Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character Arc

nutshellAs a writer, if you want to study story telling there is no better source than world of screenwriting where Hollywood has turned the art of story telling into a science. Of course, writing a novel and writing a screenplay are very different mediums: movies are visual and novels are written. But they both share the same important elements of storytelling. So studying movies is a great way to study how stories work.

Over the past eight years I have read many of the books on story structure, plotting, and character development. So much so, that I thought it was impossible to find a new insight into story development. But once again I’ve been proved wrong. Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique provides a fresh new perspective to the subject of character arc.

Generally when writers talk about story structure it is usually about the three-act plot structure and in particular the big turning points in the story at the end of act one (a.k.a turning point one/act one break/point of no return)  and act two (a.k.a turning point two/act two culmination/crisis). Some writers, such Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler, also draw attention to the inner emotional journey our protagonist makes as the plot effects him/her. For example, Luke Skywalker changes from a frightened farm boy into a Jedi knight. This is what we generally refer to as character arc. Not all stories necessarily have a character arc. For example, James Bond and Indiana Jones rarely change in character over the course of a movie. But most do.

Most writers agree that a protagonist should have at least one flaw in order to be three dimensional. No one is perfect. But what makes Chamberlain’s perspective different is that the protagonist’s character arc from Flaw to Strength should be uniquely linked to the main turning points. Or put another way, the protagonist changes because the plot challenges his particular flaw and his view of himself and the world.

A story should be unique to its protagonist. The events of the story should uniquely test traits specific to the protagonist. If I can take your protagonist out and replace them with a completely different character, and with a few tweaks make your script work just as well with a new protagonist, your script is presenting a situation and is not a true story.

Thus a protagonist should not just have a flaw; he/she should have the right flaw to be tested by the plot.

Identifying a central flaw in your protagonist is an essential component of screenplay story structure.

The Nutshell approach is to identify eight important elements that are linked to the protagonists character arc.

  1. Flaw (The protagonist’s initial flaw)
  2. Strength (The final protagonist’s position )
  3. Set-up want (In initial scene )
  4. Point of No return (Plot Point 1/Act One Break)
  5. Catch (at Point of No Return)
  6. Crisis/Triumph (Plot Point 2/Act 2 Culmination)
  7. Climatic Choice (Beginning of Act 3)
  8. Final Step (Final scene)

To do justice to the Nutshell approach requires a detailed reading of the Chamberlain’s book, which explains each of these elements and how they relate to examples in blockbuster movies. What is new and novel in this approach is the Set-up Want and the Catch, which require some further explanation

The Set-up Want is something the protagonists wants from the first scene. It is also the opposite of what the protagonist wants to happen in the Crisis. As the maxim goes sometimes you should be mindful of what you wish for, because the protagonist gets his want at the Point of No Return (Plot Point 1) together with the Catch. For example, Luke Skywalker longed for adventure and to get away from the farm. At Plot Point 1 he finds his aunt and uncle murdered and the farm burned. So In one sense he got what he wanted (an adventure) but the Catch was he had no family left and had no choice but to go with Obi Wan to take the droids to Alderaan.

The Climatic Choice is what gets the protagonist out of the Crisis and into Act 3. And the Final Step is the final scene that shows the protagonists has completed his character arc.

The Nutshell Technique places character arc as an integral element of the story rather than as an optional add on or choice for the writer. The point being that the character arc must fit the story to work. That I believe is a valuable insight that is worth thinking about.

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.

Story structure — the big moments of Act One

Story telling, whether you are a novelist or screenwriter, requires an understanding of story dynamics and structure. For some writers, this is ingrained into their DNA: they don’t need fancy ideas and concepts for something that comes natural to them. All they need is a story, which starts with a problem that comes into a protagonists life; escalates and complicates until it reaches a crisis; and ends with a climax and resolution. For others these three stages can be formed into three acts.

Story Structure.001It sounds simple, but it is far from it. That’s why screenwriters and dramatists have developed methodologies to break down the process into more manageable bite-sized chunks.

Story structure won’t turn a bad story into a good one. But a good story with a bad structure may well turn the story into a disaster.

