The writing process

untitled-design.pngIt is almost eight years since I started writing novels, and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. It hasn’t been easy. I had a story I wanted to write and I wanted to start writing it as soon as possible. But I soon found out that you need to make some key decisions before you even start to write about point of view, person, and tense. And you need to have an understanding of story structure. So I did what I suspect many other writers have done. I read a whole host of ‘How too…” books on the subject. Many of which were helpful, and some of which lets say were a waste of time.

Remember that stereotype writer we often see portrayed in movies. The guy (or girl) with glasses who sits in front on a typewriter and bashes so many thousand words each day. Or who, stares at a blank page, swills whisky and suffers from writer’s block. This stereotype is often reinforced by successful writers, who say to be a writer you need to write every day as though this is the only process a writer needs:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down a typewriter and bleed.” ― Hemmingway.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” ―
Stephen King
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ―
Ray Bradbury

It’s true that if you want to be a writer you need to write and you need a determination to see it through. Writing a book is like running a marathon you can’t give up when you hit the wall. You have to keep going or you’ll never reach the end. But writing is not just about bashing words into a keyboard. There’s a creative process by which a simple initial idea is grown into a complex narrative we call a story.

Unfortunately, analysing a writer’s published work does not necessarily give a great deal of insight into the process the writer used to get to that final point. We may well identify the key turning points in the story but this does not tell us how he/she found them or developed them.

To add to the confusion some writers claim to be ‘pantsers’ doing very little preparation work for their stories, while others are ‘outliners’ using detailed outlining techniques. Although I suspect most writers are engaged in some level of planning and analysis even if it is only in their heads developing the main character and his goals.

The point I would like to make is that you don’t have to write a story sequentially starting on page 1 and finishing with “the end”. It’s a daunting task to carry that level of detail in your head. Some pantsers might say they don’t have to know the story at the outset as they just follow the main character until they get to the end. Maybe that works for them, but not for me.

The approach I take is a layering approach, which starts with the basic elements of story and gradually expands to a basic draft and then grows into a final draft in an iterative process.

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

A story has to start somewhere with an initial idea. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible without making judgement. Usually the idea will come from one of the five main story elements:

  1. A character
  2. A challenge:  a problem or opportunity or unusual situation that will drive the story
  3. An antagonist
  4. A storyworld 
  5. An ending

Stage 2: Developing the story premise, the broad story line, and identifying the main characters.

A story idea can be turned into a story premise by bringing together the story elements into a single statement explaining who the story is about, what he or she wants, what stands in their way of getting it, and why the want it. In simple terms, the premise is a statement about the hero’s big story challenge.

The story line or main plot line is broadly what happens to the hero. Does he/she succeed or fail and what are the main sequences that get him/her there.

At this point we need to understand the main characters, their role in the story and their primary motivation.

Stage 3: Developing a beat sheet for the main story line

The Beat Sheet lists the main stepping-stones in the hero’s storyline. It will usually include the main turning points and key hero sequences of the story.

The main turning points would be at least:

  1. The catalyst/inciting incident – What starts off the story conflict and motivates the hero to eventually act
  2. Act One Break – The point where the hero commences his quest or challenge
  3. The Mid Point – Usually a major revelation or reversal
  4. The Act 2 Culmination – Usually the darkest hour for the hero
  5. The  Climax

And the key sequences are hero’s quest broken down into 6-8 logical stages.

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

The scene list or outline is a bullet list of scenes that can be easily identified from a the beat sheet. (It is not the final list which may be much longer). It is usually at this stage that I set up scene cards using Scrivener, breaking the list of scenes down under four headings:

  1. Act 1
  2. Act 2A
  3. Act 2B
  4. Act 3

The scenes themselves may well have one or two lines of text explanation. I may well add further notes where they occur to me. (Other writers may well want to turn this scene list into a more detailed outline with bullet points within each scene. I find it more effective to add detail at the time I am working on individual scenes rather than laying out all the scenes in detail in advance of the first Basic Draft.)

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

My first drafts are usually just the bare minimum to get the basic story down on paper. The word count will be substantially shorter than the eventual final draft 40-60%.

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

This is the stage where I organise my scenes into chapters and where I add the missing scenes to the text. These could be sub plots, the story lines of other characters (eg the antagonist), or transitions. It is also where I take a further look a dialogue and descriptions and layers of further story content. This is an iterative process that continues until I reach the final draft

Stage 7: The Final Daft

My final drafts are usually complete except for proofing. I tend to edit as I go, so the final edits other that proofing are usually limited.

Looking back at what I have described above may give the impression that my writing process is planned and logical. It never feels quite like that in practice. New ideas can enter the process at any of the stages forcing a re-think, and they often do.

So there it is — my take on the story writing process. What do you think? Maybe you have something better to offer?

The big idea, concept or premise

ideaTo be successful, any new story has to be built around an idea, or concept that makes it new and exciting. A school for wizards is an idea or concept, but it’s not a story premise. A story premise needs both a character (for example, Harry Potter) and  a central conflict or problem that drives the story along (for example, overcoming Lord Voldemort who wants to subjugate all wizards and muggles).

