The Writer’s Toolbox (ii)

In last month’s blog, I looked at Scrivener, the primary tool I use for writing and publishing. This month I want to look at another tool, which is relatively new– Plottr.

Plottr, is essentially a time line planning tool. It allows you to quickly map out a story’s timeline with scene cards. It also allows you to see the same timeline through an outline format.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 13.52.23

So why would you need Plottr? I asked myself the same question. I’ve got Scrivener, which can switch between cork board, outline, and text modes. And I already have Plot Control, a sophisticated screenwriting tool, which does the same thing over a 3-Act Structure. So why do I need Plottr? Well, the answer is I saw a demonstration and was immediately hooked.  What impressed me was how easy it was to create scenes and plot lines, insert new scenes and chapters, and move them around with drag and drop. And scrolling along the time lines is so easy. There is also a vertical format, if you prefer, with a simple click.

You can create as many plot lines as you like. In my current novel, I am using three lines: The Main Plot Line, The Internal Plot Line, and The Antagonists Plot Line, so I can see how each develops over the course of the story. But you can have as many as you like. If you prefer you could have a plot line for each main character. Or you can see different units to mark out the time line other than chapters. For example, Acts or sequences. It’s up to you how you want to work.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 14.34.21

And it also has sections for Notes, Characters and Places to identify with the scenes, with standard templates if you want to use them. As you can see from the screenshot. I don’t map out a lot of detail for the characters. In my current project I already know my characters well and have written a considerable amount of the text. So I’ve been using Plottr primarily as a tool to analyse the different plot lines and scene structure. It’s been helpful.

Overall, Plottr is clever tool for doing what ifs in story development and exploring different ideas before committing further effort to writing. And it has the ability to export a .docx file, which means you can  can import into Scrivener the chapter and scene structure. As an initial planning tool it gets my vote.

Eliminating the saggy middle

Choosing a topic for this month’s blog was a difficult choice. During the month I finally managed to see the Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker and commenting on the unbelievable bizarre ending could easily fill at least one blog post on story design. But I don’t like to give negative reviews and there are more than enough from the Star Wars fanbase already. So I decided to focus of something a little different and much less high profile to illustrate some story design points.

salvationSalvation is a 26 episode (two season) sci-fi drama on Netflix, which I recently binge watched. The critics of Wrotten Tomatoes rated it only 44%. The audience score was higher at 88%. IMDB gave it 7/10. One critic described it as “40% romantic drama with 30% sci-fi, 30% political thriller and expect 5/10 from all three genres, you will not go crazy and may even enjoy the fast ride.”  I can understand the criticism. It is an almost comic-book plot line. But if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief and put up with a little melodrama, it is a rip-roaring ride. And as a writer it’s an object lesson in how to write tension and suspense.

The log line for the drama is innocent enough: “An MIT student and a tech superstar bring a low level Pentagon official a staggering discovery — that an asteroid is just six months away from colliding with Earth.”

Now, if you were developing a story from this premise for a novel, where would you go? There is clearly a protagonist Darius Tanzanites (an Elon Musk-like tech superstar) and his protege MIT student (Liam Cole), who discover the problem.  And then there is an obvious antagonist (the asteroid) but what next?

Well, the two have to convince those around the president of the problem and then devise a plan to deal with it. But in this case, the Secretary of Defence already knows about the problem, and they have a plan to deal with it. At his point I would most certainly struggle with the story. The first Act of the story is easy — introduce the characters and the problem they face. Act Three is also relatively easy — write the climax and resolution of the story. But what happens in the long Act 2? This is where most writers find the greatest difficulty. How do you stop the storyline sagging in the middle?

With this story premise I would struggle in the second act of a novel. But writing a 26 episode series would be a massive challenge. So what did the writers do to maintain the story tension?

The answer lies in a plethora of sub-plots (or perhaps more precisely parallel plots) and an array of new antagonists to frustrate the protagonist. So here is a list of some of the sub-plots the writer’s used to give you a clue.

First there are the romantic conflict sub plots.

  • Darius’s romantic interest is with Grace Barrows –the Pentagon  press secretary– who is also romantically involved with Harris Edwards (Assistant Secretary of Defence).
  • Liam’s romantic interest is with  Jillian Hays — a sci-fi writer later who is later employed by Darius. But he is also later involved with Alycia Vrettou (who works for the terrorist hackers organisation RE/SYS)
  • Grace ‘s daughter and Harris’s son.

