Showing posts with label screenwriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label screenwriting. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 1

The Structure of a Horror: The Protagonist

The Structure of a Horror: The Protagonist

I’ve been thinking about horror stories, about what elements are common to the genre. I had intended to do this all in one post, but it has grown quite long so I’ve divided the material into a few parts. Today I’m going over how the protagonist in a horror story is different from, say, a protagonist in an action-adventure. In future posts I will write about the antagonist/monster, the setting, the stakes, and so on. Finally, I will discuss a general structure that many horror stories follow. 

The Structure of Horror Stories

One reason it took longer for me to write this post than I had anticipated was that, although I realized the structure of a horror story is a bit different from the general pattern of the hero’s journey, at first I couldn’t put my finger on where exactly the difference lay. 

In other kinds of stories it is common for the protagonist to start out in a less than ideal state, go through the crucible of the story world and come out changed for the better. Because of this growth, this transformation, the protagonist is able to best the antagonist and save the day. Or not. The protagonist can fail, but that’s the general pattern.

Horror stories are different. [1]

In the beginning of a horror story the protagonist, if I may put it this way, is as good as he’s going to get. He’s the happiest and best adjusted he is ever going to be. So this is not going to be a tale of improvement. At BEST, it will be a tale of survival. 

That is, horror stories are less about how to become a better person through character transformation than they are about surviving hell. In a horror story, you might be a half dead psychopath by the end but if you make it through alive, then it goes in the win column.

The protagonist

In a horror the protagonist--and by ‘protagonist’ I mean the main viewpoint character--is, as in any story, the one who is most active, she is the one who changes and, because of these changes, gets through all the insanity that is thrown at her. By saying that I don’t mean to imply that she will survive, only that she usually makes it to the Climax of the story.

Imbalance of Power

Something unique to horror stories is that there is an unusually large difference in power between the antagonist and protagonist, and this imbalance is present right from the very beginning. After all, if Jane is facing down the devil, it’s not like he’s going to get MORE evil as the story progresses!

Because the antagonist is so much more powerful than the protagonist, the protagonist's motivation needs to be clear, it needs to be compelling, and it needs to be readily understandable to your audience. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist’s motivation to pit herself against the monster is selfish (she doesn’t want to die) or selfless (she doesn’t want her daughter to die), but it does have to be clear and convincing.

I think this is one reason why a mother can make a wonderfully compelling protagonist in a horror movie. A writer does not have to do much to convince his audience that a mother would give her life for her child. Conversely, though--and for the same reason--a mother can make an equally powerful antagonist. 

(Spoiler Warning)
For example, in the movie Hereditary (2018) a mother ends up hurting her child. This proved to be a good way of demonstrating the power of whatever darkness had her in its thrall.

(Before I leave the topic of the protagonist, I would like to pass on a tip I received from someone whose name I unfortunately have forgotten. Give both the antagonist and protagonist as many allies as you reasonably can because you will need characters for both the antagonist and protagonist to kill.)


1. Noir fiction may be an exception to this rule-of-thumb.


Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash (As you can see, I altered this photo.)

Monday, June 19

Writing Exercise: Make Your Own Critter!

Writing Exercise: Make Your Own Critter!

The research vessel Investigator recently explored a 4 km deep abyss along the eastern edge of Australia and found some bizarre critters! A fish without a face, a blog fish, and (this is my favorite) a sponge with GLASS tips. Wow. Now make your own!

What does the head look like? Body? Does it walk? Fly? Swim? Does it have scales? Feathers?

What exceptional quality does it have? Can it withstand fire? Can it breathe fire? Is it poisonous? Can it camouflage itself? Does it lay eggs or give live birth? How long does it live? WHERE does it live?

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book I’ve read many times, a book that helped shape our understanding of what a good story is: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field. As an added bonus it’s well-written and a pleasure to read. Yes, it does focus on screenplays as opposed to novels but many of the same considerations apply: story is story. From the book:
“Because a screenplay is a story told with pictures, we can ask ourselves, what do all stories have in common? They have a beginning, middle, and an end, not necessarily in that order, as Jean-Luc Godard says. Screenplays have a basic linear structure that creates the form of the screenplay because it holds all the individual elements, or pieces, of the story line in place.”