Often this premise can be expressed as a one sentence  log line about a type of character, the central story conflict they face, and the consequences if they fail. And Hollywood is rife with stories about movie moguls who have either accepted or rejected a movie simply on the strength of their log lines.

The log line or story premise tells us who and what the central conflict in the story is all about and why it’s important to us and the central character. And if it’s not the type of central conflict your readers care about then the story will almost certainly fail.

So how do you find these magical ideas and premises? It’s not easy. Since publishing my first three novels I’ve been working on the plans for my fourth. To date I have developed two different  outlines as potential stories, but I am having difficulty is choosing which is the better story. So when I came across Erik Bork’s The Idea I thought I would give it a whirl.

Firstly, Bork doesn’t distinguish from ideas that are just ideas and those that are story premises. To him an idea is synonymous with the story premise — it has to be about a big problem. And that problem should be big enough to take the weight of the whole story to resolve it. There are many other potential problems that writers might think of but which do not measure up to the task. The test is does it really matter to the main character and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter to the reader or audience.

Bork identifies 7 attributes of a good story ideas with the acronym PROBLEM

  1. Punishing (pushing the character to the limit. Practically every scene must be about resolving the problem)
  2. Relatable (character)
  3. Original (or at least fresh)
  4. Believable
  5. Life altering (high stakes)
  6. Entertaining (an emotional experience)
  7. Meaningful (for the reader or audience)

Bork dissects and analyses each of these attributes and provides a summary checklist for each of them that is both detailed and helpful.

There are many books out there on screenwriting and story telling that look at the importance of  a workable story premise or log line.  But what I like about Bork’s work is that he brings a more detailed perspective that is both useable and practicable in assessing the viability of a story premise.

Was the book useful in resolving my own dilema as to which story to choose? Yes, I think it was helpful to a degree. But it is important to remember a story premise is just the starting point for a story. To see if the story works you still have to flesh out some of the detail in a plan or outline, at least that’s the way I way I do it.

Save the cat writes a novel

41xpmolk3vl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_One of the first books I read on screenwriting was the late Blake Synder’s Save the Cat. I liked it so much I also bought and read Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat Strikes Back, both of which are great books on story and genre structure. I therefore wondered what more I could possibly learn that’s new from Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel. 

The answer is that it covers almost all the material from the original three books in a comprehensive manner but is clearly focused on novel writers rather than screenwriters. So if you are a novelist and you haven’t got the original three books then this is good choice. It is also well written and explained, possibly even better than the original books. For those of you that have not encountered the Blake Snyder’s beat sheet before, seeing it for the first time may come as a bit of a shock since it gives approximate timings of 15 key story beats that are evident in most great stories. These timings should not be taken too seriously as novels are much more flexible than screen plays and therefore should be regarded as a broad guide. These timings have been adjusted by Jessica Brody from screenplay timings in minutes to approximate percentages of a novel.

  1. Opening Image (0-1%)
  2. Theme stated (5%)
  3. Set-up (1-10%)
  4. Catalyst (10%)
  5. Debate (10-20%%)
  6. Break into Two (20%)——————————
  7. B story (22%)
  8. Fun & Games (20-50%)
  9. Mid Point (50%)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (50-75%)
  11. All is Lost (75%)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-80%)
  13. Break into Three (80%)————————-
  14. Finale (80-99%) (with five possible sub beats)
    1. Gathering the team
    2. Executing the plan
    3. The High Tower surprise
    4. Dig Deep Down
    5. The execution of new plan
  15. Final image (100%)

Beats 6 and 13 are hero actions that split the structure into three Acts. Act 1 roughly 20%, Act 2  60% and Act 3 20%.

The blue beats are multiple scene beats, the most important of which are Fun & Games and Bad Guys Close In, which take up most of the second Act. Fun & Games are not necessarily fun for the hero/heroine, but they cover most of the high tension action sequences that provide fun for the audience (or in this case the reader) in the first part of the second act.

At the Mid Point the hero usually experiences a false victory or false defeat, the stakes rise (new revelation, twist or ticking clock) and the A & B stories intersect.

After the Mid Point, generally it is down hill for the hero as the Bad Guys Close In, culminating in an All is Lost moment.

The Debate sequence and Dark Night of the Soul are multiple scene sequences where the hero reflects and reacts to the story Catalyst (the event that sets the main story in motion for the hero) and the All is Lost moment (the hero’s lowest point).

The red beats are what Jessica Brody refers to as ‘foundation beats’ — the important beats that hold the story structure together.  These are not necessarily unique to Blake Synder’s beat sheet as they appear in other three-act structures.  Jessica Brody suggests that when designing the story from scratch these ones are best determined first ahead of the rest.

At the heart of the Save the Cat approach is the believe that stories are about a flawed sympathetic  hero/heroine that through his/her journey goes through a transformation. Thus the Opening Image and Setup show our flawed sympathetic hero/heroine in his/her initial state.   And the final image shows how he/she has transformed. This transformation is linked to the theme of the story, often articulated by a character in beat 2 and rejected by the hero/heroine. Through the course of the story the hero transforms recognising his own weakness at the Mid Point, and later transforms during the reflective moments of Dark Night of the Soul, and the Finale. An important element of the hero/heroine’s transformation will be the influence of the B Story characters introduced at the beginning of the second act. These can be the hero’s love interest, side kick or mentor who help him to find his/her true self.

