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?

Finding a story from chaos

collieOne of the tasks I have been putting off for some time is a limited re-edit of my debut novel, Collision. After its release in 2012, I noticed some irritating typos had crept into the final proof. Well, as you can see it’s taken me quite some time to get around to doing it. But now it’s done.

One of the great advantages of using Amazon and Kindle is that it is possible to re-upload the text files and make corrections like this. So for the past few days I been re-reading and re-editing my original work and uploaded the revision to Amazon today. The process has been illuminating for me in many ways.

Let me explain some of the background to my novel. I had written books before Collision, but they were all dry technical accounting texts, which I suspect no one reading this would ever want to read unless they suffered from insomnia. Writing fiction was going to be a huge challenge for me and I had no idea whether I could do it.

I had snippets of a story in my head. A man is jogging alone along a beach at night when a UFO flies over his head and crashes further up the beach. It was going to be  a love story. That’s about as much as I had of the story at the start of the project. Twenty months later I published the novel on Kindle. In between, I learnt a huge amount about the world of writing and story telling. And if I had known at the beginning what I know now, I would have probably gone about it in an entirely different way.

What struck me on re-reading the novel so many years later was just how good the storyline turned out. I did some limited planning at the start, but the final story was far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset. And it wasn’t something I could have planned in that level of detail. Instead, it emerged by itself out of constant rewrites, revisions and incremental changes. As a writer, I’m a planner/plotter at heart rather than a ‘pantser’. But like one famous general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’. I plan, but if something doesn’t work, I replan. And so the Collision story is very much the product of a somewhat chaotic trial an error process of finding the story.

Since Collision I have written two further sci-fi novels: “Alien Hothouse” and “AndroDigm Park 2067”. Both these novels were the result of painstaking planning and certainly didn’t take as long to write as Collision. But neither has been as successful as Collision or attracted the same quality of reviews. Maybe this is partly because the stories are very different and attract different tastes. But I suspect it might be something else.

For a good story to emerge from a writing project you need to challenge it, revise it, test it until the story works. It’s a painful process of destruction and creation that isn’t easy. Writer’s are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ during the editing process. To be successful the killing has to get bloody. Maybe the reason Collision was good was because so many scenes were cut, or revised or replaced by new ones. And maybe it was because I wouldn’t publish until I was absolutely sure I had a story that worked emotionally.

I’m sure every writer is attached emotionally to their debut novel. If I wrote Collision again today I’m sure I could improve on the execution of the writing. But writing isn’t just about technique. Readers don’t have favourite writers based on how they construct their grammar. They relate to the emotional content of their writing. And that depends on how they connect to the main character and the emotional journey that character takes during the story.

If you are a writer, let me know whether you feel the same way about your debut novel. And if you’re still in the process of writing your first novel, let me know how well you really understood the story before starting.

 

Daydeam Believer

Not many people are old enough to remember Daydream Believer. It was a single released by the Monkees in 1968 with lead singer Davy Jones and headed the US charts for four weeks. It’s a catchy tune, with cryptic lyrics about a daydream believer and his homecoming queen. But I can still remember the chorus.

Why do I start this blog reminiscing over the a 60’s pop song? I wasn’t even a serious Monkees fan. Well, it’s because all creative writers need to become in some respects daydreamers. Our best ideas come to us when we daydream and often when we least expect it — in the shower, before we fall asleep, on a walk in the countryside, or listening to music. Basically, it’s when are brains are in neutral and they allowed to drift away.

Often a single idea can form the catalyst for a story. In Hollywood, this is often expressed as a log-line. For example: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. Any guesses which movie this inspired? It’s not that difficult — Titanic.

Whether you’re a novelist or a screenwriter, the nuts and bolts of your writing will come from your imagination. Those ideas can come from anywhere. The skill of the writer is to harness them.

TitanicBut a single idea doesn’t make a story. A story has to be developed and that requires a succession of ideas. We know the story of Titanic is about two lovers meeting on the ill fated Titanic. So that gives us some historical perspective in terms of facts and the pattern of events. We know the vessel sinks! But we’re really concerned about the love story and how it enfolds.

Often we can use a series of questions to help us develop that story line. For example, we have a young man and woman from different social classes. So which one is from a higher class than the other? How do they meet? Why are they onboard the vessel? What are they looking for? What brought them there to that moment in time? And what do they expect to happen when they arrive in America? Who are the other characters onboard? What do they want? And how do their motives conflict with our lovers? And so on…

So we are now beginning to develop a story line for the two characters (Jack and Rose) and an antagonist (Rose’s fiancé Caledon Hockley). But we still don’t have enough to fill a 194 minute movie or a 400 page novel. We still need a lot more ideas.

Let’s look at some of the ideas the writers actually used. In the movie, Jack and Rose meet when she is contemplating suicide (unusual).  They fall in love (that’s the easy part). Jack is a poor artist and draws a nude sketch of her wearing the Heart of the Ocean necklace. And Jack is later accused of stealing the necklace.

How did the writers find these ideas? Obviously they needed to create conflict and tension between the lovers and Rose’s fiancé. And one question might be how to we create this conflict. But the ideas themselves don’t automatically flow from the Titanic story, they flow from the creative imagination of the writers.

