This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Story Learnings - So Far... Part 2: Practical Application


A friend of mine, from my native Denmark, who probably would like to remain anonymous, pointed out that my recent blog post ( was exhibiting myself as a pretentious ignoramus with an underlined copy of Story by Robert McKee in one hand, a dog-eared printout of the Casablanca script in the other, and somewhere in between (my ears) a little higher up, the notion that I also have a great idea for a movie!

I should point out, that said friend works as a script consultant, has done so for some years, and has an award-winning documentary under his belt to boot. So, not entirely an amateur with an opinion and a Blogspot account, like me.

I believe, I did mention that before, but I shall point it out once more for the record: I am not a professional screenwriter. I do get paid for the occasional piece of writing (very broadly defined), but it would be pretentious of me to pose as a professional screenwriter. This is what a blog of a bona fide working screenwriter looks like. What I am, is a man who loves stories, loves to learn about anything and everything regarding stories - all with the humble hope of improving my own storytelling skills and the stories they will produce over time. I am a wannabe screenwriter. Absolutely. I want to be a screenwriter. I am working hard to become a screenwriter, and when I have sold my first spec script, I will remove the "wannabe" tag. Until then, I have no problem displaying my direction, ambition as well as my current status.

The previous post was literally a page in one of the journals, I carry with me at all times. During a lunch break, I looked at it, and thought 'why don't I write this up?' 

Just as I am passing them on, the ideas therein have all come to me, and I am pretty sure they are not mine. Just as they probably didn't belong to the ones I learned them from. As the wise King Solomon said, "there is nothing new under the sun." Thus, before there were McKee, Fields and Snyder, there was Lajos Egri, before that, there were a whole bunch of other people, all leading back to Aristotle... Before him? See, that's when our records go a bit hazy. But there must have been somebody, because those universal principles of act structure, protagonists and inciting incidents are all found in one of the earliest found stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh

A whistle-stop tour of four millennia of story thinking, all simply to make the point that I am only standing on the shoulders of the giants before me. Is that understood?

Now, that was all the defensive stuff; The caveat, I might not have spelled out clearly in my last post.

On to the meatier part of this discourse: A good suggestion by said friend; These 11 points mean nothing, unless you can apply them practically. So please allow me to expand on my previous post, by showing how these principles help me in my writing and how I practically apply them in putting a story together. 

I think I should preface this with a little information about the script I am working on at the moment. A colleague, now a friend, approached me with an idea for a short film. I liked it, and agreed to start working, what was roughly two sentences, into a fully developed story. The basic premise is the relationship between a young and good but naive girl and an old and mentally very strong, but dying man. I suppose, the dramatic question can be boiled down to 'how do you preserve your life and values, when forced to live with an evil and powerful adversary?' We are telling it as a vampire film, which is not a vampire film.

Key to this was that we would potentially produce it ourselves, so I set myself a number of limitations on number of characters, locations and other things driving the costs up. Also this project is very much a job application of sorts: My friend wants to show, that he has what it takes to handle production design, and I would like to go through the entire process of writing, directing and producing the finished article. This also shapes a project.

So let me go through the 11 points from my previous post 

1. The universal story: Light wins over darkness

I would hate to tell a story, which does not leave the audience satisfied. You know those stories, that you enjoyed in parts, but at the end it was like something was missing? Partly for this reason I am happy to lean on the universal master plots and feel no need to rebel against and try to break the rules governing those. So light must win over darkness, and if there is no happy ending for your protagonist, it would mean that the protagonist was a dark character, who got what he deserved in the end. 

The basic premise for this story reminded me of the 'voyage and return' plot, with the exotic and fascinating new environment in the beginning, the emphasis on a young (of mind) protagonist and the nightmarish lead up to the climax and resolution. So I spent a bit of time reacquainting myself with the typical structure of 'voyage and return' stories and their commonalities in terms of characters and the psychological elements they employ. File under "background research".

2. The heartbeat of a story

In the beginning we spent a lot of time brainstorming signature images and key scenes that we felt belonged naturally to this story. So you end up with a notebook full of all kinds of moments, which on their own may be brilliant, but still need to fit into a meaningful plot. 

