Story structure simplified

Since I started this blog I have often visited the subject of story structure. It’s one of those subjects that excites me. Some writers will throw their hands in the air in horror at the idea of structure. Story is emotion and there is no unique formula that will emote a feeling in reader. It is down to the storycraft of the writer. And writers shouldn’t write to a formula, because it’s too logical and predetermined.

I agree to a point. But it doesn’t mean that it is wrong to look at the underlying structure of the story in the planning stage, editing stage or better still, both. A story with a bad structure probably won’t work. But having a good structure doesn’t guarantee success.

Success in writing of the kind of JK Rowling or Stephen King and the other greats is like a Black Swan event — extremely rare. And success is unlikely to be due to their story structure alone. It’s also unlikely that some of these great writers would even admit that they look at structure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t ingrained into their DNA.

So what is structure.

Story structure mimics the learning process of ordinary life. We have unfilled desires and encounter opportunities/problems during the course of our life. We make choices and act on them. Our choices sometimes have complications and unexpected consequences. We try again. The problem escalates until it reaches a crisis, which is either resolved, defeats us or is abandoned as a goal. And in the course of this process, we learn and change.

Most of the work on story structure comes from the Movie industry, where it has evolved into a quasi science. Each of the story gurus have their own approach to story design, with their own vocabulary to explain it. There is the Three Act Structure, the Four Act Structure, the Six Act Structure, and Nine Act Structure; the Save the Cat Plot Beats; the Sequence Method; the Mini Movie, The Hero’s Journey; Harmon’s Plot Circle, and many more. But when you look into the detail, they all focus on deconstructing the story into a number of defined elements and place a slightly different emphasis of different aspects. So there is a considerable amount of overlap between these ideas.

The oldest form of structure is the Three Act Structure, which dates to the days of Plato. The Three Act Structure is still popular today. The First Act is about the set-up for the story, introducing the main character and setting up the story premise.The second Act is all about the confrontation and is roughly twice the length of the the First Act. The Third Act is about the resolution of the story. Often there is one or more major events at the mid point of the story that breaks the Second Act into two parts. The first half being about how the main character reacts to the central conflict. And the second half being about the character taking control and going on the offensive.

Splitting the Second Act at the mid point is like having four acts of equal length. This to me makes sense from a practical perspective, and I’ve used the approach below to show you how it works. I’ve also broken down the Acts into eight sequences, and have identified the main plot points, character arc, and the protagonist’s escalating interaction with antagonists. The structure below is technically for stories categorised as Comedy (anything other than a Tragedy) — where we have a positive ending. Tragedies on the other hand, have a different pattern where they have a False Triumph at the end of Act 3 and a tragic ending at the end of Act 4.

ACT 1

Act I is all about introducing the main character in his ordinary world and showing how he is drawn into the central conflict, first by the “Call To Adventure” (also called Impetus, Inciting incident, Catalyst, Disturbance), which often the main character initially ignores. For example, where Luke Skywalker gets the message from Leia ‘Help me Obi Wan..” But he refuses to go with Obi Wan to Alderaan.

Later, at turning point (TP1), there is a devastating event, which forces the main character to act. For example, Luke Skywalker discovers his uncle and aunt have been slaughtered by the the imperial guards. This forces him to make an important decsion go with Obi Wan on his quest. At which point he Crosses the Threshold into the New world of Act 2.

Not all stories have a Call to Adventure and a TP1. Sometimes they are the one and same event where the protagonists makes their mind up to act immediately. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister is chosen from the lottery to be part of the Hunger Games (TP1), and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and goes on the train to the Capital (Crossing the Threshold/ Point of No Return).

Act 1 normally consists of two or three sequences. The first sequence (Character in status quo) is usually about the main character and the ordinary world he/she lives in before the Call to Adventure impacts on their life. The second sequence is normally about the character finding his story goal, and establishing the Central Story Question — will the hero reach his/her goal? The main character often refuses the call and is drawn into accepting by the effects of TP1.

In Star Wars there are three sequences.

The first sequence deals with the Origin of the Conflict before the main character is involved. This is the sequence where Darth Vaders forces invade Leia’s space ship and she hides the battle plans in R2D2 and sends them to Tatooine. It also acts as a powerful Hook — an intensive action sequence to keep the audience’s attention until the main character is introduced.

The second sequence (Character in Status Quo) introduces Luke and ends with the Call to Adventure.

And the third sequence ends with Luke discovering his dead uncle and aunt (TP1).

