Plot points and pinch points

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

So what is a plot point?

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

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

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

So why are they so important?

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

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

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

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

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

So are these the only plot points?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Brooks defines them as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

Story 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.

 

 

A Story Blueprint for the Action / Adventure genre

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

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

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

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

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

Blueprint

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

 

Story 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.

The Sequence Method

There is a lot a novelist can learn about storytelling from the movie industry. Stories in novels and movies differ only by the nature of the medium through which they are presented. The same story dynamics apply to both mediums.

In my previous two blogs I looked at two different variations of the Three-Act Structure used in the movie industry: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure and Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey. In this blog, I look at another screenwriting model – The Sequence Method and a variant called The Mini-Movie Method (aka  Eight Sequence Method).

The Three-Act Structure breaks down a story into three elements: the beginning (setup – 25%), middle (confrontation 50%), and end (resolution 25%). From a writer’s perspective this doesn’t give a great amount of guidance as to what to write in a 110 page script or a 400 page novel.

Michael Hauge’s structure splits each act into two using five key turning points to give six stages. Six stages and their general purpose is better guidance than three. However, the Act 2 stages III and IV are twice as large as stages I, V, VI.

An alternative is to break ACT 2 into four so each stage is approximately the same size. This is broadly what the sequence method or mini-movie method does. It creates a movie from eight sequences of approximately 10-15 mins each. Two in the first act, four in the second act, and two in the third.

The Sequence Method owes its origins to Frank Daniel, the inaugural dean of the American Film Institute, who taught at Colombia University and the University of Southern California in the early 1980s. Nowadays, the main texts on the method are Paul Gulino’s ‘Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach – The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays’ and Chris Soth’s ‘Million Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method’, both of which are great reads on the subject matter. But the publication I would suggest as the most detailed is David Howard’s ‘How to build a great screenplay’.

There are also some web sites that are useful The Script Lab and Script Reader Pro.

What is a sequence?

First a bit of confusion. The term ‘sequence’ is widely used in the movie industry to denote a series of scenes that form a distinctive narrative unit, which is usually connected by unity of location or unity of time. For example, a car chase may well be a sequence. This however is not what a sequence is under the sequence method. It is much larger self-contained segment of the story.

412Hcwf1FOL._SX257_BO1,204,203,200_Howard explains a sequence “is a self-contained portion of the overall story with its own tension, its own beginning, middle and end”. It is a story within a story. Under this methodology a lot of focus is placed on ‘tension’ – the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will achieve his goal. Every story has a Main Tension which is usually expressed as a question: eg – Will Katnis Evergreen survive the hunger games?
But each sequence has its own sequence goal and sequence tension. Howard explains: “..by deciding whose sequence it is, you dive into other aspects of creating story — what does he want? why is it difficult to achieve? what is the tension in the sequence?” 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.

Above I’ve talked about an eight sequence structure by splitting Act 2 into four parts. But strictly speaking under the Sequence Method the number of sequences isn’t limited to eight. Eight is the most common among movies; but most movies range between 7-12.

513AImiVb7L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Gulino in his book analysis a number of movies into their sequences. Air Force One has eight.  But longer movies have more sequences: the Fellowship of the Ring has twelve; Lawrence of Arabia has sixteen. The number of sequences therefore depends on the length of the movie, genre, and the narrative structure.

For example, action movies,  such as a Bond movie usually start with an introductory sequence showing the hero finishing a previous mission. Indiana Jones and the South American cave sequence is very similar (see below.)

The Mini-Movie Method, or Eight Sequence Method is a similar to the sequence method except it sticks to eight sequences or mini-movies. Each sequence has a purpose, and ends with a turning point or an important event.

