Tag Archives: writetip

What is your story question?

The story question – how long can the Abbott family survive?

The first act of a story performs several tasks, including introducing the story question.

It also introduces readers and audiences to the world of the characters and their role in it. The act contains the inciting incident and the first turning point, and establishes mood and genre.

The central question the story must answer by the end of act three is something that the writer might easily neglect to emphasise in the dash to lay the tracks the story needs to ride on.

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger advises that once the defining question is raised, usually within the first fifteen minutes of a film, and certainly before the first turning point of the story, everything that follows is in response to it.

“The central story question drives the story to its ultimate conclusion.”

A Quiet Place revolves around this central question: How long can the Abbott family survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind, monstrous aliens with a powerful sense of hearing? In Edge of Tomorrow, the question is: Can William Cage survive as part of the allied force fighting the Mimics? In E.T. it is: Will E.T. find a way to go back home?

In a story with an up ending the answer to the central question is usually, “yes”, and favours the hero. 

In a more ambiguous story, however, the answer is not clear-cut. In Donnie Darko, a non-linear film, Donnie is absent from home at the start of the story when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom, so he survives. But the incident is replayed at the end of the tale. This time Donnie stays at home and is killed.

Linking the answer to some deeper revelation that has been previously withheld is a powerful way to bring the outer and inner strands of a story together at the climax. This technique creates an exclamation mark within the final act.

Summary

The first act poses the central story question that is only answered at the climax of the third act.

Watch my new YouTube video on non-linear stories by clicking on this link.

The Moral Premise – how to harness it.

The power of the moral premise
The power of the moral premise.

What is the moral premise? How does it differ from a dramatic premise? And why do you need it anyway? 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams points out that most commercially successful stories are forged upon the anvil of a moral premise—a clear message to audiences and readers about the reward or punishment associated with embarking on a path of virtue as opposed to a path of vice.

Stories that embody a universal truth about the human condition ring true, and, providing that other components are present—good characterisation, dialogue, as well as an intriguing plot—people are likely to reward such stories with good book or ticket sales.

The moral premise is a sentence that captures the meta-story of the tale—what the story is really about on the inside, whereas the dramatic premise captures what it is about on the outside.

Macbeth is an ambitious Thane who is triggered by a prediction that he will become king. Encouraged by his wife, he murders the rightful king and usurps his throne. This is the dramatic premise of the story.

But what the story is really about is its value-defining premise—how unchecked ambition leads to the murder of a king, and what consequences flow from such an act.

“The moral premise is the true pilot of the story, guiding all actions and events that comprise the tale.”

The moral premise has two parts. Together they encapsulate the totality of the moral landscape with virtue and vice on opposite poles. Simply stated: Virtue leads to a good outcome, but vice leads to a bad outcome. Macbeth is the much loved Thane of Glamis, respected by the king, and the wider community of friends and kingsmen. His initial state of virtue leads to love and praise within his rightful social place.

But his murder of the king activates the second part of the moral premise, his hidden vice—unchecked ambition leads to murder and mayhem.

Defining the premise in this way allows you to construct a tale in which the protagonist’s inner Journey from virtue to vice or from vice to virtue plays out as an outer journey for all to see.

Summary

The moral premise describes the protagonist’s movement from vice to virtue or virtue to vice, while the dramatic premise describes its physical enactment.

Click on the link to watch my latest YouTube video on how to Use Dramatic Irony in Stories

The good story – how to get started.

The film, Big, evidences a tight narrative technique which results in a good story.
The film, Big, evidences a tight narrative technique which results in a good story.

There are many ways to get started on a good story. Here are two of them:


1: Be gripped by inspiration and allow it to guide your hand.

OR

2: Use existing knowledge of writerly techniques to write and edit your story until it sparkles.

Now, you have little control over the first. Inspiration has a will of its own. Like a haughty cat, it may ignore your most entreating calls.

The second way, however, is yours to summon. You can utilise your knowledge of story structure to get started right away. Sites such as mine, and many others, offer advice for free—for the love of story.

