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.

 

 

Reading as a writer reads

1I sometimes wonder why we get so excited about holidays.  For me holidays are not about lying in the sun or sun tans. It’s about reconnecting with family, getting away from the pressures of current day life, dining out, some healthy walking and … catching up on my reading. So on my recent holiday to the Canaries we ate well, walked miles and miles, and read a lot.
Really, I didn’t have much choice. My family banned me from reading emails, or using my phone or ipad for the duration of the holiday. Okay, I relapsed once to check flight times and download some KDP data to work on later. But generally I was tech-free for two whole weeks. How many of you can do that?
But technology isn’t the subject of this month’s blog. Instead I chose my holiday activity of reading. Stephen King once said that writers should read a lot to master their craft. As writers, we can appreciate the skills of other writers and learn from them.  I know to progress my skills I need to  read more fiction than I currently do. I  do read a lot — but it’s usually technical material. So on my holiday this autumn I picked five authors to read from my sci-fi genre. I finished three of them and enjoyed them. The other two I started but soon put them down. It wasn’t that these two were particularly badly written.  It’s just that I’m a fussy reader and it was taking too long to get into the story.
It struck me that if I am so fussy about what I read then so are many others. Obviously, to be a successful writer you need to capture the hearts and minds of your readers.  But getting this done in the first line, first paragraph, or first page or the story is hard. And if you don’t achieve it by the first ten pages you’ve probably lost the reader.
In this respect, readers are very different from the audience in a cinema. Members of the audience are unlikely to walk-out in the first ten minutes of a movie. On the other hand, a reader in a book shop, or on Amazon, may only spend a minute or two reading a short sample of the text before choosing to buy or put down the book.
Of course, I’m not the first to stress the importance of the opening scene. There are many books on writing that say the same thing. And if you are looking to sell your story to an agent or publisher the chances are they will reject a book out of hand if they are not impressed within the first few pages. Clearly, how you open a story is important and there are some techniques you can use to capture interest.
One technique writers use is called in medias res.  Here the hero/heroine is thrown into immediate danger to capture the interest of the reader. This technique is often used in action movies. For example, in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark the opening sequence in the Peruvian jungle puts Indiana into a host of death defying incidents as he first recovers and then loses the golden idol. But this technique does not necessarily always work, particularly when we don’t know the hero/heroine. Why should we feel immediate empathy for a character in potential danger when we have barely met them? Finding this empathy in the first few lines or paragraphs of a story therefore requires real writing skill and imagination.
Another technique is to raise a question in the mind of the reader about why a character is behaving in an odd way? For example, why is he standing naked on a bridge in the middle of the night? How did he get there? What is he planning to do? To find out the reader has to read on, and by the time the reader learns the answer the writer has posed another question to pique the reader’s curiosity.
A good opening line is one way of capturing the readers attention. Here are some well-known opening lines from some great writers:

 

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

All children, except one, grow up.—James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan

One of the things writers are warned against is starting with the weather. It’s not that it doesn’t create a mood; it’s just that the technique is overused and cliched. But to prove that there are no rules in writing that can’t be broken, here are some exceptions:

It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.—Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

While opening lines are important, I don’t think writers should necessarily become obsessed with them. Otherwise there is a danger of writing paralysis setting in driven by trying to meet an impossible standard of perfection. If we can’t get past the first line how are we going to finish the draft?
The time to consider the opening line and hone those critical opening paragraphs is when the first draft of the story is complete and you start the editing process; not when you’re writing the first draft. You need to get the story up and running and in the first draft and for that purpose any opening line will do. The opening can be perfected when the story is complete.

The Eight-Sequence Method

Plot basics PTFor those who have been following my blog you may have rightly surmised that I have a fascination with story structure and story patterns. I believe fiction writers can learn a lot from studying the story telling techniques of the movie industry where story telling has almost become a science. And while novels and movies are obviously different media, the success of both depends on discovering a good story and finding the techniques to tell it well.

In my blogs I have looked at various structural aspects of stories: the three-act structure, the sequence method, the mythic structure and some of the technical aspects of structure  such as plot points and pinch points.

