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.

The writing process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main turning points would be at least:

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

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

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

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

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

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

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

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

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

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

Stage 7: The Final Daft

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

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

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

Story structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sequence structure

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

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

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

 

 

Killing one’s darlings

6_00 pmIf you’ve just finished your first draft of your novel, congratulations. Pour yourself a drink of your favourite tipple and celebrate. You’re half-way to completing your project. Yes — I did say half way. The editing process is just as important as the creation of the first draft. If your first draft reads like c**p. Don’t worry, that’s what editing is for. The final version will vastly out-shine the first draft. I promise.

But editing isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s part of the writing process. Even if you have someone to help, you’ll never be a good writer unless you fully embrace the process. There are three stages of editing: development editing (getting the story right), line editing (getting the English right), and proof reading (getting the nitty-gritty detail right down to that last comma). All these stages are important as part of a process that will result in a polished story.

I’ve just been through this process with my latest novel. And it was more painful than expected. I had to cut 12 scenes, nearly 12,000 words and reassemble the manuscript. And most of the scenes I cut I had edited a dozen times or more.

William Faulkner once said:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

He was right. You have to be ruthless when you edit. As writers we fall in love with our words, expressions, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. But it is not our view that matters: we must consider the reader. And if he/she wouldn’t understand an expression we want to use we shouldn’t use it. We also create expectations in the reader’s mind about the story we are telling, and we need to deliver against those expectations.

In my case, I had gone through the three stages of editing without realising that there was a major problem with my story, which I should have found at the development stage. A subplot had grown out of control so that it read as a separate story within the story. I told myself it was all about developing the two main characters’ relationship. But I didn’t need twelve scenes to do it. The answer was to cut them.

Of the three stages of editing the most difficult is the development edit. You have to get the story right. One of the best aids to help you get this right is a simple columnar scene list, where you can use different columns to analyse the different elements of the scene to provide an overview of the story design. Which elements you choose to track  is up to you. For example you might choose the following columns for each scene: point of view character,  plot action (what happens), revelations, character development points, relationship development points, tension source, level of tension, sub plot (if any), set-up/payoffs, and word count. The scene list doesn’t have to be complex; it just needs to give you an understanding of what’s happening and when it happens.

I also learned early on in my business career that any form of writing can benefit from being reviewed. I used to write technical material and find the least technical reader I could find to review it. If they found something they didn’t understand, it was obviously unclear. The same is true of writing fiction. But good beta readers are hard to find.

Line editing is difficult process, but there are spellcheckers and software programs like ProWriting Aid and Autocrit to help you find common  problems like repetition and over use of certain words. They won’t do everything you need to do, and they may flag ‘false positives’ where the text is correct. But if you’re serious about becoming a writer you need to study your discipline and brush up on your gramar.

The final stage is proofreading. However much proof reading you do yourself you will never find all those irritating errors. It is one of the few processes that I would recommend you out source. A professional proof reader is worth their weight in gold.