Will this way guarantee a great story? Maybe not. But it will set you on the path of writing a well-structured one.

Learn your craft by adding to your chest of techniques every day. Work hard to be the best you can be and one day you will be.

In rereading Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting, I was reminded of the usefulness of certain practices—in this case, the practice of naming scenes according to their function as a way of staying focused on how each narrative segment performs its task in service of the plot and character.

“A good story can be expressed through a series of well-conceived scenes flowing from a solid story structure.”

Apart from the inciting incident, the two turning points, the midpoint, the climax and the resolution that we all know about, Seger offers several others: the establishing scene, exposition scene, love scene, confrontation scene, pay-off scene, resolution scene, realisation scene, decision scene and action scene. Most stories have an assortment of these. It’s up to you which ones to include in your tale.

Here’s an example of a decision-realisation-action scene cluster:

In the film Big, Josh decides to put money into a vending machine at a carnival in order to become ‘big’. In the next scene he realises that he is ‘big’ and this leads to a series of actions as a response to the complications of being an adult. The overall result is a new situation that sees him working for a toy company as an adult though, inwardly, he remains a child.

In this scene cluster causally linked scenes make for tighter writing. Knowing the type of scene you’re embarking on tells you how to execute it.

In the light of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if that cat, resenting your sudden independence, and secretly craving attention, doesn’t decide to jump into your lap, after all.

Summary

Write a good story by utilising your understanding of the differing functions of scene within the context of story structure.

Want to know more about how to pace your scenes? Follow the link to my latest YouTube video!

Literature versus commercial writing – and the winner is…

To Kill a Mocking Bird is a wonderful example of literature that proved to be a commercial success.

I remember reading several comments on social media that criticised literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies were seen as boring, introverted, and static while the latter were described as pacy and exciting.

Now, it is true that literature and art movies, at their worst, can be torturously boring. But the same is true of popular novels and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against weak plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find many of them to be unreadable and unwatchable. This is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in convention. 

But I also believe that there are things we can learn from literature and art film.

Things such as integrity, uniqueness, and insight that lead to a strong connection with fictional characters.

“Literature need not cede exciting plots to commercial fiction. Literature can combine plot with well-crafted characters to create stories that are simultaneously gripping and insightful.”

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with perceptive observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot is not antithetical to the search for truth and meaning – the purview of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to ordinary readers and audiences while being endowed with deeper layers of meaning – namely, stories that contain exciting and meaningful plots. 

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me.

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Pace your Story by Writing Contrasting Scenes.

The Godfather achieves one of the most disturbing scene sequences in all of cinema through the pace of the intercutting of a baby being baptised in a Catholic Church with the violent murder of the Corleone family’s enemies across the city.
Mastery of pace: The Godfather achieves one of the most disturbing scene sequences in all of cinema through the intercutting of a baby’s baptism in a Catholic Church with the violent murder of the Corleone family’s enemies across the city.

How do you determine the pace of a story? How many scenes do you include in a good script? The two questions are related.

Some screenplays have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred. In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Some scenes are extremely short. They include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or bridging scenes such as entering a lift. These scenes are meant to locate a character in a specific time and place or get her from A to B. Most scenes engaged with plot and character development, however, span several pages.

Film scripts that are comprised of a handful of long scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that includes hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

“Contrast one scene with another to regulate the pace of the story. Your scenes will feel less monotonous and more engaging for it.”

One way to pace a story is to balance scenes through contrast and length. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones. 

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This speeds up the action and prevents a sense of sameness that leads to boredom. 

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In The Godfather, a Catholic baptism in a church is intercut with the Corleone family’s enemies being gunned down across the city in a frenzy of violence. The slow-moving church ritual is in sharp contrast to the mob violence. This creates shock and awe in the audience. Having brutality play out at length on its own would have produced a monotonous beat.

Contrasting the pace, length and texture within and across scenes, then, creates an appropriate rhythm and movement—quite simply, the scenes feel right. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to monotony and boredom.