The other aspect of Act 1 is to show the main character’s flaws and establish the story goal. Luke is a young, and impulsive farm boy that dreams of becoming a space pilot. And by the end of the Act he has a story goal– to take the battleplans of the Deathstar to Alderaan with Obi Wan.

ACT 2

Act 2 is all about the pursuit of the quest. Act 1 gives the main character a goal to pursue, but he/she is dealing with an unfamiliar world. This is the road of trials, where they find new allies and enemies. It is a period of ‘fun and games’ with plenty of action. It is a period of learning and adapting.

In Star Wars, it shows Luke out of his depth in Mos Eisley spaceport, Obi Wan recruiting Hans Sol and Chewbacca with an exciting escape. This is the first sequence.

The second sequence sequence is much shorter – lightsaber training. The second sequence (First Culmination) ends with devastating news. Alderaan is destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam (TP2). This is the Mid Point.

ACT 3

The Mid Point is full of complications. In the first sequence (New Complications), they devise a plan to escape from the Deathstar and find that Leia is scheduled for execution. This gives Luke a new goal — to rescue the princess. They hatch a plan to rescue the princess, but it all goes wrong and they end up in the trash compacter and have to escape from it.

In the second sequence (Crisis & Main Culmination) Obi Wan deactivates the tractor beam, the team get back to the ship, they escape the deathstar, fight off their fighters, and get the plans of the deathstar to the resistance. This sequence has a major turning point TP3 before the end of the sequence, where Luke witnesses the death of Obi Wan at the hands of Darth Vader.

In many stories after this point there is a Low point where the main character reaches rock bottom and wallows in pain, followed by an epiphany moment where he find the means and resource to give it one last shot.

This was not really the case in Star Wars. Luke doesn’t seem to spend too much time getting over the loss of his mentor, and the epiphany moment comes before the Climatic Moment in the Critical Choice of Act 4, where Luke chooses to use the force to destroy the Deathstar.

ACT 4

The first sequence (Climax) is all about the lead up to the climactic moment. In the case of Star Wars, the Climactic Moment is where Luke uses the force to destroy the deathstar.

The second sequence (Conclusion/Denouement) is the resolution of the story. It’s a short sequence to see the heroes get their medals. We find the characters have changed. Luke is the process of becoming a Jedi Knight, and Hans Solo has for once done the heroic thing.

Limitations

Perhaps you’re thinking this structure work only works for action movies and is not really relevant for your type of stories. Or maybe your stories are about romance, or about multiple protagonists. Certainly romance novels have their own tropes and structures, and you might find studying them more beneficial. But what I think you will find that there is a natural flow of ups and downs, and the main turning points, follow to some degree the patterns we see in the sequences above.

Sub Plots

The structure outlined above is about the central conflict in the story. It is a helicopter view of the central conflict in the story and should be seen in that way. There may well be an important B story or even C story that is woven into the story. Sub-plots are usually linked to the theme of the story and main character arc.

In Die Hard, there is an important subplot around JohnMcClane and his estranged wife.

In Lethal Weapon there is an important subplot about the relationship between a suicidal Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh a veteran officer facing retirement.

These subplots are as complex, if not more complex than the underlying central conflict. But without these sub-plots the movies would have been flat and uninteresting. So sub-plots should be broken down and planned in the same way as the central conflict. And then woven into the story in a seamless way.

Sequences and Scenes

It is relatively easy to think of story structure as a series of plot points and turning points in each act. But plot points and turning points also occur in every sequence and every scene although not on the same level.

In each scene the protagonist may have a simple goal in mind, but encounters a problem or opportunity during the scene or sequence. They make a choice and act on it. And their choices have consequences, which in turn lead to new goals, actions and consequences.

So as I have already explained, the underlying pattern of all stories are driven by a process of learning and adapting to change, and in the process character is changed. In Comedies they normally change for the better. However where a character fails to learn and adapt to change the story will normally end in tragedy.

What do you think?

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?

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.

Eliminating the saggy middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First there are the romantic conflict sub plots.

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

There are some parental-child conflict sub plots

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

But the most intriguing subplots are the political ones:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and character arc

Some writers don’t like the idea of story structure and reject it on the grounds that any such approach would be too rigid for them. Structures like the Hero’s Journey, the Three-Act structure, and the Sequence Method may appeal to some writers,  but not all. But even if you don’t like to write in a structured manner, understanding the rhythms and patterns of stories can provide an insight into understanding the basics of why a story works or doesn’t work.

