Story types — Tragedies and the dark side

I’m a writer of speculative fiction that likes to write stories that have have positive endings. I want to see my main characters overcome their weaknesses and transform into heroes and heroines. For example, Luke Skywalker transforms from a shy farm boy to Jedi Knight. (Yes, I’m a big Star Wars fan). I like to see good overcome evil, for love to find a way — the happily-ever-after ending. Yes, that may sound kind of soppy. But that’s the way I am. And that is the reason why I’m not normally drawn to dark tragedies.

Hollywood with some notable exceptions also seems to agree with me as as most movie stories have positive endings. Although the reason for this maybe because they are easier to make and financially more attractive.

In Shakespeares day, plays were categorised between ‘tragedies’ (those with sad endings) and with all rest categorised as ‘comedies’. In this case, comedies were not just about humorous stories although some, of course, were. Many of Shakespeares best works were tragedies: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

But tragedies that have sad endings are not necessarily dark. Romeo and Juliet was certainly a sad endings, but the ending was a positive message that ‘not even death could overcome true love’.

Horror stories too, can have positive endings although many don’t. The movie ‘Alien’ is a horror movie in space, but the hero Rigby overcomes the Alien Queen. In comparison, Alien Covenant had a darker and more sinister ending. Stephen King, of course, is the master of horror stories and dark endings. He once wrote:

There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal “Once Upton a time”.

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us. And sometimes, they win.

So what are modern dark tragedies? They are stories where the main character undergoes a negative character arc from good to bad. One of the best examples I have seen recently is the series Breaking Bad.

Recently, I was a looking for a new movie or series to watch on Netflix and I chose to watch the first episode of Breaking Bad to see if it was worth watching. I and my family ended up binge watching the whole five series. It was compulsive watching.

The main character in Breaking Bad is Walter White, a chemistry teacher, who discovers he has cancer and turns to meth-making to repay his medical debts and provide a future legacy for his family after his death. Of course, Walter’s initial morally questionable action leads him down a difficult path where he takes increasingly immoral actions. So what started as a plan to provide for his family after his death, becomes twisted into a reason that he did it ‘because he was good at it’.

Breaking Bad is therefore a story about how a good man, with initial good intentions turns to the dark side. He’s a Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein character that gets corrupted by his own hubris. It was always going to end badly, and it did.

Why do we find these types of characters so interesting? I think we start with empathy in understanding their dilemma. But as their actions become increasingly questionable that empathy turns to overwhelming curiosity as to how the outcome will come out. There is always the thought that they might just find their way to moral salvation and do the right thing. But in the end they are always destroyed by their own hubris. Karma gets them in the end as they have to pay the price for their past wrong doing. So there is an underlying moral theme to these types of stories that dates back to Shakespearian times.

Could I write a character like Walter White — probably not. He’s a complex character and has a complex character arc. The skill set in writing such a character is beyond me. But then again, it’s not the kind of story I would want to write. What about you?

Taking inspiration from the movies

As a writer and story-teller I have often taken inspiration from the movies. When I write I create a movie in my head and write what I see and experience. I’m not sure all writers necessarily think the same way. To me the words on the page are just a medium by which I can convey those sights and sounds and emotions to the reader. While others may fall in love with the poetry of the words themselves.

Of course, the written medium is different from the visual medium. Not all good books would make good movies, and not all good movies would translate into the written form. Yet as a writer there is a lot I have learned from the movies about story telling. And some of the best books in my library on storytelling are those that have been designed for scriptwriters and movie makers. In fact the movie industry has almost developed a science around the subject of story telling.

Does that mean that a writer needs to understand all the tools and techniques of scriptwriters — the three act structure, the sequence methodology, the hero’s journey et al. No. I’m sure the most of the successful writers are successful writers, because they are intuitively brilliant writers. But if you’re not one of them, perhaps one way of improving your storytelling is through analysing movies.

For one thing, there is very little fluff in a movie. Every scene is there because it has a purpose. And if it doesn’t, it gets cut. It’s a lesson that every writer should understand when editing their material. Sometimes more means having less. One of the expressions you may have heard about writing and editing is to “To kill your darlings”. That is, you may love the scene, but if it simply doesn’t fit into the story you need to cut it. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of darlings killed. To write a 70,000 word novel I’ve discarded or rewrote tens of thousands of words.

