Sunday, November 17, 2013

Story Design, Story Building, and Story Structure - And You Thought This Writing Stuff Was Going to be Easy

So, what takes us beyond storytelling?  To be successful, a story must be designed against known Western cultural parameters.  Is this too ethnocentric for you?  Sorry, but the reality is you are writing speculative scripts for the US market.  Your story has to be built around an accepted structure.  In these ways, the motion picture is built around the three act structure.  For those that studied at USC, the eight-act structure.  More on that issue later.

So, what is classical story design?  Story design is easily defined as an active protagonist struggling against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his goal(s).  More than that, story design is the source of story energy and creation.  Also, remember that conflict drives any story forward.  You must have continually building scenes that allow the main character to succeed or fail, but grow towards the reward of the end.

There are five characteristics identified with story design that your main characters and your story must engage (your mileage may differ);

  • causality/choice
  • consistency/surprise
  • image/sound
  • character/object
  • simplicity/depth

Story design also involved character motivation and backstory.  What your hero’s outer motivation?  What drives him forward?  What is the counter idea?  What or whom stands in your hero’s way?  What is your hero’s inner motivation?  What is your hero’s overriding heroic interest?

Giving dimension to your hero helps describe motivation.  Backstory can be that dimension that helps the reader understand your hero’s actions.  However, backstory means writing contradiction and contrast.  Backstory that agrees with the hero’s actions is boring.  Too much backstory is too expository.  Never expose any more information that is necessary.

Story building is the craft wherein you shape and design the physical structure of your story.  This is where all the little Lego pieces of your story are moved, shaped and realigned into just the right positions for maximum dramatic or comedic impact.  Is story building just the plot?  No, story building is more than plot.  It is the synergy of plot, character development, dramatic action, and thematic significance.

Some of the more important pieces of story building:

  • inciting incident 
  • turning points
  • emotional dynamics 
  • setups and payoffs (Yes, Pilar I paid attention.)
  • the nature of choice 
  • ordering and linking scenes 
  • back story
  • crisis, climax and resolution.

 Classical Western story structure is a beginning, middle and end, a lead with a goal, and overcoming obstacles and an opposition that will do anything to stop the lead’s quest.  Building three act structure is a means to bring order out of a chaos of words.  Human beings need the concept of a beginning, a middle and an end.  Without it, life is nothing more than an endless river of random events.  Without a beginning, a middle and an end, there is no cause and effect.  No before and after.

What classical Western structure is not is a meandering mess that ends when the filmmaker runs out of film; or experimental films that are about punching holes in the film or randomly running a magic marker across the images.  Classical structure is certainly not movies shaped by astrological charts, Feng Shui, or organic gardening.

A few bits of advice I have come across in my reading about screenwriting.  Did you think any of this is original thought?

  • No deux ex machine (God in the form of a machine – Come on, read something other than graphic novels.) 
  • Leave room for the actor 
  • Fall in love with your characters (Yes, even the bad guys.)
  • Character is self-knowledge 
  • Dialog is not conversation
  • Absolute present tense in constant vivid movement.

 6.  Courage

From “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

"Oh! He's a curious animal and seems remarkably small, now that I look at him. No one would think of biting such a little thing, except a coward like me," continued the Lion sadly.

"What makes you a coward?" asked Dorothy, looking at the great beast in wonder, for he was as big as a small horse.

"It's a mystery," replied the Lion. "I suppose I was born that way. All the other animals in the forest naturally expect me to be brave, for the Lion is everywhere thought to be the King of Beasts. I learned that if I roared very loudly every living thing was frightened and got out of my way. Whenever I've met a man I've been awfully scared; but I just roared at him, and he has always run away as fast as he could go. If the elephants and the tigers and the bears had ever tried to fight me, I should have run myself--I'm such a coward; but just as soon as they hear me roar they all try to get away from me, and of course I let them go."

"But that isn't right. The King of Beasts shouldn't be a coward," said the Scarecrow.
"I know it," returned the Lion, wiping a tear from his eye with the tip of his tail. "It is my great sorrow, and makes my life very unhappy. But whenever there is danger, my heart begins to beat fast."

Courage is defined as the ability to confront fear, pain, risk, or intimidation and act beyond.  As screenwriters, you will be faced with not only physical confrontation but instances requiring moral courage as well.  For this essay, I am breaking courage into four main subcategories: bravery, perseverance, honesty, and enthusiasm.