How does the movie start? Again the writers start the movie in 1996 with Broch Lovell, a treasure hunter, and his team searching for the wreck of the Titanic and a rare diamond necklace (The Heart of the Ocean). What made them think of the diamond necklace? Hitchcock once talked about the importance of a McGuffin (an object of desire) in movies. Not all movies have a McGuffin, but they can be very useful. The McGuffin is something the story is built around, but is not what the story is really about. Titanic is love story — the diamond necklace is just device in the story to create conflict between the characters.

Interestingly, most of the movie is set in flashback. Again the choice of how to deliver the story is interesting.

So could you have written Jack and Rose’s story from the original log-line? Perhaps not the same way James Cameron developed it. But maybe something like it. It’s a love story and I’m sure there are different ways that story could have been portrayed. Switch the characters around — make Jack the aristocrat and Rose the fiancée of an Irish emigrant. There are hundreds of ways to write this tragic love story. All you need is to do daydream.

So what have you daydreamed about recently that might make a good story?

Structure and character arc

Some writers don’t like the idea of story structure and reject it on the grounds that any such approach would be too rigid for them. Structures like the Hero’s Journey, the Three-Act structure, and the Sequence Method may appeal to some writers,  but not all. But even if you don’t like to write in a structured manner, understanding the rhythms and patterns of stories can provide an insight into understanding the basics of why a story works or doesn’t work.

Recently I have been looking at ways to simplify the approach and connect more with character arc. Here is my simplification which is loosely based on a Three-Act Structure, but without drawing too much attention to the three Acts. Those familiar with the Three-Act Structure will see which blocks fit into each Act, but for now I want to concentrate on the different types of narrative that fit naturally together in a pattern.

The light blue narratives are the setup and main action sequences in the story. The dark blue narratives are the important Plot Points through the story, all of which are outside the control of the Main Character (“MC”). The yellow narratives are periods of reflection when we see into the MC’s persona. Examples and references to Star Wars used below are to Star Wars New Hope.
outlineThe Setup is where the MC is introduced in his ordinary world. We see why we should empathise with him/her as well as their faults and desires.  We may also see or glimpse the antagonist and the ‘McGuffin’ or ‘Object of Desire’, if any. (Eg. the Plans to the Death Star.)

The Catalyst, or Call to Adventure, is the big event that starts the main conflict of the story running. (Eg. In Star Wars,  Luke gets the message from Princess Leia ‘Help me Obi-Wan’.)

After the Catalyst the MC may try to avoid dealing with the new situation or may seek help. (E.g. Luke initially rejects Obi-Wan’s offer to go to Mos Eisley Spaceport.)

Plot Point 1 is a major shock that forces the MC to act. (Eg. Luke finds his uncle and aunt killed and farm torched and goes on the quest with Obi-Wan.)

The first part of Act 2 is taken up by a series of action sequences where the MC is reacting to the new situation.

At the Mid Point the MC may be subject to a new shock or revelation that complicates his/her quest or throws the story into a new direction. (Eg. The Millennium Falcon is caught in the death Star’s tractor beam.)

The Mid Point shock may force the MC to re-examine his commitment to the quest and strengthen his/her resolve. (Eg. Luke finds that Princess Leia is about to be executed and commits to rescuing her.)

The second part of Act 2 is an action sequence about the execution of the MC’s new plan.  (E.g. Luke, Han and Chewbacca rescue the princess and escape the Death Star).

Plot Point 2 is another devastating event that affects the MC. (Eg. Obi-Wan is Killed by Darth Vader).

Sometimes after Plot Point 2, the MC retreats into self examination — the dark night of the soul. (Eg. In Star Wars, this is merely a brief moment of pain for Luke, but it has a profound effect on him).

At the end of the dark night of the soul, the MC usually discovers what he/she needs to do to succeed. (In Star Wars, the ‘discovery’ is the  Death Star’s weakness.)

The final action sequence takes us into he Third Act. It is the final attempt by the MC to complete his/her quest, but there is a new goal. (Eg. In Star Wars, it is to destroy the Death Star.)

Often there will be a Twist before the climax. (Eg. In Star Wars, Luke is at the mercy of Darth Vader, when Hans Solo returns in the Millennium Falcon to save him.)

The Climax is the ‘obligatory scene’ which finally resolves the story. (Eg. when Luke destroys the Death Star.)

The Aftermath is the scene the shows what life is like after the resolution and how the MC has changed. (In Star Wars, it is the scene when Luke, Hans and Chewbacca are given medals. Luke has changed from from farm boy to hero.)

So how is this different from some of my previous blogs I hear you ask — the narrative is pretty much the same? That’s right. But what the analysis shows is that there is a natural pattern that alternates between action scenes/sequences and more reflective scenes/sequences. The yellow text is pretty much where we see the Main Character changing during the course of the story.  That isn’t to say that there are no reflective moments in the blue narrative — there will be. But what the diagram shows is that structure is not just about plot, it’s also about the character arc of the main character.

It also illustrates the importance of pacing. You can’t have a story being just about action sequences. The audience or reader needs time to relax and reflect just like the main character. Stories therefore have to have a natural rhythm to them that alternate between action sequences and reflective scenes that show character insight. I hope the diagram shows that.

Tell me what you think.