Friday, December 30

Blake Snyder and the Six Things that Need Fixing

Blake Snyder and the Six Things that Need Fixing

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder writes:

“The first 10 pages is also where we start to plant every character tic, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win. She's an isolated writer who lives in a make-believe world (Romancing the Stone); he's a hip, slick, and savvy foreign-car importer who's as glib as he is cold (Rain Man); she's a ditzy airhead who doesn't appear to have much substance (Legally Blonde).

“And when there's something that our hero wants or is lacking, this is the place to stick the Six Things That Need Fixing. This is my phrase, six is an arbitrary number, that stands for the laundry list you must show — repeat SHOW — the audience of what is missing in the hero's life. Like little time bombs, these Six Things That Need Fixing, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads and cured. They will become running gags and call-backs. We, the audience, must know why they're being called back! Look at Big and its primary set-up: "You have to be this tall to go on this ride." On the list of Six Things That Need Fixing there are other needs besides a height requirement. The kid in Big can't get the girl, have any privacy, etc. But in Act Two he gets all those things when he magically turns Big. And those call-backs only work because we have seen them in the set-up.”

I had heard about this idea of Things that Need Fixing before I read Save the Cat—Dwight V. Swain talks about tags and traits in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer—but I like the way Blake Snyder spells it out.

A Thing that Needs Fixing

1. A tag or trait the protagonist has and wants fixed, or ...
2. A tag or trait the protagonist doesn’t have but wishes he did.
3. Something that needs to be shown in Act One and then ...
4. Used as a running gag or call-back in acts two and three.
5. Resolved in Act Three.

(If you're unfamiliar with a three act structure, see: A Story Structure in Three Acts.)

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. A tag or trait the protagonist has and wants fixed.

Blake Snyder mentions Big and that movie does contain terrific examples. The protagonist wants to be taller, wants to be able to talk to girls, wants to have privacy, and so on. During the course of the movie he has each of these desires fulfilled but things don’t turn out quite they way he thought they would. The end result of experiencing these changes is, toward the end of the movie, a renewed appreciation for being a kid.

2. A tag or trait the protagonist doesn’t have but wishes he did.

In The Matrix Neo wants to meet Morpheus and learn the truth about The Matrix. Throughout the rest of the movie Neo has this wish fulfilled on various levels. At the Lock-In he learns, physically, what The Matrix is—it spews his physical body out and, in the process, nearly kills him. At the next level Neo enters The Matrix and learns, in a limited fashion, how to control it. Then, at the end of the movie, Neo transcends the matrix and can alter it in any way he wishes.

3. Something that needs to be shown in Act One and then ...

When the protagonist—or any main character for that matter—is introduced, they are introduced doing something (even if this is just talking to someone), they are introduced with some sort of initial goal, and we give them tags and traits. In this opening scene we somehow manage to show the audience, get them to understand, the protagonist’s deep desires. (Generally a main character will have an internal and external desire, but one will take precedence over the other in the plot.)

4. Used as a running gag or call-back in acts two and three.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. It’s a character tic, and it’s called back in Act Two when he’s thrown into the Well of Souls along with a few hundred snakes.

5. Resolved in Act Three.

Continuing from the last point, Indy’s fear of snakes is never (to my knowledge) resolved, but I wouldn’t want it to be! It is a minor weakness in an otherwise courageous character, something that makes him more human. In Big, though, the protagonist realizes that, despite all the things that irritated him about being a kid, he wants to go back. Now, because of his adventure, he sees himself in a new light.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending the beautiful Moleskine Classic Notebook. I’ve written before about how I write my Zero Drafts in longhand. I know this won’t work for everyone, but I find that ideas come to life easier when I have a pen in my hand and write longhand (see: The Benefits of Handwriting). Of course a Moleskine notebook isn’t a requirement for that! But if you want to treat yourself I can wholeheartedly recommend this journal. I buy myself a Moleskine if I’m celebrating something, or treating myself for reaching a long anticipated milestone.

