In my previous blog I showed how a traditional Three-Act Structure can be broken down for practical purposes into four acts of approximate equal portions, with eight sequences, 8 plot points, and 8 stages of character arc. I don’t claim credit for any of these ideas. The diagram is the result of simply fusing together the ideas and methodologies of a number of different narrative structures promoted by a number of different story guru. As I mentioned in my previous blog, there is a considerable overlap of these ideas. They simply look at breaking down story structure in different ways: by Act, by Sequence, and by Plot Point.
Today I want to take a closer look at character arc.
In the diagram above I have looked at some of common elements of character arc as it applies to the main protagonist:
The character starts in his ordinary world, and often has a flaw that holds him back from his full potential.
Something happens that disturbs his life forever (the impetus/or call to adventure/catalyst/disturbance). He/she tries to avoid it, but the startling event forces him to act.
He/she crosses the threshold into a new world, where he is out of his depth and struggles.
He/she has to adapt and take more and more desperate measures.
At the mid point he/she begins to learn the enormity of the task he faces, but resolves to continue.
He/she tries a new plan which reaches a crisis point after which he loses all hope.
He/she finally finds the strength for one last attempt and makes a critical choice to risk everything.
He/she succeeds and in doing so has changed.
This kind of story arc, is the one I am most familiar with but it is by no means the only one. One of the most well known is the “Hero’s Journey” developed by Joseph Campbell, and modified and promoted by Christopher Vogler. It is usually set out in a circular structure, but it can be equally shown as though it was a three-act structure, with a character arc that matches the Hero’s Journey as the following diagram illustrates.
I have covered the Hero’s Journey, in my blog already. You can find it here.
Cristopher Vogler’s approach is an interesting one, and is based around the structure of mythical stories. Although in Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, he shows how this approach is flexible and can be adapted to modern-day stories. Some writers, however, seek a much simpler approach.
One such approach is Dan Harmon’s story circle. It is set out in a circular form similar to Vogler’s hero’s journey but with only eight simple stages to follows:
The eight stages are as follows:
A character is in his zone of comfort (You)
But they want something (Need)
They enter an unfamiliar situation (Go)
They adapt to it (Search)
They get find what they want (Find)
They pay a heave price for it (Take)
They return to the familiar situation (Return)
Having changed (Changed)
The beauty of Harmon’s story circle is that is simple and entirely framed around the protagonist action s (You). The story arc mimics the human learning experience. A hero develops a need for something important. He goes after it. He encounters problems and adapts to them, until he eventually finds what he wanted. He takes what he wants, but has to pay and important price for it. He returns to his normal world and demonstrates that he/she has changed in the process.
Is the Harmon circle fundamentally different from the four act structure I highlighted above? No. The four segments of the circle are pretty much the same as the four acts, but they are described in terms of the protagonist’s actions. The horizontal line splits the world into two parts: at the top –the normal familiar world; and below–the special world of chaos. The vertical line splits the hero’s journey into two halves: the right side is where the protagonists reacts; and the left side is where he takes decisive action. 1, 3, 5 and 7 and important crossover points.
One of the obvious questions about the approach is where is the climax? This occurs at 8 — where the hero demonstrates that he has changed. The climax is indeed the proof that the hero has changed and deserves his victory.
Another interesting point is 6, “Take and pay the price”. The hero’s success comes at a personal cost. This quarter is full of potential pain for the hero. It’s the “crisis” sequence in the simplified four-act structure.
When I first encountered Harmon’s circle I thought it was too simplistic. But as you get to use it to plan the basic story line, you find that simplicity often works. Advocates of the Harmon approach also emphasise that the approach can also be used on an Act and sequence basis as it incorporates the natural story building blocks.
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 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 (Characterin 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 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.
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.
The first sequence (Climax) is all about the lead up to the climactic moment. In the case of Star Wars, the ClimacticMoment 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.
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.
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.
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?
One of the first books I ever read on the art of writing emphasised the need for a good opening line, opening paragraph and at least ten opening pages to catch the reader’s attention. It’s advice I find difficult to disagree with. Writers need to arouse their readers’ curiosity.
Here are some of the best opening lines that do precisely that:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ — 1984 by George Orwell
‘They shoot the white girl first.’ — Paradise by Toni Morrison.
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
‘All children, except one, grow up.’– Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
And how can we forget those fantastic opening lines from the classics:
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
‘Call me Ishmael.’ — Moby Dick by Herman Melville
‘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.’ — A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
One can only wonder at the wordcraft of these classic writers and want to emulate them. However, the best time to do this is not when you’re writing the first draft of your story. It is when you have finished your story and can re-write a suitable start. Firstly, if you try to use a clever opening from the start, you may never get past that opening line. You maybe setting yourself too high a standard, particularly if you’re trying to emulate these classics. And secondly, once you have completed the story, you’ll have a different perspective on how the opening should link to the ending.