Recently I’ve been watching some of my older movies in my DvD and Blueray collection. It’s surprising how much you can forget about a movie. Last night I chose V for Vendetta, a dystopian political movie directed by James McTeigne released in 2005 and based on a 1988 DC Comics limited series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.The story depicts a near-future, dystopian, post-apocalyptic version of the United Kingdom. It’s a world where the power of the US has been destroyed by a second civil war and a pandemic of the “St Mary’s Virus” ravages Europe. The UK is ruled by a right-wing fascist party. But the techniques it uses is that of any totalitarian party, denying free-speech, controlling the media and narrative, and treating any criticism as hate speech or terrorism.

Fifteen years ago, when I first saw the movie, I thought it was interesting but a little far-fetched.

Today in our current world of pandemic, lockdowns, racial riots, where free speech is under threat from cancelling culture and dissenting views are labeled racist, xenophobic or deniers, and where the Big Tech companies are the arbiters of misinformation, it is frightening how close to we are to going down that path. But that is one of the purposes of good science fiction. It looks ahead to the future, and warns us of the dangers we face. In that respect V for Vendetta was a great movie to make you think. Do I really think we are heading towards a totalitarian society like that controlled by the Norsefield party? No. But that doesn’t mean that are rights to free speech and individual freedom are not under threat by more subtle means. We live in interesting times.

So are there any sci fi movies that have inspired you?

Story Themes

I normally blog monthly, but I missed-out in December for personal reasons. For many, 2020 was an annus horribilis (horrible year) — it was the year of the pandemic. But for me it was exceptionally sad. I lost two dear family members near the end of the year, one expected and one very unexpected.

It made me realise life is not always what we want it to be. It can be fragile and unfair.

It also made me wonder why we as humans embrace stories that stand for fairness so much. Is it a reaction to seeing unfairness in real life? Our fictional characters are made to suffer, but in the end they eventually succeed in their goals or sacrifice themselves for some higher cause. Stories like this have been told since the days of cavemen. They have a strong moral element underlying the story line that celebrates heroism and fairness.

I realise that not all stories end happily-ever-after. Although I certainly have a preference for them. But even Shakespeares tragedies had a strong underlying moral element. Stories tell us that good will win over evil, that justice will prevail, that man can seek redemption, that a hero will choose duty over self interest, that even death cannot conquer true love.

Someone once said that stories are there to reveal some universal truth about human nature. And sometimes this is not always positive. For example, that power can corrupt, or that hubris comes before a fall. But even these stories are about human morality.

As a reader you probably read for a variety of reasons. It is a form of escapism where go for adventure and fun. We connect with the characters we love and follow them on an emotional journey. Maybe you don’t think too much about the theme underlying the story. But it is there, just like it was in our caveman days.

Simple story patterns

In my blog over the years, I have written a lot about story structure. Story structure is all about the foundations of a story. From childhood we are introduced to stories and quickly understand their patterns. Once-upon-a-time… and they all lived happily every after.

Remember this one:

Jack takes his family cow to sell, but naively exchanges it for worthless beans. His mother is annoyed and throws the beans away. Up shoots a bean stalk. Jack steals the hen that lays the golden eggs from the giant and escapes down the beanstalk. And chops down the beanstalk before the giant can catch him.

We have all the basics here. A protagonist to identify with — Jack. An opportunity/problem that comes into his life — a quest to recover the hen that lays golden eggs. An antagonist to complicate matters — the giant. A climax — jack escapes from the giant and cuts down the beanstalk. And a character arc — Jack goes from naive child to hero.

As we get older the storylines get a little more complex but we still see the same underlying patterns.

Most romance stories have a simple plot. Boy meets girl. They initially dislike each other but are forced together. Love blossoms. Something goes wrong that forces them apart and then the lovers reconcile.

Most action stories are good-versus-evil stories. The protagonist underdog puts his life on the line to save the world. And just when evil seems triumphant, he/she manages to pull off the impossible and defeat evil.

There are coming-of-age stories when a young protagonist learns to stand up for themselves or overcome some weakness. And there are redemption stories where a flawed protagonist learns the true meaning of life (Christmas Carol).