Recently, I was toying with the idea of bringing together some of my many blogs on the subject into a free ebook to help new writers deal with these concepts. That is, until I discovered Paul Tomlinson’s ebook on the subject – Plot Basics,  Plot Your Novel or Screenplay in Eight Sequences. It seems to deal with all the aspects that I have covered and more. And at just £2.99 (less than $4) it’s a small price to pay from bringing together what would otherwise involve reading a small library of books on the subject.

If you have already read all the important screenwriting books by writers such as Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, John Truby, David Howard,  Paul Joseph Guilino,  Linda Seger, Chris Soth, and many others, then you won’t need this book. But if you’re looking for a quick overview about how these related concepts can work together in one  eight-sequence, three-act structure then look no further. In his Sources and Bibliography Tomlinson identifies some 45 sources that are quoted in the text and another 52 sources that he has used to broaden his understanding.

So what is the Eight-Sequence Structure? Most writers know a story has a beginning, middle and end. That is broadly a three-step or three-Act structure.  Syd Field explained the narrative structure of each act as: setup, confrontation, and resolution. However, this still leaves a lot to understand about what goes into each Act. The Eight-Sequence Method breaks down the story pattern into eight segments: two in the first act, four in the second act and two in the third act. Tomlinson describes them as follows:

Act 1 (Setting up and setting in motion)

Sequence 1: Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge

Sequence 2: Responding to the challenge

Act 2 (the middle)

Sequence 3: Responding to the ‘Strange New World’

Sequence 4: First Attempt, First Failure & Consequences

The Midpoint

Sequence 5: Reacting to the Midpoint & Raising the Stakes

Sequence 6: The Second Attempt, The Fall, & The Crisis

Act 3 (The end – Climax & resolution)

Sequence 7: The Climax

Sequence 8: Resolution and Denouement

Different writers have used different labels to describe the eight sequences but the their purpose is very much the same. In my recent blog on  Story Structure I described the  Sequence Structure I like to use for my own planning purposes. It’s very similar to that proposed by Tomlinson (which might explain why I like it). But the terminology is also similar to that used by a number of writers including  Chris Soth’s Mini-Movie Method and Mary Lyn Mercer’s Story Bones. There must be something about the eight sequences that follows the organic pattern of a story.

Tomlinson suggests that it might have something to do with the rule of three. The first serious attempt to solve the story problem is in sequence 4, which ends in failure. The second attempt  is sequence 6 and ends in an even worse crisis. And finally Sequence 7 leads to the final climax of the story. He may have a point. In comparison, sequences 2, 3 and 5 are all reactive sequences following key turning points: the catalyst/inciting incident (what Tomlinson calls the ‘challenge’), plot point 1 (or Act 1 break) and the Mid Point.

What I like about Tomlinson’s book is that he gives a lot of guidance as to what kind of things occur in each sequence. He’s not the first to do this, but the lists and explanations are comprehensive and helpful and draw from a wide range of guidance. My only gripe about the book is that I wish it had been published seven years ago. It would have provided an easier starting point for me and a more than adequate reading list of publications for further research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story structure

Recently I started to map out the key scenes for my next novel using a three-act framework. I used a software program that’s designed for screenwriters called Control Writer. It uses a horizontal map of the key elements of a three-act structure to put scene cards under each caption in a natural time order pattern as follows:

  1. Opening scene
  2. Setup
  3. Inciting incident
  4. Movement to resolution
  5. Plot Point One
  6. Act 2: tier 1
  7. Midpoint
  8. Act 2: tier 2
  9. Plot Point 2
  10. Climax
  11. Resolution
  12. End Scene.

The software is flexible and can be adapted easily to accommodate an eight sequence approach by introducing new captions at 6A and 8A for two additional sequences in the Second Act.  Or you can adapt it to any framework you like using your own captions. Anyone of course can do the same thing manually using cards and cork board, or by using the same captions in Scrivener’s cork board, which is my next step in my story development. But before I get there I want to experiment and play with the story structure until I know it works, and for me this is the quickest way.

The point I am making is not that a writer needs to clever software to design a story. The same thing can be done with cards on a table, floor or cork board. The important thing is to see the story pattern visually and think non-sequentially.  If you have a great idea for the mid-point write the card and place it under the mid-point. If you have alternative ideas for an ending place the cards under Climax. You can choose which one later when you have more of the story filled in.

