Seal of APproVal

A dog cemetery. Nothing to do with the post.

I was able to clean episode 5 up yesterday and officially have a full story. Today is my day to write so I plan on touching it up before sending it out for feedback. Once it receives the official “it’s ok” seal of approval I’ll be ready to advance toward actual production.

One aspect of screenwriting that I enjoy much more than novel writing is the prevalence of dialogue on each white page. Expressing the inner monologues of characters is not an option for screenwriting (unless, you know, it’s told that way). This makes the motivation of the characters to be more important and difficult to portray.

I like dialogue heavy scripts because I can easily access scenes from the vantage point of each character. I start with my main character and progress through each scene as if I’m standing in his shoes. I judge his reactions, feelings, and lack of response by how I would respond in that same situation. Each character we sculpt as writers is an aspect of our own personalities. I always try to frame a character by a specific theme that drives them. Ryan, my main character, is always driven by his gut instinct. He acts on intuition above all else.

Another benefit about reading through your story this way is that it allows you to find opportunities for conflict that you may not have seen previously. As I proceed through the story I frequently ask “what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen here?” It can be a challenge at times to help your character discover a way out of a tricky situation, but that will make for fulfilling entertainment. It will also determine who your character is in the eyes of your viewer/reader. Character always reveals itself when facing a difficult decision under pressure:

Imagine there’s a gun to your head. The person holding it tells you that you must choose between giving him your wallet or beating a nearby pedestrian down until they handover theirs. The ethical and moral conflicts provide intrigue, the decision you make will define you (in the eyes of others).

I have another zoom meeting today with the meetup groups I’ve formed in the area. I’m looking forward to it, though I have to be honest I am exhausted and rapidly declining. Nevertheless I have discovered that maintaining a sense of community helps me stay focused on my goals along with my dreams and ambitions. Enjoy your Sunday.

When Problems Beget Problems

I’ve finally begun a draft that I’m confident can turn into a solid mystery story. Working out the kinks to the plot has definitely been a challenge, but for the first time I’m beginning to have a solid grasp on “how to plot”. The key is that problems beget problems.

My natural inclination as I’m forming a plot is to think in a series of attempts and failures. For instance, the main character in episode 5 narrows down a suspect to 3 different characters. My first thought was to have him rule out different characters 1 by 1. He anticipates the suspect will have brought a red household item to a meeting and have been married twice. I initially thought my character could rule out a suspect by identifying the color of the item the character brought, and rule out another by directing inquiring about previous marriages. But that is boring, plain, and obvious.

A more entertaining method would be to have each of the characters describe the item they brought without holding it. Perhaps by describing it by its meaning to the rest of the group. Instead of asking the characters directly about previous marriages, maybe my character argues passionately that marrying more than once is a sign of immorality. Though this is a more creative way for him to hunt for the suspect, I still feel I can do better.

When problems beget problems, the attempts my character makes to grow closer to the truth may actually set him farther away. Perhaps when the characters describe the items they brought to the meeting, they instead describe something unusual they’ve used the item for. Maybe when my character makes a wrong guess about what the item is, the character describing it tosses the actual item in a storage bin and it is no longer allowed to be guessed, and no further attempts are permitted. When he begins an argument about the immorality of multiple marriages, he is discovered to be the husband of a recently deceased group member – outing his identity and becoming the subject of persecution by the group. These obstacles make his chase for the culprit more difficult and therefore more entertaining.

I will spend the morning writing some pages and am seriously hoping to have a working draft done by tomorrow. Once I am comfortable with the story and its characters I can send out for casting the roles and begin purchasing the necessary props.

I’ll keep you updated.

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.

Storytelling Essentials: The Maze Runner

STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: The Maze Runner

I want to talk about The Maze Runner today, a novel written by James Dashner and adapted into a screenplay. I saw the movie with a beautiful girl this week and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to point out some of the reasons it was such an effective story.

The movie begins with Thomas rising in an elevator shaft. He reaches the top, and the hatch doors flip open to reveal twenty or so teenage boys staring down at him. He has no memory of his past, and does not even recall his own name. He tries to run, only to discover the young men are surrounded by giant walls that close and open by their own power. When he stops at an open section of wall, thinking about running into the spooky woods, one of the boys violently shoves him to the ground, then assures Thomas that he was lucky for the knockdown.

This is an outstanding opening. Let’s discuss why:

1. Who is this young man? I’ll tell you who. He’s any and every person. Thomas does not recall his past, let alone his own name. Creating a protagonist with general characteristics is a great way to give the readers someone they can relate to (think Harry Potter).  Still, crafting a protagonist who can stand out in any crowd will create someone more memorable, as long as your readers can identify with them on some level (think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men)

2. Instant conflict – The elevator Thomas rises on travels at an incredible rate of speed. It looks as though he is headed for a collision at the rooftop. Instead, the doors open to find a group of boys staring down at him. But these boys don’t readily accept him as a friend – they look like a group of punks who want to start trouble with the new kid. Thomas tries to flee, only to find he is trapped by the giant walls surrounding the area, and will be forced to live with them.