I like to use a whiteboard. On the whiteboard I literally draw a horizontal curve of the story's tension and another one of the pace of the story, detailing how I envision in this abstract way for the story to play out. Horizontally across the white board I then plot in key moments (Reminds me of mapping out key frames on an arc when animating). Remembering the idea of the 'heartbeat of the story', I am careful to add suitable moments of release after moments of tension and vice versa. Also as I naturally want the 'heartbeat of the story' to beat faster and faster leading up to the climax, I look at the mix of the length of the scenes as the pace curve progresses towards the finish.


You know, I can't tell you.

4. The Gap

Remembering 'The Gap' means to me, that I never play nice with my characters. Personally I would like nothing better than to please them and make life easy for them, but instead I force myself to always write them into trouble; Never giving them what they want without letting them work for it first; Surprising them time and time again with a piece of bad news, until they, backs against the wall, have to dig down to their innermost core and pull out astounding things at great cost. It makes me feel like, I am always the jerk, but I believe it makes for more interesting drama.

5. Sub text versus text

I write the subtext first. Sometimes it is only a single sentence. But then you can prod it a bit by asking yourself, 'Why this is sub text and not text? Why would the character hide this? Why would this make the character embarrassed, angry, uncomfortable etc.?' Knowing that, you can then look at , how you would make such and such a situation respectable and civilized. How would the character try to hint at these things, and how explicit would the character dare to make these hints under these circumstances? Drawing on my experience from sales work, you often find that people ask other people exactly the question they would like to be asked themselves. When strong feelings are involved - let's say you are massively embarrassed about the colour white - people will carefully and purposely talk about the exact opposite (the colour black in this case) to hide what is really on their minds. So knowing as much about the subtext and the nature of it, gives you very precise ammunition for how you want to tinge the lines of dialogue and what direction you want to drive them in (away from the thing on everybody's minds or towards it).

6. Character is shown through dilemmas

I turn this one upside down. You should have a pretty good idea of who your character is in the beginning of the story and how you want and need the character to develop over the course of the story. So knowing what values, emotions or traits I need the character to demonstrate, I simply ask myself, which situations would force such a response from this character? Or what situations would test those traits or values to the limit for this character? 

The answers can take a bit time to find; I have yet to devise or learn a method that instantly facilitates brilliant dilemma after dilemma in answer to your question. But I suppose this is where your imagination need to earn its screenwriting chops. 

7. No scene, that doesn't turn

This is a quick and dirty benchmark I use to find what needs to be cut or changed. On my floor, I have all my note cards with scenes arranged according to the plot. I will go through them one by one, analysing the scene in my head. If a scene doesn't change or "turn" the emotional values in it, it either must be cut, or if you absolutely need it, say to build up to the next scene, you must give it some major attention till it both serves its purpose in the overall plot and also offers more than mere treading water in the moment.

8. Show, don't tell

'Show, don't tell' is another snappy benchmark I apply to a lot of things. We want to minimise, or cut altogether scenes and dialogue, which only serves the purpose to fill the audience in on background knowledge, but do not drive the plot forward.  Anything that can be told without words at all, and just images, must be done so. No line of dialogue, which could be cut and the meaning still be read, must be left alone. What doesn't makes the story stronger, will make it weaker. And so I travel through my script with a razor sharp pair of scissors, trying to trim the baby fat as I go along. In reality it is hard work. I hate cutting my own words. I love all of them dearly. So instead, as I write, I try to keep this in mind beforehand and stay economic before I even put the dialogue on page.

9. Storytelling is story delaying

Do you know how little children sometimes ruin a joke by telling you the punch line first? We can be so enamoured with our wonderful imaginary world, so full of fascinating details and complex back story, that we can't wait to show all of it to the audience in the very first scene, if not even before the opening credits. 

But storytelling is story delaying. So as I work my way backwards through my story (see point 11 below), I ask myself what information is crucially needed for the audience to understand the development of the plot. These "must-know" bits of information all have individual places in the plot, where before this point they would be unnecessary and after this point, they would be too late. You may be able to put parts of the same piece of information in different locations. This both helps your story to not be overloaded in the beginning. You don't want the audience to feel like they have to munch through a mountain of broccoli to get to the good stuff. Another thing is that the audience is smarter than you may think. Avoid the groans tearing them out of the suspense of disbelief as one painfully obvious thing after another is pointed out to them. Lastly it helps building suspense. 