The idea that a story should be about a flawed sympathetic hero undergoing a transformation as a result of the story is not unique to the Save the Cat approach. Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler both talk about the outer and inner journey of the hero in some detail. And they are not the only ones that identify what some prefer to call character arc. Most successful stories are about heros that change. Take Star Wars, New Hope where Luke Skywalker transforms from a feeble farm boy to hero. Alternatively they can be about steadfastness of a hero under enormous pressure – Indiana Jones, for example, rarely changes. In either case there is usually an underlying theme to the story that is expressed through the character’s actions and resolve.

For those reading about the beat sheet for the first time the approach might seem somewhat formulaic. It doesn’t have to be. If you manage to have more major twists and turns than the beat sheet suggests then it shouldn’t be a problem. No one is saying that these are the only beats you need to be concerned with. The Fun & Games multiple scenes, in particular, require high tension actions sequences with twists and turns and highs and lows. Without them your story is going to be flat.  And when the Bad Guys Close In there should be plenty of opportunity to make the hero’s life pure hell. But if you are missing  any of the big foundation beats or they have turned out flat then you may find your story is in trouble.

It’s easy to try to dismiss the save the cat approach as just another formulaic plot structure and I suspect many have. But they are probably missing the point. It’s not about following a mechanical list of plot points. It’s all about weaving together the A (main story line) and B (main character arc) stories in such away as the theme emerges through the hero’s character transformation. The plot points are just the milestones along the way.

 

 

New Years resolutions for writers

Happy New YEARChristmas has come and gone and soon it will be New year. It’s a time to reflect on what we have achieved over the last year and make plans for the new year.

In 2018, I published my third novel, AndroDigm Park 2067. It’s a darker story than my previous sci-fi novels and in a slightly different crime sub-genre.  It’s set in a corrupt future world struggling to deal with new android technology. If you’ve read it, I hope you enjoyed it. If not take a look on amazon. It might just interest you.

I also started work on the story for my fourth novel. To date there has been a lot of thinking and planning about the storyline, but not a great deal of typing. Should I be worried? No. It’s how I work.

Let me explain. All writers are different. At one extreme are the plotters who develop detailed plans of their story before writing it. While at the other extreme are the ‘pantsers’ who simply get under the skin of a character and simply follow him/her wherever they go. In practice, many writers fall somewhere between these extremes with some element of story planning taking place before writing. But that might be a notebook with notes, character sketches, and a bullet point lists of  plot points, or it could be a twenty-five page outline and detailed scene list. Planning comes in all shapes and sizes.

Pantsers emphasise the need for writers to write. Here is some advice of some great writers:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
― Stephen King

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
― E.L. Doctorow

Clearly, if you are writer you have to write. If you’re going to write a novel, you need to start it and then follow though until it is finished. Unfortunately many potential writers never get beyond ‘start’. But how much of the story do you need to know before you start? E.L Doctorow’s view is that you only have to plan a short distance ahead:

“[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
― E.L. Doctorow

However, Doctorow’s analogy is not complete. If you’re driving a car at night you normally have a good idea of the your final destination and the route you’ll need to take to get there. In this case, the route is analogous to the main plot points or storyline of a novel. But the point that detailed planning only has to take into account a short distance ahead is not a bad one, provided you know the direction in which the story is going.

So how much of the storyline do you need to know before writing? John Irving offers an answer.

“Know your story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of story-teller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind — making it up as you go along, like a common liar?”
— John Irving

I couldn’t agree more with Irving. You might not know every detail of your story but you should know sufficient detail to articulate who and what your story is about, the major plot points and the ending.

Pantsers and plotters also have different views on the importance of plot.

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”
― Ray Bradbury

I happen to like Bradbury’s analysis of plot even if it is not entirely accurate. His emphasis on plot is that it is character driven and in that sense he’s absolutely right. But he overlooks that the resulting plot has a cause and effect pattern to it. Plot points are not random events, but they give meaning to the story.  The English novelist E. M. Forster explains:

‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

So how do these words of wisdom from great writers help me form my New Years Resolutions? Should I target word count, scenes, milestones or other targets?

Mmm… Maybe like previous years I’ll give New Years Resolutions a miss.