Exercise: Read through several scenes you’ve written. Does the pace, texture and mood vary from one scene to the other, or do the scenes feel the same in these registers? If the latter, try changing the above-mentioned parameters in consecutive scenes and watch your story perk up!

Side note: If you’re interested in learning more about the hero’s arc, with examples from the movies, check out my latest video on YouTube! How to Write the Hero’s Arc.

The presence of epiphany in the character arc

The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The presence of epiphany in the character arc tells us that the protagonist has achieved a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness. This allows him to prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the moment that finally proves that the hero has arrived at his zenith.

Let’s start by restating that the protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, he receives a challenge which he is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that he first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

“The realisation of a buried wound or hidden flaw allows the protagonist to face the outer challenge with increased honesty and clarity. Newfound power is initiated through the presence of epiphany.”

But because the protagonist lacks the emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, he fails to make the right decisions, until his suffering, resulting from his string of defeats, causes him to learn from his mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decisions, therefore, directly impacts the quality of his actions. He can only achieve victory when he has fully achieved maturity—usually by the end of the story. This maturity is indicated through the moment of epiphany—the recognition of some deeply buried truth that has kept him down all this while.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, breaks his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to move forward with what remains of his life.

Exercise: Study the climax in something you’ve written. Is your protagonist’s victory or defeat predicated on his recognition (or lack of it) of a buried wound that has hamstrung him all along? If not, try weaving it into your story from the get-go.

Summary

The presence of epiphany marks the last stage of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.

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The inner life of characters in stories

The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.
The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.

We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?


In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.” 

The inner life is key

Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’

The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.

One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.

Summary

Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.

If you haven’t yet subscribed to my brand new YouTube channel on writing, consider doing so by clicking on this link.

The power of evocative language

Stranger things achieves much of its power through plot and character conveyed by evocative writing.
Stranger Things achieves much of its power of plot and character through evocative language.

Evocative language. What is it?
Simply put, evocative language builds expectation, tension, and establishes mood. It sucks the reader into the story through the very vividness of its prose and dialogue.



The pilot episode of Stranger Things opens with:

EXT. MONTAUK SKY – NIGHT

We FADE UP on the night sky. Dark clouds swallow the stars.
We hear a LOW-END RUMBLE. It sounds almost like thunder, only it is somehow more alive. Like the growl of an unseen beast. We TILT DOWN to find…

In the scene above the descriptive language adds to the mood and setting. Words such ‘rumble’, thunder’ and growl’ lend a sense of menace, as does the simile of the ‘unseen beast.’ This is a powerful start to the episode—one that hooks us into the story from the get-go, primarily through the power of the language.

“Evocative language helps to hook the reader into the story from the get-go.”

In The Nostalgia of time Travel, a strange, almost occult mood is established through choice words:

“Incandescent symbols spiral along the moist eye of the cyclone. I jot them down as quickly as I can, but it is difficult to keep up. Look directly at them and they vanish. I catch them out of the corner of my eye. Like the half-glimpsed phantoms haunting my childhood, they are shapes that the mind has more to do in the making than the eye in perceiving…

… And suddenly I see them, grey, cloud-sized ghosts shimmering behind the symbols. They slide along the inside of the funnel like images on the curved screen of some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right.”

Here, the language is both concrete and ethereal. The eye of the cyclone is ‘moist’. The ‘symbols’ are like ‘half-glimpsed phantoms’—‘cloud-sized ghosts shimmering’ as they slide along the inside funnel of the storm. The simile of ‘ghosts’ appearing on the screen like ‘some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right’ is unexpected and creates a sense of the old and new worlds colliding. Lastly, the cyclone is as much a symbol of the inner turmoil of the protagonist as it is a dangerous, physical event. As readers we sense this through the subtext and it raises our involvement and expectation.

Evocative language, then, is versatile. It creates deeper levels of meaning and emotion. It helps the writer set the mood, build expectation and sustain the plot and action.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own writing that describes a place, character or time. Find the verbs and nouns that describe it. Is the language as tactile and sense-driven as it can be? If not, amp up the vividness of the language.

Summary

Use evocative language to create the appropriate mood for your scenes.