Recently I have been looking at ways to simplify the approach and connect more with character arc. Here is my simplification which is loosely based on a Three-Act Structure, but without drawing too much attention to the three Acts. Those familiar with the Three-Act Structure will see which blocks fit into each Act, but for now I want to concentrate on the different types of narrative that fit naturally together in a pattern.

The light blue narratives are the setup and main action sequences in the story. The dark blue narratives are the important Plot Points through the story, all of which are outside the control of the Main Character (“MC”). The yellow narratives are periods of reflection when we see into the MC’s persona. Examples and references to Star Wars used below are to Star Wars New Hope.
outlineThe Setup is where the MC is introduced in his ordinary world. We see why we should empathise with him/her as well as their faults and desires.  We may also see or glimpse the antagonist and the ‘McGuffin’ or ‘Object of Desire’, if any. (Eg. the Plans to the Death Star.)

The Catalyst, or Call to Adventure, is the big event that starts the main conflict of the story running. (Eg. In Star Wars,  Luke gets the message from Princess Leia ‘Help me Obi-Wan’.)

After the Catalyst the MC may try to avoid dealing with the new situation or may seek help. (E.g. Luke initially rejects Obi-Wan’s offer to go to Mos Eisley Spaceport.)

Plot Point 1 is a major shock that forces the MC to act. (Eg. Luke finds his uncle and aunt killed and farm torched and goes on the quest with Obi-Wan.)

The first part of Act 2 is taken up by a series of action sequences where the MC is reacting to the new situation.

At the Mid Point the MC may be subject to a new shock or revelation that complicates his/her quest or throws the story into a new direction. (Eg. The Millennium Falcon is caught in the death Star’s tractor beam.)

The Mid Point shock may force the MC to re-examine his commitment to the quest and strengthen his/her resolve. (Eg. Luke finds that Princess Leia is about to be executed and commits to rescuing her.)

The second part of Act 2 is an action sequence about the execution of the MC’s new plan.  (E.g. Luke, Han and Chewbacca rescue the princess and escape the Death Star).

Plot Point 2 is another devastating event that affects the MC. (Eg. Obi-Wan is Killed by Darth Vader).

Sometimes after Plot Point 2, the MC retreats into self examination — the dark night of the soul. (Eg. In Star Wars, this is merely a brief moment of pain for Luke, but it has a profound effect on him).

At the end of the dark night of the soul, the MC usually discovers what he/she needs to do to succeed. (In Star Wars, the ‘discovery’ is the  Death Star’s weakness.)

The final action sequence takes us into he Third Act. It is the final attempt by the MC to complete his/her quest, but there is a new goal. (Eg. In Star Wars, it is to destroy the Death Star.)

Often there will be a Twist before the climax. (Eg. In Star Wars, Luke is at the mercy of Darth Vader, when Hans Solo returns in the Millennium Falcon to save him.)

The Climax is the ‘obligatory scene’ which finally resolves the story. (Eg. when Luke destroys the Death Star.)

The Aftermath is the scene the shows what life is like after the resolution and how the MC has changed. (In Star Wars, it is the scene when Luke, Hans and Chewbacca are given medals. Luke has changed from from farm boy to hero.)

So how is this different from some of my previous blogs I hear you ask — the narrative is pretty much the same? That’s right. But what the analysis shows is that there is a natural pattern that alternates between action scenes/sequences and more reflective scenes/sequences. The yellow text is pretty much where we see the Main Character changing during the course of the story.  That isn’t to say that there are no reflective moments in the blue narrative — there will be. But what the diagram shows is that structure is not just about plot, it’s also about the character arc of the main character.

It also illustrates the importance of pacing. You can’t have a story being just about action sequences. The audience or reader needs time to relax and reflect just like the main character. Stories therefore have to have a natural rhythm to them that alternate between action sequences and reflective scenes that show character insight. I hope the diagram shows that.

Tell me what you think.

 

Story structure

In recent months, I have done far more reading than writing, much to the detriment of progress on my latest novel. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed catching up on the works of other Sci-Fi writers from whom I can learn a lot, and I have enjoyed re-reading  some of the technical screenwriting material on the subject of story structure.