 

Heroes and Villains

After the Christmas break, it’s been difficult for me to get back into a writing routine again. Not that I ever switch off completely from the writing process — I’m always thinking about my current novel and where the story is heading. And that’s just as important as time spent at the keyboard. But one the things I did over the Christmas break was to spend a lot of time with my family binge watching the NetFlix series “Once Upon a Time”.  Apart from being highly addictive and entertaining series, it is also a great way to study character development of heroes and villains.

For those of you that haven’t watched the series, I will try to avoid spoilers. All the characters are taken from fairy stories such as Snow White, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella Rumpelstiltskin, Frozen, Wicked and some stories not-so fairytale such as Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein.

The story starts in the real world of Storybrooke, which is inhabited by fantasy characters who have been transported from their fantasy realms  (the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Oz, etc.) and have lost their memory due to a curse. Only Henry, a young boy knows their true origin.

What makes “One Upon a Time” different is the characters are nothing like their traditional storybook characters. Peter Pan is quite evil; the Evil Queen, and Captain Hook are bad guys struggling to reform; and some of the good guys end up doing some evil things. It’s as though everything you expect from a fairy tale is turned on its head. It’s a fast action series with rapid plot development, and as the series unfolds we begin to  learn about the backstories of the characters, why they developed their evil traits, and perhaps why they deserve a second chance. As we discover, one of the themes is that not no one is all-bad or for that matter all-good. Everyone deserves a chance at a happy ending. One of the fantasy tropes is that magic always has consequences — they must pay a price for its use. So, sometimes a character’s actions backfire on them.

evilWatching the series reminded me of Sacha Black’s book  on “How to craft Superbad Villains – 13 Steps to Evil.” I read her book some time ago and it impressed me at the time. As writers, we love our heroes, and part of delivering an emotional rewarding story is working on the hero’s character arc — what they learn from their experiences and how they change as a consequence. But do we give enough attention to the villain of the story?

Of course, not all stories will have a villain. Most stories will have an antagonists that stands in the way of the hero reaching his goal. Otherwise there is no tension and conflict. But an antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or acting with evil intent. He/she maybe acting with the best of motives providing their goals conflict with those of the hero.

However, a villainous antagonist is a great plot device for showcasing the hero’s courage and abilities. What would Batman be with Joker or Penquin? How can a hero be a superhero without a supervillain who’s at least as powerful as the hero? If the hero does not struggle for success, why should we care what happens to them? Villains should therefore be be strong and resourceful.

We all do things for a reason and a villain is no different. A villain will have a goal — what he wants to achieve or destroy — and he/she will have a reason or motive for wanting it. Just like the hero, the stronger that desire the more difficult it will be to defeat them and the more tension there will be in the story.

And if you know the source of that character’s desire then it will help to understand their behaviour. The things that most shape us most in life are the experiences that have the biggest impact on us. Sacha Black describes these as ‘soul scars’. Although these experiences help to form our personality, it is how we react to them that defines who and what we become.

Sacha Black explains that a ‘complex’ is a pattern of experiences that from in a person’s unconscious mind and influences future behaviour, attitudes and thoughts. To understand a villain’s complex you need to understand their soul scars, negative traits, and values.  Yes — even villains have values although their response to breaches of these values (eg loyalty) may be violently disproportionate. From the villain’s perspective their behaviour is quite normal and logical. For example, the Evil Queen’s mother describes love as a weakness and if you are a power-seaking evil guy maybe there is some truth in that. The Villain is the hero of their very own story. It’s just their behaviour seen through the hero’s eyes is seen quite differently.

What ultimately separates the villain from the hero are the decisions and choices they make. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the villain Belloq tells Indiana Jones that they are much alike. They are both archaeologists with a passion for antiquities. But of course they are the not the same because Belloq resorts to working with the Nazis to find the Ark of the covenant — something Indiana Jones would never do. Actions and behaviour are therefore what ultimately defines our characters and whether they are a hero or villain.

Story structure

In recent months, I have done far more reading than writing, much to the detriment of progress on my latest novel. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed catching up on the works of other Sci-Fi writers from whom I can learn a lot, and I have enjoyed re-reading  some of the technical screenwriting material on the subject of story structure.

Story structure has always fascinated me. I have a small library on the subject. Movies and novels have a lot in common — they are both about story telling although they use different media. Much of the science behind story structure is provided by the screenwriting movie gurus, who have sought to capture the DNA of what makes a good story. They all have their own particular methodologies and terminology, but in practice they are looking at the same story model from different viewpoints, and they have more in common than they would care to admit. Whether it is a three-act structure, a four-act structure, a six-act structure, a 15-step beat sheet, or a sequence method (such as the Mini-Movie Method), they all are trying to capture the same thing — breaking down the narrative structure of a story into its essential logical elements.

Let’s start with the simplest version — the Three Act Structure, which can be traced back to Aristotle, but became firmly established in the early days of the movie industry. The approach was popularised by Syd Field in his books on screenplay. The paradigm is as follows:

Syd field paradigm

According to Syd Field the narrative of a story can be broken down into three elements:  the Setup, where the characters are introduced, the setting explained and the story premise is established; the Confrontation where the hero battles to reach his goal; and the Resolution of the story. Each act is separated by a plot point that precedes the Act change. Syd Field defines a Plot Point as a story progression point being — “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around into another direction”.