That’s it! I hope you have have very merry and safe Happy New Year! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing! :-)

Thursday, December 22

The Structure of Change

The Structure of Change

The Hero’s Journey and Change

Ages ago Chuck Wendig wrote an article about story structure [1], focusing on the Monomyth. It’s one of my favorite articles on the subject. I bring it up here because of one of the many compelling points he made: each story has its own unique structure.[2]

I agree! 'Breaking' your story and seeing how it compares to a universal structure such as the monomyth can be a terrific way to help writers check whether their plot has gaps, to see if their main characters could be more fully fleshed out, and so on. But it is vitally important to take any talk of universal structure as a guide, a suggestion, and NOT as rules carved into stone.

No one writes a story because they want to manifest a universal structure, the point is for each story to incorporate a CHANGE on a fundamental level. Keep in mind that the idea of a universal structure for a story is an abstraction. It’s like saying the average resident of New York owns 1.2 dogs. The statement is meaningful but we’ll never see 1.2 dogs peeing on a fire hydrant!


I’ve found it’s often best to save thinking about story structure for the editing process. I need to first let my creative self have it’s way with the story (which, for me, means writing a Zero Draft) and then, when I sit down to transform my Zero Draft into a First Draft, I break the story and to where the plot holes are, where it’s misshapen, and so on.

I find that puzzling out a particular story’s structure is an invaluable editing tool. (Shawn Coyne talks about this in his wonderful book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.)

What do I think about when I’m actually writing a Zero Draft? I think about change. That’s what I try to keep in the front of my mind and (hopefully!) by so doing, incorporate change into the story on a fundamental level.

To sum up. In my view it is important to understand the Monomyth. Not because you’re going to incorporate all—each and every one—of its twists and turns, but because you will, inevitably, incorporate some.

Zero Draft: The Structure of Change

So what does this look like? What is the structure of change?

Most importantly—and Dwight V. Swain and Jack M. Bickham picked up on this in their (wonderful!) books on writing—the protagonist must do something. Which means the protagonist must WANT something. Which means there must be obstacles—both internal and external—that keep the protagonist from achieving what she desires. (After all, if she wanted something then immediately got it, that wouldn’t be interesting!)

In any case, from my recent perusal of scripts, especially TV scripts, most particularly screenplays from Supernatural, here is the story progression that occurs:


In the beginning of the story the characters are introduced. The audience sees their pain points, their desires, their flaws, their strengths, and so on. But how does this happen? In TV often the first glimpse we get of the characters is in the teaser.

In the case of Supernatural, a monster attacks someone; sometimes this person is killed, sometimes they are just taken. There is usually darkness, fear and a lot of blood. The Teaser often sets the concrete goal: hunt and kill the monster that did this.

Protagonist’s larger problem

The protagonist has a problem, a thorn in the flesh, something that runs deep, something that can’t be shrugged off. Perhaps she feels responsible for the death of a loved one, perhaps she feels wronged—betrayed—by a loved one and those ill feelings are festering. Often a deep dark secret is involved with the protagonist’s problem, a secret she actively protects for whatever reason. Perhaps the secret is of something embarrassing, perhaps the secret is simply something she wants for her own. Letting go of the secret, opening up about it, is often necessary for true healing.

State the story’s thematic premise

We’ve seen, above, that the protagonist has a problem. Because of this problem he wants something. Granted, this want can be somewhat nebulous (e.g., to be loved, to get justice for the death of a loved one, and so on). This want becomes the theme of the story. For example, in the first episode of Supernatural after the pilot (Wendigo), Sam feels guilt over his girlfriend’s death. In a dream, he visits his girlfriend’s grave and says, “I should have protected you, I should have told you the truth.” He deals with his guilt by throwing himself into his search for her killer. In the process Sam becomes uncharacteristically angry when Dean wants to help folks along the way.

In “Wendigo” the theme was explicitly stated when Dean asks Sam: What are we supposed to do? What does Dad want us to do? The answer: hunt monsters.

In “Skin,” Sam wants to keep in touch with his friends from Stanford but Dean tells Sam that’s just not possible in their line of work; his friends wouldn’t be able to understand what they do or why they do it.

In each of these episodes (Wendigo and Skin), Sam’s desire (and, perhaps, Dean’s reaction to it) sets the theme. Although, again, not every story needs an explicit theme (for example, the episode “Hook Man” isn’t as strongly themed as some of the others).

