The importance of the B Story

STCRecently  I was going through some of my old books on screenwriting and story telling and I picked up the ‘Save the Cat Goes to the Movies’ by the late Blake Snyder. I found the book inspiring the first time I read it some years ago, and as I started to read it again I found a new insight.

But before explaining the insight, I need to explain what the book is about. Snyder put forward the view that the success of any film is based on two important factors:  structure, and surpassing the expectations of its genre.   In the book, Snyder takes five examples of iconic movies in each of 10 movie genres to analyse their structure and the genre variations. Each of the genre are given catchy names by Snyder that represent the most popular movie genres:

  • Monster in the house: Alien; Fatal Attraction; Scream; The Ring; and Saw.
  • Golden Fleece: The Bad News Bears; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Saving Private Ryan; Ocean’s Eleven; and Maria Full of Grace.
  • Out of the Bottle: Freaky Friday; Cocoon; The Nutty Professor; What Women Want; and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.
  • Dude with a Problem: Three Days of the Condor, Die Hard, Sleeping with the Enemy; Deep Impact; and Open Water.
  • Rites of Passage: 10; Kramer v Kramer; Ordinary People, 28 Days; and Napoleon Dynamite.
  • Buddy Love: The Black Stallion; Lethal Weapon; When Harry met Sally; Titanic; and Brokeback  Mountain.
  • Whydunit: All the  President’s Men; Blade Runner; Fargo; Mystic River; and Brick.
  • Fool Triumphant: Being There; Tootsie; Forrest Gump; Legally Blonde; and The 40-year-old Virgin.
  • Institutionalized: M*A*S*H; Do the Right Thing; Office Space; Training Day; Crash.
  • Superhero: Raging Bull; The Lion King; The Matrix; Gladiator; and Spider-Man 2.

Some of the genre may seem oddly labeled at first. An Out of the Bottle movie refers to a movie based on magic. A Golden Fleece movie refers to a quest story movie about an object of desire – the fleece or McGuffin. A Whydunnit movie refers to a detective type story about a secret that takes a dark turn. Most of the rest of the descriptions are self-explanatory.

Now the insight. I was surprised to see one of my favourite movies, Lethal Weapon, categorised under Buddy Love and not under some action-movie type heading. In Snyder’s view there are many variations of this genre: whether it is a traditional love match of ‘boy meets girl’, two cops on the trail of a crook, or a couple of goofy pals hanging out together. The story dynamics are the same: an ‘incomplete hero’, a counterpart he needs to make his life whole, and complications that keep them apart but actually binds then together.

The incomplete hero in Lethal Weapon  is Roger Murtaugh, a veteran  policeman who’s facing retirement and is not coping well. The counterpart is Martin Riggs, a cop with suicidal tendencies. Together they uncover a drug-smuggling operation and as the story unfolds their friendship grows. There are therefore two storylines going on. The first, or A story plot, is the uncovering the drug-smuggling operation. The second, or B story is the relationship between the two detectives. Snyder however seems to put the B story first in determining its genre.

Why do I find this so interesting? It’s because stories are often classified as either plot-driven or character-driven stories. Most literary fiction falls into character-driven category. Most genre stories (Action, Romance, Thriller, Horror) fall into plot-driven category. We know what these labels mean, but in reality the labels make poor descriptors. All stories are in fact character-driven. Without a protagonist with an overall story objective there is no plot driver. All stories must have a plot or they have no direction or purpose. So the labels of character-driven or plot-driven stories are at best an emphasis of the story on either the internal or external storylines.

Now consider what Lethal Weapon would have looked like if Murtaugh and Riggs had just been regular cops? It would have been just another action movie that you would soon forget. What makes it great and original is the relationship storyline – the B Story.

And this is the same with all great stories. There is often more than one storyline (or story arc) going on in a story. And one or more of the main characters may well undergo a transformation (a character arc) as the story progresses. Plot (the cause and effect sequence of events in a story) is simply a combination of the events from all the storylines and arcs. So to understand plot fully, you may need to break the main events  down into their separate storylines and character arcs, rather than consider plot to be one single time line of events.

The idea of breaking a story into more than one storyline is not new. Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure uses the concept of an inner journey (character arc) and outer journey for the protagonist. Christopher Vogler’s  The Hero’s Journey also has a separate Character Arc for the hero. So if it helps to analyse story by adding a third story line for a key relationship between two main characters it makes sense to use it.

Great stories have multiple layers of complexity:  a plot, sub-plots, character arcs, and relationships. How you choose to plan and organise your story is up to you.

A Story Blueprint for the Action / Adventure genre

Over the last three blogs I have looked at the five core elements of any story design:

  • The Protagonist’s Characterisation
  • The Big Problem or Opportunity that enters their life and acts as the Catalyst for the Central Conflict
  • Opposition – Antagonist forces and obstacles that stand in his/her way
  • A Story World
  • A Satisfying Resolution.