Eric Edson takes a narrower view describing Plot Point I as a “Stunning Surprise 1” that requires the following elements:

  1. It must happen to no one but the hero and create a life changing emotional impact.
  2. It must take place in an instant.
  3. It must truly shock and surprise the hero.
  4. It must fundamentally change the hero’s circumstances.
  5. It changes the hero’s destiny.
  6. It tells the audience what the movie action will be about.

I like Eric Edson approach, which focuses on the plot point as an event that hits the hero like a punch. Other gurus have focused on the decision or action taken by the hero as a result of the event. For example, some gurus label this moment “the Decision”, “the Commitment”, “the Door”, “Crossing the threshold” or “the Break into 2”.  However, the timing difference between the event, and subsequent decision/action taken by the hero is usually quite minimal.

In Star Wars New Hope, Luke hears the message from Princess Leia conveyed by R2D2, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” This is the Catalyst of the story, which is also known as the “Call to adventure”, “the Inciting Incident”, “the Disturbance”, or “the Opportunity”. It is the point where the the hero becomes involved in the central story problem. Later in Star Wars, Obi-Wan tries to convince Luke to go with him to Alderaan. But Luke refuses the call. And later Luke stumbles on a Jawa massacre and realises the Imperial Stormtroopers are searching for the droids. He races home to warn his aunt and uncle, but finds them dead and the farm torched. This is Plot Point I where Luke is so shaken to the core by what he sees.  He says “there’s nothing for me here now” and sets out with Obi Wan to go to Mos Eisley Spacepor to find passage to Alderaan.

Eric Edson describes Plot Point II as “Stunning Surprise 2” which serves a similar purpose to Stunning Surprise 1, but with a twist. It comes out of the blue at the end of Act 2 and changes everything, destroying the hero’s plan for victory. It is also called the “all is lost moment” and can lead to soulful moment called the hero’s “darkest hour”.

In Star Wars New Hope, Plot Point II is when Luke is about to escape in the Millennium Falcon from the Deathstar he witnesses Darth Vader striking down Obi-Wan. Luke subsequently succeeds in getting the plans to the rebels’ base, but the story is not over. Act 3 sees a new phase of the story with the attack on the Deathstar and resolution of the story.

Syd Field noted that the Mid Point of a movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’, which is often a culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or a reversal and an important moment of character change.

The Mid Point is not necessarily just one scene, but is a gathering of scenes with several important functions. It is a structural crossroads: the possible culmination of a false victory or false defeat from a major action sequence that precedes it, a new revelation that raise the stakes, and the moment of truth for the hero. It is the time the Hero understands for the first time what he is really up against. He has reached the point of no return and must become fully committed to the quest.

The Mid Point also neatly divides Act 2 into two different “Dramatic contexts”. For example, the first half of Act 2 of Star Wars is all about Luke and Obi-Wan going to Mos Eisley spaceport in order to find passage to Alderaan. At the Mid Point they find that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam of the the Deathstar. The second half of Act 2 is about rescuing Princess Leia, who they find is scheduled for execution, and escaping the Deathstar.

Now let’s put some more plot points on the diagram: the Catalyst and the Climax. As already explained, the Catalyst in Star Wars New Hope is when Luke gets Leia’s message from R2D2 “Help me Obi-wan…” The Climax is when Luke uses the force to target the Deathstar and destroy it.

We now have five plot points, which break down the story into six stages as follows:

Hauge

This is broadly the six stage approach advocated by Michael Hauge. The six stages are:

  1. Setup – the story setting and the every day life of the hero. It ends with Turning Point 1, which Hauge calls the “Opportunity” (a.k.a the Catalyst).
  2. New Situation –  the hero reacts to the new situation by trying to figure out what’s going on. It ends with Turning Point 2 which Hague calls the “Change of Plans” (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  3. Progress – the hero makes some progress towards his goal. It ends with turning point 3  which Hauge calls the “Point of No Return” (a.k.a. Mid Point).
  4. Complications and Higher Stakes – the hero’s obstacles become more difficult until he hits turning point 4 , which Hauge calls the “Major Setback” (a.k.a Plot Point II).
  5. The Final Push – beaten and battered the hero risk everything in a final push. It ends with the Turning Point 5 – – the Climax to the story.
  6. Aftermath — we see the hero now have complete his journey and transformed by the process.

As you can see, this approach breaks down the story into more manageable chunks of narrative. Hauge also uses the same stages to identify the character arc of the hero. So there is both an outer journey and inner journey for the hero.

The Second Act of a movie is approximately an hour long and in the case of a novel, possibly 200 pages of narrative — a large chunk of narrative. An approach that breaks down the narrative even further is the Sequence Approach.

Script reader Pro describes a sequence as “… a collection of scenes roughly tied together by a singular goal and that results in a specfic outcome that changes the protagonist’s chances of achieving the overall movie goal either for the better or worse.”

Chris Soth describes his mini-movie in a similar way as “a series of scenes defined by its own mini-tension on which the main tension of the story rides.” In this respect “tension” is the effect the story has on the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will or will not achieve their story goal. Both definitions are therefore about a hero pursuing a goal related to the overall story goal.

A sequence has its own beginning, middle and end, where the hero pursues a goal until he either achieves it, fails, or gives it up and follows a new one.