3. Suspense – So many great questions are raised in this opening. Who is this protagonist, and why was he sent here? And where is ‘here’ – what is this new world? And the moving walls – we already know he is in a maze (the title kind of gives it away), but what is behind those walls? After Thomas is violently shoved just short of entering the maze, he is told he should be grateful. The viewer is left to wonder what could possibly be behind those walls that’s worse than a violent, forceful knock to the ground. It isn’t until later we learn about the mechanical creatures lurking behind them, and by the time we do we are already expecting them to terrify us.

We want to know the answers to these questions, and more specifically, the answer to this one – Will Thomas find a way out of the maze? (that’s the plot)

Anyway, I strongly suggest you go check out this movie. And bring along a beautiful date if you can, it will only make it more enjoyable.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Author of A New Kingdom

Inciting Incident

Story Telling Essentials: Inciting Incident

The inciting incident – This is the event that propels your story forward. It is the reason your protagonist changes, the reason they take up their quest.

So what is it?

The inciting incident is an event that fundamentally changes your protagonist’s wants and needs. It can be a sudden, unexpected kiss. It can be the loss of a parent. Maybe your protagonist was robbed, maybe your protagonist got dumped. Whatever the inciting incident is, it will always leave your protagonist different than she was before. It provides the motivation for her first plot point decision, which will be the decision to take up her quest.

While the first plot point of a story is the protagonist’s decision to take up their quest, the inciting incident is typically an event that occurs to the protagonist. In “A New Kingdom”, my latest novel, James watches his father get brutally murdered at the hands of giant red aliens. This provides his motivation to overthrow the alien race, the first plot point decision that he makes later on.

You want your inciting incident to occur as early as possible. Some argue that it is imperative to show your real world beforehand, so that the reader can better notice the change. Others prefer the inciting incident to occur right away, claiming that readers prefer action over back story. Where you place the inciting incident is up to you – whether you include it is non-debatable.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for SpecScout.com

– Author of A New Kingdom

Suspense vs. Conflict

SUSPENSE VS. CONFLICT

Writers often confuse suspense and conflict, or even worse, use the two terms interchangeably, as if they imply the same thing. They don’t. See if you can figure out the element that is employed in each of the two scenes below in order to test your own understanding.

Scene 1 –

George saw his favorite ball sitting on the grassy hill in the middle of the park. He raced over to get it, but before he came close, a dog ran by and scooped it up with its jaw. George chased after the dog, but soon tripped and fell flat on his face. He returned to his feet and broke into a sprint, chasing the dog into the picnic area. George hurdled over families, dodged joggers, and tumbled under frisbees. When he was finally close enough, George launched off his feet and tackled the dog to the ground. He let out a sigh of relief, before a shrill cry reminded George the dog wasn’t his. He stood up, ball in hand, and hurried to escape the mob of angry dog owners chasing after him.

Scene 2 –

She told him not to open the box. She warned him sternly that he was to never, ever, open the box. Still, George stared at it with his eyes fixated upon the single, unbolted latch that held it shut. All he had to do was flip it up and he could finally learn what was inside. So many years, so many sunny afternoons, so many times had he pondered what was inside that box. Never had he a chance to see before, but this day, this bright, beautiful day, George had a chance – his sister was at her friend’s house.

George gulped. It was go-time. There was no backing out of it now. He had already entered her room, and one loud noise would result in a week’s worth of chores, dictated by his mother. He crept closer on his hands and knees. Carefully, and as silently as possible, George flipped open the latch. He couldn’t help but scream after what he saw. His mom came running, and he knew an incredible punishment was in store for him. It didn’t matter – he was too angry to care. Inside the small box was a single note, written by his sister.

“Got ya.”

* * *

Figured it out? The first scene employs the use of conflict. The second suspense.

Conflict is anything that gets in the way of the protagonist and her objective. Suspense is information withheld.

In the first scene, George’s objective is to attain his favorite ball. The elements of conflict involved are the dog, the families picnicking, the frisbees, and George’s own clumsy feet. These are all elements of external conflict. Internal conflict is equally important, but we’ll save that for another day.

In the second scene, the elements of suspense are George’s sister’s refusal to tell him what is inside the box, the latch, and the prospect of his mother overhearing his sneaking around in his sister’s room.

Both suspense and conflict are extremely important elements of writing, and one would be wise to employ each element into every scene that they write.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script analyst for specscout.com

– author of A New Kingdom

A Conversation between Thomas M. Watt and a character from his book

Adam from, “Way of the World.”

