Taking inspiration from the movies

As a writer and story-teller I have often taken inspiration from the movies. When I write I create a movie in my head and write what I see and experience. I’m not sure all writers necessarily think the same way. To me the words on the page are just a medium by which I can convey those sights and sounds and emotions to the reader. While others may fall in love with the poetry of the words themselves.

Of course, the written medium is different from the visual medium. Not all good books would make good movies, and not all good movies would translate into the written form. Yet as a writer there is a lot I have learned from the movies about story telling. And some of the best books in my library on storytelling are those that have been designed for scriptwriters and movie makers. In fact the movie industry has almost developed a science around the subject of story telling.

Does that mean that a writer needs to understand all the tools and techniques of scriptwriters — the three act structure, the sequence methodology, the hero’s journey et al. No. I’m sure the most of the successful writers are successful writers, because they are intuitively brilliant writers. But if you’re not one of them, perhaps one way of improving your storytelling is through analysing movies.

For one thing, there is very little fluff in a movie. Every scene is there because it has a purpose. And if it doesn’t, it gets cut. It’s a lesson that every writer should understand when editing their material. Sometimes more means having less. One of the expressions you may have heard about writing and editing is to “To kill your darlings”. That is, you may love the scene, but if it simply doesn’t fit into the story you need to cut it. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of darlings killed. To write a 70,000 word novel I’ve discarded or rewrote tens of thousands of words.

Recently I’ve been watching some of my older movies in my DvD and Blueray collection. It’s surprising how much you can forget about a movie. Last night I chose V for Vendetta, a dystopian political movie directed by James McTeigne released in 2005 and based on a 1988 DC Comics limited series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.The story depicts a near-future, dystopian, post-apocalyptic version of the United Kingdom. It’s a world where the power of the US has been destroyed by a second civil war and a pandemic of the “St Mary’s Virus” ravages Europe. The UK is ruled by a right-wing fascist party. But the techniques it uses is that of any totalitarian party, denying free-speech, controlling the media and narrative, and treating any criticism as hate speech or terrorism.

Fifteen years ago, when I first saw the movie, I thought it was interesting but a little far-fetched.

Today in our current world of pandemic, lockdowns, racial riots, where free speech is under threat from cancelling culture and dissenting views are labeled racist, xenophobic or deniers, and where the Big Tech companies are the arbiters of misinformation, it is frightening how close to we are to going down that path. But that is one of the purposes of good science fiction. It looks ahead to the future, and warns us of the dangers we face. In that respect V for Vendetta was a great movie to make you think. Do I really think we are heading towards a totalitarian society like that controlled by the Norsefield party? No. But that doesn’t mean that are rights to free speech and individual freedom are not under threat by more subtle means. We live in interesting times.

So are there any sci fi movies that have inspired you?

Genre — reader expectations

A recent piece of advice I heard from a successful author was for new writers to focus their attention on their chosen genre. But what does that mean?

I think it means to be successful you have to give your potential readers what they want. The problem however is discovering your potential reader base and what they like. At a broad level this is genre related, but it also goes a lot deeper into sub genres and styles that are author related.

Readers tend to follow authors they have already read and will choose new authors only if they are persuaded by the cover, marketing blurb and reviews that the new author might provide the same kind of experience.

So let’s first look at the main broad genre categories for fiction using Amazon’s Best Seller listings:

  • Romance (17)
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy (35)
  • Mystery, thriller & suspense (42)
  • Literature & Fiction (19)

The numbers quoted are the Amazon sub-categories within the genre. For example, for Science Fiction & Fantasy there are 16 categories for Fantasy and 19 categories for science fiction. Many of the categories cross-over. For example, under Romance there are categories for science fiction, time travel and action & adventure. And there are also further sub-sub-categories.

If you look at Science Fiction best seller listing, Amazon lists 19 categories:

  • Adventure
  • Alien Invasion
  • Alternative History
  • Anthologies and short stories
  • Colonisation
  • Cyberpunk
  • Dystopian
  • First contact
  • Galactic Empire
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Metaphysical & Visionary
  • Military
  • Post-Apocalyptic
  • Space exploration
  • Space opera
  • Steampunk
  • Time travel
  • TV, Movie, Video Game Adaptions

Amazon permits authors to list their books under up to ten different categories although they only identify three categories in the description of the book. My own novel, Collision, is shown on Amazon under the following categories:

  • Time travel romance (a Romance category)
  • Time travel science fiction
  • Time travel fiction

Collison is largely based in today’s world, but the time travel element puts it into the ‘science fiction’ genre. It’s described by my own readers in their reviews as a fast action-story and therefore it also fits into action & adventure. And there is a strong romantic B-story between the main lead characters and so it fits into the time travel romance category.