 

Reading as a writer reads

1I sometimes wonder why we get so excited about holidays.  For me holidays are not about lying in the sun or sun tans. It’s about reconnecting with family, getting away from the pressures of current day life, dining out, some healthy walking and … catching up on my reading. So on my recent holiday to the Canaries we ate well, walked miles and miles, and read a lot.
Really, I didn’t have much choice. My family banned me from reading emails, or using my phone or ipad for the duration of the holiday. Okay, I relapsed once to check flight times and download some KDP data to work on later. But generally I was tech-free for two whole weeks. How many of you can do that?
But technology isn’t the subject of this month’s blog. Instead I chose my holiday activity of reading. Stephen King once said that writers should read a lot to master their craft. As writers, we can appreciate the skills of other writers and learn from them.  I know to progress my skills I need to  read more fiction than I currently do. I  do read a lot — but it’s usually technical material. So on my holiday this autumn I picked five authors to read from my sci-fi genre. I finished three of them and enjoyed them. The other two I started but soon put them down. It wasn’t that these two were particularly badly written.  It’s just that I’m a fussy reader and it was taking too long to get into the story.
It struck me that if I am so fussy about what I read then so are many others. Obviously, to be a successful writer you need to capture the hearts and minds of your readers.  But getting this done in the first line, first paragraph, or first page or the story is hard. And if you don’t achieve it by the first ten pages you’ve probably lost the reader.
In this respect, readers are very different from the audience in a cinema. Members of the audience are unlikely to walk-out in the first ten minutes of a movie. On the other hand, a reader in a book shop, or on Amazon, may only spend a minute or two reading a short sample of the text before choosing to buy or put down the book.
Of course, I’m not the first to stress the importance of the opening scene. There are many books on writing that say the same thing. And if you are looking to sell your story to an agent or publisher the chances are they will reject a book out of hand if they are not impressed within the first few pages. Clearly, how you open a story is important and there are some techniques you can use to capture interest.
One technique writers use is called in medias res.  Here the hero/heroine is thrown into immediate danger to capture the interest of the reader. This technique is often used in action movies. For example, in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark the opening sequence in the Peruvian jungle puts Indiana into a host of death defying incidents as he first recovers and then loses the golden idol. But this technique does not necessarily always work, particularly when we don’t know the hero/heroine. Why should we feel immediate empathy for a character in potential danger when we have barely met them? Finding this empathy in the first few lines or paragraphs of a story therefore requires real writing skill and imagination.
Another technique is to raise a question in the mind of the reader about why a character is behaving in an odd way? For example, why is he standing naked on a bridge in the middle of the night? How did he get there? What is he planning to do? To find out the reader has to read on, and by the time the reader learns the answer the writer has posed another question to pique the reader’s curiosity.
A good opening line is one way of capturing the readers attention. Here are some well-known opening lines from some great writers:

 

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

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. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

All children, except one, grow up.—James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan

One of the things writers are warned against is starting with the weather. It’s not that it doesn’t create a mood; it’s just that the technique is overused and cliched. But to prove that there are no rules in writing that can’t be broken, here are some exceptions:

It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.—Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

While opening lines are important, I don’t think writers should necessarily become obsessed with them. Otherwise there is a danger of writing paralysis setting in driven by trying to meet an impossible standard of perfection. If we can’t get past the first line how are we going to finish the draft?
The time to consider the opening line and hone those critical opening paragraphs is when the first draft of the story is complete and you start the editing process; not when you’re writing the first draft. You need to get the story up and running and in the first draft and for that purpose any opening line will do. The opening can be perfected when the story is complete.

Plot patterns

KARecently I was looking through my blue-ray collection to find a movie to watch with my family. King Arthur: Legend of the sword (2017) caught my eye. The movie directed by Guy Richie, grossed $148m on a budget of $175m, which was pretty much a financial disaster for the producers, and the critics complained it ignored Arhurian legend. But I thought it was still enjoyable. I remembered a comment my son made the first time we first watched it. He said, “You know it’s just a grown-up version of the Lion King plot.”
He was right, of course. The movie, King Arthur, doesn’t follow the normal Arthurian legend. And it’s plot line is almost identical to the Lion King. The king’s brother kills the king to steal the thrown, while the prince runs away to live another day. And when the prince is found, he doesn’t want to be king. That’s pretty much the Lion King plot. Yes, there’s the bit of Arthurian trope thrown in about Excalibur, magic and mages. But strip the story down to the core and you’ll find the Lion King.
But then again the story of an uncle killing his brother to take the crown isn’t new. It’s at least as old as Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Yes, I know Hamlet had a very different ending because it was a tragedy. But the story premise that sets the story in motion is pretty much the same as the Lion King.
Should we be surprised that these story lines repeat? Probably not. Chris Booker, for example, suggests that all stories are based on just seven basic plot structures. Others have suggested a number up to 33 plots. But that is still a relatively small number of plots.
Take the plot pattern of typical romance story. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl and then finally wins her heart. It’s a simple formula. Yet the publishing industry produces millions of romance novels each year using it. The plot is the same, but to the readers the stories feel very different.
The point is readers don’t fall in love with a plot. They fall in love with characters and the emotional content of the story. Plot can provide tension and excitement and a reason to care for the plight of our characters. But plot alone is not story. Story is about emotion and what the reader or audience feels. It’s a form of chemistry between the characters and what happens to them that draws an emotional response from us.
Does that mean that plot is unimportant? No, of course not. If nothing happened to our characters, why would we feel any concern for them? We want to see them challenged. We want to see them win against the odds, achieve what they desire, or feel sorry for them if they fail or give up their goal. It’s human nature to empathise with other humans. And our characters, while fictional, are all too human.
But what about the darker stories? Do we empathise with Michael Corleone in the Godfather Part II? Was Michael Corleone evil, or was he only doing what he had to do to survive in a mafia world and protect his own family? In an amoral world were his actions at least understandable and relatable?
And what about those even darker characters from the Horror or Dark Fantasy genre. Why are we so fascinated by them? Does it arouse out curiosity or excite some deep primal need within us? Maybe these stories are a kind of escape valve that allows us to release our own darker emotions. As children we all played out stories of our favourite characters from TV, movies and books. Maybe as adults we’re not that different. We still need the same emotional release and we find it by becoming absorbed in a character of a novel or movie.
When choosing a novel to read I often read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. One of the harshest comments a writer can be given is when a reader says they couldn’t connect with the main character. They could have said ‘like’ or ’empathise’ but they use the word ‘connect’.
Connection is what a story is all about, and the craft of the writer is all about making it happen.

