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Understanding Layered Conflict in Stories

Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.
Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.

Conflict, especially layered conflict, is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative cause and effect and provides fuel for the tale. Conflict arises from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. Here are three types of conflict: external, internal, and mixed.

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone. 

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club where the conflict is between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits). 

Mixed conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles. 

One of my favourite films, The Matrix, is a great example of how conflict plays out across the layers. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo experiences conflict between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept that he is The One that he is able to resolve his inner conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith, and the machines, which have enslaved humanity. Neo’s struggle to attain the story goal, then, is pitted against a multilayered conflict.

Summary

Layered conflict is the fuel that powers your story. The layers can be described as external, internal, and mixed.

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The strength of language

Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.
Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.

SOME of the most useful writing advice for harnessing the strength of language comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially insightful book, The Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete. Among the greatest practitioners of this skill are the immortals— Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is powerful because their words render up experiences that are just that—specific, definite and concrete.

“Harness the strength of language by studying it diligently in the authors you admire, but also through inspirational gems such as Elements of Style.”

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known, but accomplished writer:

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the use of concrete and specific language. This language can not only evoke a felt experience in short stories and novels, it can also do so in the ‘action block’ of screenplays. Here brief, specific, and concrete description adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

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Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

Strength of language

How symbolic ascension makes your story universal

A story replete with symbolic ascension!

What is symbolic ascension?

Every great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows the story to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent. 

If rendered crudely, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly. 

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At a first encounter the setting, events and specific actions of characters represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

“Symbolic ascension is the process in which actions, events, settings and objects are transformed into universal symbols through repetition and association.”

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier—the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills. 

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself—as does Nick (Christopher Walken). 

Nick’s death precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this spontaneous duality that gives the story its enduring power.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

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The Power of Dilemma in Stories

The power of dilemma is in full display in Dona Flor and her Two Husbands.

Wherein lies the power of dilemma in stories? What makes for the best dramatic conflict? The two questions are related.


In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

“The power of dilemma is most evident at the turning points of a story.”

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate the risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

The power of dilemma escalates the tensions within your protagonist and the other characters, making the story more gripping.

To watch my latest YouTube video on High Concept click on this link.

Causally Connected Scenes

The Fugitive contains many causally connected scenes.

A scene does not exist in isolation, rather, it is part of a set of causally connected scenes that make up the story. 

In Making a Good Script Great Linda Seger stresses that it is far more effective to think of a scene as being a member of a scene sequence—scenes that are so tightly connected to one another that they create single narrative blocks within the story. 

These sequences might be chase scenes in a city that get progressively shorter until they end in a car crash or getaway; they may build up to the final explosion in The Guns of Navarone; they might culminate in two lovers reuniting as in When Harry met Sally.

“Causally connected scenes are an antidote to a slackening of interest due to a meandering narrative.”

In The Fugitive the first sequence of scenes might be called murder and the sentencing. It forms a tight causal unit that spans eleven minutes. The next sequence could be called the escape, leading to the train wreck. The sequence following that could be labeled after him and include the scenes of Deputy Sam Gerard starting the chase, culminating in Kimble arriving in Chicago. 

The point is that all these scenes are linked by cause and effect, or, at least, action and consequence, that allows no room for loose or weakly connected events.

In my novel, The Level, the protagonist finds himself bound to a sturdy chair in a pitch-black room. To make matters worse he is suffering from amnesia and has no clue how he got there. 

Later, a mysterious woman carrying a lantern appears from the darkness, unties him and gives him a series of clues to follow in order to escape. 

The story is a connect-the-pieces puzzle, fraught with dangerous pit-falls that threaten the protagonist’s every step. Indeed, the entire story is driven by causally connected scene sequences, each of which reveals a part of the puzzle. This serves to maintain the readers’ interest.

Summary

Organise your story into causally connected scenes in order to drive the action and avoid a slackening in your narrative.


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How to come up with winning story ideas

Red Corner is based on a gripping story idea which feeds off the dangers present in communist red China in the 1990’s.

How do you come up with winning story ideas?


In the absence of hindsight, use High Concept:

1. Set your story in a unique or challenging environment such as communist China, (Red Corner).

2. Ensure that your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One where POTUS is held hostage on his plane, or 12 Monkeys in which a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

3. Choose the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemmaJohn Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Select a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursueMemento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

“Winning story ideas benefit by drawing on High Concept.”

Of course, success depends on your getting many other factors right too, but using these suggestions will increase the commercial potential of your story.

I used some of my own advice in my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre of hard science-fiction upon its release. Here’s the core idea:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to possess it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The concept formed the basis for an intriguing story, as indicated by the book sales.

Summary

Use High Concept to generate winning story ideas with high commercial potential.

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How to humanise animals, toys, and objects.

Toy Story is a master class on how to humanise non-human characters.

We sometimes need to humanise non-human characters in the stories we write—animals, toys, robots, piggy banks.

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that we achieve depth in human characters by highlighting their human attributes. 

But if we were to highlight the non-human attributes of, say, dogs—barking louder or digging faster to get a buried bone, we would not make them more likable. To achieve that we would have to give them some human characteristics.