If you are a new author, finding where you fit your novel into this complex category matrix can be difficult, particularly if the scope of the novel crosses different genre. A good place to start is to look at novels of authors similar to your own and how they are categorised on Amazon. But don’t be surprised if you get some odd results. I’m sure other authors have found difficulty properly categorising their novels for Amazon’s system.

I would also suggest you check out the types of books that Amazon lists under each category or you might be surprised by the nature of the category. Originally, when I published Collision I used the “Romance Science Fiction” category. It was a mistake as many of the books in that category weren’t a good fit at all — most have covers with beefy semi-naked alien males.

So finding authors with a similar ‘feel’ to your own books is really what understanding genre is all about. The “Customers who bought this also bought” and “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” sections on Amazon’s site is also good place to find similar books to your own. If you use Sponsored Advertising on Amazon, then you can find which “Keywords” work best on Amazon’s sales pages. Book titles and authors names make excellent keywords. And from this information you can see which sales arise from advertising on a particular author’s book page on Amazon.

Taking Collision as an example, the author keywords that work best for me are Jodi Taylor, and Philip Peterson both of which are great time travel writers. But there are other sci-fi writers which the connection is less obvious and some writers that you might expect there to be a connection but there just isn’t. Finding those authors for which you share a common reader interest and studying them is perhaps the best way to understanding your own genre. That doesn’t mean you need to follow the approach of these writers, but you need to understand it.

At the end of the day every writer wants to produce a unique story experience. It just has to be the type of emotional experience your reader is expecting.

Beginnings and Endings

One of the first books I ever read on the art of writing emphasised the need for a good opening line, opening paragraph and at least ten opening pages to catch the reader’s attention. It’s advice I find difficult to disagree with. Writers need to arouse their readers’ curiosity.

Here are some of the best opening lines that do precisely that:

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ — 1984 by George Orwell

‘They shoot the white girl first.’ — Paradise by Toni Morrison.

‘It was a pleasure to burn.’– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

‘All children, except one, grow up.’– Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

And how can we forget those fantastic opening lines from the classics:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

‘Call me Ishmael.’ — Moby Dick by Herman Melville

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ — A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

One can only wonder at the wordcraft of these classic writers and want to emulate them. However, the best time to do this is not when you’re writing the first draft of your story. It is when you have finished your story and can re-write a suitable start. Firstly, if you try to use a clever opening from the start, you may never get past that opening line. You maybe setting yourself too high a standard, particularly if you’re trying to emulate these classics. And secondly, once you have completed the story, you’ll have a different perspective on how the opening should link to the ending.

That brings me to the endings. There are some writers that can start writing a novel without understanding how the story will end and believe the joy of writing is in discovering that ending. These are the writers who see themselves as ‘pantsers’, and don’t like the idea of plotting in advance. If that works for them, then fine. But I could never write entirely that way myself. Once I understand the what the central conflict of the story is going to be about, the next most important element is the ending. The ending sets the direction of the story, and for me, if I don’t know the direction in which the story is going, and the big points along the way, then I can’t write. That doesn’t mean that I won’t change the story ending during the process of writing if I see a better ending in sight. I’m constantly thinking about it and ways I can improve it. And in three books I’ve published I’ve always managed to improve on my initial ideas.

Story endings are hard to create. They must have an element of surprise, but at the same time give the reader the emotional experience they expected. Many romance novels have a ‘happy ever after’ ending. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t have an element of unpredictability. For me, endings are much harder than beginnings and require just as much polish and finesse as the openings. A good opening maybe a good reason for a reader to buy your book, but a good ending will ensure he buys your next one.

If you’re a new writer or an experienced writer let me know what you think. What is harder, the beginning or the end of the story?

A Decade of Writing

March 2021 will mark an important anniversary for me. It will be a decade since I retired from ‘normal’ work. I was an accountant in the City of London working for one of the largest firms of accountants in the world. It was a job I enjoyed, but working in an accountancy practice is a young man’s job that involves long hours and an enormous commitment. I had reached retirement age, and it was time for something new. Most in my position, would have considered a hobby like golf, sailing or walking. But I’m different.