There are some parental-child conflict sub plots

  • Harris and his son (who belongs to RE/SYS, a terrorist hacker group)
  • Grace and her daughter (Who belongs to Cope, a suicide cult).

But the most intriguing subplots are the political ones:

  • A coup to poison the the president President and replace her with the Vice President.
  • A plot by the coup group to destroy the USA’s enemies (Russia and China) by redirecting fragments of the astroid towards them using stolen Tanz Industries technology.
  • Another plot to shoot the President.
  • A Russian plot to steal Darius’s em drive to be used to move the Astroid off course.
  • A plot by terrorist hackers RE/SDYS to start a nuclear war and take over control of Russian nuclear missiles to threaten the USA.
  • A plot by Darius’ uncle to take over his company and Darius’s pet Salvation project.
  • A plot by a suicide cult called Cope to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • A plot by Darius/Grace to steal uranium from the US Government for his Salvation space ship backup plan (a rocket to take 160 people to survive the Earth’s demise).

We also have a long list of new antagonists to frustrate the storyline:

  • Malcolm Croft, Liam’s professor at MIT who is also a Russian agent.
  • Claire Rayburn, Senior Advisor to the White House Chief of Staff, who in cahoots with Vice President to poison the president.
  • Monroe Bennet — Vice President who leads a coup against the the incumbent president and later seeks to blow up the Supreme Court judges.
  • Nicholas Tanz — Darius’s uncle who plots to get Darius’s company and the Salvation rocket in cahoots with Bass Shepherd.
  • Bass Shepherd— the leader of a suicide cult, Cope, who plots to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • Dylan Edwards (Harris Edwards’ son) who  is involved with the terrorist group RE/SYS and while naive and well intentioned is prepared to destroy New York to get the US government to obey their demands.
  • Amanda Neel — an investigative reporter that concentrates on collusion between Tanz industries and the government withholding information.

And we have some characters that act as both helpers and antagonists at different time  as the plot enfolds. These I call changelings:

  • Alonzo Carter — a D.C . Police Officer who seeks revenge for his sister’s death (Claire Rayburn who is shot by Grace Barrows), but later turns good guy to help Grace.
  • Alycia Vrettou — Darius’s former protege that turned against him to work for a terrorist group RE/SYS, but who eventually helps Darius.
  • Jillian Hayes –Liam’s romantic interest that is caught into the Cope suicide cult, who steals the Rail Gun plans for the cult, but who eventually comes to her senses.
  • Liam Cole— who for a time he abandons Darius to work with RE/SYS to save the planet. But eventually realises that Darius is the only one that can save the world.

For those of you who haven’t seen the series the list of sub-plots and antagonists above must sound pretty crazy. The political aspects alone could have made a good thriller on their own. The sci-if in some respects were largely incidental. And of course there is a wonderful twist ending to the series, which I won’t reveal here.

So if you’re a writer like me that struggles in the long second act to keep the tension going, then the most interesting tool in your writer’s toolbox is to introduce new antagonists with their own sub plots to freshen up the story line. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. In many action adventure stories you have one ‘Big Bad’ villain character and maybe a henchman or two. Think Emperor Palpatine and Dark Vader. But if you look more closely at these stories there are other antagonists that frustrate and deflect the path of the hero’s journey. Not all antagonists are villainous and some are changelings. But they are needed in the storyline to complete the picture.

Tell me, do you suffer from saggy middles? And if so, would another antagonist help to complete your story?

Finding a story from chaos

collieOne of the tasks I have been putting off for some time is a limited re-edit of my debut novel, Collision. After its release in 2012, I noticed some irritating typos had crept into the final proof. Well, as you can see it’s taken me quite some time to get around to doing it. But now it’s done.

One of the great advantages of using Amazon and Kindle is that it is possible to re-upload the text files and make corrections like this. So for the past few days I been re-reading and re-editing my original work and uploaded the revision to Amazon today. The process has been illuminating for me in many ways.

Let me explain some of the background to my novel. I had written books before Collision, but they were all dry technical accounting texts, which I suspect no one reading this would ever want to read unless they suffered from insomnia. Writing fiction was going to be a huge challenge for me and I had no idea whether I could do it.

I had snippets of a story in my head. A man is jogging alone along a beach at night when a UFO flies over his head and crashes further up the beach. It was going to be  a love story. That’s about as much as I had of the story at the start of the project. Twenty months later I published the novel on Kindle. In between, I learnt a huge amount about the world of writing and story telling. And if I had known at the beginning what I know now, I would have probably gone about it in an entirely different way.