The Eight-Sequence Method

Plot basics PTFor those who have been following my blog you may have rightly surmised that I have a fascination with story structure and story patterns. I believe fiction writers can learn a lot from studying the story telling techniques of the movie industry where story telling has almost become a science. And while novels and movies are obviously different media, the success of both depends on discovering a good story and finding the techniques to tell it well.

In my blogs I have looked at various structural aspects of stories: the three-act structure, the sequence method, the mythic structure and some of the technical aspects of structure  such as plot points and pinch points.

Recently, I was toying with the idea of bringing together some of my many blogs on the subject into a free ebook to help new writers deal with these concepts. That is, until I discovered Paul Tomlinson’s ebook on the subject – Plot Basics,  Plot Your Novel or Screenplay in Eight Sequences. It seems to deal with all the aspects that I have covered and more. And at just £2.99 (less than $4) it’s a small price to pay from bringing together what would otherwise involve reading a small library of books on the subject.

If you have already read all the important screenwriting books by writers such as Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, John Truby, David Howard,  Paul Joseph Guilino,  Linda Seger, Chris Soth, and many others, then you won’t need this book. But if you’re looking for a quick overview about how these related concepts can work together in one  eight-sequence, three-act structure then look no further. In his Sources and Bibliography Tomlinson identifies some 45 sources that are quoted in the text and another 52 sources that he has used to broaden his understanding.

So what is the Eight-Sequence Structure? Most writers know a story has a beginning, middle and end. That is broadly a three-step or three-Act structure.  Syd Field explained the narrative structure of each act as: setup, confrontation, and resolution. However, this still leaves a lot to understand about what goes into each Act. The Eight-Sequence Method breaks down the story pattern into eight segments: two in the first act, four in the second act and two in the third act. Tomlinson describes them as follows:

Act 1 (Setting up and setting in motion)

Sequence 1: Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge

Sequence 2: Responding to the challenge

Act 2 (the middle)

Sequence 3: Responding to the ‘Strange New World’

Sequence 4: First Attempt, First Failure & Consequences

The Midpoint

Sequence 5: Reacting to the Midpoint & Raising the Stakes

Sequence 6: The Second Attempt, The Fall, & The Crisis

Act 3 (The end – Climax & resolution)

Sequence 7: The Climax

Sequence 8: Resolution and Denouement

Different writers have used different labels to describe the eight sequences but the their purpose is very much the same. In my recent blog on  Story Structure I described the  Sequence Structure I like to use for my own planning purposes. It’s very similar to that proposed by Tomlinson (which might explain why I like it). But the terminology is also similar to that used by a number of writers including  Chris Soth’s Mini-Movie Method and Mary Lyn Mercer’s Story Bones. There must be something about the eight sequences that follows the organic pattern of a story.

Tomlinson suggests that it might have something to do with the rule of three. The first serious attempt to solve the story problem is in sequence 4, which ends in failure. The second attempt  is sequence 6 and ends in an even worse crisis. And finally Sequence 7 leads to the final climax of the story. He may have a point. In comparison, sequences 2, 3 and 5 are all reactive sequences following key turning points: the catalyst/inciting incident (what Tomlinson calls the ‘challenge’), plot point 1 (or Act 1 break) and the Mid Point.

What I like about Tomlinson’s book is that he gives a lot of guidance as to what kind of things occur in each sequence. He’s not the first to do this, but the lists and explanations are comprehensive and helpful and draw from a wide range of guidance. My only gripe about the book is that I wish it had been published seven years ago. It would have provided an easier starting point for me and a more than adequate reading list of publications for further research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plot points and pinch points

If you are a writer, there’s a lot you can learn from the techniques used by scriptwriters in story design. The media are different; but they are both about storytelling. In previous blogs I have discussed the three-act structure, sequences, and the mythic structure. All these approaches use plot points in one way or another. In this blog I want to look again at what plot points are and why they are important to story design.

So what is a plot point?

Syd Field was one of the first to emphasise the importance of the three-act structure in screenplay design.  He defined a plot point as:

“any incident, episode or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction.”

He also explained a Plot Point can be anything you want it to be. It is a “story progression point”. It can be an action, a line of dialogue, a short scene, an action sequence, or dramatic sequence.

So why are they so important?