Story structure has always fascinated me. I have a small library on the subject. Movies and novels have a lot in common — they are both about story telling although they use different media. Much of the science behind story structure is provided by the screenwriting movie gurus, who have sought to capture the DNA of what makes a good story. They all have their own particular methodologies and terminology, but in practice they are looking at the same story model from different viewpoints, and they have more in common than they would care to admit. Whether it is a three-act structure, a four-act structure, a six-act structure, a 15-step beat sheet, or a sequence method (such as the Mini-Movie Method), they all are trying to capture the same thing — breaking down the narrative structure of a story into its essential logical elements.

Let’s start with the simplest version — the Three Act Structure, which can be traced back to Aristotle, but became firmly established in the early days of the movie industry. The approach was popularised by Syd Field in his books on screenplay. The paradigm is as follows:

Syd field paradigm

According to Syd Field the narrative of a story can be broken down into three elements:  the Setup, where the characters are introduced, the setting explained and the story premise is established; the Confrontation where the hero battles to reach his goal; and the Resolution of the story. Each act is separated by a plot point that precedes the Act change. Syd Field defines a Plot Point as a story progression point being — “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around into another direction”.

Eric Edson takes a narrower view describing Plot Point I as a “Stunning Surprise 1” that requires the following elements:

  1. It must happen to no one but the hero and create a life changing emotional impact.
  2. It must take place in an instant.
  3. It must truly shock and surprise the hero.
  4. It must fundamentally change the hero’s circumstances.
  5. It changes the hero’s destiny.
  6. It tells the audience what the movie action will be about.

I like Eric Edson approach, which focuses on the plot point as an event that hits the hero like a punch. Other gurus have focused on the decision or action taken by the hero as a result of the event. For example, some gurus label this moment “the Decision”, “the Commitment”, “the Door”, “Crossing the threshold” or “the Break into 2”.  However, the timing difference between the event, and subsequent decision/action taken by the hero is usually quite minimal.

In Star Wars New Hope, Luke hears the message from Princess Leia conveyed by R2D2, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” This is the Catalyst of the story, which is also known as the “Call to adventure”, “the Inciting Incident”, “the Disturbance”, or “the Opportunity”. It is the point where the the hero becomes involved in the central story problem. Later in Star Wars, Obi-Wan tries to convince Luke to go with him to Alderaan. But Luke refuses the call. And later Luke stumbles on a Jawa massacre and realises the Imperial Stormtroopers are searching for the droids. He races home to warn his aunt and uncle, but finds them dead and the farm torched. This is Plot Point I where Luke is so shaken to the core by what he sees.  He says “there’s nothing for me here now” and sets out with Obi Wan to go to Mos Eisley Spacepor to find passage to Alderaan.

Eric Edson describes Plot Point II as “Stunning Surprise 2” which serves a similar purpose to Stunning Surprise 1, but with a twist. It comes out of the blue at the end of Act 2 and changes everything, destroying the hero’s plan for victory. It is also called the “all is lost moment” and can lead to soulful moment called the hero’s “darkest hour”.

In Star Wars New Hope, Plot Point II is when Luke is about to escape in the Millennium Falcon from the Deathstar he witnesses Darth Vader striking down Obi-Wan. Luke subsequently succeeds in getting the plans to the rebels’ base, but the story is not over. Act 3 sees a new phase of the story with the attack on the Deathstar and resolution of the story.

Syd Field noted that the Mid Point of a movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’, which is often a culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or a reversal and an important moment of character change.

The Mid Point is not necessarily just one scene, but is a gathering of scenes with several important functions. It is a structural crossroads: the possible culmination of a false victory or false defeat from a major action sequence that precedes it, a new revelation that raise the stakes, and the moment of truth for the hero. It is the time the Hero understands for the first time what he is really up against. He has reached the point of no return and must become fully committed to the quest.

The Mid Point also neatly divides Act 2 into two different “Dramatic contexts”. For example, the first half of Act 2 of Star Wars is all about Luke and Obi-Wan going to Mos Eisley spaceport in order to find passage to Alderaan. At the Mid Point they find that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam of the the Deathstar. The second half of Act 2 is about rescuing Princess Leia, who they find is scheduled for execution, and escaping the Deathstar.

Now let’s put some more plot points on the diagram: the Catalyst and the Climax. As already explained, the Catalyst in Star Wars New Hope is when Luke gets Leia’s message from R2D2 “Help me Obi-wan…” The Climax is when Luke uses the force to target the Deathstar and destroy it.

