Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Hero Goal Sequences

51e-zsKjp+LSince I started writing fiction in 2011, I have always been fascinated with the subject of story structure. I have read most of  the key texts written by the screenwriting masters like Syd Field, John Truby, Michael Hauge, Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler, and some of Frank Daniel’s followers,  as well as many more less known writers. It seemed that these screenwriting gurus  had a good grasp of story that any budding fiction writer could learn from.

In my Blogs, I have covered many of their core ideas: the three act structure and its many variants, the sequence method and its variants and the mythical hero’s journey. It seemed to me that story narrative can be broken down into distinct scene, sequence and act components, and that while some of these gurus choose to label their components and turning points differently, their ideas have more in common with each other than they might choose to admit. So when I came across an article written by Eric Edson that asserted all successful movies have between 20 to 23 distinct sections called ‘hero goal sequences‘ I was somewhat sceptical. But as I am a fan of the sequence approach, it piqued my interest enough to purchase his book. I am pleased I did, but after two readings I am still think some of his claims are hyperbole. But it is an excellent book nonetheless.

Firstly, the book is not just about these hero goal sequences. The first 150 pages are about the basics of storytelling: the foundations, creating characters, and building story structure and character growth. Nothing new here — the structure section follows a classic three-act structure. However, Edson is a masterful teacher in the way he explains things in a simple way. You can glimpse his teaching technique and an insight into his approach by visiting his Chanel on YouTube: ‘The Story Solution’.

So what are hero goal sequences and how are they different from Frank Daniel’s sequences?

A Hero Goal Sequence consists of three to seven pages of screenplay — usually two to four scenes — wherein the Hero pursues one short-term physical goal as a step towards achieving ultimate victory in the story. Then the Hero discovers some form of new information I call Fresh News that brings the current goal to an end and presents a new short-term physical goal — thereby launching the next Hero Goal Sequence.

Edson asserts that for any successful movie the number of Goal sequences in Act One and Act Two remain constant. Act One always consists of six Hero Goal Sequences with a Stunning Surprise (his term for Turning Point One) in goal sequence six. The first half of Act Two contains another six goal sequences and the Midpoint scene always unfolds in Goal Sequence twelve. The second half of Act Two contains another six goal sequences with Stunning surprise 2 (Turning Point Two) arriving in goal sequence 18. Act Three typically contains three goal sequences, but never less than two or more than five. So under Edson’s approach there will be 21-23 sequences split by act 6-12-3/5.

What about scenes or sequences in which the hero is not present – should they be counted in the 21-23 sequences?  Answer – no, they are ignored by Edson. Although they may cut into the time allotted to the hero sequences.

The sequence approach as developed by FranK Daniels is quite different. It is described in David Howard’s book “The Tools for screen writing”  as:

…a self-contained portion of the overall story with its own tension, its own beginning, middle and end.

These are essentially stories within stories. Under Frank Daniel’s methodology a lot of focus is placed on ‘tension’ – the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will achieve his goal.  The sequence ends when the tension of the sequence ends, even though the same event might lead to a new tension in a new sequence. For example, our hero maybe be searching for a map for the holy grail. The sequence ends when he finds it. But a new sequence and tension begins over whether the hero will find his way to the grail.

Although the definitions look similar the application seems very different. Frank Daniel’s approach normally leads to screen plays with 7-8 sequences for most movies with possibly 12 sequences in a very long movie such a Lawrence of Arabia. Edson’s approach breaks the units down into much smaller units  with 21-23 sequences.

So how does it work? Edson gives a detailed breakdown of Back to the Future. Taking the first Act he lists first six sequences:

  1. Marty practices guitar at Doc’s place. Goal– practice guitar. Fresh News – He’s late for school.
  2. At school Marty and his band are berated by Principal Strickland as being too loud. Goal – get to school and audition. Fresh News – They’re too loud.
  3. Marty needs the family car but it’s smashed and he watches helplessly as Biff belittles his father. Goal – take Jennifer to Lake. Fresh news – Doc asks for help with his experiment.
  4. Doc sends his dog, Einstein, back one minute in time in the DeLorean car. Goal – videotape the experiment with Einstein. Fresh News – time machine works.
  5. Marty now ready to  videotape Doc doing the same but interrupted by terrorists. Goal – videotape Doc. Fresh News – Terrorist turn up to kill them.
  6. Doc gets shot and Marty escapes in the car. Goal – escape. Fresh news – He’s looking at an empty field where his house should be.

Edson’s explanation seems to work, but it is a bit contrived. The goals he identifies are not really ‘steps towards achieving ultimate victory since until the end of the first Act Marty doesn’t even know that his ultimate goal will be to get back to the future. In my view,  the first three of Edson’s sequences  are just a collection of scenes that give a glimpse of Marty’s normal daily life and in some cases are setting up payoffs for later in the movie (for example when Marty later discovers rock and roll).  This initial sequence is what other gurus have described as the setup sequence.  Similarly, Edson’s sequences 4-6 are really just one continuous action sequence leading to the first  turning point (act one beak). So in my view there are only two sequences in Act One – not six.

Does it matter what we describe a unit of narrative as a sequence or scene or some other element? Probably not. It’s up to the writer to use what techniques they find most helpful and I can see real benefits in determining what the hero’s goal is in any situation whether it be a scene, a sequence, or the story as a whole. One famous writer once said the main character should always have a goal in every scene even if it’s just to drink a glass of water. Without a goal there is nothing to move a story forward.

So what do you find is the most helpful methodology for visualising the structure of your story?