In previous posts, I’ve looked at some of the different methodologies used  by screenwriters for story development. I’ve looked at the Three-Act Structure popularised by Syd Field, Michael Hauge’s the Six-Stage Plot structure, Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey and the Frank Daniel’s Sequence Method. And in an early Blog I dealt with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

There are clearly differences of emphasis that the different gurus want to make, and their use of different terminology can be confusing. But in practice the different methodologies have more in common with each other than they would care to admit.

What I have attempted to do is to try a pick the best of each approach and pull them together into one cohesive story blueprint. This blog, and the following two, deal with the structural elements of that blueprint. The graphic shows a three-act, eight-segment structure with five-key turning points and seven further plot points. At first  sight it might seem complex. It’s not. It might seem rigid. It’s not. It’s up to you to see how you want to use it. If four or five acts makes more sense to you, then use whatever division of narrative structure you are most comfortable with.

Let’s start with Act 1, which sets up the story.  This Act normally consists of two sequences (but sometimes three). The first sequence introduces the main characters and the protagonists story world. It shows his normal world before his world is disturbed by the Catalyst at the end of the first sequence. The Catalyst (TP1) is the point in time where the protagonists is first confronted with the major problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes them as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.  It has many different names: the Inciting Incident, the Inciting Event, the Call to Adventure, and the Opportunity. It’s importance is that it ‘radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonists life (McKee).

The second sequence of Act 1 generally deals with the consequences of the Catalyst. Our hero may be reluctant to act, he may take advice from a mentor, or be forced into action by a further event(s) ( which I call the Bump) before eventually he responds to the challenge. The second turning point is the Act One Break (TP2), where our hero decisively moves forward on his quest with a goal in mind. This is sometimes called Crossing the Threshold, the Lock-in,  the Commitment, or the Change of Plans. It signifies the end of the setup process and the start of the main story conflict.

So there are two key turning points in Act 1: the Catalyst and the Act One Break.  However,  both events could occur almost simultaneously if the hero acts decisively. For example, in Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games when her sister’s name is drawn from the lottery. The two events are practically the same. Similarly in a crime mystery there maybe little difference between the timing of the crime being perpetrated and the detective taking control of the investigation.

A confusing complication is that another school of thought uses the same term “Inciting Incident” to refer to the first incident  in the screenplay.  One of the proponents of this approach is Syd Field, who  describes the inciting incident as the first incident that ‘opens up the screenplay and sets the story in motion’. Field goes on to use a second term, the Key Incident, to describe the event which draws the main character into the story and reflects what the story is about. He then explains that the Key Incident normally arises at the end of the first act (i.e. the Act One Break where the protagonist is committed to his goal), but not necessarily always.  And he gives an example in the Bourne Supremacy, where the story revolves around a Key Incident (where he killed the politician and his wife in Berlin) which occurs before the start of the movie. The emphasis of the Key Incident is on the effect of the event on the protagonist and the story  rather than when in time it incites him to act.

The two different definitions of the inciting Incident tend to give different results when the antagonist is introduced before the protagonist. For example, in  ‘Star Wars – New Hope’, is the inciting incident the opening scene where Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s starship, or is it when Luke gets the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan”.   Similarly, in Jaws, is the inciting incident the first shark attack, or the second, or the third, or when Brody first discovers the body of the first victim on the beach?

Act One.001

I prefer to take the view that the Inciting Incident is the event which connects the protagonist to the main conflict of the story. So, for example, in Romancing the Stone, it’s the phone call that Joan Wilder gets from her sister telling her she’s been kidnapped and to bring the map sent to her by her later brother-in-law as ransom. It’s not the actual kidnapping, which the audience doesn’t even see.

In Star Wars: the Force Awakens, it’s when Rey rescues BB8 from scavengers. This starts the chain of events that forces her to escape from the First Order in the Millennium Falcon at the end of Act One. There are many more exciting events before this moment in the movie, but this is the first incident that engages the protagonist — Rey– to act.

If you would like further examples of Inciting Events I suggest you visit K M Weiland’s Story Structure Database. It’s a great source of information on the story structure of movies.

Because of the different uses of the term Inciting Incident, I prefer to refer to this moment as the Catalyst (the term used by the late Blake Snyder), or the Call to Adventure (the term used by Christopher Vogler). It avoids confusion.