The Mini-movie or 8 Sequence Method can be illustrated as follows:

Sequences

To arrive at an 8 sequence model we need only include the sequence climaxes — S1 and S2 — to break up the narrative into 8 components.

Sequences A, B, G and H are broadly the same as Hauge’s Stages I, II, V, and VI.

In the Star Wars New Hope movie, sequence C takes place at Mos Eisley Spaceport and culminates with the shoot out as the Luke and friends escape in the Millennium Falcon.

The next sequence D ends at the Mid Point with the Millennium Flacon caught in a tractor beam from the Deathstar.

Sequence E starts with Luke and friends hiding of the Millennium Falcon and finishes when R2D2 finding out that Princess Leia is onboard and scheduled for execution.

Sequence F begins with Luke convincing Han Solo and Wookie to rescue Princess Leia and finishes at the same times as Act 2 with the Obi-Wan being struck down by Darth Vader.

Does there have to be 8 sequences? No. It just seems to happen that most 2 hour movies fall into eight sequences of approximately 15 minutes, but some are longer and some shorter. The first Act normally has have 2-3 sequences: the second act 3-5 sequences and the third act 2-3 sequences. As no one sees how the writer has constructed the story it is up to the writer to determine how many sequences they want to use to group their scenes under for planning purposes.

A sequence has it’s own mini-story structure with it’s own rising tension, crisis and climax. Different schools use different terminology to describe the sequences. One of the best examples I have seen of this approach adopted by Paul Tomlinson , who describes the nature of each sequence as follows:

  1. Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge
  2. Responding to the Challenge
  3. Responding to the strange new world
  4. First attempt, First Failure & Consequences
  5. Reacting to the MidPoint & Raising Stakes
  6. The Second attempt, The Fall & the Crisis
  7. The Climax
  8. Resolution and Denouement

All the approaches above are built on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure. But what about the four, five or six act structures? That depends, of course, on how you define an Act. For example, in the first diagram above of the Three-Act Structure we divide the narrative into four different components. Would it be simpler to call this  a “Four Act Structure” as some advocate? Possibly yes. But three-act terminology is well known in the movie industry and is part of the vernacular.

An interesting variation of the methodology is that of Marsall Dotson who advocates a Six Act structure. Each Act has it’s own Catalyst, Turning point and goal. Based on Dotson’s own analysis of Star Wars New Hope and timings would match as follows:

  1. Act 1 – Dealing with an imperfect situation (Same as existing Act 1 – 43 mins)
  2. Act 2 – Learning the rules of an unfamiliar situation (Same as Sequence C – 16 mins)
  3. Act 3 – Stumbling into the central conflict (Same as Sequence D & E – 13 mins)
  4. Act 4 – Implementing a doomed plan (Same as Sequence F- 24 mins)
  5. Act 5 – Trying a longshot (Same as sequence G -21 mins)
  6. Act 6 – Living in a new situation (Same as sequence H – 3 mins)

One aspect of Marshall Dotson’s approach I admire is the evolving nature of the goals and the nature of the opposition identified in each Act as the story intensifies:

  1. Act 1 Initial goal/ oppressive opposition
  2. Act 2 Transitional goal/incidental opposition
  3. Act 3 False Goal/ intentional opposition
  4. Act 4 Penultimate goal/self-inflicted opposition
  5. Act 5 Ultimate goal/ ultimate opposition
  6. Act 6 New situation.

For example, in Die Hard John McClane’s initial goal is to travel to LA and reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly. But when the terrorists invade the building he takes a new goal not to defeat the terrorists, but to call the police. When this fails he has to alter his goal. So gradually his goal evolves into the ultimate story goal of defeating the terrorists.

However, I still find it difficult to treat Dotson’s analysis as six acts. Particularly as the sixth Act is only a few minutes long. I don’t wish to get into semantics but in my view it is simpler to think of this method as a five-act model or five-sequence method. The effect is to split the narrative into five main components.

Other approaches

The two methods that haven’t yet been discussed are Blake Synder’s 15-Step save the Cat approach and Chris Vogler’s 12 Step Hero’s Journey. Both frameworks can easily be overlayed on the Three-Act Structure:

Save the Cat

  • Act 1: Beats 1-5
  • Act 2: Beats 6-12
  • Act 3: Beats 13-15
  1. Opening image
  2. Theme stated
  3. Set-up
  4. Catalyst
  5. Debate
  6. Break into two (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  7. B Story
  8. Fun & Games (multi scenes)
  9. Mid Point
  10. Bad Guys close in (multi scenes)
  11. All is lost (a.k.a. Plot Point II)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul
  13. Break into three
  14. Finale (a.k.a Climax)
  15. Final Image

The “Fun & Games” covers most of the first part of the second act. It’s Fun & Games for the the audience but not the hero. It is where a lot of interesting action takes place. Similarly, “Bad Guys close in” is a multiple scene section that shows the hero going down hill until he hits the “All is lost moment.” The B story is usually love interest element, buddy relationship or mentor relationship. The Save the Cat model is a transformational story where the hero changes, the most reflective moments being at the Mid Point and Dark Night of the Soul. The difference between the Opening Image and Final Image should reflect the transformation the hero has gone through.

