The five core elements of story

For a long time I have wondered what distinguishes a great story-teller from the rest. Clearly, great story tellers are blessed with great creative skills and imagination. Many of the basic techniques of writing  such as structuring, using dialogue, grammar, point of view, and voice,  can be learnt. The creative  skills of story telling are much more difficult to develop, but not impossible. The first stage is to find the concept or idea from which you can develop a story.

The great concept or idea

All great stories start with a great concept. What if there is a school for wizards? (Harry Potter). What if a dystopian society forced children to kill each other in a tournament for entertainment? (Hunger Games). What if a cop waiting for retirement is paired off with a partner with suicidal tendencies? (Lethal Weapon). What if a plane carrying the president is hijacked? (Air Force One).

But how do you find these killer ideas? The answer is to find that one great idea you need to generate lots  of ideas, most of which will be rubbish. But eventually you will find that gem that stands out from the rest. The first step is therefore idea generation and here are some of the techniques that can help:

  • Day dreaming – I do this a lot. What if… an alien artifact was found in your garden… What if a new cold drug remedy had the side effect of giving autistic children mind reading powers… Good ‘what if’ questions will almost always lead to further questions to hone the concept further. Write down your ideas however silly they seem. Let them germinate with time and grow. Revisit the ideas after a passage of time and you might see them in a different light.
  • Collecting odd ideas – from news and other sources in a journal/notebook. Ideas that are not written down will be lost. Don’t lose them.
  • Turning an existing story idea on its head. What if the antagonist is really a good guy after all? What if the macho male hero is a child, a female, a seventy-year old, a paraplegic, someone with OCD. How does the story change? What if the ending was changed into a tragedy?
  •  Combining ideas from different stories into something new. A love story and titanic. (Sorry, that’s been done). Die hard on a battleship. (Sorry, that’s been done too.) Die hard on the Titanic? Sounds crazy…. change it.  Die hard on a nuclear submarine… Keep changing it until something works.
  • Free writing. Just write with a pen and paper, what comes into your head for ten minutes without stopping to think. Believe me, it works. It helped me find the idea behind my debut novel. You will write a lot of rubbish, but it is the precious gems of wisdom within that rubbish that you can salvage and use.
  • Idea association: take a silly idea and examine the consequences. The silly idea may springboard to another idea, and so on until you reach an idea that may not be so silly.

Developing the concept into a working story proposition.

Once you have found that great concept, it’s easy to get excited about it. But a concept alone isn’t enough to build a story on.  At best it’s only likely to be one core element of your story, and you need five core elements working together. These are:

  • The Protagonist’s Characterisation
  • The Big Problem or Opportunity that sets up the central conflict
  • Opposition – Antagonist Forces and Obstacles standing in his/her way
  • A Story World.
  • A Satisfying Resolution.

So for example, our idea about a dystopian society that forced children to compete to the death in a tournament is an idea or concept about the story world. We still need a main character (Katniss Everdeen), a problem she faces (survival), and antagonist(s) (the tributes, the games organisers, and President Snow) that get in her way, and a satisfying ending (she and Peeta both survive).

The relationship between these five core elements and their related factors can be set out as follows:

5_elements4.jpeg

The Protagonist – Characterisation

All great stories have a protagonist that the reader can connect with. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, but they need to empathise with the struggle they are going through. Empathy factors are important. A reader is more likely to empathise with a character that is funny, clever, an underdog in jeopardy, selfless, resourceful and resolute. Katniss Everdeen ticks most of these boxes. But it’s possible to build empathy even with nasty characters if they have some redeeming qualities. For example, in Psycho, Hitchcock killed-off the main character half way through the movie and invited us to empathise with the killer, Norman Bates.

A key factor in connecting the reader to the main character is how he/she relates to other main characters and, in particular, the love interest, who will often play an important role in the main character’s inner story.

A character should never be perfect. Most have a flaw or emotional wound at the start of the story, and they learn from their experiences and change by the end of the story. This is the transformation arc, which is often related to the theme of the story. Not all stories have a transformation arc, but those that do are usually more satisfying for the reader.

The Big Problem or Opportunity 

All stories are about a protagonist who desperately wants something or who wants to stop something from happening. It’s what drives the protagonist and what drives the plot forward.

The problem or opportunity is introduced to the protagonist in the first act by the story catalyst. The Catalyst  is the point in time where the protagonist first becomes aware of the big problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes catalysts as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.

Not any old problem/opportunity will suffice. The problem/opportunity needs to be difficult, and intractable, since once the problem/opportunity is resolved the story is over. Also, the extent of the problem may not be fully understood by the protagonist until the latter stages of  the story. For example, Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars: A New Hope, initially wanted to take a couple of droids to Alderaan with the plans for the Death Star, but ended up rescuing a princess and blowing-up the Death Star.   Erin Brokovich just wanted a job with Ed Masry’s law firm to support her kids, but ended up with a $2m bonus from a $330m legal settlement.

This escalation in the intensity of the problem/opportunity during the course of the story is part of a great story’s DNA. It creates reader tension about the protagonist’s uncertain future, which won’t be resolved until the climax.

For the reader to care, the protagonist’s problem should be life-changing and the consequences of failure life-threatening in a literal or figurative sense. For example, a young teenage girl volunteers to take her sister’s place in a brutal tournament where the tributes compete to the death (Hunger Games); or  a New York cop trapped in a building with terrorists has to stop them blowing up the building and everyone in it (Die Hard).

Antagonist forces and opposition

All stories are about conflict: a struggle between what the protagonist wants and the obstacles that stand in his/her way. The stronger the antagonist forces are against him/her, the greater is the reader tension. Weak antagonists make for boring stories. Imagine Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty, or Batman without Joker. Strong antagonists bring out the best in heroes.

The obstacles that stand in the protagonist’s way may be physical/natural, supernatural, opposition from antagonists  with different goals or competitors with the same goal, or it may be just his/her own shortcomings.