But I’m a pantser I hear you scream–planning is a left-brain activity, and creative writing is a right-brain activity. What happened to listening to the character and where they want to go? Didn’t Ray Bradbury say a writer should follow along behind the main character and see where he/she takes them?

Many great writers like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King are natural story tellers and don’t use outlines. But that doesn’t necessary mean they don’t work on the story, prepare notes, or have a good idea where they are heading before they start writing. If you’re happy pantsing and your stories work, then fine. All writers should use the tools that work for them. But if you’re not finishing your stories, or are unhappy with them, you might like to try this type of visual planning. You might be surprised by how it spurs your imagination on.

But knowing there is a three-act structure with two main turning points at the end of Acts one and two and a mid-point doesn’t help you write a story?

True. But all stories have a natural pattern: a catalyst leads to a quest, which leads to complications, a series of crises, a climax, and denouement. The three-act structure sets out the main tent poles for this pattern and if you incorporate the eight sequences, the pattern comes to life. The sequence structure I use for my genre is as follows:

sequence structure

Still not convinced? Maybe you write a different genre and this structure is too much like an action-based story. Then adapt it to the eight or so sequences that reflect the natural phases of your story. All stories follow a natural pattern irrespective of genre: catalyst, complications, crisis, climax, and denouement. Great writers find it ingrained in their DNA. The rest of us need to work at it.

Do you still need to write an outline? That’s up to you. A series of scene cards with one or two sentences on maybe enough of an outline for some. For others they may well wish to flush out more detail synopsis either before they start writing or before writing each scene. I find that there is a certain amount of work on plot and character that has to be done before the story finally  forms in your head.  But the only rule you need to follow is that there are no rules. It’s up to you, the writer, to determine what works for you. After completing three novels I’m just beginning to find out what best works for me.

So what works best for you? Let me know what you think.

 

 

Hero Goal Sequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The five core elements of story

For a long time I have wondered what distinguishes a great story-teller from the rest. Clearly, great story tellers are blessed with great creative skills and imagination. Many of the basic techniques of writing  such as structuring, using dialogue, grammar, point of view, and voice,  can be learnt. The creative  skills of story telling are much more difficult to develop, but not impossible. The first stage is to find the concept or idea from which you can develop a story.

The great concept or idea

All great stories start with a great concept. What if there is a school for wizards? (Harry Potter). What if a dystopian society forced children to kill each other in a tournament for entertainment? (Hunger Games). What if a cop waiting for retirement is paired off with a partner with suicidal tendencies? (Lethal Weapon). What if a plane carrying the president is hijacked? (Air Force One).

But how do you find these killer ideas? The answer is to find that one great idea you need to generate lots  of ideas, most of which will be rubbish. But eventually you will find that gem that stands out from the rest. The first step is therefore idea generation and here are some of the techniques that can help:

  • Day dreaming – I do this a lot. What if… an alien artifact was found in your garden… What if a new cold drug remedy had the side effect of giving autistic children mind reading powers… Good ‘what if’ questions will almost always lead to further questions to hone the concept further. Write down your ideas however silly they seem. Let them germinate with time and grow. Revisit the ideas after a passage of time and you might see them in a different light.
  • Collecting odd ideas – from news and other sources in a journal/notebook. Ideas that are not written down will be lost. Don’t lose them.
  • Turning an existing story idea on its head. What if the antagonist is really a good guy after all? What if the macho male hero is a child, a female, a seventy-year old, a paraplegic, someone with OCD. How does the story change? What if the ending was changed into a tragedy?
  •  Combining ideas from different stories into something new. A love story and titanic. (Sorry, that’s been done). Die hard on a battleship. (Sorry, that’s been done too.) Die hard on the Titanic? Sounds crazy…. change it.  Die hard on a nuclear submarine… Keep changing it until something works.
  • Free writing. Just write with a pen and paper, what comes into your head for ten minutes without stopping to think. Believe me, it works. It helped me find the idea behind my debut novel. You will write a lot of rubbish, but it is the precious gems of wisdom within that rubbish that you can salvage and use.
  • Idea association: take a silly idea and examine the consequences. The silly idea may springboard to another idea, and so on until you reach an idea that may not be so silly.