That brings me to the endings. There are some writers that can start writing a novel without understanding how the story will end and believe the joy of writing is in discovering that ending. These are the writers who see themselves as ‘pantsers’, and don’t like the idea of plotting in advance. If that works for them, then fine. But I could never write entirely that way myself. Once I understand the what the central conflict of the story is going to be about, the next most important element is the ending. The ending sets the direction of the story, and for me, if I don’t know the direction in which the story is going, and the big points along the way, then I can’t write. That doesn’t mean that I won’t change the story ending during the process of writing if I see a better ending in sight. I’m constantly thinking about it and ways I can improve it. And in three books I’ve published I’ve always managed to improve on my initial ideas.
Story endings are hard to create. They must have an element of surprise, but at the same time give the reader the emotional experience they expected. Many romance novels have a ‘happy ever after’ ending. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t have an element of unpredictability. For me, endings are much harder than beginnings and require just as much polish and finesse as the openings. A good opening maybe a good reason for a reader to buy your book, but a good ending will ensure he buys your next one.
If you’re a new writer or an experienced writer let me know what you think. What is harder, the beginning or the end of the story?
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.
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.
Salvation 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?
One of the tasks I have been putting off for some time is a limited re-edit of my debut novel, Collision. After its release in 2012, I noticed some irritating typos had crept into the final proof. Well, as you can see it’s taken me quite some time to get around to doing it. But now it’s done.
One of the great advantages of using Amazon and Kindle is that it is possible to re-upload the text files and make corrections like this. So for the past few days I been re-reading and re-editing my original work and uploaded the revision to Amazon today. The process has been illuminating for me in many ways.
Let me explain some of the background to my novel. I had written books before Collision, but they were all dry technical accounting texts, which I suspect no one reading this would ever want to read unless they suffered from insomnia. Writing fiction was going to be a huge challenge for me and I had no idea whether I could do it.
I had snippets of a story in my head. A man is jogging alone along a beach at night when a UFO flies over his head and crashes further up the beach. It was going to be a love story. That’s about as much as I had of the story at the start of the project. Twenty months later I published the novel on Kindle. In between, I learnt a huge amount about the world of writing and story telling. And if I had known at the beginning what I know now, I would have probably gone about it in an entirely different way.
What struck me on re-reading the novel so many years later was just how good the storyline turned out. I did some limited planning at the start, but the final story was far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset. And it wasn’t something I could have planned in that level of detail. Instead, it emerged by itself out of constant rewrites, revisions and incremental changes. As a writer, I’m a planner/plotter at heart rather than a ‘pantser’. But like one famous general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’. I plan, but if something doesn’t work, I replan. And so the Collision story is very much the product of a somewhat chaotic trial an error process of finding the story.
Since Collision I have written two further sci-fi novels: “Alien Hothouse” and “AndroDigm Park 2067”. Both these novels were the result of painstaking planning and certainly didn’t take as long to write as Collision. But neither has been as successful as Collision or attracted the same quality of reviews. Maybe this is partly because the stories are very different and attract different tastes. But I suspect it might be something else.
For a good story to emerge from a writing project you need to challenge it, revise it, test it until the story works. It’s a painful process of destruction and creation that isn’t easy. Writer’s are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ during the editing process. To be successful the killing has to get bloody. Maybe the reason Collision was good was because so many scenes were cut, or revised or replaced by new ones. And maybe it was because I wouldn’t publish until I was absolutely sure I had a story that worked emotionally.
I’m sure every writer is attached emotionally to their debut novel. If I wrote Collision again today I’m sure I could improve on the execution of the writing. But writing isn’t just about technique. Readers don’t have favourite writers based on how they construct their grammar. They relate to the emotional content of their writing. And that depends on how they connect to the main character and the emotional journey that character takes during the story.
If you are a writer, let me know whether you feel the same way about your debut novel. And if you’re still in the process of writing your first novel, let me know how well you really understood the story before starting.
Not many people are old enough to remember Daydream Believer. It was a single released by the Monkees in 1968 with lead singer Davy Jones and headed the US charts for four weeks. It’s a catchy tune, with cryptic lyrics about a daydream believer and his homecoming queen. But I can still remember the chorus.
Why do I start this blog reminiscing over the a 60’s pop song? I wasn’t even a serious Monkees fan. Well, it’s because all creative writers need to become in some respects daydreamers. Our best ideas come to us when we daydream and often when we least expect it — in the shower, before we fall asleep, on a walk in the countryside, or listening to music. Basically, it’s when are brains are in neutral and they allowed to drift away.