Have a specific, concrete, goal

Have what the character wants be specific. To solve a specific murder, to win first prize in the pie eating contest, to demonstrate your best friend’s innocence, and so on.

Throw obstacles, internal and external, into the protagonist’s path

An example of an external problem would be: the evil critter locked Sam and Dean in a cell. If they don’t find a way out they will die. An internal obstacle might be that, because of Sam’s guilt over his girlfriend’s death, he’s vulnerable to a certain kind of monster who is attracted to people who carry around a lot of emotional baggage.


Make it clear how your protagonist’s actions are intended to bring about achieving the concrete goal. The reader may see that what the protagonist is doing is extremely unlikely to yield the result the protagonist wants—other characters in the story may see this as well—but as long as the protagonist is convinced he will (and as long as this conviction makes sense for the character in the context of the story) it's okay.


Make it clear how your character's plan could go right as well as how it could go completely, terribly, wrong. In other words, make the stakes clear to the reader. Spell it out. Also, raise the stakes at least twice, preferably three times. And make it clear whenever the stakes are raised. Right before the climax the stakes should be the highest in the story and it should—at least for a moment—seem completely hopeless.


Often the protagonist will overcome his great flaw with the help of synthesis. By this I mean the synthesis of the theme and the B Story.

The synthesis is not something that occurs in every story; it can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes a flaw is just a flaw and the protagonist fails because of it. This failure can work well in a series where another character can save his bacon, giving the protagonist time to work out his issues. In a later story you can have the protagonist finally synthesize the moral from the B Story with the theme and emerge victorious.

If you can setup a satisfying synthesis then, in my opinion, you can construct an ending your readers will love and remember.


There needs to be an element of finality about this conflict. Perhaps the protagonist and antagonist have fought previously and both walked (or limped, as the case may be!) away, but that’s not possible this time. This time one of them is going down.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to you. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’ve seen the movie The Big Short (starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell) and loved it so much I wanted to read the book: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. I have it and it has been on my To Read list for ages. Perhaps that will be one of my New Year's resolutions: read The Big Short! Have you read it? If so, what did you think? Was it as good as the movie? Better?

That’s it!


1. NSFW --> 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, by Chuck Wendig.

2. Another wonderful point Chuck Wendig made was that structure should adapt to the story, not the other way around. I agree! That’s something I don’t stress enough.

Wednesday, December 14

How to Begin Writing Your First Screenplay

How to Begin Writing Your First Screenplay

I’ve never written a screenplay so I’ve decided—even though I don’t plan on branching out into screenwriting—to rewrite one of my stories as one. Just for practice because I think that stretching myself, my abilities, is a good thing!

Writing a Screenplay: First Things

1. The Logline or One-Line

I’ve written an article about this (See: Creating A Logline). Basically, a logline is a sentence that spells out in dramatic fashion the central conflict of a story.

The central conflict is composed of three things:

1) The protagonist’s goal.
2) The person or force that opposes the protagonist’s goal.
3) The stakes of the conflict.

Here is a formula:

[Protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist’s name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

An example logline for Die Hard:

Headstrong NYPD detective John McClane wants to save his estranged wife and her colleagues from certain death at the hands of Hans Gruber, a mercenary willing to sacrifice anything to get his hands on $640 million in bearer bonds.

Joe Bunting over at The Write Practice wrote an article about how to write a screenplay. He gives the following tip on how to craft your logline:

“It’s also helpful to put a summarizing adjective in front of your characters to give a sense of their personalities.”[1]

Here’s his example: “A headlong orphan and his Vulcan nemesis must save the Federation (and themselves) from revenge-seeking Romulan from the future.”[1]

2. Write a Screenplay: Beat Sheet

After the logline it’s time to hammer out the beats in the beat sheet.

First, a few terms:

Thesis world: The Ordinary World of Act One.
Antithesis world: The world of Act Two, a world that is the opposite of the thesis world.
Synthesis world: The world of Act Three. A Synthesis of the Thesis and Antithesis.