Mystery, crime and horror all have their own patterns too. And they have their tropes: the down-and-out PI, the studiously clever detective that solves an impossible crime, or the selfish group of kids that provoke the ire of some psychopathic killer.

There is something about stories that we recognise in our emotional DNA and that we never seem to get enough of. We want to root for hero/heroine to win the day, but usually not until they have survived enough pain. Winning should never be effortless.

So as writers we need to understand these patterns are at the very heart of our stories. In any story there are two fundamental storylines. The main plot or protagonist’s outer journey, and the character arc or protagonist’s inner journey. But these two story lines are by no means the only elements we see in a modern novel or movie. Otherwise we would be limited to writing fairy tales.

So novels and movies weave in a number of important storylines about protagonist’s relationships with other main characters: the antagonist, the love interest/buddy, and sometimes a mentor/confidant, or sidekick. These are no less important than the two main storylines, because they add colour and realism to the characters and are the reason we connect with them. Combining all these storylines into one a cohesive story is by no means easy. But writing is a craft that requires both talent and technique and, like most crafts, takes time to develop.

Story design and readers’ expectations

What makes a story a compelling read that the reader cannot put down? Is it the story idea at the heart of the story? Or is it the way the story is executed? Great writers, of course, do both. But creating the readers expectations about the book and delivering what they want must be of core importance to the reader’s experience.

Adrienne Bell in Plot MD, sets out three core ways a writer can write a compelling story:

  1. Setting expectations of your readers early, and ensuring they are met by the end of the book.
  2. Creating a relatable set of dilemmas that your audience can invest in.
  3. Setting up a connected flow of actions and consequences that pull the reader through the story rather than pushing them along.

Why are expectations so important? From the moment a reader picks up a book, the writer is creating expectations. The cover, the title, the blurb and genre will all influence the reader’s expectations. And after only a few pages they will understand the type of story they are looking at from the the type of journey the protagonist or protagonists are taking, e.g.:

  1. A single protagonist or team journey
  2. A romance or buddy journey
  3. An epic multi-protagonist story.

Each type of story journey has its own patterns. The ‘Hero’s journey’ may well relevant to the single protagonist journey, but it is by no means the only one. Romance and buddy journey stories have their own patterns and tropes.

A writer can also influence reader expectations by:

  1. Foreshadowing. Everyone has heard of Chekov’s gun. If a gun is discovered in the first scene of a crime novel, it will almost certainly be fired later. The same was true of James Bond’s gadgets, which invariably got him out of a tight spot later in the plot.
  2. Setting up the protagonist for a fall is another technique. The protagonist declares they will always or never do something sets them up a future u-turn. Set ups and payoffs are familiar technique to screen writers. Remember Indiana Jones and his hatred of snakes and how he ends up in a snake pit.
  3. Signalling how a negative trait impinges on the protagonists current life signals what they will need to overcome by the end of the story. Bell believes readers instinctively know what the writer is setting up.

Bell also discusses other promises the writer makes about the future outcome of the story and expect justice to be meted out to characters with moral shortcomings. She calls them debts, which have to be repaid, because the idea of justice is central to storytelling. Bell asserts that reader’s sub consciously understand these promises and fully expect to see them paid off. It’s all about fictional Karma.

Dilemmas

Why are dilemmas so important to the storyline and character development? The dilemmas a protagonist faces and the choices they make are at the heart of story telling. Bell explains as follows:

Because creating an organized set of relatable dilemmas that are intimately tied to your protagonist’s character arc is what allows you to take the power of conflict and translate it into action on the page…. As long as the audience can relate to the emotional core of the dilemmas and decisions, they will find themselves connecting to every other aspect of your story, no matter how unfamiliar they might be….

Bell is not the first to understand the importance of getting an audience to empathise with the protagonist. Blake Snyder named his book “Save the cat” on the important of creating empathy for the protagonist by relatively small noble actions. The difference is Bell’s approach is that empathy is more about the relating to the dilemmas the protagonist is facing. I have to agree.

The flow of actions and consequences.

Bell suggest that story planning should be around the meaningful decision characters make rather than around scenes. Certainly this kind of approach helps to focus attention on the big decisions the protagonist makes.