I had always wanted to write a novel. “Collision” was my first. I always knew I could write. I had written four obscure accounting texts, one of which went to four editions, and I contributed to industry accounting texts on banking and leasing. But I didn’t know if I had the imagination and drive to write a novel. That’s a real challenge.

Well, a decade on, I ‘ve published three novels and am working on my fourth. Four books in ten years is not a great output. But it was never about the output or the money. I’ve learned a lot about storytelling, writing, publishing and marketing, much of which I have discussed in this blog. If you are new to writing I hope the blog I have produced will help you find your way. There are some 84 blogs on the subject.

There are lots of traps for a new writer to fall into. And a number of sharks out there that will promise you help and support for a large fee. Fortunately, I avoided most of them. The truth is that as a writer all you need is a computer and writing software that will output. I would recommend Scrivener (which is about $47) or any other software that can output Epub and Mobi formats. This is not a huge investment.

The only other essential expenses I incur are for editing, cover design and advertising. How much you choose to spend on each is up to you. It’s possible to get a good cover for under $100 on Fiverr. For advertising, I use Amazon Advertising Sponsored Products and keywords, but you need to tread carefully. The largest expense is probably the cost of editing. I do most of the basic editing myself, but a professional proofreader is a necessity for the final proof.

If you’re new to writing and publishing, then you need to understand that there is a learning curve involved. You need to understand dialogue and other writing format conventions, book formatting conventions, advertising and more. It will take time to learn. It took me 20 months to publish my first novel but I was a complete novice at marketing. Even now after ten years I’m still learning about publishing and marketing. The alternative is to undertake a training course to fast track the process. There are a number of good courses out there. But they don’t come cheaply.

If you are a new Indie writer and have a burning question, ask me on the blog. Or if you prefer, email me through my Contact page.

Story Themes

I normally blog monthly, but I missed-out in December for personal reasons. For many, 2020 was an annus horribilis (horrible year) — it was the year of the pandemic. But for me it was exceptionally sad. I lost two dear family members near the end of the year, one expected and one very unexpected.

It made me realise life is not always what we want it to be. It can be fragile and unfair.

It also made me wonder why we as humans embrace stories that stand for fairness so much. Is it a reaction to seeing unfairness in real life? Our fictional characters are made to suffer, but in the end they eventually succeed in their goals or sacrifice themselves for some higher cause. Stories like this have been told since the days of cavemen. They have a strong moral element underlying the story line that celebrates heroism and fairness.

I realise that not all stories end happily-ever-after. Although I certainly have a preference for them. But even Shakespeares tragedies had a strong underlying moral element. Stories tell us that good will win over evil, that justice will prevail, that man can seek redemption, that a hero will choose duty over self interest, that even death cannot conquer true love.

Someone once said that stories are there to reveal some universal truth about human nature. And sometimes this is not always positive. For example, that power can corrupt, or that hubris comes before a fall. But even these stories are about human morality.

As a reader you probably read for a variety of reasons. It is a form of escapism where go for adventure and fun. We connect with the characters we love and follow them on an emotional journey. Maybe you don’t think too much about the theme underlying the story. But it is there, just like it was in our caveman days.

Story design and readers’ expectations

What makes a story a compelling read that the reader cannot put down? Is it the story idea at the heart of the story? Or is it the way the story is executed? Great writers, of course, do both. But creating the readers expectations about the book and delivering what they want must be of core importance to the reader’s experience.

Adrienne Bell in Plot MD, sets out three core ways a writer can write a compelling story:

  1. Setting expectations of your readers early, and ensuring they are met by the end of the book.
  2. Creating a relatable set of dilemmas that your audience can invest in.
  3. Setting up a connected flow of actions and consequences that pull the reader through the story rather than pushing them along.

Why are expectations so important? From the moment a reader picks up a book, the writer is creating expectations. The cover, the title, the blurb and genre will all influence the reader’s expectations. And after only a few pages they will understand the type of story they are looking at from the the type of journey the protagonist or protagonists are taking, e.g.:

  1. A single protagonist or team journey
  2. A romance or buddy journey
  3. An epic multi-protagonist story.

Each type of story journey has its own patterns. The ‘Hero’s journey’ may well relevant to the single protagonist journey, but it is by no means the only one. Romance and buddy journey stories have their own patterns and tropes.