51CK-hDCYCL._AC_US218_1. Setup: the Hero’s status quo,  ending with the inciting event.
2. Progress towards ‘lock in’ to the conflict (end of Act 1).
3. First attempt to deal with problem. Easy option fails.
4. A more grandiose, more extreme plan – goes horribly wrong (ends with the mid-point)
5. Hero retreats to lick his wounds, confronts his weakness.
6. New plan, hero prepared to change. All goes wrong, nearly destroyed, and new revelation. (end of Act 2)
7. Rejoins the battle. Succeeding until final twist where antagonist turns the tables.
8. Finally defeats antagonist. Wrap up.

So how does the method work?

The following example is based on Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Introductory hook sequence :

Indiana Jones recovers the idol from a cave in the South American jungle only to lose it to his rival, Belloq. Indiana Jones escapes the natives in a plane.

Sequence One: 

Indiana is teaching as Professor of Archaeology when he is approached by US army who have intercepted a Nazi cable indicating they have found the lost city of Tanis, where the Ark of covenant is buried. (Inciting event)

Sequence Two: 

To find the Ark,  Indiana needs the headpiece of the Staff of Ra . He goes to find his friend, Ravenwood in Nepal. He rescues Marion (Ravenwood’s daughter) from the Nazis and escapes with the head-piece. (End of Act 1)

Sequence three:

Indiana goes to his friend, Sallah, in Egypt. While shopping in Cairo, Marion is taken by two arabs. Indy shoots the truck driver and the truck crashes and explodes. He thinks Marion is dead and drowns his sorrows in booze. Nazi agents capture him and Belloq brags about the prospect of finding the ark. Indy gets away with the help of children.

Sequence four:

Indiana finds the Nazi are digging in the wrong place because their copy of the Ra headpiece is only one-sided (Toht’s burnt hand). Indiana is lowered into the Map room and with the staff and headpiece he locates the true location of the Ark. (Mid Point Climax)

Sequence five: 

Marion is alive and with Belloq. Indiana finds her but doesn’t set her free. Instead he pursues the Ark, digging in the right place. Indy secures the Ark only to lose it to the Nazis. Indiana and Marion are sealed inside the Well of Souls.

Sequence Six:

Marion and Indiana escape the Well of Souls. Indiana fights a fist battle on the airfield, chases after the truck on horseback and recovers the Ark. (End of Act 2)

Sequence Seven:

Indiana and Marion sale on a ship from Cairo with the Ark. A Nazi submarine capture the ship and takes the Ark and Marion. Indiana escapes, riding the submarine topside until it reaches a Greek island. Indiana points a rocket launcher at the Ark threatening to destroy it unless Marion is freed. Belloq calls his bluff. (Third Act Twist)

Sequence Eight:

Indiana and Marion are tied to a pole while Belloq opens the ark. Indiana tell Marion to close her eyes. Spirits appear from the ark and destroy the Nazis. The Ark is stored in a huge government warehouse, while Indiana goes back to his life as a professor but this time with Marion.

Several different sequence analyses of this movie are on the internet. The version here is close to one of them, but is not exactly the same. Techncially I have shown nine sequences. The introductory sequence would otherwise be part of the set-up sequence one.

The precise start and finish of each sequence will always involve an element of subjectivity and different people may come to different views. Some might argue that this is a weakness of the methodology, but I would disagree.  The only view of the sequence structure that really matters is the one the writer is using to design his story.  To the audience the sequence structure is invisibe and should remain so. The acid test is therefore whether as a writer knowing your eight of so sequences of your story  is helpful in planning out your story.

Story and structure

book Having just finished the final edit of my second book, I pondered over whether my workflow had improved from my first book. I have always believed in planning my stories, although for me planning and revision continues throughout the writing process. Part of story planning is story structure.

In my view, a good story has to have a structure, but structure alone will not give you a story. Let me explain.

In simple terms, a story is about a character with a problem or opportunity that comes into his/her life and the storyline is driven by his/her desire to resolve it.