If you set up your story around a central conflict, a series of dilemmas will spring up. When your characters come face-to-face with these dilemmas, they will be forced to make decisions. Those decisions will have consequences, which will force your characters to face more dilemmas, which will lead to more decisions, which will lead to….

Consequently, meaningful decisions create a chain of action and consequences that are at the core of the story.

Bell designed a worksheet using four funnels for Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2B and Act 3 to show how each decision made by the protagonist constricts the future choices they can make as they move along in their journey. She looks at three key decisions for each funnel. Therefore there are twelve key decisions in all. Some of these decisions may well connect to the five big turning points in the story: the inciting incident/catalyst, Plot point 1 at the end of Act 1, the mid point, Plot Point 2 at then end of Act 2, and the Climax. But this still leaves seven, most of which will be in Act 2. Copies Bells worksheet are available from her website.

Clearly, there are many different ways the narrative of a story can be analysed. For example breaking the story down into Acts, Sequences, Step Outline, Scenes, and Beats and by identifying Turning Points and Reveals. Key Decisions are just another way of doing it. Analysing the structure of a narrative once it is written is relatively easy. The key issue is what approach best works from a planning perspective before the narrative is written. As with most things in writing, this is a matter of personal preference. It’s what works for you that matters.

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.

Plot points and pinch points

If you are a writer, there’s a lot you can learn from the techniques used by scriptwriters in story design. The media are different; but they are both about storytelling. In previous blogs I have discussed the three-act structure, sequences, and the mythic structure. All these approaches use plot points in one way or another. In this blog I want to look again at what plot points are and why they are important to story design.

So what is a plot point?

Syd Field was one of the first to emphasise the importance of the three-act structure in screenplay design.  He defined a plot point as:

“any incident, episode or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction.”

He also explained a Plot Point can be anything you want it to be. It is a “story progression point”. It can be an action, a line of dialogue, a short scene, an action sequence, or dramatic sequence.

So why are they so important?

Syd Field placed particular emphasis on what he described as Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2, which occur and the end of Act 1 and Act 2. These two plot points break a screenplay into three separate acts with three very different narrative effects. A two-hour movie will normally require a screenplay of about 120 pages (one page per minute). Novels are longer but the proportions between the Acts are broadly the same.

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Act One  is all about setting up the story: introducing the main character, establishing the dramatic premise (what the story is about), creating the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action) and the relationships between the characters. Act Two is all about confrontation (the hero wants something desperately and he is frustrated by the antagonist forces that oppose him/her). And Act Three is all about story resolution. But the plot points are more than just Act separators, they are major dramatic moments in the story where everything changes.

Plot point 1 is perhaps the most important plot point of all. It’s the event that forces the hero to take up his quest and starts the story rolling. In Star War’s a New Hope,  it’s the moment when Luke discovers his uncle and aunt have been murdered by the stormtroopers and their farm torched.  He says to Obi Wan, “There’s nothing for me here now.” He has made his decision to go with Obi-Wan and take the Death Star plans to Alderaan.  And so starts his quest. In Thelma & Louise it’s sequence where a brief stop at a bar turns into an attempted rape and murder setting the women to go on the run. As can be seen from these examples, it’s a decisive moment that forces the hero to take up the quest. This plot point has a number of different names: Crossing the threshold, Lock-In, First Door, Point of No return, Stunning Surprise. All these describe aspects of the effect of this event on the hero.

Plot Point 2 at the end of Act 2 is the incident episode or event that hooks into the action and leads the action in Act 3, the resolution. In Star Wars a New Hope, it’s when Luke, Leia and Hans witnesses the death of Obi-Wan at the hands of Darth Vader as they escape from the Death Star. After which Act three is all about the rebel fight back and attack on the Death Star. Plot Point 2 is often a low point for the hero: a defeat from which he has to find the courage to rise again for Act 3. Plot Point 2 is sometimes called the Act Two Culmination, Major Set-Back, Second Door, or Second Stunning Surprise.