A writer can also influence reader expectations by:

  1. Foreshadowing. Everyone has heard of Chekov’s gun. If a gun is discovered in the first scene of a crime novel, it will almost certainly be fired later. The same was true of James Bond’s gadgets, which invariably got him out of a tight spot later in the plot.
  2. Setting up the protagonist for a fall is another technique. The protagonist declares they will always or never do something sets them up a future u-turn. Set ups and payoffs are familiar technique to screen writers. Remember Indiana Jones and his hatred of snakes and how he ends up in a snake pit.
  3. Signalling how a negative trait impinges on the protagonists current life signals what they will need to overcome by the end of the story. Bell believes readers instinctively know what the writer is setting up.

Bell also discusses other promises the writer makes about the future outcome of the story and expect justice to be meted out to characters with moral shortcomings. She calls them debts, which have to be repaid, because the idea of justice is central to storytelling. Bell asserts that reader’s sub consciously understand these promises and fully expect to see them paid off. It’s all about fictional Karma.

Dilemmas

Why are dilemmas so important to the storyline and character development? The dilemmas a protagonist faces and the choices they make are at the heart of story telling. Bell explains as follows:

Because creating an organized set of relatable dilemmas that are intimately tied to your protagonist’s character arc is what allows you to take the power of conflict and translate it into action on the page…. As long as the audience can relate to the emotional core of the dilemmas and decisions, they will find themselves connecting to every other aspect of your story, no matter how unfamiliar they might be….

Bell is not the first to understand the importance of getting an audience to empathise with the protagonist. Blake Snyder named his book “Save the cat” on the important of creating empathy for the protagonist by relatively small noble actions. The difference is Bell’s approach is that empathy is more about the relating to the dilemmas the protagonist is facing. I have to agree.

The flow of actions and consequences.

Bell suggest that story planning should be around the meaningful decision characters make rather than around scenes. Certainly this kind of approach helps to focus attention on the big decisions the protagonist makes.

If you set up your story around a central conflict, a series of dilemmas will spring up. When your characters come face-to-face with these dilemmas, they will be forced to make decisions. Those decisions will have consequences, which will force your characters to face more dilemmas, which will lead to more decisions, which will lead to….

Consequently, meaningful decisions create a chain of action and consequences that are at the core of the story.

Bell designed a worksheet using four funnels for Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2B and Act 3 to show how each decision made by the protagonist constricts the future choices they can make as they move along in their journey. She looks at three key decisions for each funnel. Therefore there are twelve key decisions in all. Some of these decisions may well connect to the five big turning points in the story: the inciting incident/catalyst, Plot point 1 at the end of Act 1, the mid point, Plot Point 2 at then end of Act 2, and the Climax. But this still leaves seven, most of which will be in Act 2. Copies Bells worksheet are available from her website.

Clearly, there are many different ways the narrative of a story can be analysed. For example breaking the story down into Acts, Sequences, Step Outline, Scenes, and Beats and by identifying Turning Points and Reveals. Key Decisions are just another way of doing it. Analysing the structure of a narrative once it is written is relatively easy. The key issue is what approach best works from a planning perspective before the narrative is written. As with most things in writing, this is a matter of personal preference. It’s what works for you that matters.

The writer’s toolbox (iii)

In my last two blogs I covered two of my favourite tools that I use for writing novels.

  • Scrivener — my go to software for researching, planning, writing and book formatting software. Scrivener has virtually everything you need to plan, produce and publish your novel. It’s a very powerful application, but it takes time to learn just the basics of the program. However making that time investment is well worth the effort.
  • Plottr — a relatively new visual planning tool that lets you quickly map out the story’s timeline.

And in a previous blog I covered ProwritingAid, which is wonderful application to help editing drafts that identifies poor grammar, inconsistencies, punctuation and style errors.

But these are by no means the only software I use for writing. Scrivener is great if you’re writing a novel length book. But if you just want to write a blog, or some advertising blurb, then it’s not necessary the right tool for the job. I have a number of wordpocessors that can do those kinds of jobs quickly and more efficiently:

Ulysses — a powerful wordpocessor in it’s own right with some of the functionality of Scrivener, but without the same level of complexity. Some authors use it for novel writing. I like to use it’s markdown features and preview the output with Marked 2 (a markdown previewer).

iA – another powerful word processor that uses markdown and has it’s own inbuilt markdown reviewer. It also has clever filters for syntax and style, which can be useful when editing.