Developing the concept into a working story proposition.

Once you have found that great concept, it’s easy to get excited about it. But a concept alone isn’t enough to build a story on.  At best it’s only likely to be one core element of your story, and you need five core elements working together. These are:

  • The Protagonist’s Characterisation
  • The Big Problem or Opportunity that sets up the central conflict
  • Opposition – Antagonist Forces and Obstacles standing in his/her way
  • A Story World.
  • A Satisfying Resolution.

So for example, our idea about a dystopian society that forced children to compete to the death in a tournament is an idea or concept about the story world. We still need a main character (Katniss Everdeen), a problem she faces (survival), and antagonist(s) (the tributes, the games organisers, and President Snow) that get in her way, and a satisfying ending (she and Peeta both survive).

The relationship between these five core elements and their related factors can be set out as follows:

5_elements4.jpeg

The Protagonist – Characterisation

All great stories have a protagonist that the reader can connect with. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, but they need to empathise with the struggle they are going through. Empathy factors are important. A reader is more likely to empathise with a character that is funny, clever, an underdog in jeopardy, selfless, resourceful and resolute. Katniss Everdeen ticks most of these boxes. But it’s possible to build empathy even with nasty characters if they have some redeeming qualities. For example, in Psycho, Hitchcock killed-off the main character half way through the movie and invited us to empathise with the killer, Norman Bates.

A key factor in connecting the reader to the main character is how he/she relates to other main characters and, in particular, the love interest, who will often play an important role in the main character’s inner story.

A character should never be perfect. Most have a flaw or emotional wound at the start of the story, and they learn from their experiences and change by the end of the story. This is the transformation arc, which is often related to the theme of the story. Not all stories have a transformation arc, but those that do are usually more satisfying for the reader.

The Big Problem or Opportunity 

All stories are about a protagonist who desperately wants something or who wants to stop something from happening. It’s what drives the protagonist and what drives the plot forward.

The problem or opportunity is introduced to the protagonist in the first act by the story catalyst. The Catalyst  is the point in time where the protagonist first becomes aware of the big problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes catalysts as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.

Not any old problem/opportunity will suffice. The problem/opportunity needs to be difficult, and intractable, since once the problem/opportunity is resolved the story is over. Also, the extent of the problem may not be fully understood by the protagonist until the latter stages of  the story. For example, Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars: A New Hope, initially wanted to take a couple of droids to Alderaan with the plans for the Death Star, but ended up rescuing a princess and blowing-up the Death Star.   Erin Brokovich just wanted a job with Ed Masry’s law firm to support her kids, but ended up with a $2m bonus from a $330m legal settlement.

This escalation in the intensity of the problem/opportunity during the course of the story is part of a great story’s DNA. It creates reader tension about the protagonist’s uncertain future, which won’t be resolved until the climax.

For the reader to care, the protagonist’s problem should be life-changing and the consequences of failure life-threatening in a literal or figurative sense. For example, a young teenage girl volunteers to take her sister’s place in a brutal tournament where the tributes compete to the death (Hunger Games); or  a New York cop trapped in a building with terrorists has to stop them blowing up the building and everyone in it (Die Hard).

Antagonist forces and opposition

All stories are about conflict: a struggle between what the protagonist wants and the obstacles that stand in his/her way. The stronger the antagonist forces are against him/her, the greater is the reader tension. Weak antagonists make for boring stories. Imagine Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty, or Batman without Joker. Strong antagonists bring out the best in heroes.

The obstacles that stand in the protagonist’s way may be physical/natural, supernatural, opposition from antagonists  with different goals or competitors with the same goal, or it may be just his/her own shortcomings.

Story world and context

All stories take place in a story world – a setting, a time, a social environment with its own set of rules and conventions. Context will also be a factor in determining the genre: e.g. Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Historical fiction etc., or tone, as in a tragedy. One of the easiest ways to change the look and feel of a story is to change the context. For example, what would Hamlet or Macbeth look like in the 25th century?