Often a single idea can form the catalyst for a story. In Hollywood, this is often expressed as a log-line. For example: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. Any guesses which movie this inspired? It’s not that difficult — Titanic.
Whether you’re a novelist or a screenwriter, the nuts and bolts of your writing will come from your imagination. Those ideas can come from anywhere. The skill of the writer is to harness them.
But a single idea doesn’t make a story. A story has to be developed and that requires a succession of ideas. We know the story of Titanic is about two lovers meeting on the ill fated Titanic. So that gives us some historical perspective in terms of facts and the pattern of events. We know the vessel sinks! But we’re really concerned about the love story and how it enfolds.
Often we can use a series of questions to help us develop that story line. For example, we have a young man and woman from different social classes. So which one is from a higher class than the other? How do they meet? Why are they onboard the vessel? What are they looking for? What brought them there to that moment in time? And what do they expect to happen when they arrive in America? Who are the other characters onboard? What do they want? And how do their motives conflict with our lovers? And so on…
So we are now beginning to develop a story line for the two characters (Jack and Rose) and an antagonist (Rose’s fiancé Caledon Hockley). But we still don’t have enough to fill a 194 minute movie or a 400 page novel. We still need a lot more ideas.
Let’s look at some of the ideas the writers actually used. In the movie, Jack and Rose meet when she is contemplating suicide (unusual). They fall in love (that’s the easy part). Jack is a poor artist and draws a nude sketch of her wearing the Heart of the Ocean necklace. And Jack is later accused of stealing the necklace.
How did the writers find these ideas? Obviously they needed to create conflict and tension between the lovers and Rose’s fiancé. And one question might be how to we create this conflict. But the ideas themselves don’t automatically flow from the Titanic story, they flow from the creative imagination of the writers.
How does the movie start? Again the writers start the movie in 1996 with Broch Lovell, a treasure hunter, and his team searching for the wreck of the Titanic and a rare diamond necklace (The Heart of the Ocean). What made them think of the diamond necklace? Hitchcock once talked about the importance of a McGuffin (an object of desire) in movies. Not all movies have a McGuffin, but they can be very useful. The McGuffin is something the story is built around, but is not what the story is really about. Titanic is love story — the diamond necklace is just device in the story to create conflict between the characters.
Interestingly, most of the movie is set in flashback. Again the choice of how to deliver the story is interesting.
So could you have written Jack and Rose’s story from the original log-line? Perhaps not the same way James Cameron developed it. But maybe something like it. It’s a love story and I’m sure there are different ways that story could have been portrayed. Switch the characters around — make Jack the aristocrat and Rose the fiancée of an Irish emigrant. There are hundreds of ways to write this tragic love story. All you need is to do daydream.
So what have you daydreamed about recently that might make a good story?
After the Christmas break, it’s been difficult for me to get back into a writing routine again. Not that I ever switch off completely from the writing process — I’m always thinking about my current novel and where the story is heading. And that’s just as important as time spent at the keyboard. But one the things I did over the Christmas break was to spend a lot of time with my family binge watching the NetFlix series “Once Upon a Time”. Apart from being highly addictive and entertaining series, it is also a great way to study character development of heroes and villains.
For those of you that haven’t watched the series, I will try to avoid spoilers. All the characters are taken from fairy stories such as Snow White, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella Rumpelstiltskin, Frozen, Wicked and some stories not-so fairytale such as Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein.
The story starts in the real world of Storybrooke, which is inhabited by fantasy characters who have been transported from their fantasy realms (the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Oz, etc.) and have lost their memory due to a curse. Only Henry, a young boy knows their true origin.
What makes “One Upon a Time” different is the characters are nothing like their traditional storybook characters. Peter Pan is quite evil; the Evil Queen, and Captain Hook are bad guys struggling to reform; and some of the good guys end up doing some evil things. It’s as though everything you expect from a fairy tale is turned on its head. It’s a fast action series with rapid plot development, and as the series unfolds we begin to learn about the backstories of the characters, why they developed their evil traits, and perhaps why they deserve a second chance. As we discover, one of the themes is that not no one is all-bad or for that matter all-good. Everyone deserves a chance at a happy ending. One of the fantasy tropes is that magic always has consequences — they must pay a price for its use. So, sometimes a character’s actions backfire on them.
Watching the series reminded me of Sacha Black’s book on “How to craft Superbad Villains – 13 Steps to Evil.” I read her book some time ago and it impressed me at the time. As writers, we love our heroes, and part of delivering an emotional rewarding story is working on the hero’s character arc — what they learn from their experiences and how they change as a consequence. But do we give enough attention to the villain of the story?