Pages –again another powerful word processor from Apple. These days I tend to use it only when I need to edit word.docx files. I also have Microsoft’s Word on a separate PC, but find it easier to use Pages on my iMac than firing up my old PC.

Hemmingway — a great little app for editing small amounts of text.

So these are the main software applications I use for writing and the applications I am most comfortable with and which work for me. They are by no means the only choices a new writer faces. And I would suggest you look around a find what suits you best. I’m not going to review every single choice, but some are well worth a mention here.

The Novel Factory — this is an integrated application that gives a step-by-step guide to writing a novel.

There are a number of applications like this on the market, but this in my view is one of the best. It has a planning section which build the core idea into an outline. It has plot outlines for popular genres, including romance, thriller and the hero’s journey. It has a detailed character development section. And it has drag and drop tools for planning and editing.

But what I like most about the application is the workflow design that takes you through each stage of writing and which is supported by comprehensive explanatory videos. If you’re new to writing, then you’ll find these videos excellent. If you’re an experienced writer like me, then you’ll probably think why did I not find something like this 10 years ago. It would have saved a huge amount of research of the methodology of writing. But for the experienced writer the benefits are small.

Dabble — this an on-line planning and writing application. It’s marketing line is “It’s like Scrivener. Minus the learning curve.” And to be fair it lives up to its marketing line. It has similar planning and writing functions of Scrivener, without the complexity of book formatting. It’s therefore a writing system to produce a draft manuscript. The good news is it will take less than fifteen minutes to work out how the system works. It’s simplicity itself. And it has a great plotting tool. It has a free trial period and is worth taking a look at. The drawback is that it is priced on a monthly subscription service.

Wavemaker — this is a free novel writing application by Iain Wood, which you can support by donation or simply by spreading the word about the app. It’s similar to Dabble and has some clever planning tools. It’s worth taking a look at.

Vellum — This is a dedicated ebook and print book formatting application that produces beautiful eBooks and print books from a word.docx file. Some writers use Scrivener from planning and drafting a book and then use Vellum as a book formatter (rather than Scrivener’s own formatting features). The drawback is the cost, $249.99 from Printbooks and $199.99 for Ebooks.

I hope these three blogs help you understand the needs of a novel writer. Writers generally need software tools for a number of reasons: holding research information, planning and outlining, writing and editing, and formatting files for publication. Scrivener has features that cover all these areas from end to end. But some applications that cover less than the same spectrum are more effective at their chosen elements. As with all software it comes down to personal choice and preference over which combination of software works for you.

The Writer’s Toolbox (ii)

In last month’s blog, I looked at Scrivener, the primary tool I use for writing and publishing. This month I want to look at another tool, which is relatively new– Plottr.

Plottr, is essentially a time line planning tool. It allows you to quickly map out a story’s timeline with scene cards. It also allows you to see the same timeline through an outline format.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 13.52.23

So why would you need Plottr? I asked myself the same question. I’ve got Scrivener, which can switch between cork board, outline, and text modes. And I already have Plot Control, a sophisticated screenwriting tool, which does the same thing over a 3-Act Structure. So why do I need Plottr? Well, the answer is I saw a demonstration and was immediately hooked.  What impressed me was how easy it was to create scenes and plot lines, insert new scenes and chapters, and move them around with drag and drop. And scrolling along the time lines is so easy. There is also a vertical format, if you prefer, with a simple click.

You can create as many plot lines as you like. In my current novel, I am using three lines: The Main Plot Line, The Internal Plot Line, and The Antagonists Plot Line, so I can see how each develops over the course of the story. But you can have as many as you like. If you prefer you could have a plot line for each main character. Or you can see different units to mark out the time line other than chapters. For example, Acts or sequences. It’s up to you how you want to work.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 14.34.21

And it also has sections for Notes, Characters and Places to identify with the scenes, with standard templates if you want to use them. As you can see from the screenshot. I don’t map out a lot of detail for the characters. In my current project I already know my characters well and have written a considerable amount of the text. So I’ve been using Plottr primarily as a tool to analyse the different plot lines and scene structure. It’s been helpful.

Overall, Plottr is clever tool for doing what ifs in story development and exploring different ideas before committing further effort to writing. And it has the ability to export a .docx file, which means you can  can import into Scrivener the chapter and scene structure. As an initial planning tool it gets my vote.