Syd Field placed particular emphasis on what he described as Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2, which occur and the end of Act 1 and Act 2. These two plot points break a screenplay into three separate acts with three very different narrative effects. A two-hour movie will normally require a screenplay of about 120 pages (one page per minute). Novels are longer but the proportions between the Acts are broadly the same.

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Act One  is all about setting up the story: introducing the main character, establishing the dramatic premise (what the story is about), creating the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action) and the relationships between the characters. Act Two is all about confrontation (the hero wants something desperately and he is frustrated by the antagonist forces that oppose him/her). And Act Three is all about story resolution. But the plot points are more than just Act separators, they are major dramatic moments in the story where everything changes.

Plot point 1 is perhaps the most important plot point of all. It’s the event that forces the hero to take up his quest and starts the story rolling. In Star War’s a New Hope,  it’s the moment when Luke discovers his uncle and aunt have been murdered by the stormtroopers and their farm torched.  He says to Obi Wan, “There’s nothing for me here now.” He has made his decision to go with Obi-Wan and take the Death Star plans to Alderaan.  And so starts his quest. In Thelma & Louise it’s sequence where a brief stop at a bar turns into an attempted rape and murder setting the women to go on the run. As can be seen from these examples, it’s a decisive moment that forces the hero to take up the quest. This plot point has a number of different names: Crossing the threshold, Lock-In, First Door, Point of No return, Stunning Surprise. All these describe aspects of the effect of this event on the hero.

Plot Point 2 at the end of Act 2 is the incident episode or event that hooks into the action and leads the action in Act 3, the resolution. In Star Wars a New Hope, it’s when Luke, Leia and Hans witnesses the death of Obi-Wan at the hands of Darth Vader as they escape from the Death Star. After which Act three is all about the rebel fight back and attack on the Death Star. Plot Point 2 is often a low point for the hero: a defeat from which he has to find the courage to rise again for Act 3. Plot Point 2 is sometimes called the Act Two Culmination, Major Set-Back, Second Door, or Second Stunning Surprise.

According to Syd Field, the Mid Point of any movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’. It is often the culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or reversal that forces the hero to look at himself. It is a point where the stakes rise and the hero resolves to see the quest through. It also neatly splits the long Act two into two usually separate sub-dramatic themes. For example, in Star Wars a New Hope, the startling new revelation is that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in the grip of tractor beam from the Death Star. The first half of Act 2 is all about Luke and Obi-Wan finding a ship and taking the droids to Alderaan. The second half of Act 2 is all about rescuing Princess Leia and escaping from the Death Star. The Mid Point is certainly an important point. It is so important that James Scott Bell wrote a whole book about it.  Bell believes it is a single moment of truth for the hero when he finally understands what he/she is up against and where his/her attitude and resolve stiffens. Others believe the Mid Point is a sequence rather than a single event or reversal. It certainly can be spectacular – Titanic hits the iceberg. But it is also has an internal emotional dimension – when and Rose chooses her future is with Jack over her fiance.

So are these the only plot points?

No. While Syd Field believed Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 were the most important plot points to hold the context of the story together they were by not means the only ones.

It should be noted here that there can be many Plot Points in your screenplay but at this stage in the writing process, the preparation, we are focusing on Plot Points I and II; they are the anchor points that hold elements of your story in place.

So what are the others? It will of course depend on the story but any any incident, episode or event that is a key component in the chain of events that make up the plot is essentially a plot point. So there could be many. However the major ones are likely to include at least the following:

  1. The opening scene.
  2. A hook scene or sequence designed to capture the curiosity of the reader/audience to read on.
  3. The Catalyst / Inciting incident
  4. Sequence climaxes (each main sequence may have its own climax)
  5. Pinch points
  6. Third Act Twist (if any)
  7. Third Act Climax
  8. Final scene

Most of these are obvious, but the Catalyst and Pinch Points require some further explanation.

The Catalyst is the first time the Hero is confronted with the problem or opportunity that will become the central focus of the story. It is called a variety of different things: the catalyst, the inciting incident, the opportunity, the call to adventure. It usually arises in the middle of the first act, but may occur earlier, in which case it also serves as a hook to pique the audience’s interest. Or it may occur later, at the same time as the First Plot Point. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen finds her sister’s name is drawn for the hunger games and she immediately volunteers to take her place. In Star Wars it is when Luke receives the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan…”, but Luke chooses not to act until  later when he discovers his murdered  uncle and aunt (Plot Point 1).

Pinch points also require some explanation. Unfortunately in screenwriting the term is used in two different ways to mean different things about things occurring at broadly the same time in the script. This is confusing.

Syd Field used the term to describe two key sequences in the first half and second half of Act Two that holds the sub-dramatic context of each half in place. To take the Star Wars as the example, the sub-dramatic context of the first half of Act Two is about Obi-Wan and Luke finding a ship and travelling to Alderaan with the droids. The second half is about rescuing Princess Leia and escaping from the Death Star. Thus if you could write one sequence about page 45 and another about page 75 that reflects these contexts it would hold (pinch) the script  together. Syd Field’s approach is therefore about the practical aspects of writing a long Second Act. So if you know Plot Point 1, the first pinch, the mid-point, second pinch and plot point 2, all you need to do is fill in the gaps. It is a writing technique that gives you a series of stepping-stones through Act 2. Perhaps a better term for this would be an anchor sequence.

