Connecting your story’s hero/heroine

acHave you ever read a story or watched a movie that brought a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes? Yes, of course you have. Good stories create an emotional experience for their readers or audience. It’s the reason why we like them so much. But how do their writers do it? It’s all about connecting the hero/heroine to the reader or audience so that they are invested in the outcome of the story, hoping for their hero/heroine’s success and fearing for their failure.

The protagonist (or main character) doesn’t have to be heroic, but they often are. One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is of ‘a person admired or idealised for courage and outstanding achievements or noble qualities’. They don’t have to be perfect — far from it.  Many of them must overcome their initial shortcomings to reach their story objective. But in the process, they must display courage, tenacity and resourcefulness to endear them to the reader.

The late Blake Snyder likened a movie to going on a journey with a person (the protagonist) where the single most important element in drawing us into the story was liking the person we were going on the journey with. He even named his book on screenwriting “Save the cat” after the scene in which we meet the hero and he/she does something to make us like him/her.  Snyder gives the example of Lara Croft 2 as a movie that tanked because the audience failed to connect with the Lara Croft character. He described her as cold and humorless.

Snyder was right. Take a story that did well both as a book and a movie — The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is selfless, courageous and an underdog who volunteers to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games and face almost certain death. It’s hard not to empathise with the character, and punch the air when she wins against the odds. Take another great movie – Die Hard. A New York cop trying to patch his marriage up taking on a group of ruthless terrorists. Again it’s hard not to empathise with John McClain.

But does it always work out that way? I’m not sure it necessarily applies to some movies in the horror genre, where one-by-one the cast is killed by some unthinkable monster. Snyder describes this genre of movies as Monster in the House Movies. He describes them as having three components: an evil monster, a house (an enclosed space), and a sin where someone is guilty of bringing the monster into the house.

One of my favourite movies in this genre is Alien. Clearly, in this movie there was a kick-ass protagonist we could connect with — Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who emerged as the leader after the captain was killed by the alien. She was strong and resourceful:

  • She refuses to let the infected Kane onboard the ship, but is over-ruled by Ash.
  • She deciphers the signal determining it was a warning, not a distress signal.
  • Ripley confronts Ash (the android) and overcomes him with the help of Parker.
  • She initiates the self destruct sequence on the ship
  • She saves the ship’s cat – Jones (Blake Snyder would be proud!).
  • She finally overcomes the Alien by opening the airlock in the shuttle, shoots it with a grappling hook and fires the engines to blast the alien into space

Like so many Sci-fi fans, I loved the original movie and it’s sequel, Aliens. But after the success of the first two movies, the Alien franchise seemed to lose direction. Recently, I watched the Alien Covenant movie. I was particularly looking forward to it because it was directed by Ridley Scott, the same director as the original iconic Alien movie.

So did Alien Covenant connect with a protagonist  and capture the essence of the original movie? The critics liked it;  the fan-base was split. In my view, the problem was the audience didn’t connect with the protagonist in the same way as the original and the plot was dependent on the unbelievable stupid behaviour of the Covenant’s crew.

In Alien Covenant,  the protagonist that emerges in the later stages of the movie is Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston), the widow of the ship’s captain. But for most of the movie her role is overshadowed by Oran, the acting captain, until he is tricked by the David the mad android into believing looking into an alien egg was safe. (Why the captain should believe the android after witnessing his crew members death by an alien and the android’s reaction to the killer is totally unfathomable as are a number of his decisions.)

Comparison is sometime made between Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston) and Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in Alien. Both take over when the captain is killed. But Ripley in the original Alien film was a much stronger and resourceful heroine throughout the movie. Watching Covenant for the second time it’s easier to see that the character of Daniels was developing throughout the movie, but not to the same degree as Ripley. Maybe this was intentional given the twist and negative ending to the movie. But the problem of not identifying  a strong protagonist early in the movie, means the audience is confused about which character to root for.