What struck me on re-reading the novel so many years later was just how good the storyline turned out. I did some limited planning at the start, but the final story was far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset. And it wasn’t something I could have planned in that level of detail. Instead, it emerged by itself out of constant rewrites, revisions and incremental changes. As a writer, I’m a planner/plotter at heart rather than a ‘pantser’. But like one famous general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’. I plan, but if something doesn’t work, I replan. And so the Collision story is very much the product of a somewhat chaotic trial an error process of finding the story.

Since Collision I have written two further sci-fi novels: “Alien Hothouse” and “AndroDigm Park 2067”. Both these novels were the result of painstaking planning and certainly didn’t take as long to write as Collision. But neither has been as successful as Collision or attracted the same quality of reviews. Maybe this is partly because the stories are very different and attract different tastes. But I suspect it might be something else.

For a good story to emerge from a writing project you need to challenge it, revise it, test it until the story works. It’s a painful process of destruction and creation that isn’t easy. Writer’s are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ during the editing process. To be successful the killing has to get bloody. Maybe the reason Collision was good was because so many scenes were cut, or revised or replaced by new ones. And maybe it was because I wouldn’t publish until I was absolutely sure I had a story that worked emotionally.

I’m sure every writer is attached emotionally to their debut novel. If I wrote Collision again today I’m sure I could improve on the execution of the writing. But writing isn’t just about technique. Readers don’t have favourite writers based on how they construct their grammar. They relate to the emotional content of their writing. And that depends on how they connect to the main character and the emotional journey that character takes during the story.

If you are a writer, let me know whether you feel the same way about your debut novel. And if you’re still in the process of writing your first novel, let me know how well you really understood the story before starting.

 

Daydeam Believer

Not many people are old enough to remember Daydream Believer. It was a single released by the Monkees in 1968 with lead singer Davy Jones and headed the US charts for four weeks. It’s a catchy tune, with cryptic lyrics about a daydream believer and his homecoming queen. But I can still remember the chorus.

Why do I start this blog reminiscing over the a 60’s pop song? I wasn’t even a serious Monkees fan. Well, it’s because all creative writers need to become in some respects daydreamers. Our best ideas come to us when we daydream and often when we least expect it — in the shower, before we fall asleep, on a walk in the countryside, or listening to music. Basically, it’s when are brains are in neutral and they allowed to drift away.

Often a single idea can form the catalyst for a story. In Hollywood, this is often expressed as a log-line. For example: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. Any guesses which movie this inspired? It’s not that difficult — Titanic.

Whether you’re a novelist or a screenwriter, the nuts and bolts of your writing will come from your imagination. Those ideas can come from anywhere. The skill of the writer is to harness them.

TitanicBut a single idea doesn’t make a story. A story has to be developed and that requires a succession of ideas. We know the story of Titanic is about two lovers meeting on the ill fated Titanic. So that gives us some historical perspective in terms of facts and the pattern of events. We know the vessel sinks! But we’re really concerned about the love story and how it enfolds.

Often we can use a series of questions to help us develop that story line. For example, we have a young man and woman from different social classes. So which one is from a higher class than the other? How do they meet? Why are they onboard the vessel? What are they looking for? What brought them there to that moment in time? And what do they expect to happen when they arrive in America? Who are the other characters onboard? What do they want? And how do their motives conflict with our lovers? And so on…

So we are now beginning to develop a story line for the two characters (Jack and Rose) and an antagonist (Rose’s fiancé Caledon Hockley). But we still don’t have enough to fill a 194 minute movie or a 400 page novel. We still need a lot more ideas.

Let’s look at some of the ideas the writers actually used. In the movie, Jack and Rose meet when she is contemplating suicide (unusual).  They fall in love (that’s the easy part). Jack is a poor artist and draws a nude sketch of her wearing the Heart of the Ocean necklace. And Jack is later accused of stealing the necklace.

How did the writers find these ideas? Obviously they needed to create conflict and tension between the lovers and Rose’s fiancé. And one question might be how to we create this conflict. But the ideas themselves don’t automatically flow from the Titanic story, they flow from the creative imagination of the writers.

