2/18/09

My Writing Process Part V: Structurally Sound


By now, we're practically BFFs. Look at all we've been through. We talked about The Great Idea, discussed how Research is Key, explored The Killer Pitch, and examined Characters That Make You Give A Damn. It's been a fun ride. Now it's time to start piecing this story together. Let's roll.

V. Structurally Sound

Last week I had a conversation with a friend who intends to write a novel. (I have no doubt that someday she certainly will.) I asked her how it was going. She told me she's gotten as far as creating the word document that will contain her prose, titled it, and saved it on her desktop. And that's as far as she's gotten. All she needs to do, she says, is force herself to sit down and write.

I told her that sitting down in front of that imposing, blank screen or sheet of paper (aka "The White Bull") is the last thing she needs to do if she truly wants to write that novel. You can't just sit down and turn keystrokes into gold. Hell, I can hardly write a birthday card without scratching out an outline of what I want to say and doing a first draft. To write a novel cold, without doing the other steps in the process that I've been writing about (developing your core idea, doing your research, working your pitch, fleshing out your characters) would surely lead to failure. Before you can start writing, you need to structure your story. Next week, I'll talk specifically about how I structure my stories. But first, what is structure?

McKee says "STRUCTURE is a selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life." The key thing to take from McKee's definition is that you, as writer, need to be purposeful and deliberate about the events you choose to show in your story.

The basic model for story structure hasn't changed since the beginning of time. Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that all drama has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's all there is to the basic three act structure. Let's talk a little bit about each piece.

The Beginning

Beginnings are probably the easiest part of the whole screenplay. If you can't come up with an exciting opening scene or catchy premise to a story, you're probably going to have problems with the rest of the story. I mean, think of how many absolutely awful movies actually had decent opening scenes. (Want an example...Friday The 13th Part 9: Jason Goes to Hell. Netflix it for the first 5 minutes. Then throw it away. Great open, awful, awful movie.)

So, beginnings are easy, but don't be deceived. If you fail to nail a solid beginning, anything else you write will be a waste of time, because you're readers will put you down and turn on The Real World. Aristotle said beginnings should be about 25% of your story (and who am I to argue with him?) In that first 25%, you want to make sure you accomplish the following:
  • Establish the genre- It should be clear to the reader soon into your story just what kind of story this is. If it's a comedy, something funny better happen soon. If it's a horror, scare me early. Want a perfect example? SCREAM. The opening scene with Drew Barrymore is both funny and scary. Genre established and Wes Craven is once again "The Man."
  • Establish the situation- I need to know what this story is about, and I need to know it early. Make sure you cover your question words...show us who, what, when and where this story is all about. And do so in and interesting way. Otherwise, the reader will be scratching his head, wondering why he should care.
  • Really establish the main protagonist- You need to tell us who this story is about from the get go, and in almost all cases, there should only be one main protagonist. We already talked about creating strong characters. In the beginning, you need to let us know who he is, what is her status quo is, what he wants (and yes she needs to want something) and what's standing in his way (yes, there needs to be an obstacle to her goal.) Sorry if switching he pronouns in that last sentence made you dizzy.
  • Capture the readers attention- Oh, yeah, while you're setting all this stuff up, you also need to do it in an entertaining fashion that makes the reader want to keep turning the page. The best way to do this is to OPEN BIG. There's a reason that for years, every Marvel comic opened with a splash page. If the story was Spiderman vs. The Rhino, they'd be mid-fight on page one. Then they'd jump back in time to show you how they came to blows. But as soon as you open that comic book, it opens on action. Want another example...check out this opening scene of the movie Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. This entire scene happens in the first 5 pages of the screenplay. It sets the tone for the entire movie. (No surprise, it was the first Marvel movie to be a huge surprise box office hit.)

  • End the Beginning With a Turning Point- The beginning, middle and end really have nothing to do with page counts. Your beginning could be an issue, a few pages, or in some gag strips, a single panel. What's important is that there is a clearly definable moment in your story where it's no longer the beginning. Something happens to your character that shakes his or her status quo. Eliot finds E.T. Marty travels back in time. The beginning is over when a turning point takes place that throws your protagonists life out of whack. And yes, your story needs one of these.