Satisfying resolution

For a story to work it has to have an emotionally satisfying ending. But no one wants an ending that is too predictable. Some element of surprise is therefore necessary. Meeting these two conditions is difficult and requires a lot of thought and planning from the outset.

Playing with the Core Elements

It doesn’t matter where a writer starts with his muse. Any one of the five elements will do. But eventually he/she will need to address them all to find the shape of their new story. Once you have all five core elements of your story, you can flesh out the detail of the big moments of the plot. You will already know how the story starts and ends, and the opposition that the protagonist needs to overcome, which should be more than enough to give you the seeds of a good outline.

And lastly...

Still struggling to find that killer idea? Don’t despair. It’s important to understand that most stories are not new, but have been told a thousand times before. For example, Alien, Beowulf, Jaws are all what Blake Synder describes as ‘monster in the house’ stories. But to the reader or audience they feel very different. The Hunger Games and The Running Man are both stories about authoritarian societies televising a tournament to the death for entertainment, yet they feel very different. Similarly, West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet are the same story written in different social contexts.

The fact that many stories share similar patterns and features is not surprising. Christopher Book suggests that there are just seven basic plots to all stories. The late Blake Snyder  stated that most Hollywood movies can be categorised under ten simple genre, each defined by three simple requirements.  Chris Hoth and KC Moffat did a similar exercise to identify ten different story types based on the type of story tension, and they argue that most stories are a combination of one or more of these different story types.

So the trick is to find a combination of elements that makes your story feel new and interesting. If the story doesn’t feel new and exciting then perhaps modifying any one or more of the elements may give the story a different look and feel.

 

Story Structure – The Big Moments of Act Three

This is the third blog dealing with story structure and focuses on Act Three.

Story Structure.001Act One deals with the story set-up. It introduces the characters, the story world and the central problem that will become the focus of the story.

Act Two deals with the central conflict of the story as the hero or heroine actively pursue a course of action driven by their desires and opposed by antagonistic forces.

Act three is all about the final resolution of the story. It’s a difficult Act to write because if the ending is too predictable it’s boring, but if it doesn’t deliver the emotional payoff the reader expects, it will fall flat.

The main turning point of Act three is the Climax (TP5). If the story is designed to have a happy ending, this is the moment that the hero finally achieves their goal or gives it up for a higher purpose.  In a tragedy, it is the tragic finale–eg the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

After the Climax we normally see the Aftermath (P7) of the story: the  hero has changed and the world in a new sate of equilibrium. In Star Wars, Luke and Hans are given hero’s medals; in westerns the hero rides into the sunset; in a romance we see the wedding or another happy ever after scene.

From a sequence perspective, the first sequence of Act three is normally all about the Fight Back. The hero has found a new strength from his/her low point at the culmination of Act two.  He/she reunites the team with a crazy plan to storm the castle. The Antagonist and his cronies are caught off-guard. And just when the hero sees victory in sight, the tables are turned  with a twist or revelation (P6).

The second sequence, Resolution & Aftermath, sees the hero fight back, dig deep and finally win (the Climax TP4) and ends with the aftermath (P7).

You may feel that the process I have described is a somewhat of a clichéd Hollywood ending for an action adventure movie. It is; but it works. Even if we remove the action/adventure genre, the emotional journey for other genre (other than tragedy) is much the same. We build up the hero from his lowest point until he/she can almost taste victory, before pulling the carpet away from them leaving them at the mercy of the antagonist. And then finally (sometimes with the help or sacrifice of a friend) they have the strength to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

Whether you believe in the three-act structure or not, it is important to understand that stories have natural cycles of tension that build to crisis and climax before resolution. Tension is about our hopes and fears for our hero/heroine.  Stories with no tension at all are boring. Stories with continuous tension can also be unnerving on the reader or audience.  That is why a story needs periodic turning points, and different phases of emotional intensity to work. Understanding these patterns is fundamental to story telling. More about this in later blogs.

Any thoughts on the blog are welcome.

 

Story Structure – the Big Moments of Act Two

This is the second instalment on the subject of story structure, and covers the difficult Second Act.