Chris Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey

  • Act 1: Steps 1-5
  • Act 2: steps 6-10
  • Act 3: steps 11-12
  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusal
  4. Meeting the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold (Plot Point I)
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to Inner cave
  8. Ordeal (a.k.a. Mid Point)
  9. Reward
  10. The Road back (aka Plot point II)
  11. Resurrection (a.k.a Climax)
  12. Return with the elixir

Vogler notes that not all the steps may apply and those that do may appear in a different order. The approach is meant to be flexible. Also the terms are mythical metaphors. For example, ‘Resurrection’ is the re-emergence of the Hero’s changed character in the story climax. Not some strange metaphysical occurrence.

Like Hauge, Vogler also looks at both the Hero’s inner journey and outer journey. And he explains how the character develops at each of the 12 steps.

Are there simpler solutions that don’t use the three-act model? Yes there are. Both Nigel Watts and Eva Deverall use very simple eight-stage structure without the need for plot points. But if you look closely enough the same underlying structure that appears under the three-act model but without the same technical detail.

Nigel Watts’s 8 point story arc is as follows

  1. Stasis – the every day life of the hero.
  2. Trigger – something outside of the hero’s control sparks off the story.
  3. Quest – the trigger results in a quest.
  4. Surprise – at the mid point of the he/she encounter surprises.
  5. Critical choice – the hero has to make a crucial decision.
  6. Climax – the crucial decision leads to a climax.
  7. Reversal – as a result of the climax the hero’s character has changed for the better.
  8. Resolution – the changed hero returns to the stasis world, wiser and enlightened.

Eva Deverall’s One page formula uses 8 stages as follows:

  1. Stasis – the character is not living to their full potential.
  2. Trigger – and internal or external impulse or both forces the character to the first step forward.
  3. Quest – the character enters the new world, meets mentors or allies and makes a bad plan to solve the problem created by the trigger.
  4. Bolt – something unexpected — the plan inevitably goes wrong.
  5. Shift – the character makes a paradigm shift of character.
  6. Defeat – the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
  7. Power – the character finds a hidden power within themselves to win the prize.
  8. Resolution – the character is living up to their full potential.

Conclusion

As already mentioned, most of these variations of story structure are based on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure.  Although the use of different terminology can be confusing they all attempt to break down narrative into it’s main components.

From a writer’s point of view, no one will see your plans before you write, and no one that reads your book or sees your movie will have much idea of the methodology you used to get there. Of course some writers won’t want to use any framework to plan their writing and may still be successful because the underlying story patterns are hard coded into their DNA. For all the other writers the frameworks are there to help. So use whatever works for you.

Editing — my tools and techniques

edit manuscriptIn the first of my previous blogs on editing, I looked at the lessons that I had learnt a long time ago from the world of business book publishing. In the second blog I looked at what I had to learn more recently to adapt to publishing fiction.

In this blog I want to look at the editing tools and techniques I use. It is not meant to be a comprehensive review of all the software tools available. It is my personal choice of what works for me.

I retired from the accounting profession in March 2011 and decided to write my first novel. One of my first decisions was to buy an Apple MacBook, and the application Scrivener that I had heard so many good things about. I wasn’t disappointed. The software is amazing. After using Microsoft’s Word for over two decades I had finally found my ideal writing tool for writing books. I published my first novel, Collision, in October 2012; my second Alien Hothouse in November 2015; and my third AndroDigm Park 2067 in April 2018.

There are many powerful utilities in Scrivener, but for me the most awesome is that you write in scenes and can move the scenes about by dragging and dropping them. And as each scene has it’s own summary card you can easily switch presentation to a cork board mode, or outline mode and see your story set out in a visual way. For planning purposes, you can map out the major scenes of the story to see the cards across your screen. And when you have completed your first draft you can export a scene list to a spreadsheet file for further analysis of the scenes. This is invaluable when trying to carry out a development edit. It gives you a scene list and the key actions, features and turning points of the story.

It follows that my next important tool is a spreadsheet. I have a great love for the power of Microsoft’s Excel (as most accountants do!). But these days I can accomplish most of the scene analysis I need to do using Apple’s Numbers.  By visualising the story in a columnar way, you can see all the important elements of the story set out.

Now for detailed editing. I perform all detailed editing in Scrivener, so the in-built  spellchecker is the starting point for any edit. However, spellcheckers don’t pick up all errors such homonyms (eg to, too, two) which may be spelt correctly but used in the wrong context. And they don’t pick up a host or errors such as poor grammar, inconsistent use of  hyphenation, capitalisation, punctuation marks and poor style. There are programs that can help the writer identify these issues. The major ones are ProWritingaid, AutoCrit, and Grammarly, but there are many more. Some of these applications have free on-line versions with limited functionality (e.g. ProWritingAid, EditMinion, Grammarly, Ginger and Hemingway).

My preference is the premium version  of ProWriting Aid. Like many of the systems it has a version that works by uploading files onto the internet. But I prefer the standalone version that works with Scrivener. To me, the ability to edit Scrivener files directly gives the system the edge over other applications as I don’t need to convert files back and forth.

Edit software will never replace the need for a professional editor. But such software can help the writer to identify potential problems, inconsistencies and poor style. But not all suggestions generated from this type of software will be appropriate. It is up to the writer to determine how they deal with them.