Thesis world -> protagonist trusts his peer group.
Antithesis world -> protagonist doesn’t trust his peer group.
Synthesis world -> protagonist trusts himself.

Example of a beat sheet: The Winter Soldier.

Description of what should be in a beat sheet:

1. Opening Image. Give a brief description of who the protagonist is before his world changes.

2. Inciting Incident/Catalyst. Protagonist is thrown out of her familiar world—the Ordinary World—and she begins her quest.

3. Start of Act Two. Protagonist is first challenged by new things. There must be drama. It must be clear whether the protagonist succeeded or failed.

4. Midpoint. If things are good for the protagonist early on this is where they go bad. If things are horrible for the protagonist early on then this is where they begin to go his/her way.

5. Bad guys close in. Often there is a ticking clock involved.

6. All is lost/Dark moment. Lowest part of your characters’s story.
The dark moment or dark turn does against what hero believed in the thesis world. Act Three is the synthesis world.
Finally reaching the tower where the princess is being kept, the hero finds… she’s not there! And not only that, it’s a trap! It looks like the Bad Guy has won.

7. Break into Act Three. Protagonist has an epiphany. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.

8. Epiphany. Things turn around. “Step 4: The hero now has to come up with a new plan. And it’s all part and parcel of the overall transformation of the hero and his need to “dig deep down” to find that last ounce of strength (i.e., faith in an unseen power) to win the day.”

9. Race to the finish. A plan is formulated.
“Thinking on the fly, and discovering his best self, the hero executes the new plan.”

10. The Climax. The protagonist and antagonst square off. This is the final confrontation between them. It must be clear that the outcome of this context will be final. No do-overs.

11. Wrap Up: Cash out the stakes. Tie up any loose threads.


A synopsis doesn’t include subplots or minor characters. It is only about the main character and his/her plotline.

Capitalize the names of characters the first time they appear. Also, the synopsis should we written in the third person, present tense.

Rather than create an example of my own, I’ve found an article that includes a wonderful example so head on over to Publishing Crawl and read How To Write a 1-Page Synopsis.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to recommend a book I’ve read through many times, I’m talking about 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder. I’ve used many of his prompts as writing exercises to begin my writing day.

I haven’t talked about how to write a screenplay per se, this post is already long enough. I’ll save that for next time.

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you on Friday. Till then, good writing!


1. How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Step Process.

Monday, December 30

Testing Your Story Concept

I've been following screenwriter Matt Bird's blog, Cockeyed Caravan, for a couple of weeks. Recently Bird wrote a post, The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: Mad Men, chalk full of useful information.

Here are what, for me, were the highlights.

1. Is your story concept strong enough?

It makes sense that if you're going to write a book--something that is going to take, for most people, a few months (or years!)--it's a good idea to make sure you're starting off with a story idea that can go the distance.

Let's put our story ideas to the test by asking these questions:

"Does the concept contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?"

I'd come across this notion of an ironic contradiction previously when I read  Blake Snyder's excellent book, "Save The Cat!"

Blake Snyder writes about irony in relation to the logline, or one-line, that summarizes your story. He writes:

"The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony."

Here are Snyder's examples:

Die Hard: "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists."

Pretty Woman: "A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend."

A Note About Irony

(If you don't care whether those loglines really are ironic, then you might want to skip this section.)

I admire Blake Snyder. When he wrote Save The Cat! I'm sure he'd forgotten more about screenwriting--and writing in general--than I'll ever know. That said, the idea that either of those loglines is ironic doesn't sit well with me.

Here's one of the definitions, or senses, of "irony" that I think comes closest to how Snyder used it:

"(1) :  incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) :  an event or result marked by such incongruity. (Merriam-Webster)"

I think this usage note gives voice to my reservations better than I could:

"The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable," in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly. Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of 'ironically' in the sentence, "In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York." Some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us. By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence, "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market," where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency. (The Free Dictionary)"

So it seems that what Snyder and Bird call "ironic" many would call "improbable." But, enough about terminology!

Ironic Contradiction

Another way to think about irony, and ironic contradictions, is as a hook

A hook is a familiar idea to most writers. The hook introduces a question that your reader will want answered. Snyder writes:

"[A] good logline must be emotionally intriguing, like an itch you have to scratch."