All stories therefore need:

  • a main character
  • an important situation (a problem, or opportunity) that comes into the main character’s life, which he/she has to resolve, or suffer the consequences.
  • one or more difficult obstacles and complications that increasingly frustrate the main character from resolving the situation.
  • a setting and context where the story takes place

The actions or events in a story are the result of a process of cause and effect that unfold as the main character tries to resolve the situation and deal with the obstacles in his/her own way. When the main character resolves the situation, the story is over.

For most stories, other than tragedies, there is generally a pattern where matters for the main character go from good to bad, and then from bad worse, until eventually the character reaches rock bottom. At this point the main character usually finds his/her true self and resolves to fight back and succeed in a climatic ending. This is a story with a positive ending.

Of course there are also stories with negative endings (tragedies) where the natural flow is the opposite. But such stories are less popular these days, at least in the movies.

Structure, on the other hand, is the pattern of sign posts along the storyline that mark the different phases that a story normally goes through.

Different gurus use different frameworks (acts, parts, sequences, or beats) to explain story structure, but most of them are remarkably similar. One of the oldest is the three-act structure with a beginning, middle and an end. The difficulty with the three-act structure is usually the problem of working out what happens in the long middle act, where most of the action takes place. However, if we split the middle act into two, we can break the story down into four roughly equally sized parts, each ending in a turning point, a major revelation, or the story ending. Using this approach, the content of each part will broadly be as follows:

Part 1 (or Act 1).

  • The opening scene – should contain a ‘hook’ (raise questions) to keep the reader’s attention.
  • Set up – introduce the main character in his ordinary world and show why we should like him/her. Show his/her weakness and hint at the theme of the story.
  • The inciting incident or catalyst – the main character encounter’s the problem or opportunity for the first time. Initially, he/she may try to avoid it.
  • Turning point 1 – the main character accepts the challenge and follows a goal.

Part 2 (First part of Act 2).

  • The main character encounters the principal obstacle to his goal. He/she may experience initial success as we glimpse the possibility of him/her succeeding. But there is a certain naivety to his/her actions.
  • The B story sub plot develops (the main character’s relationship with love interest, buddy, mentor or sidekick).
  • The main character experiences a more difficult obstacle as the antagonist shows its claws (a pinch point.) This may result in victory or defeat for his/her goal. But in either case it doesn’t resolve the situation.
  • Mid point revelation – the main character realises for the first time what he is now up against. The stakes have risen, his/her goal may have changed substantially, but he/she resolves to continue.

Part 3 (Second part of Act 2).

  • The main character prepares his new plan.
  • More B Story sub-plot interlude as relationships deepen.
  • The plan is put into action.
  • Crisis – The antagonist forces close in with devastating effect and loss (possible betrayal, or loss of mentor).
  • Turning point 2 – a moment of epiphany for the main character in his/her darkest moment. He/she finds their true self, a new way forward, and resolves to try again or die in the process.

Part 4 (Third Act).

  • Main character prepares for final conflict with new insight and determination.
  • Climax sequence (which may include a false climax).
  • Final Scene. We see a wiser main character back in his own world with the challenge resolved.

Do all stories follow this pattern? Clearly not, as some stories can have a negative or indeterminate endings. But it does cover most stories that have positive endings.

Does it include everything that needs to occur in a story? Again, clearly not, different genre have their own typical story beats. But it is helpful nonetheless.

Do you need to use the structure in your stories? Again that’s up to you. Many successful writers write organically without any explicit recognition of structure. But those that do I suspect have it ingrained in their DNA. As I said at the start, good stories have structure, but not all structured stories are good.

The Darkest Moment

Stories are all about conflict and transformation. If the main character in your story can achieve all of his/her desires without any struggle at all, then it wouldn’t be much of a story. It is therefore the job of the writer to make things difficult for the hero/heroine. One writer likened this to getting your main character stuck up a tree and then throwing rocks at them. As readers, we tend to love an underdog: someone who succeeds in the face of adversity. Therefore, as writers, it is our job to make sure our main characters suffer, so they can earn the success that they truly deserve.