The other meaning and more common meaning of pinch points is a cutaway scene that reminds the audience/reader of the power of the antagonist.

Larry Brooks defines them as follows:

An example, or reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonist force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience.

An example of a pinch point from Star Wars A New Hope is when Grand Off Tarkin and Darth Vader use the Death Star to blow up Alderaan while forcing Princess Leia to watch.  The scene of course could be cut without affecting the story line at all. Luke and Obi-Wan would still have found Alderaan destroyed. But from an emotive point of view it shows the audience just how nasty the antagonists are.  Oddly enough these short cutaway scenes tend to arise at the same timing point as Syd Field’s pinch points.

Not all screenwriting gurus use the same terms. As we have seen in this blog there are many different names for the different plot points. Some use other terms for plot points: Milestones, Story Beats, Steps. But basically they are the same things. For example, Larry Brooks uses the term milestones and explains them as follows:

Milestone scenes are critical, not only because they are the tent poles that support the weight of your story; they are also the lynchpins for most of the other scenes in your novel or screenplay. Without them you have no plot.

I couldn’t agree more. Whatever type of writer you are, having an idea of the key milestones or plot points of your story before you write the story is a critical element of story design. If you don’t know the main plot points, you don’t know your story. Some writers, of course, will say they write in order to discover their story and some such writers may be blessed with the talent to do that successfully. For the rest of us though finding our story is difficult enough without some element of planning. Understanding the main plot points is part of that process.

Story structure

Recently I started to map out the key scenes for my next novel using a three-act framework. I used a software program that’s designed for screenwriters called Control Writer. It uses a horizontal map of the key elements of a three-act structure to put scene cards under each caption in a natural time order pattern as follows:

  1. Opening scene
  2. Setup
  3. Inciting incident
  4. Movement to resolution
  5. Plot Point One
  6. Act 2: tier 1
  7. Midpoint
  8. Act 2: tier 2
  9. Plot Point 2
  10. Climax
  11. Resolution
  12. End Scene.

The software is flexible and can be adapted easily to accommodate an eight sequence approach by introducing new captions at 6A and 8A for two additional sequences in the Second Act.  Or you can adapt it to any framework you like using your own captions. Anyone of course can do the same thing manually using cards and cork board, or by using the same captions in Scrivener’s cork board, which is my next step in my story development. But before I get there I want to experiment and play with the story structure until I know it works, and for me this is the quickest way.

The point I am making is not that a writer needs to clever software to design a story. The same thing can be done with cards on a table, floor or cork board. The important thing is to see the story pattern visually and think non-sequentially.  If you have a great idea for the mid-point write the card and place it under the mid-point. If you have alternative ideas for an ending place the cards under Climax. You can choose which one later when you have more of the story filled in.

But I’m a pantser I hear you scream–planning is a left-brain activity, and creative writing is a right-brain activity. What happened to listening to the character and where they want to go? Didn’t Ray Bradbury say a writer should follow along behind the main character and see where he/she takes them?

Many great writers like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King are natural story tellers and don’t use outlines. But that doesn’t necessary mean they don’t work on the story, prepare notes, or have a good idea where they are heading before they start writing. If you’re happy pantsing and your stories work, then fine. All writers should use the tools that work for them. But if you’re not finishing your stories, or are unhappy with them, you might like to try this type of visual planning. You might be surprised by how it spurs your imagination on.

But knowing there is a three-act structure with two main turning points at the end of Acts one and two and a mid-point doesn’t help you write a story?

True. But all stories have a natural pattern: a catalyst leads to a quest, which leads to complications, a series of crises, a climax, and denouement. The three-act structure sets out the main tent poles for this pattern and if you incorporate the eight sequences, the pattern comes to life. The sequence structure I use for my genre is as follows:

sequence structure

Still not convinced? Maybe you write a different genre and this structure is too much like an action-based story. Then adapt it to the eight or so sequences that reflect the natural phases of your story. All stories follow a natural pattern irrespective of genre: catalyst, complications, crisis, climax, and denouement. Great writers find it ingrained in their DNA. The rest of us need to work at it.

Do you still need to write an outline? That’s up to you. A series of scene cards with one or two sentences on maybe enough of an outline for some. For others they may well wish to flush out more detail synopsis either before they start writing or before writing each scene. I find that there is a certain amount of work on plot and character that has to be done before the story finally  forms in your head.  But the only rule you need to follow is that there are no rules. It’s up to you, the writer, to determine what works for you. After completing three novels I’m just beginning to find out what best works for me.

So what works best for you? Let me know what you think.

 

 

Hero Goal Sequences

51e-zsKjp+LSince I started writing fiction in 2011, I have always been fascinated with the subject of story structure. I have read most of  the key texts written by the screenwriting masters like Syd Field, John Truby, Michael Hauge, Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler, and some of Frank Daniel’s followers,  as well as many more less known writers. It seemed that these screenwriting gurus  had a good grasp of story that any budding fiction writer could learn from.

