Have 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.
Recently 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.
Dan 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.
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’.