Story world and context

All stories take place in a story world – a setting, a time, a social environment with its own set of rules and conventions. Context will also be a factor in determining the genre: e.g. Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Historical fiction etc., or tone, as in a tragedy. One of the easiest ways to change the look and feel of a story is to change the context. For example, what would Hamlet or Macbeth look like in the 25th century?

Satisfying resolution

For a story to work it has to have an emotionally satisfying ending. But no one wants an ending that is too predictable. Some element of surprise is therefore necessary. Meeting these two conditions is difficult and requires a lot of thought and planning from the outset.

Playing with the Core Elements

It doesn’t matter where a writer starts with his muse. Any one of the five elements will do. But eventually he/she will need to address them all to find the shape of their new story. Once you have all five core elements of your story, you can flesh out the detail of the big moments of the plot. You will already know how the story starts and ends, and the opposition that the protagonist needs to overcome, which should be more than enough to give you the seeds of a good outline.

And lastly...

Still struggling to find that killer idea? Don’t despair. It’s important to understand that most stories are not new, but have been told a thousand times before. For example, Alien, Beowulf, Jaws are all what Blake Synder describes as ‘monster in the house’ stories. But to the reader or audience they feel very different. The Hunger Games and The Running Man are both stories about authoritarian societies televising a tournament to the death for entertainment, yet they feel very different. Similarly, West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet are the same story written in different social contexts.

The fact that many stories share similar patterns and features is not surprising. Christopher Book suggests that there are just seven basic plots to all stories. The late Blake Snyder  stated that most Hollywood movies can be categorised under ten simple genre, each defined by three simple requirements.  Chris Hoth and KC Moffat did a similar exercise to identify ten different story types based on the type of story tension, and they argue that most stories are a combination of one or more of these different story types.

So the trick is to find a combination of elements that makes your story feel new and interesting. If the story doesn’t feel new and exciting then perhaps modifying any one or more of the elements may give the story a different look and feel.

 

Story Structure – The Big Moments of Act Three

This is the third blog dealing with story structure and focuses on Act Three.

Story Structure.001Act One deals with the story set-up. It introduces the characters, the story world and the central problem that will become the focus of the story.

Act Two deals with the central conflict of the story as the hero or heroine actively pursue a course of action driven by their desires and opposed by antagonistic forces.

Act three is all about the final resolution of the story. It’s a difficult Act to write because if the ending is too predictable it’s boring, but if it doesn’t deliver the emotional payoff the reader expects, it will fall flat.

The main turning point of Act three is the Climax (TP5). If the story is designed to have a happy ending, this is the moment that the hero finally achieves their goal or gives it up for a higher purpose.  In a tragedy, it is the tragic finale–eg the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

After the Climax we normally see the Aftermath (P7) of the story: the  hero has changed and the world in a new sate of equilibrium. In Star Wars, Luke and Hans are given hero’s medals; in westerns the hero rides into the sunset; in a romance we see the wedding or another happy ever after scene.

From a sequence perspective, the first sequence of Act three is normally all about the Fight Back. The hero has found a new strength from his/her low point at the culmination of Act two.  He/she reunites the team with a crazy plan to storm the castle. The Antagonist and his cronies are caught off-guard. And just when the hero sees victory in sight, the tables are turned  with a twist or revelation (P6).

The second sequence, Resolution & Aftermath, sees the hero fight back, dig deep and finally win (the Climax TP4) and ends with the aftermath (P7).

You may feel that the process I have described is a somewhat of a clichéd Hollywood ending for an action adventure movie. It is; but it works. Even if we remove the action/adventure genre, the emotional journey for other genre (other than tragedy) is much the same. We build up the hero from his lowest point until he/she can almost taste victory, before pulling the carpet away from them leaving them at the mercy of the antagonist. And then finally (sometimes with the help or sacrifice of a friend) they have the strength to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

Whether you believe in the three-act structure or not, it is important to understand that stories have natural cycles of tension that build to crisis and climax before resolution. Tension is about our hopes and fears for our hero/heroine.  Stories with no tension at all are boring. Stories with continuous tension can also be unnerving on the reader or audience.  That is why a story needs periodic turning points, and different phases of emotional intensity to work. Understanding these patterns is fundamental to story telling. More about this in later blogs.

Any thoughts on the blog are welcome.

 

Story Structure – the Big Moments of Act Two

This is the second instalment on the subject of story structure, and covers the difficult Second Act.

Finding the content for Act One is relatively easy.  There’s exposition that needs to go in: introduce the hero and the other main characters, setup the story world, and then blow it all apart with a big problem. Then let the hero simmer in the dilemma it creates until they are brave enough to tackle the story quest. What is challenging about this Act is writing this exposition in an exciting way that piques the readers’ interest. If you fail, the reader may well not read on past the first paragraph or first five pages.

Story Structure.001

Act Two is different. It’s all about the conflict between what the hero/heroine wants and the antagonist forces in his/her way. It’s a long Act and it needs lots of content. It needs a hero/heroine  fired up with a goal or purpose and an action plan, even if that plan is just to survive. And it needs an obstacle course of escalating problems to frustrate the hero from achieving his/her goal.

The two main turning points at either end of the second act are the Act One Break (TP2) and the Act Two Culmination (TP4). Together these two turning points hold the second act together. The first sets the hero/heroine on his way in a new world with a purpose. The second is the culmination of his/her attempts to solve the story goal and usually reaches a point of apparent defeat.  At this point the hero/heroine  may experience an epiphany moment where he finds what he must do differently to succeed in Act 3.

At the mid-point of the second act there is usually a Mid Point Shift (TP3). This is normally a major culmination of the previous sequence: a false victory, or false defeat, or major revelation that changes everything.  The hero will normally respond to this event by driving forward into the second half of the act with a renewed vigour and determination.

But these are not the only plot points of the second act. Each main sequence will have its own goal, obstacles and culmination.