Lee Child mentioned that one way he hooks readers' interest is by asking a question he leaves unanswered until much later in the story.

Before I leave this point, I think that Breaking Bad had one of the best hooks I've ever heard. You have a genius teaching chemistry, sleepwalking through life, until he's told death will claim him in a few months. Then, as the result of a desire to provide for his pregnant wife and children, to leave them some money before he dies, Walter White starts to use his genius to make meth. And money. Lots and lots of money.

Is the protagonist going to have a happy ending? Um ... no. That's obvious right from the beginning. This is a doomed character. But we're interested! Walter White is doing something very bad but for the best of reasons. He's a weak guy putting it all on the line, finally (tragically) fighting for something he wants.

I was going to go through more points but it seems I've reached my word limit!

I encourage you all to read Matt Bird's article and, if you haven't, to pick up a copy of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!

Photo credit: "This Is The Construct" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, November 7

Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Think of what a story would be without structure. Many of us don't have to imagine it, we have those stories buried under our beds!

Structure helps move a story along, it lends novels that most mysterious of things: narrative drive. The I-can't-put-it-down quality that keeps sane people up way past their bedtime.

Structure also helps writers when we have that feeling: Gee, shouldn't something be happening about now? But what? Following a structure, or even reading about it, can generate ideas.

The Purpose Of Writing/Storytelling

Screenwriters talk about structure more than novel writers, so I've been studying screenwriting. Not with the intention to write a script--novels are challenging enough!--but to learn about different story structures.

Whether we're talking about writing a novel, short story or a screenplay, it's the same basic idea: We're telling a story to an audience. We are entertainers seeking to wow the crowd.

One concept I discovered recently, that of the Pinch or Pinch Point, is another tool a writer can stow away in her toolbox just in case she needs it. And, during NaNoWriMo, who knows what will come in handy before the month is through.

Pinch Points

A pinch point is a reminder. It's a reminder of who the antagonist is and what is at stake. Further, this reminder isn't filtered by the hero's experience. In other words, it's not just how the hero sees the antagonist, or antagonistic force, this is how they are. Here we see their true nature. (Story Structure Series: #9 – Pinch Points, Larry Brooks)

The Structure Of Your Story: How To Use Pinch Points

There are two pinch points--sometimes just called "pinches"--in a novel or screenplay. Assuming a three act structure, the first pinch comes halfway through the first part of the 2nd act (3/8 mark) and the second pinch comes halfway through the second part of the 2nd act (5/8 mark).

Clear as mud? Here's a drawing:

First Pinch Point:

The first pinch point reminds us of the central conflict of the story.

Second Pinch Point: 

The second pinch point, like the first, reminds the audience of the central conflict of the story, but it also is linked to the first (Wikipedia, Screenwriting). It shows the audience the threat (whatever it is that still stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal). The pinch point scene lays out what the hero has yet to conquer/overcome/accomplish. (“The Help” – Isolating and Understanding the First “Pinch Point”, Larry Brooks)

My background isn't in screenwriting but, to me, pinch points seem a lot like sequels. Not exactly like a sequel, though, because sequels come after the scene, after the action. Perhaps a pinch is like a scene+sequel. You show your audience the antagonist in all their unadulterated glory (or horribleness) and then you see the aftermath, the personal consequences for the hero, the goals he has still accomplish and why he must accomplish them.

Examples of Pinch Points

First Pinch Point 

[I]n Star Wars, Pinch 1 is the Stormtroopers attacking the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley, reminding us the Empire is after the stolen plans to the Death Star R2-D2 is carrying and Luke and Ben Kenobi are trying to get to the Rebel Alliance (the main conflict). (Screenwriting, Wikipedia)

Second Pinch Point

In Star Wars, Pinch 2 is the Stormtroopers attacking them as they rescue the Princess in the Death Star. Both scenes remind us of the Empire's opposition, and using the Stormtrooper attack motif unifies both Pinches. (Screenwriting, Wikipedia)
So, in Star Wars, the pinch points remind us that the Big Bad is the Emperor. Further, the pinch points are related--the second one calls back to the first--through the use of Stormtroopers.