How does the movie start? Again the writers start the movie in 1996 with Broch Lovell, a treasure hunter, and his team searching for the wreck of the Titanic and a rare diamond necklace (The Heart of the Ocean). What made them think of the diamond necklace? Hitchcock once talked about the importance of a McGuffin (an object of desire) in movies. Not all movies have a McGuffin, but they can be very useful. The McGuffin is something the story is built around, but is not what the story is really about. Titanic is love story — the diamond necklace is just device in the story to create conflict between the characters.

Interestingly, most of the movie is set in flashback. Again the choice of how to deliver the story is interesting.

So could you have written Jack and Rose’s story from the original log-line? Perhaps not the same way James Cameron developed it. But maybe something like it. It’s a love story and I’m sure there are different ways that story could have been portrayed. Switch the characters around — make Jack the aristocrat and Rose the fiancée of an Irish emigrant. There are hundreds of ways to write this tragic love story. All you need is to do daydream.

So what have you daydreamed about recently that might make a good story?

Story, Plot, Arc and Theme — how they work together

Story, Plot, Arc and themeAny new writer might well be confused by some of the terms used in writing such as story, plot, arc and theme. Aren’t they interchangeable terms? It’s easy to see why the terms might be confused.

The first person to distinguish story from plot was E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster wrote a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’

‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. But the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

This is a reasonable definition of plot. But is story just narrative? In screenwriting, the term ‘story’ is often used in a much wider sense to explain the deeper meaning that the audience experience through the protagonist’s inner struggle to deal with the plot points.  It is what the story is really about. Kate Wright in Screenwriting is Storytelling Creating an A-list Screenplay that Sells explains this approach as follows:

Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each is distinct: Plot is self evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene. Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth–or absolute truth–sequentially, by identifying the inner moral struggle of the main character.

Under this approach both Plot and Story are separate important elements. An audience (or readers) may be fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters in the plot, but what really engages them emotionally is how the main character reacts to this progression of events and this insight is what the story is really about.

Audiences and readers don’t fall in love with a plot, they connect with the main character and experience his/her emotional struggle to deal with those events. As the conflict escalates, audience/reader tension rises until tension is finally resolved at the climax of the story. This release of tension is what Plato described as catharsis: the release of emotion that makes us all feel better. At that point, we figuratively punch the air and celebrate our main character’s victory, or we cry if the story ends in tragedy. This emotional effect is the primary reason why we engaged in the story in the first place. We empathise with the hero/heroine and want to see them succeed. Story is therefore more about the emotional experience of the audience/reader.

How the main character changes over the course of the story is the character arc, or what some screenwriters describe as the hero’s inner journey. It will be part of the audience’s/reader’s emotional experience. For example, it’s Luke Skywalker inner journey from a scared farm boy to courageous Jedi knight.

As explained in the previous blog, the main character usually has a flaw at the start of the story, and during the story the plot challenges the main character to overcome his flaw. And as we have seen from the previous blog, the main character’s flaw or weakness should be the right type of flaw to be tested by the story. Depending on the type of story, the main character’s initial weakness could be anything. For example: naivity, lack of confidence or self belief, hubris, or some negative believe which he/she needs to overcome during the story in order to reach their story goal.

The underlying story is often about what the main character learns during the course of the story. If he/she changes for the good, then the story ending is normally positive. If he/she refuses to change, the story may well end in tragedy. Either way there is a moral undertone that we can attribute to the theme of the story. The theme is the moral of the story or some self evident truth about human nature. For example, even death cannot defeat love (Romeo and Juliet).

So the deeper meaning of story, plot, theme and character arc are all different aspects of a storytelling, but they are closely linked together.

 

Plot patterns

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

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.

Endings

endingsDan Wells is famous for his seven point system for structuring stories. The approach is set out in a series of five videos that are still available on you-tube. Just search for ‘Dan Wells’.

The Well’s system is not vastly different from a number of other systems based around a three-act structure, with major plot turning points at the end of the first and second acts.  At the mid point the main character usually learns an important truth, which strengthens his resolve. Wells does not identify a separate inciting incident (or call to action), but treats it as part of the first turning point. In practice, there can be a significant delay between the inciting event and the main characters decision to move into the new story word of Act two. But does it really matter? They are clearly part of the same sequence of events (call to action, debate, more pressure, decision, forward action) that kick starts the story.

The story starts with a ‘Hook’ (the opening state of the main character) and finishes with a ‘Resolution’ (the final state of the main character). The pinch points are the places where the antagonist usually makes himself/herself felt.