The writer’s toolbox

In this blog I want to look at Scrivener — a software tool that changed my life as a writer, and which today I couldn’t do without.

What does a novelist or writer need in order to write? Comparatively little. Remember Shakespeare only needed a quill, ink and paper. And he did quite well with those tools. Some of our greatest writers of our time used only pen and paper. But today there are so many great tools we can use that make the process so much easier. So I’m always on the lookout for new technology that might make the process simpler and more efficient.

What is Scrivener? Well, you could call it a word processor, and it has all the functionality of a word processor, but lots more. What I love about it is that manages your manuscript in a different way to that of a traditional word processors, by breaking the manuscript down into manageable chunks — scenes, chapters and parts.

Each scene has a scene card associated with it, where you can use a heading and couple of lines of text indicate the contents of the scene on the card. And Scrivener allows you to toggle between, viewing scene cards (like a cork board), as traditional outline format, or as a continuous manuscript of the full text. Thus Scrivener encourages you to write in a scene structured way. And if you decide to change the order of the scenes you can simply drag and drop them into the new order. So as you write you can stand back from the detail to view the scene cards, or outline, to give you a helicopter view of your story structure.

Could you do the same thing in Word or some other word processor. Yes, possibly. But you might need to create perhaps up to 80 separate files for each scene and keeping track of them might be a nightmare. With Scrivener you can move from one scene to another in a click, and move scenes around just by dragging and dropping them.

You can also operate with a split screen, where you can have two scenes open on screen at the same time. So you could refer to your earlier scene as you write. Or you could use one of those screens to show your character and location templates or other research information in your research files.

There are also some important features about text handling, such as automatic backups of files. There is also an ability to take snapshots before editing a scene. So you can compare the edited version against the original, or rollback later if you’re not happy with the edit. Another feature is a floating scratch book that allows you to take notes as you go along. And there is an ability to attach notes, and labels to each scene card. For example, you might label each scene by the point of view (POV) character. This would enable you to view a collection of scenes as one document for each POV character.

Once you have completed your manuscript you can compile these scenes together and output the detail to a variety of different formats including, html, rtf, docx, doc, pdf, mobi and epub formats as required.

I could go on and on about the detailed features of Scrivener. There are many. And there are many good reviews of the software on the internet. But if you are interested it would make more sense to take up the free trial and look for yourself. There are also lots of you-tube videos that will give you a start on how to use it.

Are there any downsides to this software? If you want to use some of the most powerful features of the software then there is a learning process. And I’ve heard that some writers have been turned off by this. All I can say is in my case it was well worth the effort. I’ve been using Scrivener now since 2011 and I’ve published three eBooks and print books using it.

In the next blog, I will look at some of the other technology aids a writer can use to make themselves more efficient.

 

Eliminating the saggy middle

Choosing a topic for this month’s blog was a difficult choice. During the month I finally managed to see the Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker and commenting on the unbelievable bizarre ending could easily fill at least one blog post on story design. But I don’t like to give negative reviews and there are more than enough from the Star Wars fanbase already. So I decided to focus of something a little different and much less high profile to illustrate some story design points.

salvationSalvation is a 26 episode (two season) sci-fi drama on Netflix, which I recently binge watched. The critics of Wrotten Tomatoes rated it only 44%. The audience score was higher at 88%. IMDB gave it 7/10. One critic described it as “40% romantic drama with 30% sci-fi, 30% political thriller and expect 5/10 from all three genres, you will not go crazy and may even enjoy the fast ride.”  I can understand the criticism. It is an almost comic-book plot line. But if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief and put up with a little melodrama, it is a rip-roaring ride. And as a writer it’s an object lesson in how to write tension and suspense.

The log line for the drama is innocent enough: “An MIT student and a tech superstar bring a low level Pentagon official a staggering discovery — that an asteroid is just six months away from colliding with Earth.”

Now, if you were developing a story from this premise for a novel, where would you go? There is clearly a protagonist Darius Tanzanites (an Elon Musk-like tech superstar) and his protege MIT student (Liam Cole), who discover the problem.  And then there is an obvious antagonist (the asteroid) but what next?

Well, the two have to convince those around the president of the problem and then devise a plan to deal with it. But in this case, the Secretary of Defence already knows about the problem, and they have a plan to deal with it. At his point I would most certainly struggle with the story. The first Act of the story is easy — introduce the characters and the problem they face. Act Three is also relatively easy — write the climax and resolution of the story. But what happens in the long Act 2? This is where most writers find the greatest difficulty. How do you stop the storyline sagging in the middle?