In the first sequence of Act 2, (s3), the hero/heroine takes their first steps towards their overall story goal. They are in an unfamiliar world, they meet new allies and enemies and learn new skills. They come into conflict with the forces of antagonism, but those forces are not fully aware of them yet. So for example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke and Obi-Wan travel to Los Eisley, Spaceport to find a pilot to take them and the Death Star plans to Alderaan. They recruit Hans Solo and Chewbacca. The sequence ends in a shoot-out escape from the spaceport in the Millennium Falcon. This sequence culmination is the ‘Reality Check‘ (P4): a reminder of the dangers that the hero/heroine faces in this strange new world.

In the second sequence of Act 2, (s4), matters escalate and the stakes are raised. After their spectacular escape from Los Eisley Spaceport and fighting off imperial Star Destroyers, they head to Alderaan to deliver the Death Star Plans to Leia’s father.  Matters slow down as Obi-Wan trains Luke in the force.  Unbeknown to them, however, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin force Princess Leia to watch the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. When they emerge from lightspeed  Alderaan has been destroyed. They need a new goal. This is the Mid Point Shift (TP3).

In the third sequence of Act 2, (s5), our heros encounter the antagonists head on. They are caught in a tractor beam and taken to the Death Star. When the stormtroopers search the Millennium Falcon, they hide away. Then while Obi-Wan goes to disable the tractor beam, Luke discovers princess Leia is onboard . Their new goal is now to rescue her. Luke, Hans, and Chewbacca rescue the princess, but only by escaping into a chute leading to a trash compactor. This is a Major Set-back (P5): the trash compactor threatens to kill them.

In the fourth and final sequence of Act 2, (s6),  matters worsen and slide into a crisis. Luke is attacked by a creature in the trash compactor, but survives. And with the help of R2D2 our heros escape death in the trash compactor and fight their way back to the Millennium Falcon. The fourth sequence ends with a false victory. Our heros escape from the Death Star, but not before Luke witnesses the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to let Luke and the rest escape.  This is the Act 2 Culmination (TP4).

The sequences and plot points of Act two can be summarised as follows:

Sequence No Description Ends with TP/P

3

First steps Reality Check (P4)

4

Escalation & Raised Stakes Mid Point Shift (TP 3)

5

B Story & antagonists Major Set-back (P5)

6

Slide into Crisis Act 2 Culmination (TP4)

Are these the only sequences of Act 2? Not necessarily. It depends on the story. But four second Act sequences are quite common among most average length movies. Novels, however, usually contain more complexity than their related movies, and therefore there is no reason why the number of sequences shouldn’t increase or the sequences themselves become more complex as they have to deal with more detail.

Note the pattern of the sequences. There is a natural flow to the pattern. They start with simple first steps, then escalate with raised stakes to the Mid Point after which the forces of antagonism close in and create a slide into crisis. The Act 2 Culmination is therefore usually a low point for our hero, before the fight back begins in Act 3.  This is one of the most common story patterns, but it is by no means the only story pattern possible.

For example, in tragedies the polarity of the last two sequences normally reverse. The Major set-back becomes a Major Success, and the Slide into Crisis becomes a Rise to Success. So with a tragedy the Act 2 Culmination is usually a high for the hero. It is only in Act 3 where the hero falls into a tragic ending.

Whether you believe that  understanding the structure of a story is important or not, it is important that you understand the flow of your story pattern and the highs and lows for your hero. A story without highs and lows is going to be boring. Therefore to create these story patterns you need strong turning points and plot points.

In the next blog, I’ll look at the big moments of the third Act. If you missed the first blog on the big moments of the First Act you can find it here. Any questions?

Story structure — the big moments of Act One

Story telling, whether you are a novelist or screenwriter, requires an understanding of story dynamics and structure. For some writers, this is ingrained into their DNA: they don’t need fancy ideas and concepts for something that comes natural to them. All they need is a story, which starts with a problem that comes into a protagonists life; escalates and complicates until it reaches a crisis; and ends with a climax and resolution. For others these three stages can be formed into three acts.

Story Structure.001It sounds simple, but it is far from it. That’s why screenwriters and dramatists have developed methodologies to break down the process into more manageable bite-sized chunks.

Story structure won’t turn a bad story into a good one. But a good story with a bad structure may well turn the story into a disaster.

In previous posts, I’ve looked at some of the different methodologies used  by screenwriters for story development. I’ve looked at the Three-Act Structure popularised by Syd Field, Michael Hauge’s the Six-Stage Plot structure, Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey and the Frank Daniel’s Sequence Method. And in an early Blog I dealt with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

There are clearly differences of emphasis that the different gurus want to make, and their use of different terminology can be confusing. But in practice the different methodologies have more in common with each other than they would care to admit.

What I have attempted to do is to try a pick the best of each approach and pull them together into one cohesive story blueprint. This blog, and the following two, deal with the structural elements of that blueprint. The graphic shows a three-act, eight-segment structure with five-key turning points and seven further plot points. At first  sight it might seem complex. It’s not. It might seem rigid. It’s not. It’s up to you to see how you want to use it. If four or five acts makes more sense to you, then use whatever division of narrative structure you are most comfortable with.

Let’s start with Act 1, which sets up the story.  This Act normally consists of two sequences (but sometimes three). The first sequence introduces the main characters and the protagonists story world. It shows his normal world before his world is disturbed by the Catalyst at the end of the first sequence. The Catalyst (TP1) is the point in time where the protagonists is first confronted with the major problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes them as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.  It has many different names: the Inciting Incident, the Inciting Event, the Call to Adventure, and the Opportunity. It’s importance is that it ‘radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonists life (McKee).

The second sequence of Act 1 generally deals with the consequences of the Catalyst. Our hero may be reluctant to act, he may take advice from a mentor, or be forced into action by a further event(s) ( which I call the Bump) before eventually he responds to the challenge. The second turning point is the Act One Break (TP2), where our hero decisively moves forward on his quest with a goal in mind. This is sometimes called Crossing the Threshold, the Lock-in,  the Commitment, or the Change of Plans. It signifies the end of the setup process and the start of the main story conflict.