Bravery is defined as “the ability to stand up for what is right in difficult situations.”  While a writer is not going to face many instances of physical bravery, his moral bravery is going to take him to a place where what he believes to be right in spite of social disapproval and possible backlash can make his success possible.  Another area of bravery is that psychological bravery that allows us to overcoming our own addicting habits, irrational anxieties, and harmful dependent relationships to succeed.

Perseverance means continuing along a path facing opposition and perhaps failure.  Perseverance is the ability to proceed towards your writing goals in spite of kadodies who will stand in your way.  In order to persevere at being a writer, you must suppress your desires to give up and pursue an easier task.  Note:  Kadodie is a perfectly good word.  Ask Harlan Ellison.

Honesty and authenticity means more than simply telling the truth as a writer.  Honesty involves integrity in all areas of one’s life and the ability to be true to oneself and one’s role in the world.  Dealing with the people you are going to deal with as a writer requires a great deal of strength in the midst of fear to be honest and authentic.

Enthusiasm is a vital part of your courage in being a writer.  You have to keep up your spirits while facing not only your own personal obstacles, but the obstacles placed in your path by others. 

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Storytelling – Yeah, it’s a living

Storytelling is the art of conveying words, images, and sounds through improvisation or embellishment to produce an entertaining or meaningful narrative.  There is magic in storytelling.  But, storytelling is more art than skill.  You can’t learn it; you develop it through trial and error and lots and lots of practice.  A well-developed and presented story can cut across age barriers and holds the interest of the viewers.

Some clear ‘rules’ about storytelling.  A good story has:

  •  a single theme, clearly defined;
  • a well developed plot;
  • vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm;
  • fully developed characters;
  • and dramatic appeal.

Storytelling traditionally begins with "Once upon a time..."  This traditional opening serves as a "ritual" or signal that the teller was suspending "time and space" transporting the audience to a world of imagination and play.  This opening identified the teller and established the audience’s commitment to accept for the moment that this imaginary world and its "rules" exist.  In screenwriting we use the words FADE IN, but they serve the same purpose.

A “The End” or “They lived happily ever after” were "rituals" signaled the end of the story and a return to reality.  As screenwriters we use FADE OUT, but again they serve the same purpose.

Unfortunately, many screenwriters have forgotten the rules of the game.  From my experience, a lot of writers spend a lot of time studying Syd Field’s paradigm and plot out screenplays like they would plot out a set piece battle.  Plotting out a screenplay is not telling a story.  The first thing an officer is taught in tactics is no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.  In this case, the ‘enemy’ is the story meeting a finely crafted plot.

First and foremost, we writers are telling a story.  The last thing we want to do is show the audience the effect.  A magician wrote regarding the performance of magic:  “The real magic is in the performance, and not in the trick.  Your audience wants to be entertained.  A trick is 90% presentation; the effect itself (and its secret) is merely a cleverly constructed prop.  By revealing the secret, you are knocking down the admiration your audience had for you because you could do something that they could not.  You are spoiling the mystery.”  You need to tell a story and not show the audience how clever your prop is.  So, my advice for screenwriters is that while you plot out your screenplay using whatever paradigm that suits your needs you never lose sight of the fact that you are telling a story. 

I am sure that most of you have already read Robert McKee’s book “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting.”  If you have not, go hence, purchase a copy, and read the sucka.  Then, in a couple years of writing read it again.  You will be amazed at the insights.

5.  Intelligence

Intelligence is defined as an umbrella term describing a property of the mind including related abilities, such as the capacities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, learning from past experiences, planning, and problem solving.

 Most of you reading this are remarking to yourself, “Yeah?  So?  What?”  Shhh, and I will tell you.

Writing in general, and screenwriting in particular, is an exercise in showing off one’s intelligence and good writers cannot help but show off their intelligence.  One cannot write without engaging in abstract thought, problem solving, communication, and so on.  However, I do believe that the two most important of these qualities are learning and reasoning.

Learning is a process of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis (Yes, I read Marx: Karl not Groucho.) with an emphasis on the synthesis.  As such, screenwriters need to read everything not only about their art and craft but about history, philosophy, science, math, etc.  They also need to engage with writers and non-writers as well.  They also need to engage impartial outside sources of information such as educators, consultants, and coaches to provide insight beyond their own experience.  In these ways, they can bring together ideas and assimilate them in a meaningful manner.

