The Promise

The major plot points of a story consists of the inciting incident, call to action, midpoint, all-time low, and climax. Your first act is the set-up, act 2a is the planning stage, act 2b is the action with progress stage, and act 3 is your ultimate battle. The midpoint is the turning point of the story where new information changes the stories trajectory, builds the stakes, and propels the drama into a race against time.

I am a believer in the 3 act structure. I am a believer in plot points. I am a fan of linear structure. However, these elements alone are not what engages the audience.

When we watch movies and read books we do not care about the structure. Most reader don’t even know a story structure exists. You can hit every plot point perfectly, down to the page number, and still produce a boring read that no one will bother with. The viewer is searching for something different.

It starts with the promise. The first scene of any story is a promise to the viewer that a specific emotion is going to be aroused throughout their experience. It may present love, psychological mind games, breath-taking anxiety, or even a simple conversation meant to develop empathy with the hero.

In The Matrix, we are introduced to Trinity bending the rules of physics in the world as we know it. The Dark Knight opens with a scene of the Joker carrying out an elaborate bank robbery as the viewer struggles to identify him. Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy open with a relatable male struggling to accept that his value to the outside world is determined more by superficial judgements than his intrinsic generosity.

The inciting incident is an external event that sets the story in motion. The promise is the drama that compels the viewer to keep watching.

The entire first act should continue to build on the initial promise. Figure out whether it is confusion, empathy, internal longing, or vengeance that you have given the viewer a taste of. Continue to feed the viewer more bites with different seasonings.

Another important element that should happen at the start of any good story is character revelation. When writers contemplate character they consider values, beliefs, desires, goals, etc. But in the mind of a viewer character is only truly revealed by the decisions they make under pressure.

Place your protagonists in a situation where they must choose one of two options. Spend some time building up the importance of the decision and create a conflict where there is no easy choice. The path they choose should be the irregular one – this is what sets your hero apart. For this decision to pay off you must keep in mind your intended audience. They should be the subset of individuals supporting this controversial decision.

I don’t watch the Super Bowl. I never have. I enjoy the parties for friends and food, but this Sunday I drank Jameson and watched movies with my girlfriend instead. This is an example of an irregular decision that distinguishes me from others. If I was the character in a story than my bizarre behavior would be found captivating to viewers who also don’t enjoy jubilant gatherings as much as they’re supposed to.

Stories serve a primitive purpose for us. We use them for survival. There was a time where we relied on stories of tribesmen who died from eating the wrong colored berries. The stories were given a deeper meaning by applying character traits such as arrogance and disobedience to those who perished. From hearing these stories we learned to value qualities such as listening to our teachers and using caution when approaching unknown things.

Always think of your stories as being an instruction manual for life. As the viewer browses through Netflix they are choosing which thematic elements they would like to engage with by subconsciously searching for an answer to their own problems. Give them a hero that wrestles internally with similar conflicts. As the hero evolves to accomplish their goal your viewer should gain insight into how they can overcome parallel obstacles in the real world.

Enjoy your journey today and may all your roadblocks be left sideways and marked with your footprint.

Translation of the Intuition

One of the most captivating stories about art for me has always been a short monologue from the television show Lost. In fact, it was after watching this show that I decided I wanted to become a writer myself. The story comes from Season 1, Episode 13:

In summary, the character of John Locke informs another character that the artist Michelangelo would regularly contemplate the art piece he was going to create before he ever began his work.

Now I cannot verify the authenticity of this story, but I can tell you I spent some time in my younger days reading the journals of Michelangelo and he regularly spoke about interpreting the intuition correctly. He used a different, beautiful word to describe it, but I can’t seem to find that specific word anywhere else today.

I once heard a phrase at a writers convention used to describe the most necessary asset of any writer. The phrase was “You must hear the music.” The speaker stated that if you cannot hear the music, you cannot write. This is to say that story is born from within, possibly a communication with the divine, and cannot be manufactured by the mere understanding of plot devices.

Furthermore, I believe the shared love of writing comes from this introspection and communication with the most innate part of our being. What is up for discussion is whether this communication is with a divine force or with the deepest parts of our subconscious.

I have previously written about the mathematics of writing, which I believe is a more logical and human way to interpret story. What I am writing about today deals more with the creative and spiritual side of the artistic process. Both are integral to the formation of any artistic composition, regardless of the medium. There are songs that are played perfectly that are soulless. There are books and movies that hit every conceivable plot point that fail to leave an emotional impact. The inability to recognize the role of intuition in art is why I believe so many incredible teachers fall short of creating a masterful artistic piece themselves.