Even if we end up not using them, the concept of pinch points can help remind us that we shouldn't lose sight of the antagonist in the story. Sometimes this is a danger when the antagonist works behind the scenes, through his or her minions, and receives little "on stage" time.

# # #

If you're doing NaNoWriMo this year, best of luck! How's it going? It's been tough for me. Life has a way of intruding on my writing time. But that's okay! I'm at approximately 12,075 words, hopefully I'll have over 14,000 by the end of the day.

Go NaNo-ers! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- More Writing Advice From Jim Butcher
- How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character
- Chuck Wendig And The Battle Song Of The Storyteller

- Syd Field's Podcasts (Syd Field was the first person to publish a book on modern screenwriting)
- StoryFix (Run by Larry Brooks)

Photo credit: "Ice Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons 2.0.

Thursday, October 18

Contour Screenwriting Software: Write By Number

Contour Screenwriting Software: Write By Number

A couple of weeks ago I joined John Ward's Google+ group for writers and since then have enjoyed his thought provoking articles and links as well as the fabulous community he's build up.

Today John talked about a writing program I'd never heard of before, and I thought I knew them all. It's called Contour. As John points out, the great thing about Contour isn't the program itself--although that's pretty good--it's the user's guide. The guide steps you through a certain way of structuring your story.

Contour builds story structure through plot points.
A plot point is a discreet, unique and essential chunk of story information. In the hierarchy of scriptwriting it falls out above beats and scenes and just below acts. A linear breakdown is supplied below.

Screenplay > Act > Plot Point > Scene > Beat
So, following a three act structure, here's how it breaks down:

The 4 basic questions behind character development:
1. Who is your main character?
2. What is he trying to accomplish?
3. Who is trying to stop him?
4. What happens if he fails?

Breaking down the 3 act structure:
Act 1:             12 plot points
Act 2, Part 1: 14 plot points
Act 2, Part 2: 14 plot points
Act 3:              4 plot points

Total: 44 plot points
Contour helps you step through these 44 plot points and in so doing develops the structure of your story. Let's go through a few.

Plot Point 1: "We need either the Hero, Victim/Stakes Character, or Antagonist"
Here we meet either the hero, the stakes character or the antagonist. The states character is "the face that represents all of the people that the bad guys are victimizing. It's usually someone the hero feels very deeply about." For instance, in Die Hard the states character was the hero's wife, in Star Wars it was the hero's romantic interest, Princess Leia.

Plot Point 2: "We see the Hero's flaw in relation to the Stakes Character"
The hero lacks something essential that he needs if he is to help the stakes character. For instance, in Star Wars, Luke is a poor farmer who doesn't know the first thing about fighting and has never had an adventure. Princess Leia needs someone to rescue her from the bad guy.

Plot Point 3: "Antagonist or someone or something symbolic of the Antagonist"
This is what I'd call: Antagonist onscreen. The antagonist or one of his/her minions enter the story. For instance, in Star Wars Leia is captured by stormtroopers who are the minions of Emperor Palpatine.

Plot Point 4: "The deflector slows the hero down. Pulls him off the path"
In Contour the minions of the antagonist are also known as "deflectors" because they deflect the hero from his goal.
In DIE HARD, Hans Gruber is the antagonist and the long-haired, high-kicking Karl is the main deflector. Almost everyone else are assistant deflectors including the other terrorists, the cops who want McClane to stop interfering, the FBI agents, and the smarmy Ellis.
Plot Point 5: "Inciting Event. Hero now gets emotionally involved"
In other systems this is known as the Call To Adventure. In Star Wars, Luke hears Princess Leia say, "Help me Obi Wan Kanobi, you're my only hope." In The Firm, Mitch McDeere accepts a job offer, in Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark, Indie accepts the job of finding the lost Ark of the Covenant.

The key is that there is emotion involved on the part of the hero. Either, like Indie and Mitch, the hero is excited about embarking on the adventure, or they do it more out of a sense of grudging obligation because it's what has to be done--like Bella in Twilight. Either way, the hero has to feel emotion.

If the hero feels nothing then neither with your readers and that's the point of storytelling!