As a cinematic experience there is no doubt that Alien Covenant was well-directed and executed, and some of the CGI was simply amazing. But the whole plot relied on the crew of the Covenant making one unbelievable stupid mistake after another to play into the hands of David, the delusional android, who was driven insane by resentment for his mortal creator and a Norman-Bates-type obsession for the dead Elizabeth Shaw.

By all accounts, Alien Covenant was a box office success, and was probably never expected to out-shine the original Alien movie that started the franchise. And maybe that’s all that  matters to Hollywood. I’m sure it won’t stop the fan-base waiting patiently for the next Alien movie to be released.

The importance of the B Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story structure and story beats

In some of my previous blogs I’ve talked about the importance of story structure. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me since I first started writing fiction. Some great writers ridicule the idea of an underlying story structure as being too formulaic. They say it’s based too much on the ‘hero’s mythical journey’ or it’s not appropriate for their genre. Yet when we look at their work we see the familiar patterns of story structure are there. For them story structure is instinctive and organic. Obviously, for lesser mortals, following a pre-set story structure will not guarantee the success of a story. But a story without any of the normal structure elements will almost always certainly fail.

At school we learnt to write essays and other narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. However, when writing a 70,000-90,000 word novel, it doesn’t really help to know that we should have a beginning, middle and an end. We need a more detailed breakdown of the underlying story pattern. And to get to this breakdown we need to understand the elements that are common to all stories. In their simplest form, stories are about people and how they react and adapt to a life changing event(s) in their life. The plot is the series of events, actions and revelations that occur in the story; but the real emotional content of the story is how those events, actions and revelations affect the main characters and those about them.

Much of the detailed analysis of stories has been directed at screen writing and the movie industry, but is equally important to all forms of storytelling, including novels. Syd Field, for example, took the classical three-act structure to emphasise the importance of the main turning points that naturally occur at the end of Act 1 and Act 2; and he discovered that something important always seems to occur at the mid point of Act 2. But as Blake Synder later commented in ‘Save the cat goes to the movies’, knowing the need for these turning points  still left a ‘lot of empty space in between’ when writing his scripts. Snyder therefore came up with a more detailed fifteen-point ‘beat sheet’, which he then illustrated by applying it to a number of popular films in each of ten of the most common movie genres.

Blake Snyder is not the only movie guru to look at story structure this way. Each guru seems to have a slightly different way to look at structure, although their differences seem less important than their similarities. For example, John Truby in the ‘Anatomy of Story’ talks about twenty-two step story structure, although not all the steps are considered necessary. Truby emphasises that the steps will not tell you what to write in the way formulas or genres do, but they show the most dramatic way to tell your story. Truby tends to focus on the main character’s development during the course of the story; including the psychological needs and desires of the main character at the start of the story, and how these change with revelations that occur at the turning points of the story.

In the structure below, I have taken the Snyder beat sheet, added some of the flavour of John Truby’s steps, and fused it into my own simplified analysis of the three-act structure. It’s not significantly different from Snyder’s, except I have reduced the number of captions to 11 by combining some. The reason that I do this is more for practical reasons than anything else. I am experimenting with some screenwriting plot software at the moment that will organise my scene cards under these 11 basic plot captions. For reference, I’ve numbered the original 15 Snyder beats so you can still see which ones I’ve combined. The text in italics is there for further explanation.

ACT 1

Opening scene (1)

* Should hook the reader's interest from the outset.

Setup (3)

* Introduce main character in his/her normal story world.
* Reveal main character's weakness/ghost and personal desires.
* Foreshadow.
* Hint at theme of the story (2).

Catalyst (4)/ Inciting event

* Opportunity/problem arises that changes everything for the main character.
* Sets in motion the chain of action and reaction that becomes the story.
* Provides the main character with his principal goal and motivation.

Initial response

* Debate (5). 
* Main character tries to avoid dealing with problem.
* May seek help from ally/fake ally.

Plot Point 1 (6)

* First revelation and decision to act. No going back.
* Thrust into a new world.
* First clash with the primary obstacle in the story.

ACT 2

Act 2 part A

* Sequences of obstacles and challenges for main character. 
* Some 'fun and games' as main characters encounters some success (8).
* Introduce B story (often the love story) (7).