The question has existed since the dawn of man, regardless of its external expression. It is a concept we grapple with on a daily basis during our interactions with other, with ourselves, and with the world around us:

“Do I look to the teachings of others to guide my life, or do I rely on the intuition within to direct my path?”

Of course the answer is a balance, but not in the way we typically understand balance. It is not 50/50 but a systemic process in of itself. It is the process of creation.

Before we begin work on our artistic composition, and sometimes before we even know how to work within that medium, we already have a dormant vision of the product we would like to produce.

It is naive to think we can ever ignore the realities of the physical realm.

The job of the artist is to perceive the intuitive vision with as much clarity as possible before applying human mechanics to bring it to the physical realm. A human being is more than it’s consciousness and spirituality. It has a skeleton, muscle, fat and hair. Each of these bodily systems is incredibly detailed and infinitely vast.

The more physical skills we accumulate that apply to our medium the more life we can bring to the existence of our vision.

If we are to take the clip posted above seriously and assume the story is true, we can also take the leap of assumption to interpret what gears were turning in Michelangelo’s head each day.

Not only do we seek to see the vision more clearly but we must prepare ourselves for how we can properly shape it into physical existence. It is one thing to see the curves of our future statue, it is another to know the tools and techniques required to shape those curves in accordance with its envisioned form.

Even with writing, we may start with an image in our minds along with a compelling emotion. It is the writer’s duty to find the words to describe that image precisely and build up the emotional stakes, tension, and payoff to fulfill the movement in the viewer we wish to produce.

The final movement in the viewer should be as close as possible to the movement that originally captivated and impassioned the artist themselves to reproduce that feeling. Our ability to translate the original vision for the impact of others will be the invisible measuring rod that defines the quality of our art.

Mathematics of Writing

The key of “C”

The most popular chord progression in music theory is I – V – vi – IV. In the key of C major, this would translate to C, G, a minor, and F. The number of songs written with this progression is infinite.

There are 7 notes in a major scale. G major and F major are the greatest distance away from C in the key.

So how does this translate to mathematics, and more specifically writing?

It pertains to emotional movements. The more drastic the change in how our main character feels the more captivated the viewer will be.

It is easy to focus on exterior conflict and changes when we are crafting character arcs. What separates quality writing from dull exposition are these movements. The way that I imagine mathematics will become a common topic in the writing community over the next 10 years is that numbers will be applied to these emotions. Let’s create a an imaginary “emotional scale”, in the key of happy.

  1. happy
  2. excited
  3. nervous
  4. upset
  5. angry
  6. sad
  7. overwhelmed

Now we have our key. I would like to think “angry” is the furthest emotion away from “happy.” Let’s create a short practice scene and see how my theory plays out. In the following scene, we will move only 1 step – from happy to excited.

George gazed at the sunrise as he walked his dog and realized the weather was perfect. His phone rang – it was his crush, Tina.

Ok, so we moved one step. Now let’s do it again and move through a few steps in direct, sequential order.

George gazed at the sunrise in awe of the perfect day. His phone rang – it was his crush, Tina. As soon as he answered he felt a lump in his throat and struggled to speak.

“He-hello?” he muttered.

“Oh – I accidentally pocket dialed you. Sorry!” said Tina.

George mustered a fake laugh and said “No problem,” but it was already too late. Tina had hung up. George hurled the phone at the grass and paced in a semi-circle. It was then that he realized his relationship with her was dead and the flowers he had already ordered to her doorstep would go to waste.

Ok, so we have a bit of a story there, but it is entirely predictable and mundane. Now let’s craft a scene that begins and ends with happy but hits emotions randomly along the way.

George took in the sunrise as he inhaled the fresh morning air. His phone rang – it was Tina.

“What is wrong with you?” She said.

George collapsed to a seat on the park bench. “What do you mean?”

“Flowers?” said Tina. “Really, George?”

“I was trying to be a gentleman!” He shouted. George hung up the phone and stuffed it into his pocket. He smeared his face and stared out at a couple tossing a Frisbee for there German Shepard. The phone buzzed again – Tina was calling back.

“What?” Said George.

“I was playing with you… there beautiful and honestly I’ve never had any guy do anything like that for me before.”

