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.

Story Design — Characterisation

Some very successful writers claim to produce stories without any apparent planning or preparation. Story design must be built into their DNA. Others, which I suggest is the vast majority of writers like me, struggle to find the stories within them through a variety of different processes. Some write by the seat of their pants (pantsers) and discover the story as they go along. Others use varying degrees of planning and plotting to map out their stories before commencing to write.

In a previous blog, I suggested that any  writer, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, can benefit from understanding the dynamics of their story before they write it. To do this requires you to analyse and understand the five core elements of your story. These are:

5_Elements

Once a writer has identified the five elements, there is still the question of whether the story proposal is a good one or not. If you have a burning desire to write it, I suggest you do. If like me, you have a hundred and one ideas floating in you head and you don’t know which is the best one for you, then you need to perform some kind of appraisal.

In my previous blog, I set out twenty questions to help evaluate a story proposal. The first ten questions were included in that blog. This blog deals with the remaining ten, which are all about the protagonist’s characterisation.

Characterisation  

By characterisation I mean those elements of the protagonist’s character that impact on the story design. A protagonist’s character must fit the story, or the story must fit the character.   They are two parts of a jig-saw puzzle that have to fit together.

The first five questions are all about the protagonist’s key characteristics:

  • What are his/her physical attributes Notice that it is only those physical characteristics that affect the story we are concerned about. The writer may well want to record all the physical attributes of each character in a separate file or database in order to ensure consistency in describing characters throughout the narrative, such as hair colour, eye colour, looks, clothes, etc. However, such detailed features don’t normally affect the story. Major features are aspects such as  Age/Sex/Strength.  Imagine what the Hunger Games would look like if Katnis Everdeen was a male, or Harry Potter was an adult female. The story would change and feel very different.
  • What are his/her psychological traits? Are they stoical, easy-going, comical, obstinate, hot-headed, arrogant, over-bearing etc? These will affect how they will react to story events.
  • What skills/strengths and occupation does he/she have? What are they really good at? Are they a James Bond super agent character, or a fish out of water character? Are they clever like Sherlock Holmes, or highly skilled like Katnis Everdeen with her bow and arrows?
  • What is his/her flaw, weakness, or need? All characters have a need and this is usually story related. The character must often learn something about himself or overcome his weakness in order to succeed in the story. However, some flaws are simply quirks that make the character more comical or interesting. For example: Indiana Jones fear of snakes. Both types of flaws help to make the character who they are.
  • What does he/she long for before the story commences? This is unrelated to the plot but may have a significant effect on the story. For example, in Die Hard, John McClane, a NYPD cop, wants to reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly, who’s living and working in Los Angeles. Some writer’s refer to this as the personal goal. The theme of the story is often found in the protagonist’s longing.

Empathy factors

  • What makes the reader want to empathise with the protagonist? Reader’s are more likely to connect with a character if they can empathise with them. Readers generally empathise with protagonists that are highly resourceful in the pursuit of their objectives, even if their characters are not particularly likeable. Other factors that help to build empathy are being funny, clever, an underdog in jeopardy, selfless, and resolute.

Back Story and character Arc

  •  How does the protagonist’s back story affect the story? All characters have a past and a reason for behaving in the way they do. From a writer’s perspective, only that element of back story that is relevant to the story should be brought into the story. It should be introduced sparingly and not at the start of the story.
  •  How does the protagonist change as a result of the story? Obviously for some stories the protagonist goes through an enormous transformation as a result of the events in the story: e.g. Scrooge. Other transformations can be more subtle.

Plot Objective or goal

  • What does the protagonist want and how does it change during the story? This is the desire created by the story catalyst. A problem or opportunity comes into the protagonist’s world and as a result of the new situation, the protagonist must act. This is the plot driver that moves the story forward.  Sometimes the plot objective grows into something bigger.  For example, in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, Luke’s initial objective is to take R2D2 and the Death Star plans to Alderaan. Then on the Death Star he changes his plans to rescue Princess Leia. And finally his objective is to destroy the Death Star. Many writer’s refer to this as the protagonist’s ‘goal’ or ‘outer goal’. I don’t particularly like the term ‘goal’ as for me it doesn’t reflect the obsessive nature of the desire behind the goal. Perhaps that’s because goals to me are like New Year’s resolutions — easily abandoned. ‘Want’ is a simpler word and easier to use.