And in previous blogs I have looked at some of the structural frameworks used  by screenwriters in story development: namely the three-act structure, the sequence method, and the mythic structure. Putting all these ideas together into one story planning guide has been a labour of love. The Blueprint is 5% inspiration and 95% a mash-up of the best ideas drawn from different screenwriting gurus. For the want of a better word I call it a Blueprint. But it’s only meant to be high level planning guide for your story to give you a helicopter viewpoint of your story design to see if it works before you commit to writing or further outlining.

To some writers, I’m sure the idea of any story blueprint is an anathema. Novels and the storylines within them are far too complex to be reduced to just eight sequences or a given number of turning points. They’re absolutely right. But at the heart of any novel or movie is a simple story which follows a simple pattern. And if the simple story doesn’t work, neither will the novel or movie on which it is based.

The Blueprint is based on an Action/Adventure genre, but can be easily adapted for other genre or different types of endings (e.g. tragic). The link below is to a pdf file freely available on Dropbox. There is no need to register or any other requirement. Just download and use it as you see fit.

Blueprint

I would love to hear from anyone that has used it or reviewed it.

 

Story Design — Characterisation

Some very successful writers claim to produce stories without any apparent planning or preparation. Story design must be built into their DNA. Others, which I suggest is the vast majority of writers like me, struggle to find the stories within them through a variety of different processes. Some write by the seat of their pants (pantsers) and discover the story as they go along. Others use varying degrees of planning and plotting to map out their stories before commencing to write.

In a previous blog, I suggested that any  writer, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, can benefit from understanding the dynamics of their story before they write it. To do this requires you to analyse and understand the five core elements of your story. These are:

5_Elements

Once a writer has identified the five elements, there is still the question of whether the story proposal is a good one or not. If you have a burning desire to write it, I suggest you do. If like me, you have a hundred and one ideas floating in you head and you don’t know which is the best one for you, then you need to perform some kind of appraisal.

In my previous blog, I set out twenty questions to help evaluate a story proposal. The first ten questions were included in that blog. This blog deals with the remaining ten, which are all about the protagonist’s characterisation.

Characterisation  

By characterisation I mean those elements of the protagonist’s character that impact on the story design. A protagonist’s character must fit the story, or the story must fit the character.   They are two parts of a jig-saw puzzle that have to fit together.

The first five questions are all about the protagonist’s key characteristics:

  • What are his/her physical attributes Notice that it is only those physical characteristics that affect the story we are concerned about. The writer may well want to record all the physical attributes of each character in a separate file or database in order to ensure consistency in describing characters throughout the narrative, such as hair colour, eye colour, looks, clothes, etc. However, such detailed features don’t normally affect the story. Major features are aspects such as  Age/Sex/Strength.  Imagine what the Hunger Games would look like if Katnis Everdeen was a male, or Harry Potter was an adult female. The story would change and feel very different.
  • What are his/her psychological traits? Are they stoical, easy-going, comical, obstinate, hot-headed, arrogant, over-bearing etc? These will affect how they will react to story events.
  • What skills/strengths and occupation does he/she have? What are they really good at? Are they a James Bond super agent character, or a fish out of water character? Are they clever like Sherlock Holmes, or highly skilled like Katnis Everdeen with her bow and arrows?
  • What is his/her flaw, weakness, or need? All characters have a need and this is usually story related. The character must often learn something about himself or overcome his weakness in order to succeed in the story. However, some flaws are simply quirks that make the character more comical or interesting. For example: Indiana Jones fear of snakes. Both types of flaws help to make the character who they are.
  • What does he/she long for before the story commences? This is unrelated to the plot but may have a significant effect on the story. For example, in Die Hard, John McClane, a NYPD cop, wants to reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly, who’s living and working in Los Angeles. Some writer’s refer to this as the personal goal. The theme of the story is often found in the protagonist’s longing.

Empathy factors

  • What makes the reader want to empathise with the protagonist? Reader’s are more likely to connect with a character if they can empathise with them. Readers generally empathise with protagonists that are highly resourceful in the pursuit of their objectives, even if their characters are not particularly likeable. Other factors that help to build empathy are being funny, clever, an underdog in jeopardy, selfless, and resolute.

Back Story and character Arc

  •  How does the protagonist’s back story affect the story? All characters have a past and a reason for behaving in the way they do. From a writer’s perspective, only that element of back story that is relevant to the story should be brought into the story. It should be introduced sparingly and not at the start of the story.
  •  How does the protagonist change as a result of the story? Obviously for some stories the protagonist goes through an enormous transformation as a result of the events in the story: e.g. Scrooge. Other transformations can be more subtle.