We now have five plot points, which break down the story into six stages as follows:

Hauge

This is broadly the six stage approach advocated by Michael Hauge. The six stages are:

  1. Setup – the story setting and the every day life of the hero. It ends with Turning Point 1, which Hauge calls the “Opportunity” (a.k.a the Catalyst).
  2. New Situation –  the hero reacts to the new situation by trying to figure out what’s going on. It ends with Turning Point 2 which Hague calls the “Change of Plans” (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  3. Progress – the hero makes some progress towards his goal. It ends with turning point 3  which Hauge calls the “Point of No Return” (a.k.a. Mid Point).
  4. Complications and Higher Stakes – the hero’s obstacles become more difficult until he hits turning point 4 , which Hauge calls the “Major Setback” (a.k.a Plot Point II).
  5. The Final Push – beaten and battered the hero risk everything in a final push. It ends with the Turning Point 5 – – the Climax to the story.
  6. Aftermath — we see the hero now have complete his journey and transformed by the process.

As you can see, this approach breaks down the story into more manageable chunks of narrative. Hauge also uses the same stages to identify the character arc of the hero. So there is both an outer journey and inner journey for the hero.

The Second Act of a movie is approximately an hour long and in the case of a novel, possibly 200 pages of narrative — a large chunk of narrative. An approach that breaks down the narrative even further is the Sequence Approach.

Script reader Pro describes a sequence as “… a collection of scenes roughly tied together by a singular goal and that results in a specfic outcome that changes the protagonist’s chances of achieving the overall movie goal either for the better or worse.”

Chris Soth describes his mini-movie in a similar way as “a series of scenes defined by its own mini-tension on which the main tension of the story rides.” In this respect “tension” is the effect the story has on the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will or will not achieve their story goal. Both definitions are therefore about a hero pursuing a goal related to the overall story goal.

A sequence has its own beginning, middle and end, where the hero pursues a goal until he either achieves it, fails, or gives it up and follows a new one.

The Mini-movie or 8 Sequence Method can be illustrated as follows:

Sequences

To arrive at an 8 sequence model we need only include the sequence climaxes — S1 and S2 — to break up the narrative into 8 components.

Sequences A, B, G and H are broadly the same as Hauge’s Stages I, II, V, and VI.

In the Star Wars New Hope movie, sequence C takes place at Mos Eisley Spaceport and culminates with the shoot out as the Luke and friends escape in the Millennium Falcon.

The next sequence D ends at the Mid Point with the Millennium Flacon caught in a tractor beam from the Deathstar.

Sequence E starts with Luke and friends hiding of the Millennium Falcon and finishes when R2D2 finding out that Princess Leia is onboard and scheduled for execution.

Sequence F begins with Luke convincing Han Solo and Wookie to rescue Princess Leia and finishes at the same times as Act 2 with the Obi-Wan being struck down by Darth Vader.

Does there have to be 8 sequences? No. It just seems to happen that most 2 hour movies fall into eight sequences of approximately 15 minutes, but some are longer and some shorter. The first Act normally has have 2-3 sequences: the second act 3-5 sequences and the third act 2-3 sequences. As no one sees how the writer has constructed the story it is up to the writer to determine how many sequences they want to use to group their scenes under for planning purposes.

A sequence has it’s own mini-story structure with it’s own rising tension, crisis and climax. Different schools use different terminology to describe the sequences. One of the best examples I have seen of this approach adopted by Paul Tomlinson , who describes the nature of each sequence as follows:

  1. Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge
  2. Responding to the Challenge
  3. Responding to the strange new world
  4. First attempt, First Failure & Consequences
  5. Reacting to the MidPoint & Raising Stakes
  6. The Second attempt, The Fall & the Crisis
  7. The Climax
  8. Resolution and Denouement

All the approaches above are built on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure. But what about the four, five or six act structures? That depends, of course, on how you define an Act. For example, in the first diagram above of the Three-Act Structure we divide the narrative into four different components. Would it be simpler to call this  a “Four Act Structure” as some advocate? Possibly yes. But three-act terminology is well known in the movie industry and is part of the vernacular.