Often the main character also has to learn something important about themselves before they can take that final step to success. If you are familiar with the Three Act Structure, you will know that this epiphany moment usually occurs following the main character’s darkest moment at the end of the second act. The darkest moment is that time when all seems lost and our hero/heroine is in the depths of despair. It is at this point where they find something new about themselves, which gives them the courage and inspiration to go on.

Even if you don’t believe in a three act structure, the darkest moment is usually recognisable story beat in most successful stories. It is the emotional darkness before the dawn of success. Without it there is little emotional contrast. Some writers talk about two stories: the outer story we associate with the plot line and the inner story about the change or transformation of the main character during the course of the story. Another term often used is the character arc.

Of course, not all stories are about main characters that change for the better. Some may change for the worse, or they may refuse change despite everything. It depends on the type of story you are writing. In an action-driven story, the inner story may seem  unimportant compared to the outer storyline. But it’s still an important component. It’s just more subtle. That’s because  all stories are about characters; and if you want your reader to empathise with those characters, you need to understand the character’s inner story. It is the character’s inner story that carries the moral theme of the story (for example, good will overcome evil, love conquers all, freedom is worth fighting for, family is important  etc.). And as I have said in an earlier blog, without at least one theme you have no story.

Story essence

Recently, I purchased “Story trumps structure”, by Steven James. I was attracted to the book by its provocative title and the foreward by Donald Maass, who I much admire. Although the book is mostly a manifesto for organic writing (‘pantsing’),
as opposed to plotting and outlining, it is still an excellent read for all types of writers. To me, the idea that story trumps structure is somewhat nonsensical, because structure is such an important component of any story. A story is limp without it. And the story pattern that James sets out — orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, discovery and change — is a pattern that is easily mappable into a three-act structure as others have done. Put simply, he has simply re-labelled the main elements of story structure. He also sets out eight things that are needed in the beginning of the story. These are the story beats that normally fall into the first act. To me, the idea that James is abandoning structure is a bit ridiculous; although he may have a point about not placing too much attention on formulaic plots.

There is a lot of good practical advice in Jame’s book. His emphasis on maintaining tension is spot on. He states:

“At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core a story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it (or fails in her quest to do so), the story is over. If the reader doesn’t know what the character wants, they won’t know what the story is about.”

Good advice. Later in the book he says:

”When you focus on what lies at the heart of the story— tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery, transformation — you’ll intuitively understand what needs to happen in each scene to drive your story forward.”

Although he makes this statement to advance the cause of organic writing, the advice is just as relevant to those of us who are plotters and outliners. There is a lot of good advice in Jame’s book, although it won’t cause me to abandon using my scene cards just yet.

Reading Jame’s book got me thinking more about what the essence of a story is  really about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines story as:

“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

It’s not very helpful. After some thought, I came up with an alternative definition for fiction writers, which I think  captures most of  the essence of a good story:

“ A story is a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

It may appear a little long-winded for a definition, but it seems to capture most of the important attributes of a story, which are:

  • It’s about a character or characters, not necessarily human, that the reader can empathise with or at least find curious.
  • It has a setting which will affect the characters’ behaviour. (For example, 16th Century aristocrats may behave quite differently from that of the crew of a 22nd Century starship. Setting will also influence the genre and the story’s appeal to readers.
  • It’s about a big problem/opportunity (the catalyst) that comes into their lives that they have to deal with, where the consequences of failing to deal with it are dire (the stakes). This provides the requisite character motivation (desire/goal).
  • It’s about an escalating struggle (conflict/tension) to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity (the outer journey), and in the process overcome their own shortcomings (the inner journey/character arc).
  • The characters desire to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity results in a logical causal chain of events (the plot line).
  • It has a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story (the emotional pay-off). The reader might not be able to predict the ending, but the ending should be consistent with what the reader expects from the genre and story line.