“Really?” Said George with a smile.

“Yeah. They’re perfect.”

“Well, you’re welcome, I guess.”

“What are you doing later?” said Tina.

George sat back in the park bench and let out a heavy breath. He laughed as the couple ahead struggled to wrestle the Frisbee back.

Not sure about you, but for me the last scene was the most captivating. I feel that this number system will one day be common knowledge for writers and used to grade/review different works of fiction.

In my recent short film, I’m exceptionally proud of the emotional movements that were implemented in the climatic scene. If you don’t want to view the entire episode, feel free to jump to 15:36. I’ve timestamped it in the link below so that it will automatically begin there.

How to write movies and books – 4/3/20

DSC02913

A subtle metaphor for the prison cell you are being held captive in if you don’t read this post.

Why do we watch movies and read fiction? What are we looking for?

There are endless resources for writing fiction. Many of them include the same essential elements – inciting incident, plot, character arc, theme, conflict, tension, etc. But the truth about what makes a great story runs much deeper than that.

We turn to stories for truths about the world we live in – spiritual, psychological, and societal truths. We are always looking to learn something, and that’s what a good story does for us.

The fundamental nature of “plot” is to give your hero a quest and throw obstacles in his path to prevent them from reaching their goal. I believe the next step is the most overlooked aspect of a powerful story.

The main character must learn something to complete their quest. That’s it. That’s the secret of a moving story. If you can do that, you are already taking care of character arc, theme, internal conflict, and character growth. The way to formulate that in a compelling way is what determines the strength of your story.

If you are a writer, start observing the obstacles in your own life. What character trait gets in the way of accomplishing your own goals? Even something as simple as procrastination provides a life lesson for us. Why do we procrastinate? When I find myself too overwhelmed to complete the task that will bring me closer to my goal, I ask myself why. Many times it’s a fear of something – the fear of failure, the fear of the unknown, the fear of wasting time and effort on an eventually failed pursuit.

Just like that, you have everything you need for a story. For example:

Joe is at the post office one day when he meets a beautiful girl who inexplicably decides to give him her number (inciting incident). He forgets to call her when his ex returns to his life (obstacle). When he does call her, she is much more reluctant to go out after learning that he’s been talking to his ex (obstacle). Joe decides to tell his ex that their relationship is over for good. He calls the girl again, tells her that he wants to see her and only her, and she accepts his idea for a date.

The story can go on from here with new obstacles and lessons to be learned. But every major event needed for a story is included above. What did Joe learn? That if he truly wants to create a new and loving relationship, he’s going to have to move on from past relationships (theme).

I’m not a great writer by any means, but I have spent years studying the story telling essentials. All that I’m trying to do with my new youtube channel is tell good stories. I guess that’s why I made this post – there’s so many formulaic stories out there, short films that are weighed down by editing techniques, and movies that are weighted and shackled by their own genre. I’m trying to approach “Mountain Cult” with a more liberal view. I want to craft stories that provide actual life lessons. At the end of the day, when we think of the movies that mean’t the most to us, I believe it’s because they taught us something about ourselves that continue to help us navigate through our own lives. I hope that in some way this post can help you create your own stories. There’s way too many pencil petes out there telling you what you can and cannot do with a story, and I don’t think we need any more of them.

Below is episode 1 of my webseries if you’d like to check it out and tell me how disappointed you are to discover you just took advice from a guy whose writing is amateur at best.

Analyzing East of Eden – 1/17

EastOfEden

It’s been a while since I talked about writing, as my mind has been more consumed with film production. I took a few minutes today to read a brief excerpt from East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and analyze it. I think this is a great practice because it helps me understand the techniques great dramatists employ in order to have the most emotional impact on viewers. Here is the excerpt, followed by my thoughts:

***

Ethel tried to keep her fingers from grabbing at the money. [Kate] fanned the bills like a poker hand – four tens. Her mouth began to work with emotion.

Ethel said, “I kind of hoped you’d see your way to let me take more than forty bucks.”

“What do you mean?”

“Didn’t you get my letter?”

“What letter?”

“Oh!” said Ethel. “Well, maybe it got lost in the mail. They don’t take no care of things. Anyways, I thought you might look after me. I don’t feel good hardly ever. Got a kind of weight dragging my guts down.” She sighed and then she spoke so rapidly that Kate knew it had been rehearsed.