So there are two key turning points in Act 1: the Catalyst and the Act One Break.  However,  both events could occur almost simultaneously if the hero acts decisively. For example, in Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games when her sister’s name is drawn from the lottery. The two events are practically the same. Similarly in a crime mystery there maybe little difference between the timing of the crime being perpetrated and the detective taking control of the investigation.

A confusing complication is that another school of thought uses the same term “Inciting Incident” to refer to the first incident  in the screenplay.  One of the proponents of this approach is Syd Field, who  describes the inciting incident as the first incident that ‘opens up the screenplay and sets the story in motion’. Field goes on to use a second term, the Key Incident, to describe the event which draws the main character into the story and reflects what the story is about. He then explains that the Key Incident normally arises at the end of the first act (i.e. the Act One Break where the protagonist is committed to his goal), but not necessarily always.  And he gives an example in the Bourne Supremacy, where the story revolves around a Key Incident (where he killed the politician and his wife in Berlin) which occurs before the start of the movie. The emphasis of the Key Incident is on the effect of the event on the protagonist and the story  rather than when in time it incites him to act.

The two different definitions of the inciting Incident tend to give different results when the antagonist is introduced before the protagonist. For example, in  ‘Star Wars – New Hope’, is the inciting incident the opening scene where Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s starship, or is it when Luke gets the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan”.   Similarly, in Jaws, is the inciting incident the first shark attack, or the second, or the third, or when Brody first discovers the body of the first victim on the beach?

Act One.001

I prefer to take the view that the Inciting Incident is the event which connects the protagonist to the main conflict of the story. So, for example, in Romancing the Stone, it’s the phone call that Joan Wilder gets from her sister telling her she’s been kidnapped and to bring the map sent to her by her later brother-in-law as ransom. It’s not the actual kidnapping, which the audience doesn’t even see.

In Star Wars: the Force Awakens, it’s when Rey rescues BB8 from scavengers. This starts the chain of events that forces her to escape from the First Order in the Millennium Falcon at the end of Act One. There are many more exciting events before this moment in the movie, but this is the first incident that engages the protagonist — Rey– to act.

If you would like further examples of Inciting Events I suggest you visit K M Weiland’s Story Structure Database. It’s a great source of information on the story structure of movies.

Because of the different uses of the term Inciting Incident, I prefer to refer to this moment as the Catalyst (the term used by the late Blake Snyder), or the Call to Adventure (the term used by Christopher Vogler). It avoids confusion.

By now you’re probably wondering what the other three plot points of Act One are. They’re not necessarily as important as ‘turning points’, but they serve a purpose. The first one, P1, is the Hook. This is simply a scene at the start of the story to hook the audience/reader’s curiosity and interest. For example, in a movie it might be James Bond finishing a previous assignment.  In Indiana Jones and The Raider of the Lost Ark the hook is a high intensity sequence in the Peruvian jungle where Indie obtains and then loses an idol to Balloq.  The whole purpose of the sequence is exposition:  it introduces the audience to the characters of Indiana Jones and Balloq and their rivalry. It has no direct relevance to the actual plot, which is about the Ark. But it’s a great example of how to make exposition about a character exciting.

Hooks are more important to novelists than screenwriters. If a reader doesn’t connect with a story in the first paragraph or first five pages then they might put the book down. Movies are different. Audiences are unlikely to walk out in the first twelve or so minutes, but a script writer should not try their patience. They need to pique the audience’s interest with something, particularly if the inciting event is delayed to the latter stage of Act One. The Hook is one way of doing it.

The second plot point, P2,  is the Foreshadow.  It’s the scene that lets the audience or reader know there’s a disturbance on the way. It’s the shark fin in the water, the meteor heading on course for Earth, the storm gathering in the distance. It’s used as a tension builder to tell the audience or reader there’s a problem coming.

The third plot point, P3, is what I have called the Bump: the event or events that persuade the protagonist to act. It’s the discovery of Luke’s murdered aunt and uncle that persuades him to go to Alderaan with Obi-Wan.  It’s the  discovery of further shark attacks in Jaws. These bumps don’t occur in all stories but when they do they ramp up the tension.

Are these the only turning point and plot points in the first act? Not necessarily. Todd Klick in Beat by Beat identifies some thirty story beats in the first acts drawn from a collection of blockbuster movies from each of the top-selling genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Horror, and Thriller. He identifies their Inciting Incidents  and timing (12 mins),  their Act One breaks, which he calls the Quest (29-35mins). And in addition, he identifies one further turning point which arises between minutes 16-18.

So what can a novelist learn from all this?  Structure is important, but you don’t need to follow it blindly. It is more important that your story develops in a natural way and most times this will follow the common structural pattern for all stories. In the next blog, I’ll look at the Second Act. In the meantime, I would welcome any thoughts you have on this blog.

The Sequence Method

There is a lot a novelist can learn about storytelling from the movie industry. Stories in novels and movies differ only by the nature of the medium through which they are presented. The same story dynamics apply to both mediums.

In my previous two blogs I looked at two different variations of the Three-Act Structure used in the movie industry: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure and Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey. In this blog, I look at another screenwriting model – The Sequence Method and a variant called The Mini-Movie Method (aka  Eight Sequence Method).

The Three-Act Structure breaks down a story into three elements: the beginning (setup – 25%), middle (confrontation 50%), and end (resolution 25%). From a writer’s perspective this doesn’t give a great amount of guidance as to what to write in a 110 page script or a 400 page novel.

Michael Hauge’s structure splits each act into two using five key turning points to give six stages. Six stages and their general purpose is better guidance than three. However, the Act 2 stages III and IV are twice as large as stages I, V, VI.