Character actions and the character arc

Perfectly Calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.
Perfectly calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.

I have often talked about the need to align your hero’s actions against the character arc if a story is to be believable. I emphasised that the quality of a character’s actions depends on that character’s state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity, often through pain and suffering.

But where and how does the writer incorporate this alignment?

The short answer is that the alignment should be checked at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution. 

Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.

It is now easier to align actions and events on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.

“Character actions feel authentic when they arise as a result of the state of moral and technical knowledge at specific points along the character’s arc.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage, struggles to defeat an alien enemy that can see into the future. Cage is killed, but his reality is reset, affording him an opportunity to try again. But to no avail. He keeps getting things wrong. He keeps dying. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves and decides to sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation. His actions have been perfectly aligned to his character arc.

In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the truth about his inability to escape his environment only when he embraces his identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist. His previous actions have been ineffective largely because of his lack of self-awareness.

In both cases actions that lead to progress only occur when the deeper truth about a character’s inner life is exposed and understood.

Summary

Calibrate character actions along the pivotal points in your story to keep them in sync.

Desire and fear in stories

Desire and fear in Breaking Bad—one of the best tv series ever!
Desire and fear in Breaking Bad—one of the best tv series ever!

Since character is fundamental to storytelling, it is helpful to understand the intricate relationship between character, action and story on a scene-by-scene basis—and that involves understanding the role of desire and fear in initiating action.

I propose a schema in which the writer inputs both the character’s (1) desire for the goal, and (2) his fear in trying to achieve it, (informed by present challenges as well as past wounds), into a kind of story-mixing device which then (3) motivates the character, resulting in (4) action. Action, in turn, blends with that of other characters, resulting in (5) narrative events that comprise the story.

Too often, we get lost in the story we want to tell. This can turn our characters into mere puppets serving the plot. What is useful about this schema is that it forces us to think about a character’s motivation for the actions he initiates. It draws our attention to the character’s inner life—his wounds, hopes and fears. 

“Desire and fear plug into motivation, which initiates character action.”

Further, if we apply the schema at the major turning points of the story—the first turning point, the mid point, the second turning point and the climax—we can more effectively combine the physical journey of the tale with the inner journey of the protagonist and other characters. 

Additionally, the schema is expandable. It forces us to think about the character’s  past—to ask, what are the roots of his hopes and fears? In short, it encourages us to think about backstory elements that help explain his motivation.

Consider the scene in which Breaking Bad’s Walter White steps inside the den of the psychopathic drug dealer, Tuco, to retrieve the meth Tuco stole from his partner, Jesse Pinkman after beating him up. What Walter really wants, however, is for Tuco to distribute his meth. Walter is patted down by Tuco’s goons and seems destined for the same treatment Jessie received.

What is Walter’s motivation for such a seemingly foolish, suicidal mission? 

Let’s analyse this powerful scene in terms of our schema: Walter’s (1) desire is to get Tuco to pay for the meth he stole, compensate Jesse for the beating he gave him, and agree to distribute the meth Walter and Jesse produce. His (2) fear is that Tuco will kill him there and then! His (3) motivation for the (4) action that follows stems from his growing confidence, based on the quality of his product and the opportunity to build up his meth business through Tuco.

He threatens Tuco that if he does not let him leave unharmed he will blow every one up with the chemicals he has brought with him disguised as meth. To prove his point he throws a shard of ‘product’ on the floor causing an explosion. (5) The result is that not only does Tuco pay Walter for the meth he stole from Jesse, he pays for having beaten him up too. What’s more, Tuco orders a large shipment of meth from Walter and agrees to pay up front for it! Walter has more than succeeded in gaining his goal.

This is a brilliant scene, from a brilliant series, and one that can be understood by applying the input-output schema I have offered above. 

Exercise: Pluck out the protagonist from one of your stories. Ensure that your protagonist exhibits a mixture of desire and fear which motivates his actions, especially at the turning points.

Summary

Input a character’s desire and fear into the mix to determine that character’s motivation for action.