Of course, not all stories will have a villain. Most stories will have an antagonists that stands in the way of the hero reaching his goal. Otherwise there is no tension and conflict. But an antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or acting with evil intent. He/she maybe acting with the best of motives providing their goals conflict with those of the hero.
However, a villainous antagonist is a great plot device for showcasing the hero’s courage and abilities. What would Batman be with Joker or Penquin? How can a hero be a superhero without a supervillain who’s at least as powerful as the hero? If the hero does not struggle for success, why should we care what happens to them? Villains should therefore be be strong and resourceful.
We all do things for a reason and a villain is no different. A villain will have a goal — what he wants to achieve or destroy — and he/she will have a reason or motive for wanting it. Just like the hero, the stronger that desire the more difficult it will be to defeat them and the more tension there will be in the story.
And if you know the source of that character’s desire then it will help to understand their behaviour. The things that most shape us most in life are the experiences that have the biggest impact on us. Sacha Black describes these as ‘soul scars’. Although these experiences help to form our personality, it is how we react to them that defines who and what we become.
Sacha Black explains that a ‘complex’ is a pattern of experiences that from in a person’s unconscious mind and influences future behaviour, attitudes and thoughts. To understand a villain’s complex you need to understand their soul scars, negative traits, and values. Yes — even villains have values although their response to breaches of these values (eg loyalty) may be violently disproportionate. From the villain’s perspective their behaviour is quite normal and logical. For example, the Evil Queen’s mother describes love as a weakness and if you are a power-seaking evil guy maybe there is some truth in that. The Villain is the hero of their very own story. It’s just their behaviour seen through the hero’s eyes is seen quite differently.
What ultimately separates the villain from the hero are the decisions and choices they make. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the villain Belloq tells Indiana Jones that they are much alike. They are both archaeologists with a passion for antiquities. But of course they are the not the same because Belloq resorts to working with the Nazis to find the Ark of the covenant — something Indiana Jones would never do. Actions and behaviour are therefore what ultimately defines our characters and whether they are a hero or villain.
Any new writer might well be confused by some of the terms used in writing such as story, plot, arc and theme. Aren’t they interchangeable terms? It’s easy to see why the terms might be confused.
The first person to distinguish story from plot was E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster wrote a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’
‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. But the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’
This is a reasonable definition of plot. But is story just narrative? In screenwriting, the term ‘story’ is often used in a much wider sense to explain the deeper meaning that the audience experience through the protagonist’s inner struggle to deal with the plot points. It is what the story is really about. Kate Wright in Screenwriting is Storytelling Creating an A-list Screenplay that Sells explains this approach as follows:
Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each is distinct: Plot is self evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene. Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth–or absolute truth–sequentially, by identifying the inner moral struggle of the main character.
Under this approach both Plot and Story are separate important elements. An audience (or readers) may be fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters in the plot, but what really engages them emotionally is how the main character reacts to this progression of events and this insight is what the story is really about.
Audiences and readers don’t fall in love with a plot, they connect with the main character and experience his/her emotional struggle to deal with those events. As the conflict escalates, audience/reader tension rises until tension is finally resolved at the climax of the story. This release of tension is what Plato described as catharsis: the release of emotion that makes us all feel better. At that point, we figuratively punch the air and celebrate our main character’s victory, or we cry if the story ends in tragedy. This emotional effect is the primary reason why we engaged in the story in the first place. We empathise with the hero/heroine and want to see them succeed. Story is therefore more about the emotional experience of the audience/reader.
How the main character changes over the course of the story is the character arc, or what some screenwriters describe as the hero’s inner journey. It will be part of the audience’s/reader’s emotional experience. For example, it’s Luke Skywalker inner journey from a scared farm boy to courageous Jedi knight.
As explained in the previous blog, the main character usually has a flaw at the start of the story, and during the story the plot challenges the main character to overcome his flaw. And as we have seen from the previous blog, the main character’s flaw or weakness should be the right type of flaw to be tested by the story. Depending on the type of story, the main character’s initial weakness could be anything. For example: naivity, lack of confidence or self belief, hubris, or some negative believe which he/she needs to overcome during the story in order to reach their story goal.
The underlying story is often about what the main character learns during the course of the story. If he/she changes for the good, then the story ending is normally positive. If he/she refuses to change, the story may well end in tragedy. Either way there is a moral undertone that we can attribute to the theme of the story. The theme is the moral of the story or some self evident truth about human nature. For example, even death cannot defeat love (Romeo and Juliet).
So the deeper meaning of story, plot, theme and character arc are all different aspects of a storytelling, but they are closely linked together.