Plot Point 6: "Hero's goal as it relates to the stakes character and/or love interest. The Hero's problem is made clear to the audience"
The hero has an external and internal problem. The external problem drives the story. For instance in The Firm Mitch's external problem is that he's poor and he wants to become rich through practicing law. His internal problem is that he's still running form the poverty of trailer park he grew up in and he doesn't realize that he already has everything he needs to be happy.

Plot point 6 is where someone, in The Firm it's Abby, turns to the hero and tells them what their internal problem is. This is the thing they'll have to in some way defeat/conquer before the end of the story. (Another good example is in Shrek when Donkey tells Shrek that he needs to let someone in, let someone get close to him.)

Plot Point 7: "Ally (either true or unintentional) aids Hero by propelling him out of the status quo"
For instance, in Titanic Jack Dawson wins his ticket from a someone in a game of cards. Even though they didn't intend to help Jack start his adventure, they have.

Plot Point 8: "The Hero seems ready to move forward toward his goal and/or states character, but can't"
In other systems this is called, Refusal of the Call to Adventure. The hero looks at the adventure laid out for them and says, "Thanks, but no thanks." In Star Wars Luke tells Obi-Wan that he can't help him because he has to help his uncle and aunt with their farm. He has duties, responsibilities, he can't shirk.

There are 36 more plot points! Don't worry, I won't go through them all. You can download the users guide and read the rest (I gave the link, above). I haven't covered the entire richness of how Contour helps sculpt your outline, but hopefully I've given you a taste. You can download a free trial copy of Contour. It's fully functional for a month and then you have to decide whether to buy it. Contour sells for $39.99 on

My feeling is that the 44 plot points may be too fine grained and that not all of them are necessary for every story. That said, it does make interesting reading, especially if you're stuck at a certain point in your story. Let's say your hero needs to do something, something needs to happen, but you're not sure what. I find stepping through one of these schemes (see also Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler), these formulas, gives me ideas and helps me get past the conceptual block.

Other articles you might like:
- Amazon Ranks Authors In Terms Of Their Book Sales
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover
- On The Art Of Creating Believable Characters: No Mr. Nice Guy

Wednesday, June 27

Writer Beware: Outskirts Press

outskirts press, hollywood scam
Writer Beware

Writer Lee Goldberg (Monk, The Dead Man series) spoke up a few days ago about a scam that Outskirts Press is running.

Here is a snippet from the press release put out by Outskirts Press:
These services solve a real problem for many authors who dream of making it big in Hollywood. In fact, just getting Hollywood's attention is nearly impossible, but with the Book Your Trip to Hollywood suite of services from Outskirts Press, authors receive turn-key, full-service assistance with the push of a button. And with each option, authors receive the feedback and/or participation of a real Hollywood producer and production company; the final results are added to a Hollywood database that is perused by industry professionals for new projects; and exclusive efforts to option the author's book are immediately set into motion. The author doesn't have to lift a finger.
As Lee writes, "Except to pull out his or her credit card."

If a writer falls for Outskirts Press' song and dance, how much could he get taken for? The following is from Writer Beware writer Victoria Strauss:
[T]he total bill for your Hollywood pipe dream comes to $15,239. Outskirts can even claim that this is a bargain: the very similar services offered by Author Solutions will set you back over $18,000. 
 At the end of his article Lee Goldberg advises, "Give your $15,000 to the first homeless person you see instead... not only would it be a better use of your money, you would also have exactly the same chance of making a movie sale as you would giving it to Outskirts". That seems like a fair assessment.

I encourage you to read Victoria Strauss' article: More Money-Wasting "Opportunities" For Writers

Lee Goldberg's equally valuable article is here: Outing Outskirts Press

Monday, March 19

Adobe Story: From Script to On Set Production

Ever wanted to write a script and, magically, have a list of shots generated from it? That's the promise of Adobe Story. And, better yet, it's free! At least for now.

If you want to take Adobe Story out for a test drive head on over to the Adobe Site and, if you don't have one already, create an Adobe ID. After that you can begin using the program. There's an online component -- this allows you to collaborate with other screenwriters on the same script -- and there's software you can download to your desktop.

If you're interested, get the software now since it's only free for a limited time.

Adobe Story
List of training videos for Adobe Story