I would add here that as good writers we need to get out of our own political echo chambers.  Many folks working in Hollyweird are by their nature politically liberal.  By my nature, I am politically libertarian (Go read up on Ayn Rand if you do not know what that means.) and conservative*.  But the fact that I read Big Hollywood before the Huffpost does not mean I do not read the Huffpost.  The point here is that reasoning entails the ability to generate conclusions from assumptions or premises.  To become better writers, screenwriters must take all of these opposing views and make decisions on how that integration or synthesis might occur.  Reasoning is a cognitive task that helps us in discovering what is true or best about all the accumulated information and how that all will serve our stories.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

*And no, I am not a Christian conservative.  I am Jewish by birth and am not, nor will I ever be, a religious Jew.  I am a rationalist, humanist, and spiritual person (Yes, that is contradictory.  Live with it.  I do.).

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Theme, Story, and Plot - Differences Matter

When working with new screenwriters, I often ask them what their story is about.  The answer I usually get is a ‘this happens, then this happen, then this other thing happens.’  Somewhere along the way, I politely stop the writer and again ask what the story is about.  Usually the conversation starts up where they left off.  What I am trying to get out of the writer is not the plot, but what their story is about in one paragraph or less.  What I usually get is the frustration of a writer realizing that they do not know what their story is about.

There are three elements to story telling: theme, one word or simple phrase that describes the story; story, what the story is about in one paragraph or less; and plot, the ‘this happens’ then ‘that happens.’  Each of these elements of storytelling serve single; but ultimately unified, purposes.

Theme can be expressed in one word or simple phrase.  For example, love, hate, revenge, heroism in the face of overwhelming odds.  As one gains experience in writing, one is able to go beyond simple themes to more complex ones realizing that at their core stories are simple things.

Story is what the story is about in one paragraph or less.  In screenwriting terms, a story should be able to be described in a log line.  At its core, story is the STORY.  Here are some examples of a description of a story in a log line.  Of course, you will recognize many of these stories in their movie form.

  • Earth is invaded and nearly destroyed by a super-powerful alien force.
  • A circus clown has a mid-life crisis and decides to become a mailman.
  • A six-year-old American boy is separated from his parents and finds himself lost in Act II of Japan.
  • An autistic gardener is put out on the street when his boss dies, but manages to survive by making friends and impressing people with his “wisdom”.
  • A 20-year-old suicidal boy falls in love with an 80-year-old woman who loves life.

Below are some truths about story and storytelling.  No, I did not write any of these.  Of course, I stole them.

  • Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas – archetypes, not stereotypes.
  • Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts.
  • Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.
  • Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace.
  • Story is about originality, not duplication.
  • The stronger the idea the stronger the unity of the story.

Plot is the ‘things happens’ then ‘this happens’ followed by the ‘then this other thing happens.’  However, plot is all of those things and more.  Plot is structure.  Plot is control.  Plot is design.  There will be more in future blogs on story design and structure.

Theme, story, and plot work separately and in unison to bring your story to life.  There is a synergy between these elements.  A synergy that only you, as the writer, can bring the story to life.

4.  Insight

Insight has several, related meanings:

What has all this to do with writing, you ask?  Shhh, and I will tell you.

Writers are people (well, one hopes) that tell stories that titillate us, threaten us, cajole us, and hopefully entertain us.  Often time, what we lack is the insight into a story and its workings.  You all have been there.  Some folks call this place ‘writer’s block.’  I call this ‘time for a scotch and a nap.’  In any case, this is a time where introspection and deduction work at solving design and structure problems.

A couple of thoughts allow the writer to look at their story:

analyze past experiences, not only yours but others as well, with the purpose of gaining insight for use to develop your story;
create simulations of story scenarios using existing insights gained from the mind mapping I have previously written about in order to predict outcomes.

A mature writer looks at many ways to gain insights and understands cause and effect within a story.  You need to have a clear understanding of your target readers’ or viewers’ attitudes and beliefs, which connect at an emotional level, that provoke a clear response in the reader or viewer.

For a writer, insights are most effective when they do one of the following:

  • the story is unexpected;
  • the story creates a disequilibria;
  • the story changes momentum;
  • the story exploits a point of difference.

 Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.