An interesting variation of the methodology is that of Marsall Dotson who advocates a Six Act structure. Each Act has it’s own Catalyst, Turning point and goal. Based on Dotson’s own analysis of Star Wars New Hope and timings would match as follows:

  1. Act 1 – Dealing with an imperfect situation (Same as existing Act 1 – 43 mins)
  2. Act 2 – Learning the rules of an unfamiliar situation (Same as Sequence C – 16 mins)
  3. Act 3 – Stumbling into the central conflict (Same as Sequence D & E – 13 mins)
  4. Act 4 – Implementing a doomed plan (Same as Sequence F- 24 mins)
  5. Act 5 – Trying a longshot (Same as sequence G -21 mins)
  6. Act 6 – Living in a new situation (Same as sequence H – 3 mins)

One aspect of Marshall Dotson’s approach I admire is the evolving nature of the goals and the nature of the opposition identified in each Act as the story intensifies:

  1. Act 1 Initial goal/ oppressive opposition
  2. Act 2 Transitional goal/incidental opposition
  3. Act 3 False Goal/ intentional opposition
  4. Act 4 Penultimate goal/self-inflicted opposition
  5. Act 5 Ultimate goal/ ultimate opposition
  6. Act 6 New situation.

For example, in Die Hard John McClane’s initial goal is to travel to LA and reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly. But when the terrorists invade the building he takes a new goal not to defeat the terrorists, but to call the police. When this fails he has to alter his goal. So gradually his goal evolves into the ultimate story goal of defeating the terrorists.

However, I still find it difficult to treat Dotson’s analysis as six acts. Particularly as the sixth Act is only a few minutes long. I don’t wish to get into semantics but in my view it is simpler to think of this method as a five-act model or five-sequence method. The effect is to split the narrative into five main components.

Other approaches

The two methods that haven’t yet been discussed are Blake Synder’s 15-Step save the Cat approach and Chris Vogler’s 12 Step Hero’s Journey. Both frameworks can easily be overlayed on the Three-Act Structure:

Save the Cat

  • Act 1: Beats 1-5
  • Act 2: Beats 6-12
  • Act 3: Beats 13-15
  1. Opening image
  2. Theme stated
  3. Set-up
  4. Catalyst
  5. Debate
  6. Break into two (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  7. B Story
  8. Fun & Games (multi scenes)
  9. Mid Point
  10. Bad Guys close in (multi scenes)
  11. All is lost (a.k.a. Plot Point II)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul
  13. Break into three
  14. Finale (a.k.a Climax)
  15. Final Image

The “Fun & Games” covers most of the first part of the second act. It’s Fun & Games for the the audience but not the hero. It is where a lot of interesting action takes place. Similarly, “Bad Guys close in” is a multiple scene section that shows the hero going down hill until he hits the “All is lost moment.” The B story is usually love interest element, buddy relationship or mentor relationship. The Save the Cat model is a transformational story where the hero changes, the most reflective moments being at the Mid Point and Dark Night of the Soul. The difference between the Opening Image and Final Image should reflect the transformation the hero has gone through.

Chris Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey

  • Act 1: Steps 1-5
  • Act 2: steps 6-10
  • Act 3: steps 11-12
  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusal
  4. Meeting the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold (Plot Point I)
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to Inner cave
  8. Ordeal (a.k.a. Mid Point)
  9. Reward
  10. The Road back (aka Plot point II)
  11. Resurrection (a.k.a Climax)
  12. Return with the elixir

Vogler notes that not all the steps may apply and those that do may appear in a different order. The approach is meant to be flexible. Also the terms are mythical metaphors. For example, ‘Resurrection’ is the re-emergence of the Hero’s changed character in the story climax. Not some strange metaphysical occurrence.

Like Hauge, Vogler also looks at both the Hero’s inner journey and outer journey. And he explains how the character develops at each of the 12 steps.

Are there simpler solutions that don’t use the three-act model? Yes there are. Both Nigel Watts and Eva Deverall use very simple eight-stage structure without the need for plot points. But if you look closely enough the same underlying structure that appears under the three-act model but without the same technical detail.

Nigel Watts’s 8 point story arc is as follows

  1. Stasis – the every day life of the hero.
  2. Trigger – something outside of the hero’s control sparks off the story.
  3. Quest – the trigger results in a quest.
  4. Surprise – at the mid point of the he/she encounter surprises.
  5. Critical choice – the hero has to make a crucial decision.
  6. Climax – the crucial decision leads to a climax.
  7. Reversal – as a result of the climax the hero’s character has changed for the better.
  8. Resolution – the changed hero returns to the stasis world, wiser and enlightened.

Eva Deverall’s One page formula uses 8 stages as follows:

  1. Stasis – the character is not living to their full potential.
  2. Trigger – and internal or external impulse or both forces the character to the first step forward.
  3. Quest – the character enters the new world, meets mentors or allies and makes a bad plan to solve the problem created by the trigger.
  4. Bolt – something unexpected — the plan inevitably goes wrong.
  5. Shift – the character makes a paradigm shift of character.
  6. Defeat – the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
  7. Power – the character finds a hidden power within themselves to win the prize.
  8. Resolution – the character is living up to their full potential.