Of course, much of the skill of a good writer is in how they get the reader to empathise with the main character, how they maintain and build tension, and how they deliver the emotional  pay-off that the reader wants in the ending. So no definition can fully capture the emotional experience of a good story. But it’s probably a reasonable starting point for the definition of a story.  Let me know if you agree.

The First Cut

In my last blog, I said I was taking some time out from writing as I needed to think more deeply about where the plot-line of my new novel was taking me. After a short break, I looked again at the manuscript, which was about a third complete, and my scene cards. In spite of all the planning and preparation that I did before starting my second novel, it was obvious that something was missing. But before I could add it, the plot-line needed some drastic surgery.

The song goes ‘The first cut is the deepest’. The Cat Stevens song was not about writing, of course, but the words seemed to fit my mood as I slashed some 21 scenes and almost 10,000 words from the manuscript. I didn’t delete them completely; I placed them in my unused scenes folder. As I use the Scrivener software, this is a simple process of dragging the scene files to the unused folder. Some scenes might be used later in a reworked form. What was left was a lean more focused manuscript.

Not all writers would agree that you should start editing mid draft. KM Weiland, for example, suggests you should note down what has to change, but to write on as if those changes had been made until you complete the first draft. Only then does she suggest you start the edit process. It’s probably very good advice, particularly if you have problems finishing a first draft. But it’s not the way I can work. The inconsistency in the manuscript would constantly niggle me until I fixed it.

So how do you fix a plot line that doesn’t seem to work? Putting the manuscript down for some time does help to regain perspective. Then you need to stand back from it and try visualise main steps of the plot. Like some other authors, I like to use scene cards to map the steps in the story-line. In my case, I use some specialised screen writing software to play with the cards; but physical cards set out on a cork-board, or floor, can be just as effective. From the cards I identified the three key scenes that held the structure of the plot together. These are:

Turning point 1: The scene that marks end of the set-up sequences in Act 1 and projects the hero/heroine forward on their journey towards his/her new goal. The pursuit of that goal forms most of the action for Act 2.

Turning point 2: This is usually an epiphany scene at the end of Act 2 where hero/heroine finally realises what they are doing wrong. It marks the end of Act 2 and a new direction for the hero/heroine for the climatic ending in Act 3.

The Mid point: This is a scene at the centre of the story where something important happens: a twist, a revelation, false climax or false disaster.

Where I had gone wrong is that nothing important seemed to be happening at the mid-point. By simply asking what is the worse thing possible that could happened, I had my answer. (No I’m not telling you what it is. It would spoil things.)

The idea that something important must happen at the mid-point of a story is not new. Screen writers such as Syd Field have long known that something important occurred at the mid-point of most movies. But it is also a feature of good novels. In fact, James Scott Bell wrote a whole book about the importance of the mid-point: “Write your Novel from the Middle.” James Scott Bell’s thoughts are that you should find your mid-point first. Then you know what has to happen before it and if you know your ending you know what needs to happen after it. The point is it should be something big. The bigger the better.

So if you’re a writer, do you know what your big event/revelation is in your story? Does it occur broadly at the mid-point? And what type of a writer are you — do you make major edits as you go or push on and complete the first draft before starting the edit?

Story structure and story beats

In some of my previous blogs I’ve talked about the importance of story structure. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me since I first started writing fiction. Some great writers ridicule the idea of an underlying story structure as being too formulaic. They say it’s based too much on the ‘hero’s mythical journey’ or it’s not appropriate for their genre. Yet when we look at their work we see the familiar patterns of story structure are there. For them story structure is instinctive and organic. Obviously, for lesser mortals, following a pre-set story structure will not guarantee the success of a story. But a story without any of the normal structure elements will almost always certainly fail.

At school we learnt to write essays and other narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. However, when writing a 70,000-90,000 word novel, it doesn’t really help to know that we should have a beginning, middle and an end. We need a more detailed breakdown of the underlying story pattern. And to get to this breakdown we need to understand the elements that are common to all stories. In their simplest form, stories are about people and how they react and adapt to a life changing event(s) in their life. The plot is the series of events, actions and revelations that occur in the story; but the real emotional content of the story is how those events, actions and revelations affect the main characters and those about them.