Relationships

  • How does the protagonist’s relationship with the other key characters impact on the story? The main key characters will have their own plot objectives which may well conflict with those of the protagonist. How the protagonist relates to these key characters will help reveal the protagonist’s true character. The main key characters include:
    • Love interest
    • Main antagonist
    • Mentor
    • Side Kick

In my view, these are the ten most important questions about characterisation when considering story design. Some of them are difficult to answer without thinking more about what the story is about. But that’s their purpose.  Are they the only questions you need ask? Perhaps not. I’ve seen some lists and questionnaires by other writers with over one hundred questions, including the character’s education, family, history etc. These are useful in putting flesh onto the story skeleton and getting to know your character better, but for the purpose of story design I think it’s easier to limit the questions to those relating solely to the ‘big picture’ of the story.

Tell me what you think? Are the twenty questions (including the ten questions in the  previous blog) sufficient to decide whether a story idea is worth pursuing further?

Story Design – Twenty Key Questions

As a new writer one of the most difficult decisions to make is about what to write about. There is plenty of advice from experienced writers out there who say just sit in the chair and write.  And that if you don’t write, you can’t become a writer. But that doesn’t help the newbie author sitting in the chair and staring at a blank screen with a thousand-and-one ideas buzzing through his/her head and wondering which path to take. For me developing and writing a novel takes at least twelve months. That’s a considerable commitment and one which you don’t want to abandon half-way through, because of a failure to plan adequately.

Clearly if you have a story you want to tell that’s just bursting to be told, then write it.  And don’t stop until you finish it. But if you’re like me and have different ideas competing with each other in your head, you need to choose the best. And you’ll only achieve this if you do some work on developing the story design. Notice I’m talking about story design and not outlining. Story design is about the dynamics of the story, not about the structure.

In the previous blog, I introduced the idea of the five core story elements a writer needs to identify before he/she has a story proposition.

5_Elements

To help evaluate a story design I’ve tried to put together a simple blueprint. Part of this blueprint is twenty questions about the story design. Ten of those questions are about the characterisation of the protagonist, which I’ll deal with in the next blog. The other ten questions are about story design and are as follows:

  1. What is the idea at the heart of you story that makes it new and interesting? This is usually expressed as a ‘what if…’ question. It’s probably the most difficult question to answer. The previous blog sets out some of the ways of creating them.
  2. How does the setting affect the story? 
  3. What does the protagonist want that drives the central plot? This is set in  motion by the protagonist’s response to the Catalyst (see 8 below)  in the first Act .
  4. What stands in the protagonist’s way from getting what he/she wants? (Eg. a difficult quest, a difficult mystery/conundrum to solve, natural forces, or other antagonist forces.)
  5. What are the consequences if the protagonist fails to get what he/she wants? Are these stakes big enough?
  6. What is the central dramatic question at the heart of the story that drives the reader’s hopes and fears for the story outcome? Example: Will Katniss Everdeen survive the Hunger Games? Will Luke Skywalker rescue the princess and destroy the Death Star?
  7. How does the story end?
  8. What is the catalyst that sets up the central plot in motion? This is the Big Problem or Opportunity that disturbs the protagonist’s world in the first act. Example: Katniss Everdeen’s sister’s name  is drawn in the Hunger Games lottery.
  9. What is the log line for your story.  Example: (‘Star Wars:A New Hope’) is a (science fiction fantasy) story about (a young farm boy) who teams up with (a Jedi Knight and a mercenary pilot) to (rescue a princess and lead a rag-tag rebellion) in order to stop (the evil forces of the Galactic Empire) from (destroying their world).
  10. What is the underlying theme / moral premise of your story? Example: ‘Even death cannot conquer the power of love’ (Romeo and Juliet).

Once you’ve answered the ten questions there’s probably another question you could ask yourself. Would you want to read this story? If it doesn’t excite you, what chance have other readers of finding it exciting.

As mentioned above, the characterisation of the protagonist is part of the story design. The character has to fit the story, or the story has to fit the character.  In the next blog I’ll deal with the ten elements of the protagonist’s characterisation.

In the meantime, I would welcome any comments on the five core elements or the key questions on story design. No doubt there are many more questions that could be asked about a story that would flesh more detail. I’ve seen some story checklists with a hundred-and-one different questions to answer about a story.  Such checklist may well be useful for assessing the final draft, but are too detailed for the initial stages of story design.  In comparison, the key questions are concerned with whether you have a core story that will work before you outline it, or write it.

 

 

 

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.