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.

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