The Middle

I said earlier that beginnings are easy, and I'm standing by it. The middle, this is where things can fall apart if you aren't careful. One of the best ways to think about the middle of your story is to picture a movie trailer...any movie trailer. Most of the scenes that you see in trailers are from the middle of the flick. When you're writing the middle of your story, make sure you're delivering on whatever promise you made in the trailer (even if the trailer is just in your head.) If you're writing an action story, the middle is where the asses are kicked and the stuff blows up. A romantic comedy? The middle is where most of the funny hijinx ensue and the couples face obstacle after obstacle in the way of their love.

The key to strong story middles, or second acts, lies in the conflict. "Nothing moves forward in a story accept through conflict," according to Robert McKee. Some things to keep in mind when writing your middles:
  • The Conflict Should Always Be Rising - You need to have a little sadist in you to be a good writer. Yes, you need to love your characters and spend the time to flesh them out and bring them to life. But then, you have to put your characters through the ringer. Whatever it is in the beginning of your story that shakes up your character's world and changes his or her status quo should only be the beginning of the obstacles he or she will face. Things need to get worse before they get better for your character...that's how you'll keep your audience interested.
  • Conflict Should Be On Multiple Levels - It's not enough these days for your character to want a MacGuffin and have to overcome obstacle A, B, C, and D before he gets it. Audiences and readers want more. Your character should be facing both external and internal conflict throughout your story's middle. Take Jerry McGuire, for instance. The movie puts Jerry on a dual quest to save both his career (external conflict) and allow himself to truly love and be intimate (internal conflict.) Either one of those stories on their own would not have been enough to capture the hearts of audiences.
  • Your Protagonist Needs to Act - A lot of things are going to happen in your story, many of which will be out of your protagonist's control. For example, Jack had nothing to do with the damn boat hitting the iceberg in Titanic. Still, he didn't just sit back and resign himself to sinking with the boat. No, he did everything possible to save Rose, up until the very end. As readers, we root for characters who take action. (This is usually because we admire them, being too much the chicken shit to ask out the hottie at the coffee shop or tell the boss exactly how we feel.) Make sure that things aren't just happening to your characters, but that they are reacting to the events around them.
  • End the Middle with the Crisis- Just as the beginning transitions to the middle through a turning point, so too must the middle to the end. And this turning point should be the crisis...a point at which there is no turning back. This should be pretty much the biggest obstacle or challenge your protagonist will face. The Titanic Sinks. The Bomb goes off. Jerry is dumped by his wife and his only client, Rod Tidwell, appears to injure himself. Crisis.

The End

Endings may be the toughest part of writing a story. In a lot of ways, the ending is how your work will be remembered. Solid endings turn good movies into great movies (The Sixth Sense.) Lousy endings can turn decent movies into bad movies (Signs.) Come on? Water? The aliens are allergic to water? And they decided to come to Earth? Is that all you got, M. Night?

But back to the endings. Yes, they are tough, mostly because, if you do your job right, your audience is going to be trying to anticipate how your story will play out prior to the ending. Make the ending too obvious and too easy and they'll feel cheated. Make the ending too surprising and unexpected and it will feel false. Yes, endings are difficult. Here are some tips to make writing them a bit easier.
  • Know your ending before you start writing- You're characters will not reveal to you what the ending will be as you write. That's not their job. To have a strong, conclusive, resolute ending, you need to know it from the beginning of your story. Otherwise, you will not lay the groundwork throughout. You don't start a roadtrip without knowing your destination. You don't build a building without having a blueprint of exactly what the finished structure will look like. Why should writing be any different?
  • Good Stories are Always Resolved - Don't get too cute with your endings. In the set-up, you should have established an interesting character with strong and clear internal needs and external goals. In the end, you need to clearly show whether or not they have addressed those needs and achieved those goals. It's okay if your hero loses. It's fine if he wins. It's not okay if it's a draw.
  • Leave no loose ends - Everything in your story should be wrapped up dramatically, and this goes not only for your main character but for your supporting characters. All the questions you've raised should be answered and all the predicaments you've placed your characters into should be resolved. Don't keep your audience guessing, unless there's a sequel coming soon. Cliffhangers do have their place in serialized storytelling, but when your story is done, you should be able to put a fork in it.

And there you have it. Basic three act structure. Every good story ever told has these three elements. It's just the way stories work. So before you start writing, you really need to work through your beginning, middle and end. Next week, I'll tell you how I attack my beginning, middle and end, beat by beat.

Next: VI. Beat It

1 comment:

Jason B-L/ DragonFUZE said...

Really clear and accessible. Thanks for keeping these articles going!