There was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in.”

This is not a bad description, but here’s a better one:

“Matthew studied the shell of the house. He’d have to start right away if he were to have it ready before she arrived—rip down the damaged ceilings, replaster a good portion of the walls, sand down the wooden floors and fit in new boards to replace those destroyed by termites. Finally, he’d have to paint and varnish the whole catastrophe. And all this in a week. With no money. It was an impossible task, but that, of course, was what Matthew did. Pursue impossible tasks. Like impressing an impossibly beautiful girl who had ignored him for a year.”

This passage is more effective because it not only puts us in the head of the character, it shows us something about his grit, drive and objective, too: to try and win the attention of a beautiful girl who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Exercise: Find a passage in your own writing that describes the motivation of a character. Does the description contain superfluous details that leave the reader un-engaged? Replace them with detailed actions that characterised through the show-don’t-tell technique.

Summary

Characterising details are snippets of telling information, usually revealed through action, that tell us something important about a character

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.

The start – how to capture your readers from the get-go.

The start of a story is one of many essential techniques discussed in the book.
The start of a story is one of many essential techniques
discussed in the book.

The start of your novel or screenplay is perhaps the most important part of your story—especially if you want to capture the attention of an agent, production house, or publisher. Readers who don’t enjoy the start won’t stay the distance.


In the chapter ‘CRAFT AN OPENING SCENE THAT LURES READERS INTO CHAPTER TWO,’ taken from the book, Crafting Novels and Short Stories, Les Edgerton discusses four crucial elements that must be present at the start of every story:

(1) A successful introduction to a story­-worthy problem.

(2) A hook.

(3) The rules of the story.

(4) The foreshadowing of the ending.

“The start can make or break a story. If readers lose interest a few pages in, they lose interest in the entire tale.”

Know where to start. Too early and you might bore your reader; too late and there might not be enough context to deepen the characters. Therefore, begin at the right time by introducing the story problem while incorporating subtext for context.

A story-worthy problem

In The Matrix, the audience is hurled right into the conflict between the agents and the rebels from the get-go. The problem, which becomes more defined as the story progresses, is to stay one step ahead of the agents who seek the annihilation of an awakening humanity. No time for boredom here.

The hook

This opening acts as a powerful hook too. We need to know why the agents are hunting these people, and how is it that both parties seem to possess extraordinary physical abilities?

Story rules

The start of your story must also establish genre and style: the tone, voice, pace. In a novel, establish the narrative method—first person present or past tense, third-person omniscient or limited, and the like, and stick to it. There are exceptions to this, but I wouldn’t recommend that you mingle styles when starting out. Imagine mixing the expansive, ponderous pace of Lord of the Rings with a first person narration belonging to Bilbo Baggins or any of the other characters?

Foreshadow the ending from the start

Edgerton advises students that they should reference the start of their tale for their answer. This is good advice—the start of a story contains the genetic code for the entire narrative organism.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel Benjamin Vlahos spends his time drinking coffee and eating waffles while trying to come up with the solution to an impossibly difficult equation. Thirty years have got him nowhere, but the fact that he refuses to give up, hints at the outcome of the threat posed by the approaching category-five cyclone.

Exercise: Review any story you have written. Does the first chapter or the first ten pages embody the four principles mentioned above? If not, think of ways to incorporate them.

Summary

The story start should introduce the story­-worthy problem, a hook, the stylistic rules of the narrative, and foreshadow the ending.

Preparing your story – how to get started

Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.
Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.

If you could summarise areas of writing as a way of preparing your story, what would they be?

For me the story premise and theme form the foundation of all accomplished writing. I spend time on ensuring that the story premise is the best it can be before starting on a new manuscript.

“Preparing your story refers to the initial process you undertake prior to commencing the writing of your screenplay or novel.”

A story premise, we are reminded, can take the form of a what-if statement: What if the DNA of a Jurassic animal is discovered, fully preserved, in a mosquito caught in a dollop of ancient tree resin? What if the DNA can be used to clone the animal?

The best story premises are engaging, original, and fit the mood of the times. The best themes, on the other hand, espouse social or moral truths that are universal. In the example above, the theme might be colloquially summed up as: Don’t mess with nature or it will mess you.

Characters come next. How many characters do I need to achieve the maximum dramatic impact; to explore the theme from a number of different points of view? Too many characters and the theme becomes muddled. Too few and it remains under-explored.

In Jurassic Park we have the hero, his love interest and his supporters arguing for one side of the theme—respect nature. Arguing for the opposite side—exploit nature for gain, we have the antagonist and his crew. But of course the real antagonist is the T-Rex, the rod of God striking down humans for their greed and arrogance.

Next, are the character arcs. How do the characters change, especially the protagonist? How does the protagonist’s wound get in the way of his goal? What does the character have to learn, or heal, in order to defeat the antagonist? When thinking about any character arc try to relate it to the theme of the story, remembering that the theme is the pilot that flies the tale to its final destination.