“Well, maybe you remember how I’ve got like second sight,” Ethel began. “Always predicting things that come true. Always dreaming stuff and it come out. Fella says I should go in the business. Says I’m a natural medium. You remember that?”

“No,” said Kate. “I don’t.”

“Don’t? Well, maybe you never noticed. All the others did. I told ’em lots of things and they come true.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I had this-here dream. I remember when it was because it was the same night Faye died.” Her eyes flickedĀ  up at Kate’s cold face. She continued doggedly, “It rained that night, and it was raining in my dream – anyways, it was wet. Well, in my dream I seen you come out the kitchen door. It wasn’t pitch-dark – moon was coming through a little. nd the dream thing was you. You went out to the back of the lot and stooped over. I couldn’t see what you done. Then you come creeping back.”

“Next thing I knew – why, Faye was dead.” She paused and waited for some comment from Kate, but Kate’s face was expressionless.

Ethel waited until she was sure Kate would not speak. “Well, like I said, I always believed in my dreams. It’s funny, there wasn’t nothing out there except some smashed medicine bottles and a little rubber tit from an eye-dropper.”

Kate said lazily, “So you took them to a doctor. What did he say had been in the bottles?”

“Oh, I didn’t do nothing like that.”

“You should have,” said Kate.

“I don’t want to see nobody get in trouble. I’ve had enough trouble myself. I put that broke glass in an envelope and stuck it away.”

Kate said softly, “And so you are coming to me for advice?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” said Kate. “I think you’re a worn-out old whore and you’ve been beaten over the head too many times.”

“Don’t you start saying I’m nuts-” Ethel began.

“No, maybe you’re not, but you’re tired and you’re sick. I told you I never letĀ  friend down. You can come back here. You can’t work but you can help around, clean and give the cook a hand. You’ll have a bed and you’ll get your meals. How would tht be? And a little spending money.”

Ethel stirred uneasily. “No, ma’am.” She said. “I don’t think I want to – sleep here. I don’t carry that envelope around. I left it with a friend.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I thought if you could see your way to let me have a hundred dollars a month, why, I could make out and maybe get my health back.”

“You said you lived at the Southern Pacific Hotel?”

“Yes, ma’am – and my room is right up the hall from the desk. The night clerk’s a friend of mine. He don’t never sleep when he’s on duty. Nice fella.”

Kate said, “Don’t wet your pants, Ethel. All you’ve got to worry about is how much does the ‘nice fell’ cost. Now wait a minute.” She counted six more ten-dollar bills from the drawer in front of her and held them out.

“Will it come the first of the month or do I have to come here for it?”

“I’ll send it to you,” said Kate. “And, Ethel,” she continued quietly, “I still think you ought to have those bottles analyzed.”

Ethel clutched the money tightly in her hand. She was bubbling over with triumph and good feeling.

***

*Let me preface my analysis by confessing I have not read this novel in its entirety. Nevertheless, I’d like to share my insights and you can correct me in the comment section if I’m wrong.

This scene is great in so many ways. It is really a mini-story, and clearly demonstrates Steinbeck’s dominance as one of the greatest writers of all time. I remember when I first started studying writing, I read somewhere that Steinbeck preferred to use one syllable words. I had always thought his style of writing made him a legend, but now that I have a better understanding of some of the more abstract writing concepts, I can see his ability to play with the emotions of readers is what makes his pen so devastating.

Right from the start, we can see that Ethel is desperate for money, so clearly this is her objective. But it is not enough for her to simply accept the original offering, and that is what makes her courageous here – she wants every nickel she can squeeze out of Kate.

Kate, on the other hand, begins the scene by desiring Ethel get out of her hair. After Ethel all-but threatens to turn in evidence that could potentially put her behind bars, Ethel changes her tune and her new motivation becomes doing whatever it takes to keep Ethel quiet.

What I like most about this scene is how Ethel goes about manipulating Kate to fork over more dough. She never explicitly states that she knows Kate is responsible for the death of Faye, but she implies it through a most devious way – by slyly feigning to have psychic abilities, and almost comedic-ally stating she had a dream where she witnessed Kate’s crime.

Once Kate gets the hint, Ethel has her over a barrel – and knows it. After a brief outburst of her true anger at the situation, Kate presents Ethel with a much more generous offer than the original forty bucks. But this still isn’t good enough for Ethel(rising tension!). Ethel requests a hundred dollars on the first of every month, then has the audacity to requests that it be delivered, so she does not have to go out of her way to retrieve it.