With this story premise I would struggle in the second act of a novel. But writing a 26 episode series would be a massive challenge. So what did the writers do to maintain the story tension?

The answer lies in a plethora of sub-plots (or perhaps more precisely parallel plots) and an array of new antagonists to frustrate the protagonist. So here is a list of some of the sub-plots the writer’s used to give you a clue.

First there are the romantic conflict sub plots.

  • Darius’s romantic interest is with Grace Barrows –the Pentagon  press secretary– who is also romantically involved with Harris Edwards (Assistant Secretary of Defence).
  • Liam’s romantic interest is with  Jillian Hays — a sci-fi writer later who is later employed by Darius. But he is also later involved with Alycia Vrettou (who works for the terrorist hackers organisation RE/SYS)
  • Grace ‘s daughter and Harris’s son.

There are some parental-child conflict sub plots

  • Harris and his son (who belongs to RE/SYS, a terrorist hacker group)
  • Grace and her daughter (Who belongs to Cope, a suicide cult).

But the most intriguing subplots are the political ones:

  • A coup to poison the the president President and replace her with the Vice President.
  • A plot by the coup group to destroy the USA’s enemies (Russia and China) by redirecting fragments of the astroid towards them using stolen Tanz Industries technology.
  • Another plot to shoot the President.
  • A Russian plot to steal Darius’s em drive to be used to move the Astroid off course.
  • A plot by terrorist hackers RE/SDYS to start a nuclear war and take over control of Russian nuclear missiles to threaten the USA.
  • A plot by Darius’ uncle to take over his company and Darius’s pet Salvation project.
  • A plot by a suicide cult called Cope to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • A plot by Darius/Grace to steal uranium from the US Government for his Salvation space ship backup plan (a rocket to take 160 people to survive the Earth’s demise).

We also have a long list of new antagonists to frustrate the storyline:

  • Malcolm Croft, Liam’s professor at MIT who is also a Russian agent.
  • Claire Rayburn, Senior Advisor to the White House Chief of Staff, who in cahoots with Vice President to poison the president.
  • Monroe Bennet — Vice President who leads a coup against the the incumbent president and later seeks to blow up the Supreme Court judges.
  • Nicholas Tanz — Darius’s uncle who plots to get Darius’s company and the Salvation rocket in cahoots with Bass Shepherd.
  • Bass Shepherd— the leader of a suicide cult, Cope, who plots to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • Dylan Edwards (Harris Edwards’ son) who  is involved with the terrorist group RE/SYS and while naive and well intentioned is prepared to destroy New York to get the US government to obey their demands.
  • Amanda Neel — an investigative reporter that concentrates on collusion between Tanz industries and the government withholding information.

And we have some characters that act as both helpers and antagonists at different time  as the plot enfolds. These I call changelings:

  • Alonzo Carter — a D.C . Police Officer who seeks revenge for his sister’s death (Claire Rayburn who is shot by Grace Barrows), but later turns good guy to help Grace.
  • Alycia Vrettou — Darius’s former protege that turned against him to work for a terrorist group RE/SYS, but who eventually helps Darius.
  • Jillian Hayes –Liam’s romantic interest that is caught into the Cope suicide cult, who steals the Rail Gun plans for the cult, but who eventually comes to her senses.
  • Liam Cole— who for a time he abandons Darius to work with RE/SYS to save the planet. But eventually realises that Darius is the only one that can save the world.

For those of you who haven’t seen the series the list of sub-plots and antagonists above must sound pretty crazy. The political aspects alone could have made a good thriller on their own. The sci-if in some respects were largely incidental. And of course there is a wonderful twist ending to the series, which I won’t reveal here.

So if you’re a writer like me that struggles in the long second act to keep the tension going, then the most interesting tool in your writer’s toolbox is to introduce new antagonists with their own sub plots to freshen up the story line. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. In many action adventure stories you have one ‘Big Bad’ villain character and maybe a henchman or two. Think Emperor Palpatine and Dark Vader. But if you look more closely at these stories there are other antagonists that frustrate and deflect the path of the hero’s journey. Not all antagonists are villainous and some are changelings. But they are needed in the storyline to complete the picture.

Tell me, do you suffer from saggy middles? And if so, would another antagonist help to complete your story?