The relevant story sign posts are arranged chronologically as follows:

  • Hook  (Do second)
  • Plot Turn 1 (Do fourth)
  • Pinch Point 1 (Do sixth)
  • Mid Point (Do third)
  • Pinch Point 2 (Do last)
  • Plot Turn 2 (Do fifth)
  • Resolution (Do first)

What I like about Dan Wells approach is that in analysing the structure of the story he starts at the end (the Resolution). How is the story resolved? What has the main character become? And then asks how does the story start and what is the state of the main character (the Hook). The story is the movement between these two points, with the main characters making important decisions at PT1 and PT2 and stiffening his/her resolve at the mid point. In the process the main character may  undergo a transformation of character from weakness to strength or vice versa (the character arc).

Starting with the end of the story seems like a good idea, since everything in the story is leading to this end result. But that doesn’t make the design of the end necessarily any easier. Currently, I am struggling with the ending of my third novel. At the start of writing I had a clear plan and an outline. But as I near the final Act, I have started to question the strength of the ending.

One writer once said that how a book starts sells the book to the reader, but how a story ends determines whether the reader will buy your next book. Endings have to fit the theme of the story and the type of ending the reader expects, without being too predictable and boring. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s true. For example, most romance stories have a ‘happily ever after ending’ as a genre requirement, but readers still want some element of surprise in the ending to be satisfying.

That brings me to the ‘twist’ ending. In thrillers or horror stories there may well be a twist ending to surprise the reader. The master of the twist was undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock. He revelled in manipulating audience’s expectations by providing either too little or too much information about a character. So the bad guy maybe really a good guy, or vice versa. Or the audience may know what’s coming, but the main character is blissfully unaware. Nowadays, movies are more likely to rely on fast action cinematic sequences and gore to surprise their audiences rather than such plot devices. That’s a shame, because no one seems to do endings as well as Hitchcock.

That brings me back to my current novel work in progress. I am truly excited about where the story has got to, but if I am to rework the ending I know I need create some distance from the story. That means putting it to one side for a short time and focusing on something else. Writing is not just about writing your story. The time you spent thinking about the story is just as important. I would rather spend a day thinking about one or two great ideas than churning out 2,500 words of garbage. So pausing for more thought about the ending is not a bad idea.

I find often that the best way to refocus the mind on the story is a long walk, and I plan to do a lot of walking in the near future. Don’t expect any Hitchcock like twist ending from me. I like happy endings. But perhaps with a bit more thought I can make my ending more enjoyable and less predictable.

If you’re currently writing a story, how confident are you that you’ve got the right ending? Or maybe, if you’re a ‘pantser’ you’re waiting to write the first draft to find out. Endings are annoyingly difficult to write, but satisfying when you get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plot and character – the chemistry

So what type of stories do you write: character-driven or action-driven? When thinking about your story ideas, do you start by imagining an interesting character, or do you start with some interesting ‘what if’ events and then consider the character?

It doesn’t really matter where you start, but you need both character and plot to make an interesting story. They are inseparable. How is a character going to reveal his character – only by how he/she responds to events, and by the decisions he/she takes which in turn affects future events. Plot and character are intertwined.

A great character with nothing to do doesn’t make an interesting story. Jack Reacher or James Bond without bad guys to go after is a pretty boring story. A series of events, like World War II doesn’t make a story. A story about a group of soldiers in a particular action in World War II and how they react in a particular situation may well be a great story.

The chemistry between character and plot is one of the key ingredients of a story. They must fit snugly together. Take the Hunger Games – a brutal plot where children are put into an arena to kill each other, and Katnis a strong willed heroine who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the arena. The story wouldn’t have worked without her. What if Brigette Jones was playing the lead in Hunger Games instead? It wouldn’t work. Putting it another way – the characteristics of the lead character are defined by the requirements of the plot.

The same is true in stories that are not action orientated. Katnis wouldn’t have made a great lead in Briget Jones’ Diaries, or Never Been Kissed. Would Erin Brockovich been the same without the feisty character played by Julia Roberts?

The problem with many ‘how to’ books on writing (and I’ve read a lot) is that they look at the writing process as something that can be broken down into components that can be studied separately: character, plot, descriptions, dialogue etc. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt a lot from these books, particularly about avoiding those basic newbie mistakes. But there are some aspects of writing that come down to pure chemistry: and plot and character are two important components. You know when you’ve got it right; and you know when it doesn’t work. But it’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s called ‘chemistry’.