Midpoint  (9)

* May or may not have overcome the primary obstacle.
* But an even larger problem looms, and/or stakes rise.
* Main character's desire/commitment increases.

Act 2 part B

* Sub plots (related to theme of story).
* Bad guys close in (10). Opponents plan finally revealed.
* All is lost (11). Possible betrayal.
* Darkest hour (12)

Plot point 2 (13)

* Epiphany moment. Finally the main character knows what to do.
* Main character now has obsessive desire to see it through.

ACT 3

Climax

* The  finale (14) or final battle

Resolution

* Main character has changed. 
* The world is back to normal

End scene (15)

I’ve said structure is important. It is. But it’s also a very basic required writing skill, like grammar. It won’t write your story for you. Many good writers may have a natural instinct for organic structure without consciously thinking about it. But if you’re like me, and still learning the craft, thinking about structure, both at the planning phase and completion phase of a project, provides an opportunity to step back and look at your story from a high level viewpoint. If a story doesn’t make sense at this level, then it probably doesn’t make any sense at all.

So what is your view of story structure? Do you think it is something intuitive and natural that you feel you don’t need to think consciously about? Or do you think the idea of a beat structure is helpful?

What is a ‘story’ anyway?

Recently I was thinking about the essence of what a story was about, and what made the story good or bad from the reader’s perspective. My starting point was various dictionary definitions of story. The best I could find was ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment’. Well it’s a starting point, but it doesn’t really explain the essence of story.

Another description I found was ‘a sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagined them to have taken place, in the order which they would have occurred in life’. This is distinguished from ‘plot’, which is concerned with how events are related, how they are structured, and how they are designed to enact change in the main character. There may be just one story, but many different ways of telling it. For example, consider the story of an Robin Hood, an outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. It would read quite differently if written from the perspective of the law enforcer (the Sheriff of Nottingham) rather than the outlaw (Robin Hood).

Delving a little deeper into the realms of structural analysis of English literature I found that that stories are part of the wider structural classification of ‘narrative’. Narrative can be analysed into what is told, namely the ‘story’ (events/actions and characters and setting); and how it is told namely ‘discourse’, which includes ‘plot’, ‘narrative voice’ (who speaks), ‘focalisation’ (who sees), ‘narrative mode’ and ‘style’ etc.

Looking at story this way, without considering how the story is told, leaves the definition of story as a cold and lifeless object: a sequence of events without causal relationships. Unless you’re and English graduate that wants to dissect English literature in this way, it’s not a very helpful definition of story. More importantly, it misses the magic or chemistry that brings so many good stories to life.

Some in the film world take a different view of ‘story’. Martin Scorsese defines ‘plot’ as the bare bones of what happens in a movie – the outline; while story includes lots of things: characters, cinematography choices and all the emotional content portrayed by the actors. Others have used the term ‘plot’ to describe the physical events of a film and the term ‘story’ to describe the emotional journey the hero/heroine makes during the course of the film. This seems a more about character arc of the main character –  important, but not story.

Yet again some confuse the meaning of ‘story’ with ‘theme’. For example, would you describe the film Rocky as a man’s journey to find self-respect, or is it a movie about boxer’s opportunity to box for the world championship? Was Schindler’s List a film about one man’s effort to make a difference, or a film about rescuing people from the threat of Nazi concentration camp? Don’t get me wrong. Theme is very important; it’s the subtext of what a story is about. But it’s not in my view ‘story’.

The more I looked, the more I realised that the term ‘story’ means different things to different people. For the purpose of this blog I would like to put forward the notion that story is what the reader or audience experiences from reading a novel or watching a movie. It’s the whole experience in its entirety. It is only after reading the story, or watching a movie that the reader or audience can relate what the story means to them. By focusing on the reader’s/audience’s reaction it’s easier to determine what makes a good story.