An alternative is to break ACT 2 into four so each stage is approximately the same size. This is broadly what the sequence method or mini-movie method does. It creates a movie from eight sequences of approximately 10-15 mins each. Two in the first act, four in the second act, and two in the third.

The Sequence Method owes its origins to Frank Daniel, the inaugural dean of the American Film Institute, who taught at Colombia University and the University of Southern California in the early 1980s. Nowadays, the main texts on the method are Paul Gulino’s ‘Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach – The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays’ and Chris Soth’s ‘Million Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method’, both of which are great reads on the subject matter. But the publication I would suggest as the most detailed is David Howard’s ‘How to build a great screenplay’.

There are also some web sites that are useful The Script Lab and Script Reader Pro.

What is a sequence?

First a bit of confusion. The term ‘sequence’ is widely used in the movie industry to denote a series of scenes that form a distinctive narrative unit, which is usually connected by unity of location or unity of time. For example, a car chase may well be a sequence. This however is not what a sequence is under the sequence method. It is much larger self-contained segment of the story.

412Hcwf1FOL._SX257_BO1,204,203,200_Howard explains a sequence “is a self-contained portion of the overall story with its own tension, its own beginning, middle and end”. It is a story within a story. Under this methodology a lot of focus is placed on ‘tension’ – the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will achieve his goal. Every story has a Main Tension which is usually expressed as a question: eg – Will Katnis Evergreen survive the hunger games?
But each sequence has its own sequence goal and sequence tension. Howard explains: “..by deciding whose sequence it is, you dive into other aspects of creating story — what does he want? why is it difficult to achieve? what is the tension in the sequence?” The sequence ends when the tension of the sequence ends, even though the same event might lead to a new tension in a new sequence. For example, our hero maybe be searching for a map for the holy grail. The sequence ends when he finds it. But a new sequence and tension begins over whether the hero will find his way to the grail.

Above I’ve talked about an eight sequence structure by splitting Act 2 into four parts. But strictly speaking under the Sequence Method the number of sequences isn’t limited to eight. Eight is the most common among movies; but most movies range between 7-12.

513AImiVb7L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Gulino in his book analysis a number of movies into their sequences. Air Force One has eight.  But longer movies have more sequences: the Fellowship of the Ring has twelve; Lawrence of Arabia has sixteen. The number of sequences therefore depends on the length of the movie, genre, and the narrative structure.

For example, action movies,  such as a Bond movie usually start with an introductory sequence showing the hero finishing a previous mission. Indiana Jones and the South American cave sequence is very similar (see below.)

The Mini-Movie Method, or Eight Sequence Method is a similar to the sequence method except it sticks to eight sequences or mini-movies. Each sequence has a purpose, and ends with a turning point or an important event.

51CK-hDCYCL._AC_US218_1. Setup: the Hero’s status quo,  ending with the inciting event.
2. Progress towards ‘lock in’ to the conflict (end of Act 1).
3. First attempt to deal with problem. Easy option fails.
4. A more grandiose, more extreme plan – goes horribly wrong (ends with the mid-point)
5. Hero retreats to lick his wounds, confronts his weakness.
6. New plan, hero prepared to change. All goes wrong, nearly destroyed, and new revelation. (end of Act 2)
7. Rejoins the battle. Succeeding until final twist where antagonist turns the tables.
8. Finally defeats antagonist. Wrap up.

So how does the method work?

The following example is based on Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Introductory hook sequence :

Indiana Jones recovers the idol from a cave in the South American jungle only to lose it to his rival, Belloq. Indiana Jones escapes the natives in a plane.

Sequence One: 

Indiana is teaching as Professor of Archaeology when he is approached by US army who have intercepted a Nazi cable indicating they have found the lost city of Tanis, where the Ark of covenant is buried. (Inciting event)

Sequence Two: 

To find the Ark,  Indiana needs the headpiece of the Staff of Ra . He goes to find his friend, Ravenwood in Nepal. He rescues Marion (Ravenwood’s daughter) from the Nazis and escapes with the head-piece. (End of Act 1)

Sequence three:

Indiana goes to his friend, Sallah, in Egypt. While shopping in Cairo, Marion is taken by two arabs. Indy shoots the truck driver and the truck crashes and explodes. He thinks Marion is dead and drowns his sorrows in booze. Nazi agents capture him and Belloq brags about the prospect of finding the ark. Indy gets away with the help of children.

Sequence four:

Indiana finds the Nazi are digging in the wrong place because their copy of the Ra headpiece is only one-sided (Toht’s burnt hand). Indiana is lowered into the Map room and with the staff and headpiece he locates the true location of the Ark. (Mid Point Climax)

Sequence five: 

Marion is alive and with Belloq. Indiana finds her but doesn’t set her free. Instead he pursues the Ark, digging in the right place. Indy secures the Ark only to lose it to the Nazis. Indiana and Marion are sealed inside the Well of Souls.

Sequence Six:

Marion and Indiana escape the Well of Souls. Indiana fights a fist battle on the airfield, chases after the truck on horseback and recovers the Ark. (End of Act 2)

Sequence Seven:

Indiana and Marion sale on a ship from Cairo with the Ark. A Nazi submarine capture the ship and takes the Ark and Marion. Indiana escapes, riding the submarine topside until it reaches a Greek island. Indiana points a rocket launcher at the Ark threatening to destroy it unless Marion is freed. Belloq calls his bluff. (Third Act Twist)

Sequence Eight:

Indiana and Marion are tied to a pole while Belloq opens the ark. Indiana tell Marion to close her eyes. Spirits appear from the ark and destroy the Nazis. The Ark is stored in a huge government warehouse, while Indiana goes back to his life as a professor but this time with Marion.

Several different sequence analyses of this movie are on the internet. The version here is close to one of them, but is not exactly the same. Techncially I have shown nine sequences. The introductory sequence would otherwise be part of the set-up sequence one.