In my Blogs, I have covered many of their core ideas: the three act structure and its many variants, the sequence method and its variants and the mythical hero’s journey. It seemed to me that story narrative can be broken down into distinct scene, sequence and act components, and that while some of these gurus choose to label their components and turning points differently, their ideas have more in common with each other than they might choose to admit. So when I came across an article written by Eric Edson that asserted all successful movies have between 20 to 23 distinct sections called ‘hero goal sequences‘ I was somewhat sceptical. But as I am a fan of the sequence approach, it piqued my interest enough to purchase his book. I am pleased I did, but after two readings I am still think some of his claims are hyperbole. But it is an excellent book nonetheless.

Firstly, the book is not just about these hero goal sequences. The first 150 pages are about the basics of storytelling: the foundations, creating characters, and building story structure and character growth. Nothing new here — the structure section follows a classic three-act structure. However, Edson is a masterful teacher in the way he explains things in a simple way. You can glimpse his teaching technique and an insight into his approach by visiting his Chanel on YouTube: ‘The Story Solution’.

So what are hero goal sequences and how are they different from Frank Daniel’s sequences?

A Hero Goal Sequence consists of three to seven pages of screenplay — usually two to four scenes — wherein the Hero pursues one short-term physical goal as a step towards achieving ultimate victory in the story. Then the Hero discovers some form of new information I call Fresh News that brings the current goal to an end and presents a new short-term physical goal — thereby launching the next Hero Goal Sequence.

Edson asserts that for any successful movie the number of Goal sequences in Act One and Act Two remain constant. Act One always consists of six Hero Goal Sequences with a Stunning Surprise (his term for Turning Point One) in goal sequence six. The first half of Act Two contains another six goal sequences and the Midpoint scene always unfolds in Goal Sequence twelve. The second half of Act Two contains another six goal sequences with Stunning surprise 2 (Turning Point Two) arriving in goal sequence 18. Act Three typically contains three goal sequences, but never less than two or more than five. So under Edson’s approach there will be 21-23 sequences split by act 6-12-3/5.

What about scenes or sequences in which the hero is not present – should they be counted in the 21-23 sequences?  Answer – no, they are ignored by Edson. Although they may cut into the time allotted to the hero sequences.

The sequence approach as developed by FranK Daniels is quite different. It is described in David Howard’s book “The Tools for screen writing”  as:

…a self-contained portion of the overall story with its own tension, its own beginning, middle and end.

These are essentially stories within stories. Under Frank Daniel’s methodology a lot of focus is placed on ‘tension’ – the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will achieve his goal.  The sequence ends when the tension of the sequence ends, even though the same event might lead to a new tension in a new sequence. For example, our hero maybe be searching for a map for the holy grail. The sequence ends when he finds it. But a new sequence and tension begins over whether the hero will find his way to the grail.

Although the definitions look similar the application seems very different. Frank Daniel’s approach normally leads to screen plays with 7-8 sequences for most movies with possibly 12 sequences in a very long movie such a Lawrence of Arabia. Edson’s approach breaks the units down into much smaller units  with 21-23 sequences.

So how does it work? Edson gives a detailed breakdown of Back to the Future. Taking the first Act he lists first six sequences:

  1. Marty practices guitar at Doc’s place. Goal– practice guitar. Fresh News – He’s late for school.
  2. At school Marty and his band are berated by Principal Strickland as being too loud. Goal – get to school and audition. Fresh News – They’re too loud.
  3. Marty needs the family car but it’s smashed and he watches helplessly as Biff belittles his father. Goal – take Jennifer to Lake. Fresh news – Doc asks for help with his experiment.
  4. Doc sends his dog, Einstein, back one minute in time in the DeLorean car. Goal – videotape the experiment with Einstein. Fresh News – time machine works.
  5. Marty now ready to  videotape Doc doing the same but interrupted by terrorists. Goal – videotape Doc. Fresh News – Terrorist turn up to kill them.
  6. Doc gets shot and Marty escapes in the car. Goal – escape. Fresh news – He’s looking at an empty field where his house should be.

Edson’s explanation seems to work, but it is a bit contrived. The goals he identifies are not really ‘steps towards achieving ultimate victory since until the end of the first Act Marty doesn’t even know that his ultimate goal will be to get back to the future. In my view,  the first three of Edson’s sequences  are just a collection of scenes that give a glimpse of Marty’s normal daily life and in some cases are setting up payoffs for later in the movie (for example when Marty later discovers rock and roll).  This initial sequence is what other gurus have described as the setup sequence.  Similarly, Edson’s sequences 4-6 are really just one continuous action sequence leading to the first  turning point (act one beak). So in my view there are only two sequences in Act One – not six.

Does it matter what we describe a unit of narrative as a sequence or scene or some other element? Probably not. It’s up to the writer to use what techniques they find most helpful and I can see real benefits in determining what the hero’s goal is in any situation whether it be a scene, a sequence, or the story as a whole. One famous writer once said the main character should always have a goal in every scene even if it’s just to drink a glass of water. Without a goal there is nothing to move a story forward.

So what do you find is the most helpful methodology for visualising the structure of your story?