Why do some readers like certain stories and not others? We all have preferences for genre and story type. I don’t particularly like horror stories (sorry Stephen King); but that’s me. But even within genre, to be successful a story has to be interesting, different and capture the imagination of the reader. This is the most difficult challenge for any writer. In ‘Save the Cat’, Blake Snyder analyses movies into ten genres or story types which he claims covers almost every movie ever made. The trick is to make the story look different. He quoted a studio executive, during a development meeting saying, “Give me the same thing… only different.” Finding the difference is the challenge.

Most good stories are about a character (the hero or heroine) that the reader can empathise with, facing a crisis, problem or opportunity that disrupts their life, and which leads to relentless escalation of tension until it reaches a satisfactory climatic ending and resolution. Sounds simple, but of course it’s not.

At the heart of all good stories is conflict between the hero’s/heroine’s goal (what he wants, or wants to avoid as a result of the problem or opportunity they face) and the obstacles in his/her way. This raises the story question: will he/she succeed, fail, or abandon his/her goal. And what will be the consequences?

In his book, Story Physics, Larry Brooks, says the impending collision of the hero’s goal and those obstacles is what creates dramatic tension. In Brooks’ view, without conflict there is no story.

One of the great masters of dramatic tension was Alfred Hitchcock. One of the tricks he used was to let the audience know, or hint that something was about to happen, which the characters themselves did not know about. Do you remember the shower scene from ‘Psycho’? You knew something was going to happen before it happened, but it still makes you want to jump out of your chair. Another device that the movie makers use to build dramatic tension is a ticking time clock. Something dreadful is going to happen if the hero/heroine doesn’t get there in time. Remember those old black and white movies with the damsel tied to the rails and the train coming along. Well, perhaps you’re too young for that. Dramatic tension is an important quality that makes the reader want to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s a page-turner.

Another example of good dramatic tension is in the Hunger Games. After volunteering to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games, Katniss is perpetually in fear that at some stage she will lose her life in the games. Only one contestant can survive. In one scene she is trapped up a tree with her would be killers on the ground below her with their spears and bow and arrows. What is she to do? If you’ve read the book you’ll know the answer. If you haven’t I won’t spoil it for you. Dramatic tension.

The other factor that makes a story enjoyable from the reader’s perspective is hero empathy. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero then he/she is unlikely to want to read on. Generating reader empathy is all about the writer’s characterisation skills. Brooks’ suggests that the most compelling way to suck the reader into the story and root for the hero is to show how he/she feels about and responds to the challenges you’ve set for them as those events happen by wring from the hero’s point of view. Thus we can see into the hero’s head and see what he is thinking and feeling at the time.

Another reason why the reader may find a story enjoyable is what Brooks describes as vicarious experience: taking the reader to a place, time or situation that they couldn’t otherwise experience in real life, that’s inherently exciting, dangerous, titillating, forbidden or impossible. Why else would vampire romance and historical romance novels be so popular, not to mention science fiction and fantasy?

Dramatic tension, hero empathy and vicarious experience are three of the six realms of story physics that Brooks identifies in his book. You might be wondering about the other three. The first is a compelling narrative premise, question or promise at the heart of the story. That is a big subject in its own right and best left to a later blog. The other two are: exposition/pacing, and narrative strategy, which are more to do with the way the story is told.

In conclusion, the term ‘story’ might mean different things to different people. But if we look at story as the experience of the reader or audience from reading a novel or watching a movie, it is possible to identify those aspects of story that make it more enjoyable to the reader. In this respect dramatic tension from potential conflict, hero empathy and vicarious experience are all important factors for a writer to consider.

How many types of plots are there?

tableAccording to Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ most stories can be categories under one of seven basic structures. For example, Jaws, Alien and Beowulf would all  fall under the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ category. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ fall under the ‘Quest’ category.

Booker is not the only one to look at story structure. Ronald Tobias analyses stories by using twenty Master Plots. Some of these overlap with the seven basic plots. In the diagram I have tried to align them under the different categories although they do not necessarily easily fit. For example, Tobias examples of ‘Pursuit’ include ‘Jaws’, ‘Alien’, (which is close to the ‘Monster in the House’ category)  but also ‘Narrow Margin’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Tobias is more detailed than Booker and looks more to the motivational aspects of the story.