We would need to do at least three things:

1. Choose one or two attributes that help create character identity.

2. Understand the associations the reader or audience brings to the character.

3. Create a strong context for the character(s).

“We humanise non-human characters every time we have them reveal values, traits and emotions that we recognise as human—even if they emanate from teapots, clocks, dogs or cats.”

In producer Al Burton’s TV series, Lassie, the dog part is written in a way that allows the animal to become part of the family, a best friend to the adults and their son. Through this clever move the series becomes family viewing, and not merely a kid’s show.

A character such as King Kong, however, brings very different associations. He comes from the South Seas. He has a dark, mysterious, and terrifying aura. His associations include a vague knowledge of ancient rituals, human sacrifice, and dark, unrepressed sexuality. We are frightened of King Kong because we bring to his character our apprehension of the unknown.

In my novel, Scarab, the Man-Lion, a mythical creature in the likeness of the Spinx of Giza, evokes the same sort of fear, mystery and intrigue. Its dark fascination for the reader is generated more by the power of association than a detailed description in the pages of the novel. 

Understanding the power of association and how to use it, then, is crucial in creating and positioning such characters in your stories, and in the market place.

Summary

Humanise non-human characters by having them act in a way that reveals human emotions, values and actions.

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The moral of the story – how it drives the tale

Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral premise: Crime leads to ultimate loss.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral of the story: Crime leads to ultimate loss.

A story is the result of a central idea, the moral of the story, that has been turned into powerful and visible action and projected on the page or screen.

The story’s events arise out of a mixture of character action motivated by outer challenges. It is the means by which the writer first expresses, then probes an idea.

Another way to put it is that character action must be driven by a moral premise – a guiding principle that traces the consequences of the action of characters in the story, as they try to achieve their goal. We can also think of this as the theme of the story. 

Think about the crime genre. What idea, or moral premise lies at the core of genre? How about: Crime does not pay?

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite, on-the-nose dialogue, such as:

“You see, Frankie, my boy? It’s as I always said. Crime does not pay!”

This is too direct.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, then expose the character to the consequences of her actions.

“Every tale needs a clearly defined moral of the story to drive it. Its absence leaves the story rudderless.”

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how the crime of manufacturing meth, pushes those involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from differing perspectives. The protagonist represents one perspective. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining perspective, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proven – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral view, wins or loses the fight with the antagonist.

In The Land Below, for example, the judgement of whether Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine to reach the surface, can only be established at the end of the story. 

If things go well for Paulie and his followers, then the theme of the story might be: Courage, imagination and steadfastness lead to freedom. If things go badly, then the theme might be: daydreams and stubbornness lead to defeat. 

As with all stories, the outcome can only be established at the end of the story. It is only then that the reader or audience can understand what the story is really about.

Summary

Narrative events describing character action in pursuit of a goal culminate in yielding the moral of the story.

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The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

An important requirement in writing is that we deploy a sympathetic protagonist in our story, since the protagonist is the character through whom we experience the tale. 

This does not mean that our protagonist has no weaknesses in his or her character. Indeed, character flaws are what make for a strong character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful to rightful action that drive the story.

But, creating a sympathetic protagonist has become more and more challenging. For who, after all, are our real-life models? Scandals involving politicians, military and religious leaders have eroded our trust in those exemplars.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc. 

“A sympathetic protagonist is at the center of readable and watchable stories.”

The notion of a flawed protagonist, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – MacbethOthelloHamlet. These tragic protagonists are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes in recent times, is noteworthy.

DexterBreaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few of the protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe. 

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters achieved this? Here are some suggestions.

1. The protagonist finds himself/herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune: 

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can’t afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay for his bills.

2. The law-breaking protagonist is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to kill and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he keeps outsmarting both the police and his criminal victims.

3. The protagonist acts for a cause other than his own: 

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Summary

Understanding how these characteristics operate in deeply flawed protagonists, then, helps to soften our critique of them.

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How to write effective dialogue

Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds
Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds

So much has been said about how to craft effective dialogue that it is difficult to take it all in. This article distills the best advice into four powerful techniques

In his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain, stresses that dialogue performs four main functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

1. Dialogue reveals new information: Tell the audience what it needs to know to follow the story. The trick is to do it subtly. 

Inglorious Basterds is a great example of how to provide information while maintaining the tension. At the start of the movie a Nazi officer, Colonel Hans Landa, interviews a French farmer, monsieur LaPadite, about the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area—a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the floorboards where the interview is taking place! The tension and irony are palpable.

“Effective dialogue performs several functions, and does so in a seamless way.”

2. Dialogue generates emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should generate emotion. Failure to do so makes for flat, listless speech. In the above example, each line spoken by Landa heightens the stakes for LaPadite and his family, since discovering the Jewish family under the floorboards will lead to disaster.

3. Dialogue promotes the plot: Dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously—it should not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that Landa is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that Landa already knows the truth and is merely prolonging the questioning to torment the farmer.

4. Dialogue deepens character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. Colonel Landa, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially feels more like a conversation between friends than an interrogation. LaPadite, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial—part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Taken together, then, these functions make for effective dialogue—a great addition to a writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Effective dialogue performs four functions—it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

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