However much you use these software aids there is a still need to carry out the most detailed review of the text as objectively as you can. This is best achieved by leaving the manuscript for a period of time before undergoing this review. It can also help to use different reading mediums: screen, paper and audio (getting the software to read to you). And by changing fonts and page sizes.

You will also need a good dictionary and style manual for reference. I personally use the Oxford English Dictionary and New Oxford Style Manual for reference, as I write British English rather than American English. But I have at least another ten books on grammar and editing to refer to where necessary.

Editing is an intensive process. It is difficult to look for all types of problems in one pass-through of the text. A different approach is to focus on different types of problems  in each pass-through. For example, the final pass might just look at punctuation problems. As explained in the quote from CJ Webb in the first of these articles.

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time.

If you want to be writer, you need to be able to edit. Successful writers are all re-writers.

Story Shapes and Emotional Arcs

Kurt Vonnegut was the author famous for his novels including Slaugherhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. But he was also famous for his for his concept of story shapes, which was the subject of his rejected Master’s Thesis in Anthropology. He called his story shapes his prettiest contribution to culture.

In simple terms, Vonnegut believed the shape of any story could be mapped on a diagram showing the protagonist’s change in fortune during the course of the story. On the vertical axis he mapped fortune (good-ill). And on the horizontal axis he measured the time-line from beginning to end.

Boy meets girlFor example, he described the classic Boy Meets Girl pattern as a rise-fall-rise pattern. It is not the only pattern that behaves this way, but it’s the easiest to remember.

Boy meets girl (fortune rises).

Something goes wrong — they quarrel or some external force keeps them apart (fortune declines).

Then eventually they reunite (fortune rises).

 

Man in holdAnother example is the Man a Hole pattern. This is a very common profile in action movies, where the protagonist encounters  a serious problem or threat to him/she or those he/she cares for. For example, Die Hard, Hunger Games etc.

The protagonists starts at a good point, but experiences a severe problem that sends them on a downward spiral (fortune declines).

Then gradually he finds the strength to turn the problem around and fortune rises.

 

 

CinderrelaYet another example is the classic Cinderella story pattern.

Here Cinderella starts from a low point (her father remarries and she is badly treated by her step mother and sisters).

With the help of her fairy godmother she goes to the ball and meets the prince (fortunes rise).

The bell tolls midnight and she returns to he low point (fortunes decline).

Finally she fits the glass shoe and marries the prince (fortunes rise).

In 2016, a study by a group of students at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont proved Vennegot’s premise that the emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.

Using complex computerised analysis to measure the scale of happiness or pleasure in some 1327 stories from Project Gutenbergs collection they identified some six basic story arcs:

1. Rags to Riches (rise)

2. Tragedy or Riches to Rags (fall)

3. Man in a Hole (fall-rise)

4. Icarus (rise-fall)

5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)

6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

They also found that three patterns were more successful than the rest: Icarus, Oedipus and Man in a Hole.

Of course, at a detail scene level a character’s emotional state can change in an instance. If we mapped a scene at a micro level it will often show its own emotional arc (which could be any of the six arcs above). The nature of drama is about emotional change and if no emotional change is taking place then there is little or no drama.

Kurt Vonnegut’s contribution was to show that these story shapes or arcs also take place at the story level. And understanding these patterns gives us an insight into the nature of the underlying story.

So when you’re designing your story do you consciously think about the emotional story arc, or is it just something so natural that you don’t have to think about it?

 

Amazon eBook offers

Those of you that regularly follow my blog will realise most of my blog content is dedicated to the art of storytelling and my own learning adventures into the realms of story development. Occasionally I use this blog to bring news about my own books, and on this occasion I am unashamingly promoting two of my Amazon offers.

Currently, I am running two campaigns on Amazon that expire on the 8 July for AndroDigm Park 2067 (FREE) and Alien Hothouse (75% discount) as follows:

ADP 2067 BB

AH BB

I hope you like the ads and take advantage of the offers.  And if you enjoy the books, please leave a review on Amazon. It’s not difficult and only requires a brief comment and rating. It would be greatly appreciated– reviews are the lifeblood for Indie authors.

If you are interested, both ads were prepared using the free version of the BookBrush, which is an amazing easy tool to use for preparing ads. I would note I have no connection with the company, and no financial interest in endorsing their products. It just strikes me as a very easy product to use.

 

Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation

screenwriting
Novel writers can learn a lot about story development from the  screenwriting industry. In my previous blog, I dealt with how screenwriters use Story, Plot, Arc and Theme to develop a story.

This month I want to look at how screenwriters use Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation to grip an audience. The essential elements of what makes a good story well told according to David Howard and Edward Mabley in The Tools of Screenwriting — A writers Guide Craft and Elements of  Screenplay are:

  1. The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult, but possible to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
  5. The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).

I doubt whether there are many screenwriters or novel writers would disagree with this analysis. It’s a simple analysis, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to apply in practice.

The first three elements are all about a conflict. The protagonist desperately wants or desires something (an objective) but struggles to get it (because of difficult obstacles), and in the course of the story this struggle escalates until it reaches a climax and resolution. It follows that the objective should be something big that has serious consequences for the protagonist, or for those he/she cares for. For example, life or death either in the literal or figurative sense.