Blake Snyder in ‘Save the Cat’ also categorises movies according to ten different types.  His ‘Golden Fleece’ category includes ‘Star Wars’, ‘Back to the Future’ and most heist movies. The ‘Dude with a problem’ category includes ordinary people with a problem: ‘Die Hard’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Schinder’s List’. The ‘Superhero’ category includes exceptional people with a problem: ‘Gladiator’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Superman’ etc. ‘Buddy Love’ includes ‘Rain Man’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ as well as every love story ever made. ‘Institutionalised’ is about groups: ‘MASH’, ‘The Godfather’. The ‘Fool Triumphant’ includes ‘Dave’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘The Pink Panther’. Whydunnit’  includes ‘China Syndrome’, ‘All the President’s Men’ to every detective story ever told. ‘Out of the bottle’ includes ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘Freaky Friday’, and ‘The Love Bug’.

Of the three authors classification systems I tend to prefer Blake Snyder’s approach. It’s less detailed than the twenty plots of Ronald Tobias, but is in my view more intuitive. The only aspect that does not seem to fit easily into the structure are tragedies. But then again tragedies are not particularly popular at the box office.

Why is story structure important? If we can understand why certain story structures work and others don’t we can analyse our own work to see if they contain the same pattern (or beats). The trick is to use the same winning pattern, but to be somehow different.

Making the main character likeable

All great books and movies seem to have a great lead character that the reader or audience can identify with and root for. How do authors and screenwriters do it? Think about the books and movies you love. What aspects of the lead character’s character did you like, and what attracted you to them? Were they:

• Courageous / heroic
• Feisty/adventurous/ambitious
• Steadfast/resolute/tenacious
• Unpretentious/modest
• Selfless/Caring
• Humorous

Probably not all these at once; or at least not when you first met them at the start of the story. No one is perfect, and perfect lead characters are, well, frankly boring. Usually at the start of a good story the character has some flaw that they will need to overcome to fulfil themselves, and reach the story goal. The hero might be reckless, or arrogant, or juvenile; the heroine might be self-centred, weak or easily led. They need to learn what’s important during the course of the story. This is character arc: the change a character goes through in the course of the story. Think of Hans Solo the arrogant space pirate that only thinks of himself. Except of course at the end where he comes to the aid of Luke Skywalker. Think of Luke Skywalker and his development from a farm boy to Jedi knight.

In some cases, we may only see the lead character’s true self when he/she is finally put to the test during the later stages of the story. There may well be glimpses of the true character during the course of the story; but it is only in the final test do we discover who they really are.

Not all main characters necessarily change. James Bond, John McClane, Jack Reacher, Harry Potter, Robert Langdon are all pretty much the same character from story to story. Serial stories may therefore be the exception as the story has to continue beyond the current storyline.

In other cases, it might not be the lead character that changes; but someone else close to the character. In “Back to the Future” (one of my all-time favourite movies), it is Marty’s father that changes. There are therefore no rules about character arc.

In my previous blog, I wrote about how character and plot are interwoven. Character is revealed by the actions the lead character makes. Blake Snyder, in ‘Save the Cat’, talks about the importance of the ‘save the cat’ scene. He says it’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the hero does something small – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes the audience like him. Snyder says this scene is less common in movies these days. He quotes the example of Lara Croft 2, which in spite of a big budget didn’t resonate at the box office. His explanation was that the Lara Croft character, although ‘cool’, was ‘cold and humourless’. What she needed to do was something kind – a ‘save the cat’ scene.

Perhaps a good example of actually ‘saving the cat’ is the scene from Alien, where Ripley goes back to save the ship’s cat. Although the scene is at the end of the movie it has a similar effect. Ripley has a heart after all. In Aliens 2, she goes on better trying to save a little girl.

Other more dramatic examples might be Katniss’s action to volunteer for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister. (That pretty much trumps saving a mere moggy).
Heros and heroines are not defined by how they look or what they say. They are defined by the heroic actions they carry out. Some of these actions might be quite small at the start of the story, but they give us a glimpse of what is to come.

