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?

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.

 

The writing process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main turning points would be at least:

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

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

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

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

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

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

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

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

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

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

Stage 7: The Final Daft

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

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

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