According to Syd Field, the Mid Point of any movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’. It is often the culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or reversal that forces the hero to look at himself. It is a point where the stakes rise and the hero resolves to see the quest through. It also neatly splits the long Act two into two usually separate sub-dramatic themes. For example, in Star Wars a New Hope, the startling new revelation is that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in the grip of tractor beam from the Death Star. The first half of Act 2 is all about Luke and Obi-Wan finding a ship and taking the droids to Alderaan. The second half of Act 2 is all about rescuing Princess Leia and escaping from the Death Star. The Mid Point is certainly an important point. It is so important that James Scott Bell wrote a whole book about it.  Bell believes it is a single moment of truth for the hero when he finally understands what he/she is up against and where his/her attitude and resolve stiffens. Others believe the Mid Point is a sequence rather than a single event or reversal. It certainly can be spectacular – Titanic hits the iceberg. But it is also has an internal emotional dimension – when and Rose chooses her future is with Jack over her fiance.

So are these the only plot points?

No. While Syd Field believed Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 were the most important plot points to hold the context of the story together they were by not means the only ones.

It should be noted here that there can be many Plot Points in your screenplay but at this stage in the writing process, the preparation, we are focusing on Plot Points I and II; they are the anchor points that hold elements of your story in place.

So what are the others? It will of course depend on the story but any any incident, episode or event that is a key component in the chain of events that make up the plot is essentially a plot point. So there could be many. However the major ones are likely to include at least the following:

  1. The opening scene.
  2. A hook scene or sequence designed to capture the curiosity of the reader/audience to read on.
  3. The Catalyst / Inciting incident
  4. Sequence climaxes (each main sequence may have its own climax)
  5. Pinch points
  6. Third Act Twist (if any)
  7. Third Act Climax
  8. Final scene

Most of these are obvious, but the Catalyst and Pinch Points require some further explanation.

The Catalyst is the first time the Hero is confronted with the problem or opportunity that will become the central focus of the story. It is called a variety of different things: the catalyst, the inciting incident, the opportunity, the call to adventure. It usually arises in the middle of the first act, but may occur earlier, in which case it also serves as a hook to pique the audience’s interest. Or it may occur later, at the same time as the First Plot Point. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen finds her sister’s name is drawn for the hunger games and she immediately volunteers to take her place. In Star Wars it is when Luke receives the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan…”, but Luke chooses not to act until  later when he discovers his murdered  uncle and aunt (Plot Point 1).

Pinch points also require some explanation. Unfortunately in screenwriting the term is used in two different ways to mean different things about things occurring at broadly the same time in the script. This is confusing.

Syd Field used the term to describe two key sequences in the first half and second half of Act Two that holds the sub-dramatic context of each half in place. To take the Star Wars as the example, the sub-dramatic context of the first half of Act Two is about Obi-Wan and Luke finding a ship and travelling to Alderaan with the droids. The second half is about rescuing Princess Leia and escaping from the Death Star. Thus if you could write one sequence about page 45 and another about page 75 that reflects these contexts it would hold (pinch) the script  together. Syd Field’s approach is therefore about the practical aspects of writing a long Second Act. So if you know Plot Point 1, the first pinch, the mid-point, second pinch and plot point 2, all you need to do is fill in the gaps. It is a writing technique that gives you a series of stepping-stones through Act 2. Perhaps a better term for this would be an anchor sequence.

The other meaning and more common meaning of pinch points is a cutaway scene that reminds the audience/reader of the power of the antagonist.

Larry Brooks defines them as follows:

An example, or reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonist force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience.

An example of a pinch point from Star Wars A New Hope is when Grand Off Tarkin and Darth Vader use the Death Star to blow up Alderaan while forcing Princess Leia to watch.  The scene of course could be cut without affecting the story line at all. Luke and Obi-Wan would still have found Alderaan destroyed. But from an emotive point of view it shows the audience just how nasty the antagonists are.  Oddly enough these short cutaway scenes tend to arise at the same timing point as Syd Field’s pinch points.

Not all screenwriting gurus use the same terms. As we have seen in this blog there are many different names for the different plot points. Some use other terms for plot points: Milestones, Story Beats, Steps. But basically they are the same things. For example, Larry Brooks uses the term milestones and explains them as follows:

Milestone scenes are critical, not only because they are the tent poles that support the weight of your story; they are also the lynchpins for most of the other scenes in your novel or screenplay. Without them you have no plot.