By now you’re probably wondering what the other three plot points of Act One are. They’re not necessarily as important as ‘turning points’, but they serve a purpose. The first one, P1, is the Hook. This is simply a scene at the start of the story to hook the audience/reader’s curiosity and interest. For example, in a movie it might be James Bond finishing a previous assignment.  In Indiana Jones and The Raider of the Lost Ark the hook is a high intensity sequence in the Peruvian jungle where Indie obtains and then loses an idol to Balloq.  The whole purpose of the sequence is exposition:  it introduces the audience to the characters of Indiana Jones and Balloq and their rivalry. It has no direct relevance to the actual plot, which is about the Ark. But it’s a great example of how to make exposition about a character exciting.

Hooks are more important to novelists than screenwriters. If a reader doesn’t connect with a story in the first paragraph or first five pages then they might put the book down. Movies are different. Audiences are unlikely to walk out in the first twelve or so minutes, but a script writer should not try their patience. They need to pique the audience’s interest with something, particularly if the inciting event is delayed to the latter stage of Act One. The Hook is one way of doing it.

The second plot point, P2,  is the Foreshadow.  It’s the scene that lets the audience or reader know there’s a disturbance on the way. It’s the shark fin in the water, the meteor heading on course for Earth, the storm gathering in the distance. It’s used as a tension builder to tell the audience or reader there’s a problem coming.

The third plot point, P3, is what I have called the Bump: the event or events that persuade the protagonist to act. It’s the discovery of Luke’s murdered aunt and uncle that persuades him to go to Alderaan with Obi-Wan.  It’s the  discovery of further shark attacks in Jaws. These bumps don’t occur in all stories but when they do they ramp up the tension.

Are these the only turning point and plot points in the first act? Not necessarily. Todd Klick in Beat by Beat identifies some thirty story beats in the first acts drawn from a collection of blockbuster movies from each of the top-selling genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Horror, and Thriller. He identifies their Inciting Incidents  and timing (12 mins),  their Act One breaks, which he calls the Quest (29-35mins). And in addition, he identifies one further turning point which arises between minutes 16-18.

So what can a novelist learn from all this?  Structure is important, but you don’t need to follow it blindly. It is more important that your story develops in a natural way and most times this will follow the common structural pattern for all stories. In the next blog, I’ll look at the Second Act. In the meantime, I would welcome any thoughts you have on this blog.

Book versus movie

androidsHolidays are a great time to get away from the day-to-day pressures of living and simply unwind and enjoy yourself with family or friends. For me it’s also a time to catch up on some sci-fi reading. One of my favourite movies of all time is Riddley Scott’s Blade Runner, which is loosley based on Philip Dick’s classic sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I promised myself this holiday I would take the time to read it along with some other books; and I did. I enjoyed the novel, but it had a very different feel from the movie.

The main character, Rick Deckard, in the book was a more pathetic character than the role played in the movie by Harrison-Ford, and the ending was very different. But that’s not really surprising given the needs of Hollywood for an action hero and a happy ending. The theme of the both the book and the film is about what it means to be human and have an identity. I enjoyed the both, but I preferred the movie.

This got me thinking about other movies and books, and whether my views were coloured by which one I experienced first. In the case of Stephanie Mayer’s Host, I read the book before the film, and the film didn’t seem to possess the same emotional intensity as the book. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal was much he same. The book had a slow start but, when it got going, it was difficult to put down until I finished it in the early hours of the morning. The movie didn’t seem to have the same intensity dispite Bruce Willis’s best efforts. Perhaps Bruce is no so good at playing the bad guy.

But there were many examples where the books and films were pretty much on a par with each other. The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Jurrasic Park were all good books that made good movies. So what makes a good book suitable for a blockbuster movie? In my view it comes down to emotional intensity, and how the author or director makes his/her reader or audience empathise with the hero/heroinne.

Authors and directors do it in different ways given the different mediums they are using, but in both cases the main character usually has to go through a character arc that reveals his humanity. Blockbuster action sequences in movies are fun, but they are not what makes a movie great. Great actors and great directors make good movies by giving their audience what they want: an emotional journey through the story where for a brief moment in time they can experience what the main character is feeling. It’s the magic of story telling.