Finding the content for Act One is relatively easy.  There’s exposition that needs to go in: introduce the hero and the other main characters, setup the story world, and then blow it all apart with a big problem. Then let the hero simmer in the dilemma it creates until they are brave enough to tackle the story quest. What is challenging about this Act is writing this exposition in an exciting way that piques the readers’ interest. If you fail, the reader may well not read on past the first paragraph or first five pages.

Story Structure.001

Act Two is different. It’s all about the conflict between what the hero/heroine wants and the antagonist forces in his/her way. It’s a long Act and it needs lots of content. It needs a hero/heroine  fired up with a goal or purpose and an action plan, even if that plan is just to survive. And it needs an obstacle course of escalating problems to frustrate the hero from achieving his/her goal.

The two main turning points at either end of the second act are the Act One Break (TP2) and the Act Two Culmination (TP4). Together these two turning points hold the second act together. The first sets the hero/heroine on his way in a new world with a purpose. The second is the culmination of his/her attempts to solve the story goal and usually reaches a point of apparent defeat.  At this point the hero/heroine  may experience an epiphany moment where he finds what he must do differently to succeed in Act 3.

At the mid-point of the second act there is usually a Mid Point Shift (TP3). This is normally a major culmination of the previous sequence: a false victory, or false defeat, or major revelation that changes everything.  The hero will normally respond to this event by driving forward into the second half of the act with a renewed vigour and determination.

But these are not the only plot points of the second act. Each main sequence will have its own goal, obstacles and culmination.

In the first sequence of Act 2, (s3), the hero/heroine takes their first steps towards their overall story goal. They are in an unfamiliar world, they meet new allies and enemies and learn new skills. They come into conflict with the forces of antagonism, but those forces are not fully aware of them yet. So for example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke and Obi-Wan travel to Los Eisley, Spaceport to find a pilot to take them and the Death Star plans to Alderaan. They recruit Hans Solo and Chewbacca. The sequence ends in a shoot-out escape from the spaceport in the Millennium Falcon. This sequence culmination is the ‘Reality Check‘ (P4): a reminder of the dangers that the hero/heroine faces in this strange new world.

In the second sequence of Act 2, (s4), matters escalate and the stakes are raised. After their spectacular escape from Los Eisley Spaceport and fighting off imperial Star Destroyers, they head to Alderaan to deliver the Death Star Plans to Leia’s father.  Matters slow down as Obi-Wan trains Luke in the force.  Unbeknown to them, however, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin force Princess Leia to watch the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. When they emerge from lightspeed  Alderaan has been destroyed. They need a new goal. This is the Mid Point Shift (TP3).

In the third sequence of Act 2, (s5), our heros encounter the antagonists head on. They are caught in a tractor beam and taken to the Death Star. When the stormtroopers search the Millennium Falcon, they hide away. Then while Obi-Wan goes to disable the tractor beam, Luke discovers princess Leia is onboard . Their new goal is now to rescue her. Luke, Hans, and Chewbacca rescue the princess, but only by escaping into a chute leading to a trash compactor. This is a Major Set-back (P5): the trash compactor threatens to kill them.

In the fourth and final sequence of Act 2, (s6),  matters worsen and slide into a crisis. Luke is attacked by a creature in the trash compactor, but survives. And with the help of R2D2 our heros escape death in the trash compactor and fight their way back to the Millennium Falcon. The fourth sequence ends with a false victory. Our heros escape from the Death Star, but not before Luke witnesses the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to let Luke and the rest escape.  This is the Act 2 Culmination (TP4).

The sequences and plot points of Act two can be summarised as follows:

Sequence No Description Ends with TP/P

3

First steps Reality Check (P4)

4

Escalation & Raised Stakes Mid Point Shift (TP 3)

5

B Story & antagonists Major Set-back (P5)

6

Slide into Crisis Act 2 Culmination (TP4)

Are these the only sequences of Act 2? Not necessarily. It depends on the story. But four second Act sequences are quite common among most average length movies. Novels, however, usually contain more complexity than their related movies, and therefore there is no reason why the number of sequences shouldn’t increase or the sequences themselves become more complex as they have to deal with more detail.