In the story I am working right now, I want to build an escalating sense of dread. So the intentions of the old man to essentially trap the young girl, I will reveal spread out as bread crumbs building up to the nightmare feel that I want. Revealing it all in the beginning ("Ha ha, you are trapped!") might create a bit of shock and some mild confusion, but that would evaporate long before we hit the climax. Revealing it all in the very end would only confuse the audience to what is going on. In either case, the suspense would be lost. For other parts of the story -  a subplot involving the girl's recently deceased grandmother - I need to reveal some bits early, while the death of the grandmother is still fresh in the audience's mind, in order to bridge us over to when the resolution comes in that plot line.

I guess, I like to be quite organised about these things; I am scared I will miss out on something important, so I like to lean on a bit of structure. Hence my whiteboard is my friend, where charts and curves all pinpoint the location when the crucial elements must take place. I like having those big tent pole elements placed first, that gives me peace of mind to write more impulsively in between

10. Setup and pay off

This takes me back to my white board. Looking over the key moments of my story, I want to make sure that the preceding scenes fill the audience in on the things they need to know, in order to readily understand the key moment to come. Also I like to increase the impact of these moments, if at all possible, by leading into it with an opposite (a bit like anticipation in animation before a "take"). This takes us back to the 'heartbeat of the story'. On the grander scale, the story's resolution will be preceded by the story climax of tension and conflict. But setting up smaller points, such as a sequence climax, will also benefit the impact.

11. Plot turns

This is how a story comes to be in my universe: It all starts with a few garbled up images or words which only really makes sense to me. They become a string of key moments or parts of scenes. Little by little you end up with a growing number of things (characters, story beats, scenes etc.), which just has the right feel for your story. Before that list grows too big, you need to know where you are going; You need to nail your ending down. There is no room to manoeuvre on the ending. It must be good. It must be satisfying. It must be surprising. So before you paint yourself into a corner, by creating too many lovely darling ideas, do yourself the favour of figuring out where this journey is going to end.

Once I have my ending pencilled in, I work backwards from there to the beginning (funny, how the possible beginnings often are among the first feeble scribbles). What I aim to do, is alluding to the ending and how everything is resolved in subtle ways throughout the story. Carefully delaying the full explanation, or at least cutting it up in small bites and placing them as a bread crumb trail throughout. I kinda explain this to myself, as folding a piece of baking paper with an arrow drawn in one direction. You know the semi-transparent stuff you use to line oven trays with? To make it really, really simple, let's say at the ending, the protagonist turns out to be good (as opposed to evil). This is revealed at the climax. Taking a step back, we need to fold the baking paper back over itself, so now the arrow points the other way. Lo and behold, in the sequences before the climax we believe the protagonist was an evil so-and-so. Taking yet another step back, we fold the baking paper again, and now the arrow is once again pointing in the good direction - the protagonist is good as gold. As you keep folding the paper, working your way backwards through the story, each of these folds, or changes of direction, represents a plot turn, where we turn the story on its head. Also as with real baking paper, you should be able to see or make out what is on the layer underneath, although not as clearly as the topmost layer. Obviously, there is an upper limit here, where the more times you turn things upside down, the more ludicrous it gets. Similarly, the more layers of baking paper you got, folded on top of each other, the more opaque the whole stack eventually becomes.

Looking back over my folded stack of baking paper, so to speak, I try to see if I can match up some of the changes of direction in the story, to what I already have in my file of things, that just feels right for the story. If not, I need to start answering the hard questions of, why such and such is not what it seems, why character so-and-so would completely go against his/her character traits in extreme circumstances, or how things (believably) against all odds will turn out like this. This is very much one of the jigsaw puzzle parts of putting a story together. But also enormously satisfying, once it locks elegantly into place.


Right. At the end of the day, this is only meant to make writing good stuff simpler. A good screen play is a good screen play is a good screen play. No amount of theory can make up for that, nor guarantee that. So I better get back to writing what really matters, my next screen plays!


david harold said...

That's a damn fine blog post Marque.

Marque Pierre Sondergaard said...

Thank you kindly, Sir!