The precise start and finish of each sequence will always involve an element of subjectivity and different people may come to different views. Some might argue that this is a weakness of the methodology, but I would disagree.  The only view of the sequence structure that really matters is the one the writer is using to design his story.  To the audience the sequence structure is invisibe and should remain so. The acid test is therefore whether as a writer knowing your eight of so sequences of your story  is helpful in planning out your story.

Mythic Metaphors

HJ.jpgRecently, I finished the first draft of my third book. It takes time to distance yourself from a manuscript before you can objectively edit it, so I picked up a project that had been working on for some time. The idea behind the project is to create a high-level story blueprint to see if a story idea or concept is worth taking further.  The blueprint brings together some of the ideas of my favourite movie industry gurus, such as Michael Hauge, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Chris Soth and Paul Gulino into one simple document.

While working on the project I wondered how I might also incorporate some of the ideas of Christopher Vogler. I had researched Vogler’s writings and presentations on the internet and thought I understood the hero’s journey. But there is nothing quite like reading the original material first hand; so I bought ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’. I’m so pleased I did.

‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ draws on the psychology of Carl G Jung and the studies of Joseph Campbell to set out the hero’s journey under the mythic story structure. The journey can be shown in twelve stages as shown below:

vogler.gif

If you don’t write fantasy adventures like Tolkien or Homer you might be inclined to dismiss this approach. Don’t. Aspects of the hero’s journey permeate all stories and all genres and any writer may find these ideas useful. Vogler himself uses it to analyse movies such Titanic, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, The Full Monty and Star Wars. The Hero’s Journey is really a model full of mythical metaphors that can be used to describe any stories that take the hero into a strange new world. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy world. For example, the worlds of business, finance or law; the fashion world; the world of politics; or for that matter the world of love.

Vogler’s structure is a quest structure in twelve stages. For simplicity, I will refer to the hero as ‘he’ but of course it would be just as relevant to use a female hero. Our hero is called to an adventure, where he crosses into a strange new world where he will be tested many times. He approaches a dangerous inner cave where he will be tested again in a life-threatening ordeal, before claiming his prize and taking the road home. But before he can return with his prize he must pass one final test (the climax) where he faces death (of his old self) and (symbolic) resurrection. Thus the hero emerges a new man that has learned what it means to be a hero. The hero’s journey is thus a journey of transformation as much as the physical journey, the transition occurring in the same twelve steps.

Vogler noted that the steps may not necessarily occur in the order stated, nor do all the steps necessarily apply to all stories. The terms such as death and resurrection, the ordeal and the reward are metaphors that can be used to describe any kind of story. Similarly the mythic archetypes such as the Shape Shifter, the Mentor, Threshold Guardians and more provide a rich vocabulary for describing all types of modern day characters.

The point Vogler makes is that the Hero’s journey is not a story by numbers approach, but something much more flexible. There are mythic elements present in all stories. That’s why stories are so appealing to the human spirit.

 

The Three-Act Structure

Novelists can learn a lot from scriptwriters who have developed a number of tools for story development. One such tool is the three-act structure.

Screenwriters often use “Acts” – a concept more familiar to staged drama – to breakdown the structure of their movies into major parts. Of course there are no curtain calls in movies, and the audience need not have an understanding of the structure the screenwriter is using to appreciate the movie. It is simply a model screenwriters use to develop their story.

The simplest and most widely used structure is the three-act structure. One of the strongest advocates of this approach was Syd Field who put forward a story paradigm composed of three acts defined by their dramatic purpose: story set up (introduce the characters and set up the story), confrontation (where the main character starts his quest and the action occurs) and resolution (the climax and end). Syd Field noticed that there were two important plot points at the end of act 1 and act 2 where the story is thrown in a new direction. These he asserted were critical plot points holding the story together. He also identified that the mid-point of the movie was also often an important point of revelation, that often broke the second act into two separate sub-dramatic contexts. Most movies are two hours long and correspond to a screen script of 120 pages (one minute per page). Syd Field’s story paradigm can be mapped out as follows:img_0022The three-act structure is widely used in Hollywood, but it is not without its critics. John Truby in an article referred to it as “the biggest myth ever foisted on writers.” He argued that the division into three acts is arbitrary, and that successful Hollywood movies have a lot more than two or three plot points and quotes one film as having twelve. Truby’s answer is to have twenty-two building blocks.

However, to be fair to Syd Field, he never claimed that his two plot points were the only plot points in a movie, just that these main plot points were critically placed at the end of Acts one and two and held the context of each act together.

Robert MCKee stated that “when a story reaches a certain magnitude– the feature film, an hour long TV episode, the full length play, the novel –three acts is the minimum…If the writer builds a progression into a major reversal at the half way point, he breaks the story into four movements…” Robert McKee also claimed that Raiders of the Lost Ark  had seven acts.

The problem is that there is no universal definition of an Act. Try googling it. The best I got was “the major divisions of a play”.

Take Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first three sequences of the movie show Indie in the Peruvian jungle losing a gold idol to Baloq, Indie teaching at college where he is told the Germans are seeking the Ark, and in Nepal recovering the medallion. In my view these are all part of the ‘set-up’ process of Act one introducing us to Indie’s character and rivalry  with Baloq. The real quest starts  at Act two with Indie and Marion flying to Cairo to find the Ark. Others, however, might see these three sequences as acts in their own right.

The same problem applies in identifying  the second plot point and the content of Act three. I would say that Act three consists of two sequences; the first with Indie onboard the freighter with Marion where he loses her and the Ark to Baloq; and the second on the island where the Ark is opened and the nazis are destroyed. Others may treat these two sequences as separate acts.

Not all movies are as difficult to dissect as Raiders of the Lost Ark. In most movies, the three-act form is quite easy to identify. But does knowing that a story has a beginning, middle and end make writing a script or novel any easier?

One solution is to put more flesh on the bones of the three-act structure. Blake Snyder, for example, uses a fifteen step beat sheet to fill in the plot elements of story. This approach was first discussed in my  earlier blog and later simplified to a four part structure  here. Beat sheets can be helpful, but they have been criticised by some for being too mechanical and not giving sufficient weight to the character transformation elements of a story.