Does your middle sag?

I don’t mean your waist line that might be suffering from that late night snack attack. I mean that author’s graveyard – the middle of your story when enthusiasm wains and your characters wonder what they’re doing, and you wonder why you ever started the story. Unless you’re one of the literary giants like Stephen King, Dan Brown etc. most authors experience some self-doubt about at this stage. You’ve done the easy introduction bit, now it’s all uphill and hard work.

In one of my previous blogs, I discussed the three-act story structure and what happens in the first Act. The first Act is all about introducing the main character in his/her normal world, and then hitting them with some problem or opportunity that will change their world forever. At the end of Act one, something happens to propel the main characters forward towards a goal (the first turning point). Think of Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan and Hans Solo escaping from the space centre in the millennium falcon – now they are committed to a course of action: there’s no going back and its onward to rescue the princess. In other types of stories the first turning point may be less spectacular, but just as important in propelling our main character along a course of action towards their goal.

The middle of the story (Act two) is all about what our main character tries to do to overcome that problem or exploit the opportunity to reach their goal. Each obstacle he/she encounters should make it more difficult for them to succeed, and the stakes of losing should become increasingly more severe. By the end of Act two, the main character should have grown in character and learnt what he/she is doing wrong and commit to a new course of action (the second turning point). Act three is then all about the final confrontation and climax to the story.

It all sound so very simple; it’s not. If it were we would all be writing best sellers. The middle section of a 300 page novel is probably 200 pages. Knowing you’re in the middle doesn’t help much unless you have some kind of plan. What are the obstacles you’re going to throw at the main character? How will he/she cope? How does the character need to change during the course of the act? Think Skywalker, from farm boy to jedi knight; think Scrooge from miser to reformed philanthropist. In most stories (but not all) the main character or one of the main characters need to change in order to reach their goal. What is the cause of that change? How does it affect them?

Most supporters of a three-act structure accept that something  important happens at about the Mid-point of Act two to ratchet up the stakes and force the main character to commit to a new plan. The Mid-Point therefore effectively splits the second Act into two parts.

The first part covers the initial attempts of the main character to deal with obstacles in his/her way. This may be a period which Blake Snyder describes as the ‘fun and games’ period where the main characters seem to be succeeding or making progress. It may also be a period covering the B-story (for example, a love story). But the main character is usually brought back to reality by the Mid-point event. This may be a false victory or a false defeat, but it should provide new motivation for the main character to move forward.

The second part of the second act is usually featured by matters getting worse: the ‘bad guys close in’. There may be an ‘all is lost moment’  followed by ‘the darkest point’ where the main character appears to have lost everything. At this point he/she learns something new (an epiphany) or finds a new way forward that sets him/her on course for the confrontation of the final Act.

Syd Field in his book, ‘The Screenwriters workbook’, says the three elements Plot Point 1, Mid-Point and Plot Point 2 are the structural foundation that holds the second Act in place. He offers the following advice to screenwriters, but it is just as relevant to any storyteller:

1. Decide your ending first

2. Choose your opening

3. Choose Plot Point 1

4. Choose plot Point 2

5. Then determine the Mid-Point

Syd Field also talks about two important story progression sequences that often occur in the middle of the first half and middle of the second half of Act 2 called pinch points.  Pinch 1 drives the story forward onto the Mid-Point event; Pinch 2 drives the story forward towards Plot point 2 at the end of the second Act.

Syd Field’s Three-Act Paradigm:

diagramzz

Maybe you’re a writer that thinks the three-act structure is too formulaic and doesn’t follow your genre, such as romance or comedy. It’s for action type stories isn’t it? You may be right; but analysts have mapped the main turning points onto many of the most successful films and books of all genres. Having a three-act structure isn’t the main reason for their success; to be successful they need to be dam good stories, and dam good writers. But not having a solid structure may be the cause of why so many other stories seem to fail.

If you’re a good writer you might not consciously think about structure when your writing. You’re in the moment. Structure maybe something you notice only when your story is complete, and you want to edit and analyse what you’ve got. It doesn’t matter as long as you get it right.