I couldn’t agree more. Whatever type of writer you are, having an idea of the key milestones or plot points of your story before you write the story is a critical element of story design. If you don’t know the main plot points, you don’t know your story. Some writers, of course, will say they write in order to discover their story and some such writers may be blessed with the talent to do that successfully. For the rest of us though finding our story is difficult enough without some element of planning. Understanding the main plot points is part of that process.

Story pacing

v1.bTsxMjQ5NjIzMTtqOzE3NjQ5OzEyMDA7MjY1Njs0MDk2One of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. For those that haven’t seen this 1982 neo-noir movie, it’s set in a 2019 dystopian world where synthetic humans known as replicants are bioengineered by a powerful corporation to work on off world colonies.  Directed by Ridley Scott and loosely based on Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it tells the story of a Blade Runner, Rick Deckard  (played by Harrison Ford) who is assigned to hunt down and terminate a group of rogue replicants who have escaped and returned to Earth.  Although not a huge box office success, the movie achieved a cult status among sci-fi followers.

So when Blade Runner 2049 was released in 2017, I was keen to see if it lived up to the original. Unfortunately, like so many other follow-ups, I was disappointed. Though the critics seemed to love it for its cinematics and dystopian mood, the public didn’t share their view. It didn’t do well at the box office, and I can see why. It wasn’t the  fault of the actors, the cinematics, or the music score. It was just painfully slow. At two hours and 32 minutes it was 35 minutes longer than the original movie, but seemed to contain less action and less plot. Ridley Scott, who served as a producer on Villeneuve’s movie, said he would have cut half an hour. I tend to agree. The movie was like watching paint dry.

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the importance of story pacing. Any story-teller whether novelist of screenwriter needs to be aware of story pacing. There are times when the action in a story needs to accelerate with an adrenaline rush  and other times when the main character needs to become reflective and the audience can relax. The example in my previous bIog gave an example of a movie with perhaps too much action. But I never thought I would see and example of too little action and with such a long running time. The audience might not just relax, but fall asleep.

Would cutting the movie back to two hours have saved the movie? Possibly. Although for me the ending lacked a clear resolution or theme in the same way the original did. The original movie was all about what it means to be human. And in some respects the replicants were more human than the humans. Blade Runner 2049 captured the same dark mood as the original but lacked any theme.

There will always be a risk in trying to build a movie on the success of a previous cult movie. Hollywood loves franchises at the moment, which usually have high box office sales. It works for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean where the follow ups use the same core actors and the audience knows what to expect. But  is it really likely to work for a 35-year-old movie? What’s Hollywood going to try next: Casablanca 2?

A Story Blueprint for the Action / Adventure genre

Over the last three blogs I have looked at the five core elements of any story design:

  • The Protagonist’s Characterisation
  • The Big Problem or Opportunity that enters their life and acts as the Catalyst for the Central Conflict
  • Opposition – Antagonist forces and obstacles that stand in his/her way
  • A Story World
  • A Satisfying Resolution.

And in previous blogs I have looked at some of the structural frameworks used  by screenwriters in story development: namely the three-act structure, the sequence method, and the mythic structure. Putting all these ideas together into one story planning guide has been a labour of love. The Blueprint is 5% inspiration and 95% a mash-up of the best ideas drawn from different screenwriting gurus. For the want of a better word I call it a Blueprint. But it’s only meant to be high level planning guide for your story to give you a helicopter viewpoint of your story design to see if it works before you commit to writing or further outlining.

To some writers, I’m sure the idea of any story blueprint is an anathema. Novels and the storylines within them are far too complex to be reduced to just eight sequences or a given number of turning points. They’re absolutely right. But at the heart of any novel or movie is a simple story which follows a simple pattern. And if the simple story doesn’t work, neither will the novel or movie on which it is based.

The Blueprint is based on an Action/Adventure genre, but can be easily adapted for other genre or different types of endings (e.g. tragic). The link below is to a pdf file freely available on Dropbox. There is no need to register or any other requirement. Just download and use it as you see fit.

Blueprint

I would love to hear from anyone that has used it or reviewed it.

 

Story Design — Characterisation

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

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

5_Elements

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

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

Characterisation  

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

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

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

Empathy factors

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

Back Story and character Arc

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

Plot Objective or goal

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

Relationships

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

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

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