Both Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler have sought to bring the action story and the character arc together. In Christopher Vogler’s case his model is based around the twelve steps of the mythic Hero’s Journey. Michael Hauge’s approach is simpler and more general. He maps both the inner and outer journey’s of the protagonist in six stages onto the three-act structure.

struct5

By treating the inciting event (called the “opportunity”), mid-point (called “Point of no return”) and climax as turning points with the two existing act turning points (called “Change of Plans” and “Major Setback”) he ends up with five turning points.

Most of the captions of the ‘Outer Journey’ are self explanatory. The setup is the opening scenes introducing the main character in his ordinary world. Then something happens that changes his life: an opportunity/problem (sometimes referred to as the inciting event, catalyst, or call to adventure).  The main character finds himself in a new situation and has to figure out how to respond. He might initially be reluctant to respond, or seek counsel from a mentor, or he may be pushed into action by some further event (e.g. In Star Wars Luke finds his aunt and uncle are slaughtered), but at turning point two he moves into the new world and starts his quest.

In Act two the main character encounters obstacles but makes progress to the mid point where there is a setback or revelation such the main character realises what he is up against and resolves to continue (the point of no return). The obstacles and complications escalate as do the stakes and a Major Setback arises at Turning Point 4. Again the main character resolves to go forward with a new and, sometimes, crazy plan to reach the climax.

Much of this is familiar territory for writers using the three-act structure. What is different is that Hauge shows six stages of the main characters character arc, from “living within an identity”to “living within his essence”. In Star Wars terms, Luke moves from a frightened farm boy at the beginning to a Jedi knight at the end.

In my view, Hauge’s approach is a refreshing restatement of the three-act model. It’s sufficiently high level and generic to cover most story genres. But bear in mind, that any model is only going to provide the foundations of a story structure. A story is more complex than that. Hauge provides the protagonist’s inner and outer stories, but there are other stories that need to be weaved into the narrative: a relationship story, a nemesis’ story, which will have their own turning points, and then there are the subplots relating to the theme of the story. Each sequence and scenes will also contain turning points, which although not at the same magnitude as the turning points listed are important nonetheless to maintain dramatic tension.

As a writer should you use a structure like this? The answer is if it helps, use it or adapt it to your own needs. There are no perfect answers. Every writer needs to find what works for them. Tell me what you think.

Endings

endingsDan Wells is famous for his seven point system for structuring stories. The approach is set out in a series of five videos that are still available on you-tube. Just search for ‘Dan Wells’.

The Well’s system is not vastly different from a number of other systems based around a three-act structure, with major plot turning points at the end of the first and second acts.  At the mid point the main character usually learns an important truth, which strengthens his resolve. Wells does not identify a separate inciting incident (or call to action), but treats it as part of the first turning point. In practice, there can be a significant delay between the inciting event and the main characters decision to move into the new story word of Act two. But does it really matter? They are clearly part of the same sequence of events (call to action, debate, more pressure, decision, forward action) that kick starts the story.

The story starts with a ‘Hook’ (the opening state of the main character) and finishes with a ‘Resolution’ (the final state of the main character). The pinch points are the places where the antagonist usually makes himself/herself felt.

The relevant story sign posts are arranged chronologically as follows:

  • Hook  (Do second)
  • Plot Turn 1 (Do fourth)
  • Pinch Point 1 (Do sixth)
  • Mid Point (Do third)
  • Pinch Point 2 (Do last)
  • Plot Turn 2 (Do fifth)
  • Resolution (Do first)

What I like about Dan Wells approach is that in analysing the structure of the story he starts at the end (the Resolution). How is the story resolved? What has the main character become? And then asks how does the story start and what is the state of the main character (the Hook). The story is the movement between these two points, with the main characters making important decisions at PT1 and PT2 and stiffening his/her resolve at the mid point. In the process the main character may  undergo a transformation of character from weakness to strength or vice versa (the character arc).

Starting with the end of the story seems like a good idea, since everything in the story is leading to this end result. But that doesn’t make the design of the end necessarily any easier. Currently, I am struggling with the ending of my third novel. At the start of writing I had a clear plan and an outline. But as I near the final Act, I have started to question the strength of the ending.

One writer once said that how a book starts sells the book to the reader, but how a story ends determines whether the reader will buy your next book. Endings have to fit the theme of the story and the type of ending the reader expects, without being too predictable and boring. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s true. For example, most romance stories have a ‘happily ever after ending’ as a genre requirement, but readers still want some element of surprise in the ending to be satisfying.

That brings me to the ‘twist’ ending. In thrillers or horror stories there may well be a twist ending to surprise the reader. The master of the twist was undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock. He revelled in manipulating audience’s expectations by providing either too little or too much information about a character. So the bad guy maybe really a good guy, or vice versa. Or the audience may know what’s coming, but the main character is blissfully unaware. Nowadays, movies are more likely to rely on fast action cinematic sequences and gore to surprise their audiences rather than such plot devices. That’s a shame, because no one seems to do endings as well as Hitchcock.

That brings me back to my current novel work in progress. I am truly excited about where the story has got to, but if I am to rework the ending I know I need create some distance from the story. That means putting it to one side for a short time and focusing on something else. Writing is not just about writing your story. The time you spent thinking about the story is just as important. I would rather spend a day thinking about one or two great ideas than churning out 2,500 words of garbage. So pausing for more thought about the ending is not a bad idea.

I find often that the best way to refocus the mind on the story is a long walk, and I plan to do a lot of walking in the near future. Don’t expect any Hitchcock like twist ending from me. I like happy endings. But perhaps with a bit more thought I can make my ending more enjoyable and less predictable.