The First Act is normally all about setting up the story premise (what the story is going to be about) and introducing the protagonist. By the end of the First Act the protagonist should have found his objective, which will drive the story forward for the next two acts. The Second Act is all about the protagonist’s struggle to reach that objective, and the Third Act is about resolving it.

So how do you tell the story for maximum emotional impact and audience participation? Have you read a book you couldn’t put down, or watched a movie that kept you on the edge of your seat? How did the writer do it?

Many years ago I read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. It’s an amazing book. For the first third of the book I found it very slow. For the final two-thirds I couldn’t put the book down until I finally finished it at 4:30 in the morning.  So I didn’t get much sleep that night! How did Forsyth keep my attention? He did so by switching between different character points of view from chapter to chapter. So one chapter about a character would end at a crucial point where you wanted to know what happened to him/her next. But in the next chapter Forsyth would switch to another character’s point of view, which meant you would have to read through the next chapter before getting back to the first character again. And guess what — that chapter would also end at a critical point or cliff hanger for that character. And so you would have to read on and on.

Therefore, the way to tell a story with maximum emotional impact and reader/audience participation is to focus the reader/audience’s attention on what happens next, and according to Paul Joseph Gulino there are four simple screenwriting tools:

  1. Telegraphing/pointing/ advertising. It means telling the audience/reader what is going to happen, so they are waiting for it to happen. A character says he’s going to kill someone and goes off to do it, but we don’t see what happens next until later. This telegraphing can also be used to falsely lead the audience so there is shock when something different happens. Another form of telegraphing is a deadline, or ticking clock. For example, a bomb that is due to explode and the protagonist only has limited time to find it and defuse it. Note that tension here is created by the expectation of the event happening — the bomb exploding. An unexpected surprise event by itself ( the bomb exploding) doesn’t create tension.
  2. The Dangling cause. When something happens (a cause) the audience expect an effect. But what happens if the effect is delayed? The reader’s/audience’s attention is focused on the future. Someone makes a proposal of marriage, but we don’t see the other party answering it until much later. It keeps the audience guessing what might happen.
  3. Dramatic irony. This is where the reader/audience knows more information than the protagonist or other character in the story and this creates an anticipation that the information will be revealed  at some later point in the story. The effect is the audience is waiting for it to happen. Hitchcock was master of dramatic irony. Remember when the detective in Psycho was climbing the stairs. The audience knew who was waiting for him at the top of the stairs, but the detective didn’t.
  4. Dramatic tension. This is where the protagonists wants something or wants to avoid something and is having trouble doing it. This often involves chases or escapes. The uncertainty of what might happen to the protagonist is what generates an emotional response in the reader — hope they will succeed or fear that they will fail. Dramatic tension is probably the most powerful technique a writer can use. But it only works where the writer has created a strong empathetic bond between the reader/audience and the protagonist.

So tension is about the reader’s/ audience’s emotional connection to the protagonist — their concern for the future of the protagonist and those the protagonist cares for. If there is no future uncertainty or consequences for failure, there is little or no emotional connection between the reader/audience and the protagonists. If the protagonist is not fearful, why should the reader be? Also if the protagonist’s future is predictable, there is no uncertainty and therefore no emotion.

We have all read stories that have failed for one reason or another. They may have attractive plots or interesting characters, but if there is no serious conflict and tension then the reader’s or audience will quickly lose attention. It is important to remember that conflict is a struggle between competing forces. It is not necessarily action sequences such as car chases or shoot outs. Some of the most powerful conflicts arise where the protagonist has to make a choice between two equally unacceptable bad outcomes. Does Superman save Louise  or does he stop the nuclear rocket exploding on the San Andreas fault? Dilemma is therefore a powerful source of tension.

A specific scene of sequence will normally have its own specific tension, but there is  also a Main Tension that lasts for the whole duration of the Second Act. The Main Tension can normally be expressed as a question. For example, in Star Wars, New Hope, Luke and Obi Wan set off at the end of the First Act to take the battle plans (in R2D2) to the rebels. During the Second Act they get deflected from his course by being caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam, rescuing Princess Leia and escaping the Death Star.  But at the beginning of the Act 2 we could have asked the question — will Luke get the Death Star plans to the rebel alliance? The question was answered at the end of Act 2 — Yes.

Act 3 has a New Tension — will the rebel alliance be able to destroy the Death Star? The question is answered at the climax of the story with Luke destroying the Death Star. It is also interesting to note, that Luke’s objective, determined at the end of Act 1, was to help Princess Leia and the Rebel Alliance, and this ultimately led to him helping them destroy the Death Star. So only one objective should drive the protagonist, but different Tensions apply for Act 2 and Act 3.

When writing it’s easy to get caught up in the flow and tension of a particular scene. However, as story writers we need to understand how these scenes and sequences work together. Understanding the Main Tension for the Second Act and New Tension for the Third Act will ensure your writing is properly focused.

To some extent there are significant differences between story telling in movies and story telling in books. They are different mediums and use different effects. For example, movies are very visual whereas a novel may tell you what the main character is thinking. But this does not mean that as authors we can’t learn something about story telling from the movie industry.

So what do you think? Do you think that these screenwriting story tools could be helpful for you as a writer, and if so, would you consider using them?