Conclusion

As already mentioned, most of these variations of story structure are based on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure.  Although the use of different terminology can be confusing they all attempt to break down narrative into it’s main components.

From a writer’s point of view, no one will see your plans before you write, and no one that reads your book or sees your movie will have much idea of the methodology you used to get there. Of course some writers won’t want to use any framework to plan their writing and may still be successful because the underlying story patterns are hard coded into their DNA. For all the other writers the frameworks are there to help. So use whatever works for you.

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?

Character Arc

nutshellAs a writer, if you want to study story telling there is no better source than world of screenwriting where Hollywood has turned the art of story telling into a science. Of course, writing a novel and writing a screenplay are very different mediums: movies are visual and novels are written. But they both share the same important elements of storytelling. So studying movies is a great way to study how stories work.

Over the past eight years I have read many of the books on story structure, plotting, and character development. So much so, that I thought it was impossible to find a new insight into story development. But once again I’ve been proved wrong. Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique provides a fresh new perspective to the subject of character arc.

Generally when writers talk about story structure it is usually about the three-act plot structure and in particular the big turning points in the story at the end of act one (a.k.a turning point one/act one break/point of no return)  and act two (a.k.a turning point two/act two culmination/crisis). Some writers, such Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler, also draw attention to the inner emotional journey our protagonist makes as the plot effects him/her. For example, Luke Skywalker changes from a frightened farm boy into a Jedi knight. This is what we generally refer to as character arc. Not all stories necessarily have a character arc. For example, James Bond and Indiana Jones rarely change in character over the course of a movie. But most do.

Most writers agree that a protagonist should have at least one flaw in order to be three dimensional. No one is perfect. But what makes Chamberlain’s perspective different is that the protagonist’s character arc from Flaw to Strength should be uniquely linked to the main turning points. Or put another way, the protagonist changes because the plot challenges his particular flaw and his view of himself and the world.

A story should be unique to its protagonist. The events of the story should uniquely test traits specific to the protagonist. If I can take your protagonist out and replace them with a completely different character, and with a few tweaks make your script work just as well with a new protagonist, your script is presenting a situation and is not a true story.

Thus a protagonist should not just have a flaw; he/she should have the right flaw to be tested by the plot.

Identifying a central flaw in your protagonist is an essential component of screenplay story structure.

The Nutshell approach is to identify eight important elements that are linked to the protagonists character arc.

  1. Flaw (The protagonist’s initial flaw)
  2. Strength (The final protagonist’s position )
  3. Set-up want (In initial scene )
  4. Point of No return (Plot Point 1/Act One Break)
  5. Catch (at Point of No Return)
  6. Crisis/Triumph (Plot Point 2/Act 2 Culmination)
  7. Climatic Choice (Beginning of Act 3)
  8. Final Step (Final scene)

To do justice to the Nutshell approach requires a detailed reading of the Chamberlain’s book, which explains each of these elements and how they relate to examples in blockbuster movies. What is new and novel in this approach is the Set-up Want and the Catch, which require some further explanation

The Set-up Want is something the protagonists wants from the first scene. It is also the opposite of what the protagonist wants to happen in the Crisis. As the maxim goes sometimes you should be mindful of what you wish for, because the protagonist gets his want at the Point of No Return (Plot Point 1) together with the Catch. For example, Luke Skywalker longed for adventure and to get away from the farm. At Plot Point 1 he finds his aunt and uncle murdered and the farm burned. So In one sense he got what he wanted (an adventure) but the Catch was he had no family left and had no choice but to go with Obi Wan to take the droids to Alderaan.

The Climatic Choice is what gets the protagonist out of the Crisis and into Act 3. And the Final Step is the final scene that shows the protagonists has completed his character arc.

The Nutshell Technique places character arc as an integral element of the story rather than as an optional add on or choice for the writer. The point being that the character arc must fit the story to work. That I believe is a valuable insight that is worth thinking about.

Save the cat writes a novel

41xpmolk3vl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_One of the first books I read on screenwriting was the late Blake Synder’s Save the Cat. I liked it so much I also bought and read Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat Strikes Back, both of which are great books on story and genre structure. I therefore wondered what more I could possibly learn that’s new from Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel. 