Note the pattern of the sequences. There is a natural flow to the pattern. They start with simple first steps, then escalate with raised stakes to the Mid Point after which the forces of antagonism close in and create a slide into crisis. The Act 2 Culmination is therefore usually a low point for our hero, before the fight back begins in Act 3.  This is one of the most common story patterns, but it is by no means the only story pattern possible.

For example, in tragedies the polarity of the last two sequences normally reverse. The Major set-back becomes a Major Success, and the Slide into Crisis becomes a Rise to Success. So with a tragedy the Act 2 Culmination is usually a high for the hero. It is only in Act 3 where the hero falls into a tragic ending.

Whether you believe that  understanding the structure of a story is important or not, it is important that you understand the flow of your story pattern and the highs and lows for your hero. A story without highs and lows is going to be boring. Therefore to create these story patterns you need strong turning points and plot points.

In the next blog, I’ll look at the big moments of the third Act. If you missed the first blog on the big moments of the First Act you can find it here. Any questions?

Story structure — the big moments of Act One

Story telling, whether you are a novelist or screenwriter, requires an understanding of story dynamics and structure. For some writers, this is ingrained into their DNA: they don’t need fancy ideas and concepts for something that comes natural to them. All they need is a story, which starts with a problem that comes into a protagonists life; escalates and complicates until it reaches a crisis; and ends with a climax and resolution. For others these three stages can be formed into three acts.

Story Structure.001It sounds simple, but it is far from it. That’s why screenwriters and dramatists have developed methodologies to break down the process into more manageable bite-sized chunks.

Story structure won’t turn a bad story into a good one. But a good story with a bad structure may well turn the story into a disaster.

In previous posts, I’ve looked at some of the different methodologies used  by screenwriters for story development. I’ve looked at the Three-Act Structure popularised by Syd Field, Michael Hauge’s the Six-Stage Plot structure, Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey and the Frank Daniel’s Sequence Method. And in an early Blog I dealt with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

There are clearly differences of emphasis that the different gurus want to make, and their use of different terminology can be confusing. But in practice the different methodologies have more in common with each other than they would care to admit.

What I have attempted to do is to try a pick the best of each approach and pull them together into one cohesive story blueprint. This blog, and the following two, deal with the structural elements of that blueprint. The graphic shows a three-act, eight-segment structure with five-key turning points and seven further plot points. At first  sight it might seem complex. It’s not. It might seem rigid. It’s not. It’s up to you to see how you want to use it. If four or five acts makes more sense to you, then use whatever division of narrative structure you are most comfortable with.

Let’s start with Act 1, which sets up the story.  This Act normally consists of two sequences (but sometimes three). The first sequence introduces the main characters and the protagonists story world. It shows his normal world before his world is disturbed by the Catalyst at the end of the first sequence. The Catalyst (TP1) is the point in time where the protagonists is first confronted with the major problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes them as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.  It has many different names: the Inciting Incident, the Inciting Event, the Call to Adventure, and the Opportunity. It’s importance is that it ‘radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonists life (McKee).

The second sequence of Act 1 generally deals with the consequences of the Catalyst. Our hero may be reluctant to act, he may take advice from a mentor, or be forced into action by a further event(s) ( which I call the Bump) before eventually he responds to the challenge. The second turning point is the Act One Break (TP2), where our hero decisively moves forward on his quest with a goal in mind. This is sometimes called Crossing the Threshold, the Lock-in,  the Commitment, or the Change of Plans. It signifies the end of the setup process and the start of the main story conflict.

So there are two key turning points in Act 1: the Catalyst and the Act One Break.  However,  both events could occur almost simultaneously if the hero acts decisively. For example, in Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games when her sister’s name is drawn from the lottery. The two events are practically the same. Similarly in a crime mystery there maybe little difference between the timing of the crime being perpetrated and the detective taking control of the investigation.

