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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.

Good Writing Advice?

Is Oscar Wild’s advice about writing to be taken a pinch of salt?

Writing advice is not that hard to find, in fact it’s everywhere. Some of it is very good, some of it not so much. The challenge is to sift through it until you separate the chaff from the wheat.

Princeton University’s Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches Creative Writing and is a multi-award winning novelist, does offer us some good general advice:

1. Write your heart out.
2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
3. You are writing for your contemporaries – not for posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity.
4. Keep in mind Oscar Wild: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice.)
6. Unless you are experimenting with form – gnarled, snarled & obscure – stick to the accepted format.
7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.
8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader – or any reader. He/she might exist – but is reading someone else.
9. Read, observe, listen intently! – as if your life depended upon it.
10. Write your heart out. (Again).

There you have it. Good advice to guide your writing. Take the time to ponder upon it.

Summry

Study the suggestions of accomplished writers to glean good writing advice from their thoughts, statements and works.

To catch my latest YouTube video click here.

The Power of the Secret

The power of the secret in Primal Fear
The power of the secret in Primal Fear

One way to get to know your characters is to have them reveal their secrets to you. Place yourself in each character’s shoes and try to have them talk through you—as if you were talking to a psychologist or a priest in a confessional. 

In the chapter on The Secret Lives of Characters (The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne) we are told that, “Characters with secrets have an objective (to conceal), a problem (the risk of exposure), and a motivation (enough at stake to require privacy).” That’s quite a truckload of treasure to help us enrich our stories.

Delve into your character and plot by having the character confess his or her secret, using the format offered below. What does the secret suggest about the character’s values? His or her psychological, sociological and physiological status? Next, write down ten actions the character might undertake to keep this secret hidden from the world.

Example: “I’ve got a secret about something I did in the past. I am Claudius in Ham­let. I killed Hamlet’s father, the king, so I could marry his wife and assume the throne of Denmark.” 

This admission cuts to the heart of the character. It is easy to imagine why Claudius would behave in this way, given the gravity of his secret. His secret not only reveals his lack of values — his desire for power that has made him a murderer — it also explains his present and future actions: He fears disgrace and retribution if he’s found out. Knowing that Hamlet suspects him of the murder of his father, he tries to exile him and plots his death. This is how secrets turn actions into plot. 

“Secrets are prodigious story generators.”

Example: In Primal Fear, defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is representing altar boy Aaron Stamper (Edward Norton) who is charged with murder. Aaron, who purportedly suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), claims his alter-ego “Roy” is responsible. 

Aaron’s secret? “My name is Aaron Stamper and I don’t have DID! I am a sociopath and an exceptionally good actor.”

This secret is so central to the story that keeping it hidden drives the entire tale. The challenge is to keep the audience guessing.

Secrets, then, drive stories – use them to shape character and generate plot.

Summary

What is your character’s secret? Write down ten actions and their consequences that flow from it.

To catch my latest YouTube video click in this link!

Who is the pivotal character in your story?

The pivotal character via Lajos Egri
The pivotal character via Lajos Egri

Who is the pivotal character in your story? Lajos Egri defines this character as the one who forces the action.

The pivotal character may take the form of the antagonist, protagonist, love interest, sidekick, mentor, and so on.

This character generates energy from the get-go. He or she is the motivating force, the engine of conflict in a story, confident about the course of action to be undertaken. Othello’s Iago is such a character. His function is to drive the story to it’s ultimate conclusion.

Sometimes the character is relentless because circumstances have placed him in this position. An honest man who steals, for example, does so not for excitement or gain, but because his family might be starving, or he might need money for an operation for his child. But because he is an obsessively driven individual who focuses on his own goal, he can be reactionary and militant.

“The pivotal character forces the action, causing other characters to act.”

Pivotal characters are fixated on their goals and will drag others along with them.

Here are some characteristics and circumstances that make for effective pivotal characters: 

  1. Someone who wants to take revenge on the man who ran away with his wife.
  2. Someone willing to give his life for his country.
  3. Someone who loves a woman but must make money first to marry her.
  4. Someone greedy. His greed springs from poverty. He exploits others because of it.
  5. Someone who obsessively wants to achieve success in a specific job or profession and will stop at nothing to achieve it.

A pivotal character is useful because he grants the writer flexibility—pivotal characters are usually protagonists or antagonists, but not necessarily so. This means the writer can utilise other characters to enrich the story without having to do it through traditional roles.

Summary

The pivotal character can be the protagonist or antagonist, or she can be the love interest, ally or mentor, providing she forces others into action throughout the story.

Catch my latest YouTube video by clicking on this link!

Audience participation – how to get it

Audience participation in The Fugitive
Audience participation in The Fugitive

Sometimes writers try to solicit audience participation by injecting more action into their stories. They erroneously add a fight scene here or a chase scene there in the belief that it will capture the audience through sheer pace alone. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.

Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to evoke sympathy. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.

At the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. The setbacks take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.

Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story. 

“Audience participation is essential if your story is to succeed. Work at learning the craft until it is mastered.”

How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?

The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.

In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if he stays away from her forever. It is a reversal in expectation that increases our involvement in the story.

Placing your hero in a situation of undeserved misfortune, then tightening the screws, is one technique that is bound to help increase audience participation in your stories

Summary

A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal, increases audience participation in the story.

Catch my latest YouTube video on how to write story hooks 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.

Unlikeable Characters – how to write them

Joffrey Baratheon, ranks amongst one of the most unlikeable 
characters of all time.
Joffrey Baratheon ranks amongst the most unlikeable characters of all time.

How to write unlikeable characters? No, this is not a typo. This article is about creating characters we dislike, or despise.

But hold on. Aren’t we supposed to write likeable characters? Indeed so, but not all characters need to be likable. Certainly, we have to like the protagonist. But surely not the antagonist and his allies? How else can we all pit likeable against unlikeable characters to create tension?

So, how do we make readers and audiences dislike a character? Here’s one approach. Consider these traits, several of which have been drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide. Some are more potent than others, depending on how unlikable you intend to make your character(s).

“Unlikeable Characters are an important part of the story-world. They are a foil to the kinder, more likeable characters and help define the scope of the moral terrain the story sets out.”

Unlikeable characters demonstrate some of the following behaviour:

  1. Lie and cheat
  2. Exhibit chauvinistic, sexist, or racist behaviour
  3. Humiliate others
  4. Ignore a plea for help
  5. Be deliberately unkind
  6. Break a promise without a valid reason
  7. Be cruel to animals
  8. Cause physical or mental pain in others – be a bully
  9. Behave selfishly
  10. Smell bad
  11. Poke fun at someone who can’t poke back
  12. Have bad habits – pick his nose in public, spit constantly, etc.
  13. Pick on someone vulnerable (after all, who roots for Goliath?)
  14. Blame the innocent to save his own hide

You get the idea. Apart from physical traits such as bad smells and irritating ticks and habits, unlikeable people violate our sense of fairness. They do not treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Keeping this principle in mind will help you generate unlikeable characters as a counterweight to the likeable ones.

Check out my latest YouTube video: How to structure your story

Summary

Negative behaviour makes for unlikeable characters who serve as a foil to the likeable characters in your story.

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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