I believe that Kate threatens Ethel when she tells her that her biggest concern should be how much the night clerk, who “never sleeps”, costs. She appears to be implying that she could always pay him enough money to look the other way while Kate has somebody eliminate Ethel.

This scene features two foes with clashing objectives. Their dialogue, at the surface, appears to remain cordial – but the truth is always written in the subtext. This is one area of writing I need to improve upon. I have a bad habit of allowing characters to state their objectives outright, and go about getting their way through direct and obvious threats. This is fine for characters who maneuver through life this way, but it is so much more fun and engaging when characters behave in ways that force viewers to read between the lines in order to keep up with their motives and ploys.

I hope these insights have helped you in some way. I already know these realizations will benefit me in my own writing. See you tomorrow at 7:00 am PST.

  • Thomas M. Watt
  • Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 1952. Print.

Scene fun – Joe vs. zombies

Let’s craft two versions of the same scene, one better than the other. I’ll explain the difference afterward.

* * *

Joe came home to find the television eradically buzzing in the living room. He didn’t think much of it, so he simply turned it off before preparing himself lunch. He searched through the cubbard until he had two slices of white wonderbread and peanut butter, the crunchy kind.

He poured himself a glass of milk, then sat down. As he ate, he reflected on the days events. The zombie infestation was unprecedented, full-blown, and all-too-real. Joe always hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst. The sound of rapid footsteps prompted Joe to turn and look – a zombie was headed right for him! Before Joe got another bite of his sandwich, the zombie got a bite of him – and Joe was infected.

* * *

Ok, that’s scene 1. Let’s try that again, and see how some simple changes can make the scene more effective.

* * *

Joe slammed the front door the second he set foot inside, blunt axe in hand. Right when he did there was a grumble. Like a dog. Like a rabid dog…

“Hello?” said Joe.

He heard a slow creaking, followed by a sharp snap. Like someone tiptoeing over broken glass.

Joe clenched his fists. He crept through his kitchen. Could one of those things be here? He couldn’t even bear the thought of it. The entire day he’d been running. And he’d witnessed what those monsters did when they got their hands on uninfected humans.

As he walked through the hallway he heard another grunt. It sounded like it came from Julia’s room – his daughter.

“No, Julia!”

Joe quit tip-toeing and broke into a sprint. He kicked her door open just as he heard a window shatter. He entered in to find a parent’s worst nightmare – Julia’s bones were left in a heap of blood in tissue, like left-over ribs. Her head was partly detached, from the gaping hole in her throat, and lying on an ear.

Joe turned her head and stared into her baby blue eyes. He pet back her angelic hair with a shaking hand. “My girl,” he whispered. “My girl.”

There was a creak in her closet. Joe picked up the axe, gulped, then stood up.

* * *

Okay, let’s go over the major differences.

1 – Tone. There is no sense of ‘impending doom’ in the first scene, whereas in the second there is. Style is more important than sounding smart.

2 – Peanut butter and jelly? Who gives a shit. What kind of bread and the crunchy/smooth adds absolutely nothing to the scene. It doesn’t even give the reader a better idea of Joe’s character, so it needs to be trimmed. “Joe made a peanut butter jelly sandwich and ate while he reflected…” Is how it should have read. Take notice – every scene has a focus. In this scene, the focus SHOULD have been the question of whether a zombie was inside his place. PB & J does not strengthen this question in any way. Notice the blunt axe in the second scene does add value (it increases the stakes, as it gives us yet another reason to fear for Joe’s safety.

3 – By far the biggest problem is the late introduction of the zombie. Do you notice how little it mattered when Joe got attacked? Why is that? It was a total surprise. Was it the weak description?

Nah dawg. I could have written the best, most intricate zombie-attack-moves and it wouldn’t have mattered (think about how much better the second version was – and you didn’t even SEE the zombie).

This scene suffered because there was no suspense. You have to prepare your reader for what is to come – you have to tell them (indirectly) what is to come. The moment your protagonists suspects something is up, so will your reader. And guess what? Even if there was no zombie, just a stray cat running through, you would have paid more attention from sentence to sentence. Just like potential girlfriends/boyfriends, readers need something to worry about to keep them interested – and if you go so much as a page without giving it to them, you will lose them for good.

– Thomas M. Watt is a script analyst and author of A New Kingdom