In The Land Below, Paulie, the story’s reluctant hero, has to overcome his lowly social status as an orphan and lead a band of rebellious teenagers to the surface against the opposition of the ruling elders. To do this he has to accept his leadership role by acknowledging his past.

I next expand the story premise into a beginning, middle and end—Act I, II and III. I generate the main story beats and place them into a logical sequence within each act. The beats now have a direction, all pointing to the theme.

Lastly, I think about how I will write each scene based on such beats. I remind myself that most scenes should start late and end early. I ask, what goal must each character try to achieve in each scene? How does this goal fit into the character’s overall purpose?

But because the character has both an outer and an inner life I also ask: What is the character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene and how is it conveyed to the reader through his demeanour?

How do the competing goals of the characters in the scene create conflict between them? What are they hiding from each other? Finally, what is the outcome of the conflict? Who is the winner and who is the loser? How does the outcome of the scene change their original demeanour?

These questions help to keep scenes focused.

Taken as a whole, these steps are enough to get me started on a new story. Perhaps you may find such an approach useful too?

Summary

Review essential skills and clarify foundational elements as a way of preparing your story prior to writing it.


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.

Genres—what are they?

Mixed genres in Cowboys and Aliens.
Mixed genres, mixed messaging?

Genres are categories containing stories that share common characteristics. The categories themselves are not inflexible. They absorb novel features from other genres and adapt to suit.

For writers, genres are recipes for concocting tales based on past exemplars. The Western, for example, showcases a number of recurring elements, such as saloons, side-arms, and horses.

For audiences a genre is an indication of a certain sort of story.

“Location, time-period, clothing, props, and language are some important markers that constitute points of difference between genres.“

Yet, a genre is neither set in stone nor used exclusively in telling a story. In the Science Fiction/Western, Cowboys and Aliens, two ‘hard’ genres are juxtaposed unexpectedly, which, in this instance, might explain the film’s failure at the box-office.

Certain genres, however, combine seamlessly. Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Comedy/Love Story ones such as Crazy Rich Asians use genres so effortlessly that they almost manage to merge them into one.

Some films are even more prolific in their use of genre-mixing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story, has achieved cult status, perhaps because it parodies categories of all sorts.

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genes to their offspring. Because there is a requirement for novelty and originality, however, the code never stays exactly the same for too long. Mutation creeps in, which, if successful, get passed onto the next iteration.

We see this evolution in the Western, for example, where the protagonist goes from being a tough and decisive man in El Dorado, to an ambivalent and racist one in The Searchers, and finally, to a full blown anti-hero in Unforgiven – a killer of women and children.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide one’s expectations by referencing existing stories. Genre helps audiences choose which stories to consume by promising more of the same, as much as it helps writers reference and update old tropes.

Summary

Genres are story categories that share similar characteristics. Genres not only assist audiences in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blueprint to emulate and adapt.

Twin Premises – Planning Your Story

Macbeth and the twin story premises
Macbeth, like all great narratives, flows from
twin premises.

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message and its affects. But how does this work and why should a writer care?



For pantsers about to commence the writing of their story, the answer is that they might not care. Pantsers write from the seat of their pants, allowing inspiration to dictate their narratives.

Plotters, on the other hand, need to work out the story before hand, often meticulously planning every scene before beginning the actual writing of their screenplays or novels.

There are some, however, for whom the approach lies somewhere in between. Inspiration can indeed swoop in at any moment and take over the writing process, but in its absence, they need the security of a map. They’ve set sail too many times only to wash up on the rocks without one.

“The twin premises provide the blueprint for writing a story. The one premise indicates what sort of events need to occur and to whom. The other shapes the direction of these events into an outcome that reveals a moral lesson.“

An effective compromise, therefore, is to spend time thinking about the events and characters that would go into the story, while simultaneously trying to nail down the point of it all. Which brings us back to the first paragraph:

The Story Premise is a brief outline of the story that encapsulates the events generated by the central conflict, and the desire through-line of the protagonist. The story premise of Macbeth might be: An ambitious Scottish general embraces the prophesy of three old crones and the urging of his wife to murder King Duncan and usurp his throne only to succumb to guilt, paranoia and death.

This gives some indication of the major characters and narrative events that comprise the tale.

The Moral Premise, by contrast, is the theme of the story. It gives direction to the dramatic scenes that comprise the plot. In Macbeth this might be: Ruthless ambition leads to death and destruction while accepting one‘s place in the Great Chain of Being sustains societal order and life. Not a popular theme by today’s standards, but a central moral premise in the Elizabethan era, nonetheless.

The aim of the twin premises, then, is to create enough scaffolding to support the writing of a story. Both premises must be present for the story to work. Whether the yarn will turn out to be quite the Shakespearean masterpiece is, of course, another matter all together.

Summary

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message.

Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.