If you’re currently writing a story, how confident are you that you’ve got the right ending? Or maybe, if you’re a ‘pantser’ you’re waiting to write the first draft to find out. Endings are annoyingly difficult to write, but satisfying when you get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fixing your Story

spannerEveryone knows first drafts of a novel are always c**p. But how do you fix them?

Unless you’re Stephen King, the first draft will require more than just a little line editing and proof reading before it can be published. So before you polish a draft you need to ensure that the story is working and that it is the best it can be.

Approaching the end of my first draft of my third novel I was already thinking about how best to give it a little more umph when 518E+rgS2lL._AC_US160_ I noticed that Larry Brooks had brought out his book, Story Fix.  As a fan of his earlier publications, Story Engineering and Story Physics I had to buy it and wasn’t disappointed. It’s written in the same style as his earlier books and at times can be brutally honest. In a nutshell, at the heart of any great novel is a concept and a premise, and if you can’t get these right or you meander away from them during the story then the story will bomb. Of course, there’s a lot more to the book than that. You will need to read it to fully understand  how to apply this approach properly.  I believe every writer can get something from this book, even if they don’t totally agree with his views.

SgridAnother different approach to story analysis is Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid. This comprises a foolscap one page global summary of the key elements of story giving a helicopter view of the story, and a 14 column detailed analysis of each scene, which is used to produce a grid. The book is written from the perspective of an editor with 25+ years experience to help writers become more successful editing their own material. Coyne demonstrates the approach by analysing The silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and creates a scene by scene graph illustrated on the cover of the book. The book is also supported by five videos supported from Coyne’s website.  Even if you’re  not into using spreadsheets to analyse your scenes in this way or into this level of detail there’s still lots to take from this book. You can always  adapt or simplify the technique to track those scene elements you find most important.

ArchitectureAnother scene analysis approach is put forward by Stuart Horowitz in Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline without using a formula. Horowitz replaces the idea of a single plot line with theme and various series. He defines a series as: “The repetition and variation of a narrative element so that repetition and variation creates meaning.”

Yeah-that’s not very clear.  But Horowitz explains that a series can be a person, object,  place, relationship, or a phrase, which varies in the text through a number of iterations to eventually answer a story question.  For example he identifies a series in Harry Potter  with the question “is Snape fighting for the good guys or the bad guys”.  Every scene that is relevant is identified by its scene number and title to give a grid for that series. So Horowitz is identifying the common threads and story arcs by scene. Horowitz may not use the term plot, but he does identify a central series, which is about the story goal and what’s at stake.

If you are interested in the story process, each of these books can help you gain a different perspective in analysing your own story. You don’t have to use or accept all the ideas. Just adapt them to your own needs. That’s what I intend to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Apps for the iPad Pro

scrivenerRecently my son convinced me to get a new iPadPro. I went for the large 12-inch version and bought a Logitech cover/keyboard, which means I can use it as a substitute laptop if I want to.  The graphics are amazing. The question then arose as to which writing Apps I should  buy to help me with my writing.

First I need to explain that I am a relative novice when it comes to IOS devices. I have an iPhone 6 plus, but I use it primarily to make calls and check e-mail. I don’t use its apps other than the calendar, email and contacts. I don’t see the need to surf the web on a small screen when there are easier ways using larger screens. And when I am home my iPhone is normally switched off. I prefer it that way.

Most of my writing is done using using Scrivener on my MacBook Pro. It’s an incredibly powerful writing app. I have now published two novels in print and ebook format solely using Scrivener; and am close to finishing my third. Like many other writers who love this software, I would be lost without it.

If you’re a writer and haven’t tried Scrivener, I would suggest you do. It can at first seem complex, but you don’t need to use all it’s functionality to reap the benefits of using the program. It’s not just a word processor, it’s a project management system for writing and editing novels and scripts. There’s lots of useful guidance on YouTube and on the Literature Latte website. And there’s also a great little book on Kindle by Ed Ditto, “Format Your Novel For Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords, & CreateSpace”, which is a step by step guide to publishing your book in the different formats.

Fortunately for me, last week Litterature and Latte released an IOS version of  Scrivener.  Now I can work with my third novel on either of my MacBook Pro or my iPad Pro by using Dropbox. I can tell you it’s simple to set up and it works. If you want to synch in the cloud you’ll need a Dropbox account. But you can get a free account which gives up to 2GB of storage. This is more than enough to write your novel. If you have any difficulty there’s guidance on YouTube. Just search for ‘Scrivener and IOS’.

Srivener is great but it’s not the only writing app on my system. I also chose the  Ulysses App. Why? I simply like the Ulysses for writing quick articles like this one. It’s simple to use and has some similar features to Scrivener without the same level of complexity. Unlike Scrivener, Ulysses uses iCloud rather than Dropbox to store files on-line, although neither app requires you to store files on-line if you don’t want to. I like the fact that Ulysses uses Markdown which can easily be exported easily to different formats such as text, HTML, ePub, and Docx.

What other Apps have I found useful for the iPad Pro? Duet is an interesting app that turns the iPad Pro into a second screen for my MacBook Pro. That is I can work from my MacBook Pro keyboard and move the curser from one screen to the other as though they were joined. For example, I can use the QuickRef function in Scrivener to float a text box from one screen to another. This is useful if you want to refer to research material on a separate screen  while working on the other. Yes, I know that Scrivener can also give you a split screen, but two screens are much more fun that just using one.

Another useful and inexpensive app for writers that I found in the iPad App Store is Plotline. It’s a very simple but clever app that lets you set up different plot lines and scenes for your story. Each scene is associated with a plot line, has a title, details and an intensity score. Scenes can be moved around and between Acts very simply by dragging them. Plotline is a great little planning tool that gives you a visual overview of your story by each scene’s intensity, and you can print out a scene by scene outline.

These of course and not all the writing Apps I have on my iPad Pro, but the ones I think are worth drawing to your attention. As you might have guessed I am not a technophobe. Far from it. I am a relative novice in IOS terms, but I’m learning about what works for me. And I hope they will work for you.