A confusing complication is that another school of thought uses the same term “Inciting Incident” to refer to the first incident  in the screenplay.  One of the proponents of this approach is Syd Field, who  describes the inciting incident as the first incident that ‘opens up the screenplay and sets the story in motion’. Field goes on to use a second term, the Key Incident, to describe the event which draws the main character into the story and reflects what the story is about. He then explains that the Key Incident normally arises at the end of the first act (i.e. the Act One Break where the protagonist is committed to his goal), but not necessarily always.  And he gives an example in the Bourne Supremacy, where the story revolves around a Key Incident (where he killed the politician and his wife in Berlin) which occurs before the start of the movie. The emphasis of the Key Incident is on the effect of the event on the protagonist and the story  rather than when in time it incites him to act.

The two different definitions of the inciting Incident tend to give different results when the antagonist is introduced before the protagonist. For example, in  ‘Star Wars – New Hope’, is the inciting incident the opening scene where Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s starship, or is it when Luke gets the message from Leia “Help me Obi-Wan”.   Similarly, in Jaws, is the inciting incident the first shark attack, or the second, or the third, or when Brody first discovers the body of the first victim on the beach?

Act One.001

I prefer to take the view that the Inciting Incident is the event which connects the protagonist to the main conflict of the story. So, for example, in Romancing the Stone, it’s the phone call that Joan Wilder gets from her sister telling her she’s been kidnapped and to bring the map sent to her by her later brother-in-law as ransom. It’s not the actual kidnapping, which the audience doesn’t even see.

In Star Wars: the Force Awakens, it’s when Rey rescues BB8 from scavengers. This starts the chain of events that forces her to escape from the First Order in the Millennium Falcon at the end of Act One. There are many more exciting events before this moment in the movie, but this is the first incident that engages the protagonist — Rey– to act.

If you would like further examples of Inciting Events I suggest you visit K M Weiland’s Story Structure Database. It’s a great source of information on the story structure of movies.

Because of the different uses of the term Inciting Incident, I prefer to refer to this moment as the Catalyst (the term used by the late Blake Snyder), or the Call to Adventure (the term used by Christopher Vogler). It avoids confusion.

By now you’re probably wondering what the other three plot points of Act One are. They’re not necessarily as important as ‘turning points’, but they serve a purpose. The first one, P1, is the Hook. This is simply a scene at the start of the story to hook the audience/reader’s curiosity and interest. For example, in a movie it might be James Bond finishing a previous assignment.  In Indiana Jones and The Raider of the Lost Ark the hook is a high intensity sequence in the Peruvian jungle where Indie obtains and then loses an idol to Balloq.  The whole purpose of the sequence is exposition:  it introduces the audience to the characters of Indiana Jones and Balloq and their rivalry. It has no direct relevance to the actual plot, which is about the Ark. But it’s a great example of how to make exposition about a character exciting.

Hooks are more important to novelists than screenwriters. If a reader doesn’t connect with a story in the first paragraph or first five pages then they might put the book down. Movies are different. Audiences are unlikely to walk out in the first twelve or so minutes, but a script writer should not try their patience. They need to pique the audience’s interest with something, particularly if the inciting event is delayed to the latter stage of Act One. The Hook is one way of doing it.

The second plot point, P2,  is the Foreshadow.  It’s the scene that lets the audience or reader know there’s a disturbance on the way. It’s the shark fin in the water, the meteor heading on course for Earth, the storm gathering in the distance. It’s used as a tension builder to tell the audience or reader there’s a problem coming.

The third plot point, P3, is what I have called the Bump: the event or events that persuade the protagonist to act. It’s the discovery of Luke’s murdered aunt and uncle that persuades him to go to Alderaan with Obi-Wan.  It’s the  discovery of further shark attacks in Jaws. These bumps don’t occur in all stories but when they do they ramp up the tension.

Are these the only turning point and plot points in the first act? Not necessarily. Todd Klick in Beat by Beat identifies some thirty story beats in the first acts drawn from a collection of blockbuster movies from each of the top-selling genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Horror, and Thriller. He identifies their Inciting Incidents  and timing (12 mins),  their Act One breaks, which he calls the Quest (29-35mins). And in addition, he identifies one further turning point which arises between minutes 16-18.

So what can a novelist learn from all this?  Structure is important, but you don’t need to follow it blindly. It is more important that your story develops in a natural way and most times this will follow the common structural pattern for all stories. In the next blog, I’ll look at the Second Act. In the meantime, I would welcome any thoughts you have on this blog.