Thomas and Adam were both sitting on the curb together. Thomas was wearing his shoulder sling, while Adam was sipping scotch from his flask, dressed in his usual eccentric attire.

“Rah, why are we here, Thomas?” said Adam.

Thomas shrugged. “I don’t know. Just wanted to talk, I guess.”

“Talk? You want to talk let’s do it at a barroom.”

“We’re here, so just deal with it.”

“Sure.” Adam scoffed. “Deal with it. He shook his head. “What a terrible phrase. Well, let’s have at it then. What have you brought me here for?”

“I wanted to talk about your plot. I wanted to see how you felt about it.”

“About what, exactly?” said Adam.

“You know, the love curse. The prophesy on the train. The fact that if you fall in love it puts your entire company at risk.”

“You know that company hardly matters to me. And I don’t care about love, either. Despite what you might think,” Said Adam, scratching his long white chin.

Thomas laughed and adjusted his sling. “What about those quiet moments when you seem ashamed of yourself?”

“What! C’mon! Everybody has those moments! It’s called having fun. Thomas, listen, I honestly don’t care about my plot, whatsoever. I just need you to do one thing for me.”

“What?”

“Allow me to fuck Evelynn.”

“What! I can’t do that!” said Thomas.

“Why not?” said Adam.

“Because that’s what’s driving your whole story now! It’ll kill the suspense!”

“Oh, forget suspense! Here, I’ve got an idea.” Adam stretched his tall lanky legs straight out in front of him, then rested his white-gloved hands in his lap.

“What?” said Thomas.

“How about this – If I don’t have sex with Evelynn at least twenty times in your novel, the Kingsley Products goes out of business.”

Thomas laughed. “I’m sorry, I can’t see that appealing much to readers over the age of thirteen.”

Adam stood up, then brushed some dirt off of his white buckskin shoes. “Rah.” He stood up straight. “Well what’s with you, anyhow?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, how are you? What exactly happened today?”

“With what?” said Thomas.

“Oh, c’mon, you know what! You had a captivating story going for a few days, then you published the finale this morning, and… well… let’s just say it wasn’t good.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“In fact, I’d say it was shit.”

“Yeah. I know,” repeated Thomas.

Adam laughed. He picked up a small black pebble then tossed it into the street. “Why did you publish it?”

Thomas shook his head. “I don’t know. I had forty-five minutes to write it, and by the time the first draft was finished, I had to get out the door. I guess I just pressed publish without a second thought.”

“It was a mistake.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. Nine views and three likes. I’m hoping they just didn’t wanna press the button.”

“No,” said Adam. “They read it and decided it was shit.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, or that.”

“Billy the butler? That was almost offensive. You’re not a very good writer, you know.”

“I created you.”

“Yeah, that’s why I said it. You don’t bring a character out of his normal setting to have a conversation with him. And about his own plot, for rah-sakes!”

Thomas stood up. “Well shit, I’ve been struggling all day with this thing. I even wrote a poem about it.”

“Yeah, and the poem sucked.”

“You’re kind of a dick, you know.”

“And you’re kind of a bad writer.”

“Whatever dude. I’m leaving.”

“Hey dude!” Adam called out, as Thomas started away.

“What?!”

“Write me more sex scenes! Get me some new flousies or something!”

“It’s spelled floozies.”

“Shut-it, you’re the writer. It was you who decided to be different and spell it your way.” Adam adjusted his black felt topper and failed to hide his smirk.

“What?” said Thomas.

“I’m just embarrassed to have been created by you, is all.”

Thomas opened to speak, before biting down hard on his bottom lip and walking away.

– Billy the Butler

Adam’s Plot

Image

A point, a reason, a purpose due.

A thought, a quest, a long pursuit.

A fear, a doubt, a question posed.

A reason for the reader to go.

Entertainment is not enough,

Nor are words puffed up with fluff.

Need to feed the man some strengths,

Some endless longing for his wrong days.

For what does this one man stew?

What is it that he so must do?

Brain is trembling, being all fears, so much time – plot’s still unclear.

Cannot quite touch it yet, need the thought but it’s still wet.

A playboy, a pessimist, a selfish man too,

Fear of love, a heart untrue.

He needs the fame but no King’s glory,

He needs a plot or his story’s boring.

Currently his chapter’s are fun,

A lot of sex, a thoughtful run.

Does his best to escape his needs,

Falls in love with Gnashing’s great weed.

A woman who is beautiful, charming yet, precisely dull.

She’s got a character much like his own  – Sweet with words, a heart that’s cold.

His story ends with much betrayal, for the girl who did enable –

Him to meet the antagonist, she brought him to the bad man’s twist.

So what now, what’s all I’ve told?

From what you’ve heard, what quest is known?

I need a plot, a question to pull. I  need a purpose, or Adam’s story just lulls.

– Thomas M. Watt