Much of the detailed analysis of stories has been directed at screen writing and the movie industry, but is equally important to all forms of storytelling, including novels. Syd Field, for example, took the classical three-act structure to emphasise the importance of the main turning points that naturally occur at the end of Act 1 and Act 2; and he discovered that something important always seems to occur at the mid point of Act 2. But as Blake Synder later commented in ‘Save the cat goes to the movies’, knowing the need for these turning points  still left a ‘lot of empty space in between’ when writing his scripts. Snyder therefore came up with a more detailed fifteen-point ‘beat sheet’, which he then illustrated by applying it to a number of popular films in each of ten of the most common movie genres.

Blake Snyder is not the only movie guru to look at story structure this way. Each guru seems to have a slightly different way to look at structure, although their differences seem less important than their similarities. For example, John Truby in the ‘Anatomy of Story’ talks about twenty-two step story structure, although not all the steps are considered necessary. Truby emphasises that the steps will not tell you what to write in the way formulas or genres do, but they show the most dramatic way to tell your story. Truby tends to focus on the main character’s development during the course of the story; including the psychological needs and desires of the main character at the start of the story, and how these change with revelations that occur at the turning points of the story.

In the structure below, I have taken the Snyder beat sheet, added some of the flavour of John Truby’s steps, and fused it into my own simplified analysis of the three-act structure. It’s not significantly different from Snyder’s, except I have reduced the number of captions to 11 by combining some. The reason that I do this is more for practical reasons than anything else. I am experimenting with some screenwriting plot software at the moment that will organise my scene cards under these 11 basic plot captions. For reference, I’ve numbered the original 15 Snyder beats so you can still see which ones I’ve combined. The text in italics is there for further explanation.

ACT 1

Opening scene (1)

* Should hook the reader's interest from the outset.

Setup (3)

* Introduce main character in his/her normal story world.
* Reveal main character's weakness/ghost and personal desires.
* Foreshadow.
* Hint at theme of the story (2).

Catalyst (4)/ Inciting event

* Opportunity/problem arises that changes everything for the main character.
* Sets in motion the chain of action and reaction that becomes the story.
* Provides the main character with his principal goal and motivation.

Initial response

* Debate (5). 
* Main character tries to avoid dealing with problem.
* May seek help from ally/fake ally.

Plot Point 1 (6)

* First revelation and decision to act. No going back.
* Thrust into a new world.
* First clash with the primary obstacle in the story.

ACT 2

Act 2 part A

* Sequences of obstacles and challenges for main character. 
* Some 'fun and games' as main characters encounters some success (8).
* Introduce B story (often the love story) (7).

Midpoint  (9)

* May or may not have overcome the primary obstacle.
* But an even larger problem looms, and/or stakes rise.
* Main character's desire/commitment increases.

Act 2 part B

* Sub plots (related to theme of story).
* Bad guys close in (10). Opponents plan finally revealed.
* All is lost (11). Possible betrayal.
* Darkest hour (12)

Plot point 2 (13)

* Epiphany moment. Finally the main character knows what to do.
* Main character now has obsessive desire to see it through.

ACT 3

Climax

* The  finale (14) or final battle

Resolution

* Main character has changed. 
* The world is back to normal

End scene (15)

I’ve said structure is important. It is. But it’s also a very basic required writing skill, like grammar. It won’t write your story for you. Many good writers may have a natural instinct for organic structure without consciously thinking about it. But if you’re like me, and still learning the craft, thinking about structure, both at the planning phase and completion phase of a project, provides an opportunity to step back and look at your story from a high level viewpoint. If a story doesn’t make sense at this level, then it probably doesn’t make any sense at all.

So what is your view of story structure? Do you think it is something intuitive and natural that you feel you don’t need to think consciously about? Or do you think the idea of a beat structure is helpful?