The answer is that it covers almost all the material from the original three books in a comprehensive manner but is clearly focused on novel writers rather than screenwriters. So if you are a novelist and you haven’t got the original three books then this is good choice. It is also well written and explained, possibly even better than the original books. For those of you that have not encountered the Blake Snyder’s beat sheet before, seeing it for the first time may come as a bit of a shock since it gives approximate timings of 15 key story beats that are evident in most great stories. These timings should not be taken too seriously as novels are much more flexible than screen plays and therefore should be regarded as a broad guide. These timings have been adjusted by Jessica Brody from screenplay timings in minutes to approximate percentages of a novel.

  1. Opening Image (0-1%)
  2. Theme stated (5%)
  3. Set-up (1-10%)
  4. Catalyst (10%)
  5. Debate (10-20%%)
  6. Break into Two (20%)——————————
  7. B story (22%)
  8. Fun & Games (20-50%)
  9. Mid Point (50%)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (50-75%)
  11. All is Lost (75%)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-80%)
  13. Break into Three (80%)————————-
  14. Finale (80-99%) (with five possible sub beats)
    1. Gathering the team
    2. Executing the plan
    3. The High Tower surprise
    4. Dig Deep Down
    5. The execution of new plan
  15. Final image (100%)

Beats 6 and 13 are hero actions that split the structure into three Acts. Act 1 roughly 20%, Act 2  60% and Act 3 20%.

The blue beats are multiple scene beats, the most important of which are Fun & Games and Bad Guys Close In, which take up most of the second Act. Fun & Games are not necessarily fun for the hero/heroine, but they cover most of the high tension action sequences that provide fun for the audience (or in this case the reader) in the first part of the second act.

At the Mid Point the hero usually experiences a false victory or false defeat, the stakes rise (new revelation, twist or ticking clock) and the A & B stories intersect.

After the Mid Point, generally it is down hill for the hero as the Bad Guys Close In, culminating in an All is Lost moment.

The Debate sequence and Dark Night of the Soul are multiple scene sequences where the hero reflects and reacts to the story Catalyst (the event that sets the main story in motion for the hero) and the All is Lost moment (the hero’s lowest point).

The red beats are what Jessica Brody refers to as ‘foundation beats’ — the important beats that hold the story structure together.  These are not necessarily unique to Blake Synder’s beat sheet as they appear in other three-act structures.  Jessica Brody suggests that when designing the story from scratch these ones are best determined first ahead of the rest.

At the heart of the Save the Cat approach is the believe that stories are about a flawed sympathetic  hero/heroine that through his/her journey goes through a transformation. Thus the Opening Image and Setup show our flawed sympathetic hero/heroine in his/her initial state.   And the final image shows how he/she has transformed. This transformation is linked to the theme of the story, often articulated by a character in beat 2 and rejected by the hero/heroine. Through the course of the story the hero transforms recognising his own weakness at the Mid Point, and later transforms during the reflective moments of Dark Night of the Soul, and the Finale. An important element of the hero/heroine’s transformation will be the influence of the B Story characters introduced at the beginning of the second act. These can be the hero’s love interest, side kick or mentor who help him to find his/her true self.

The idea that a story should be about a flawed sympathetic hero undergoing a transformation as a result of the story is not unique to the Save the Cat approach. Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler both talk about the outer and inner journey of the hero in some detail. And they are not the only ones that identify what some prefer to call character arc. Most successful stories are about heros that change. Take Star Wars, New Hope where Luke Skywalker transforms from a feeble farm boy to hero. Alternatively they can be about steadfastness of a hero under enormous pressure – Indiana Jones, for example, rarely changes. In either case there is usually an underlying theme to the story that is expressed through the character’s actions and resolve.

For those reading about the beat sheet for the first time the approach might seem somewhat formulaic. It doesn’t have to be. If you manage to have more major twists and turns than the beat sheet suggests then it shouldn’t be a problem. No one is saying that these are the only beats you need to be concerned with. The Fun & Games multiple scenes, in particular, require high tension actions sequences with twists and turns and highs and lows. Without them your story is going to be flat.  And when the Bad Guys Close In there should be plenty of opportunity to make the hero’s life pure hell. But if you are missing  any of the big foundation beats or they have turned out flat then you may find your story is in trouble.

It’s easy to try to dismiss the save the cat approach as just another formulaic plot structure and I suspect many have. But they are probably missing the point. It’s not about following a mechanical list of plot points. It’s all about weaving together the A (main story line) and B (main character arc) stories in such away as the theme emerges through the hero’s character transformation. The plot points are just the milestones along the way.