Plot Objective or goal

  • What does the protagonist want and how does it change during the story? This is the desire created by the story catalyst. A problem or opportunity comes into the protagonist’s world and as a result of the new situation, the protagonist must act. This is the plot driver that moves the story forward.  Sometimes the plot objective grows into something bigger.  For example, in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, Luke’s initial objective is to take R2D2 and the Death Star plans to Alderaan. Then on the Death Star he changes his plans to rescue Princess Leia. And finally his objective is to destroy the Death Star. Many writer’s refer to this as the protagonist’s ‘goal’ or ‘outer goal’. I don’t particularly like the term ‘goal’ as for me it doesn’t reflect the obsessive nature of the desire behind the goal. Perhaps that’s because goals to me are like New Year’s resolutions — easily abandoned. ‘Want’ is a simpler word and easier to use.

Relationships

  • How does the protagonist’s relationship with the other key characters impact on the story? The main key characters will have their own plot objectives which may well conflict with those of the protagonist. How the protagonist relates to these key characters will help reveal the protagonist’s true character. The main key characters include:
    • Love interest
    • Main antagonist
    • Mentor
    • Side Kick

In my view, these are the ten most important questions about characterisation when considering story design. Some of them are difficult to answer without thinking more about what the story is about. But that’s their purpose.  Are they the only questions you need ask? Perhaps not. I’ve seen some lists and questionnaires by other writers with over one hundred questions, including the character’s education, family, history etc. These are useful in putting flesh onto the story skeleton and getting to know your character better, but for the purpose of story design I think it’s easier to limit the questions to those relating solely to the ‘big picture’ of the story.

Tell me what you think? Are the twenty questions (including the ten questions in the  previous blog) sufficient to decide whether a story idea is worth pursuing further?

Story Design – Twenty Key Questions

As a new writer one of the most difficult decisions to make is about what to write about. There is plenty of advice from experienced writers out there who say just sit in the chair and write.  And that if you don’t write, you can’t become a writer. But that doesn’t help the newbie author sitting in the chair and staring at a blank screen with a thousand-and-one ideas buzzing through his/her head and wondering which path to take. For me developing and writing a novel takes at least twelve months. That’s a considerable commitment and one which you don’t want to abandon half-way through, because of a failure to plan adequately.

Clearly if you have a story you want to tell that’s just bursting to be told, then write it.  And don’t stop until you finish it. But if you’re like me and have different ideas competing with each other in your head, you need to choose the best. And you’ll only achieve this if you do some work on developing the story design. Notice I’m talking about story design and not outlining. Story design is about the dynamics of the story, not about the structure.

In the previous blog, I introduced the idea of the five core story elements a writer needs to identify before he/she has a story proposition.

5_Elements

To help evaluate a story design I’ve tried to put together a simple blueprint. Part of this blueprint is twenty questions about the story design. Ten of those questions are about the characterisation of the protagonist, which I’ll deal with in the next blog. The other ten questions are about story design and are as follows:

  1. What is the idea at the heart of you story that makes it new and interesting? This is usually expressed as a ‘what if…’ question. It’s probably the most difficult question to answer. The previous blog sets out some of the ways of creating them.
  2. How does the setting affect the story? 
  3. What does the protagonist want that drives the central plot? This is set in  motion by the protagonist’s response to the Catalyst (see 8 below)  in the first Act .
  4. What stands in the protagonist’s way from getting what he/she wants? (Eg. a difficult quest, a difficult mystery/conundrum to solve, natural forces, or other antagonist forces.)
  5. What are the consequences if the protagonist fails to get what he/she wants? Are these stakes big enough?
  6. What is the central dramatic question at the heart of the story that drives the reader’s hopes and fears for the story outcome? Example: Will Katniss Everdeen survive the Hunger Games? Will Luke Skywalker rescue the princess and destroy the Death Star?
  7. How does the story end?
  8. What is the catalyst that sets up the central plot in motion? This is the Big Problem or Opportunity that disturbs the protagonist’s world in the first act. Example: Katniss Everdeen’s sister’s name  is drawn in the Hunger Games lottery.
  9. What is the log line for your story.  Example: (‘Star Wars:A New Hope’) is a (science fiction fantasy) story about (a young farm boy) who teams up with (a Jedi Knight and a mercenary pilot) to (rescue a princess and lead a rag-tag rebellion) in order to stop (the evil forces of the Galactic Empire) from (destroying their world).
  10. What is the underlying theme / moral premise of your story? Example: ‘Even death cannot conquer the power of love’ (Romeo and Juliet).

Once you’ve answered the ten questions there’s probably another question you could ask yourself. Would you want to read this story? If it doesn’t excite you, what chance have other readers of finding it exciting.

As mentioned above, the characterisation of the protagonist is part of the story design. The character has to fit the story, or the story has to fit the character.  In the next blog I’ll deal with the ten elements of the protagonist’s characterisation.

In the meantime, I would welcome any comments on the five core elements or the key questions on story design. No doubt there are many more questions that could be asked about a story that would flesh more detail. I’ve seen some story checklists with a hundred-and-one different questions to answer about a story.  Such checklist may well be useful for assessing the final draft, but are too detailed for the initial stages of story design.  In comparison, the key questions are concerned with whether you have a core story that will work before you outline it, or write it.

 

 

 

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.