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

Storytelling Essentials: Rising Tension

STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: RISING TENSION

The key ingredient to a powerful climax is the rising tension that precedes it. This is one of the more complex elements of storytelling, but the ability to implement it into scenes separates an amateur author from a professional. Let’s take a look at an example of a scene with rising tension.

* * *

Larry had ten minutes to get to Benji’s house. If he didn’t make it in time, Benji would slaughter his dog.

The entire thing was out of control. It all started with a small bet among friends. Larry never could have guessed their sick game would have spun this far out of control…

Larry ran faster as he approached the street corner. He wasn’t too far away, if he could just-

A street parade. Of all the days, the Fat Pride parade had to be today. Why, God, did they have to fill the sidewalks and proclaim their mutual fondness of morbid obesity on this day, of all days. Larry stopped. He didn’t have any options – how was he supposed to wiggle through these giant marshmallows?

The images flashed through his mind again – the blazing car, the confused car wash guy, and then his wife Leona. Leona at the swingers club. Leona with… them.

“Dammit!” screamed Larry, as he punched his thigh.

He didn’t have time to think about that now. His dog was next, unless he could get there in time. He checked his watch – seven minutes. He had to trek about a quarter mile in seven minutes.

Larry looked at the main roadway then gulped. The big boys and girls were marching through the street as they waved hoagies like they were batons. He looked down at his own gut and gave it a jiggle. Larry was qualified.

He tore open his button down flannel then ran into the roadway with the rest of the parade. More than a few onlookers seemed to notice he wasn’t in costume. But it wasn’t them he was worried about – it was the group of policemen pointing at him a little ways up. They were on their radios. They were still looking for him, and Larry knew it. Every step he took towards his house brought him closer to his own arrest. Still, he proceeded.

It should have ended that night – right at the bar, where it all began. The ‘quarter toss’, they had called it.

The game was simple. Larry was fifteen drinks in when he’d invented it. He took a quarter, then made a deal – if it landed on heads, Larry would buy the drinks. If it landed on tails, Benji would. Larry won that first toss, but incited a competitive nature in all of them that led up to this.  Everything from the purses of their wives to the trophies of their children had been wagered. Then the quarter game seemed boring – they needed a bigger fix.

And it all too quickly escalated into this game of exhausting challenges with huge payoffs and ridiculously high stakes. If Benji got to his house in time, he’d get the kind of prize that every man with blood in his veins and juice in his dick dreams about – but if he didn’t, he’d have to explain to his wife why their dog’s head would hereby be placed on the mantel piece above Benji’s fireplace.

“That’s him!” yelled one of the cops. The group scattered out, clubs drawn, and chased after him.

Benji took one last glance at his watch – two minutes left. He looked up. His house was six down. He had to book it, but he was no triathlon athlete.

The cops were having trouble squeezing through all the fatties behind him. Larry was having trouble breathing.

That’s when he noticed it – the segways! A bunch of the big boys were driving them at a furious pace. They weren’t like the segways mall cops used – these were the ferraris of the stand-up, two wheel vehicles.

“Get off or I’ll eat you!” Larry barked at one of them.

The man looked scared out of his mind, and with one more grunt Larry startled the man enough to jump away.

Larry took the ride, turned the handle, and zoomed along the street. He turned around and watched as the cops gradually came to slow, realizing the futility of their pursuit. He weaved with ease between parade floats and men in sumo-wrestler attire. He checked his watch – 30 seconds. Larry looked up and laughed. He was going to make it. He was going to win the bet. He was going to have Benji’s wife-

Larry turned onto his driveway. He felt his heart skip a beat when he saw it – the front gate. It was locked, and he didn’t have any key. It was about ten feet high, with sharp spikes at the top.

He checked his watch again – fifteen seconds.

That was it. Finished. No chance.

He’d never jumped anything over 4 feet in his life. Well he did in high school, but that was only because he was on the-

Wait. He had a chance. It was a long shot, but it existed.

Eight seconds.

Larry turned and looked. A round man held a towering wooden fork. Larry took it from him without hesitation then started charging at the gate.

“Hey!” came the yell from behind.

Three seconds.

Larry planted the pronged end of the fork into the cement, pushed off his feet, then rode the handle as the fork used his own momentum to propel him into the air. Larry flew like the Michelin man were he a superhero.

One second.

Larry passed right over the doormat. He smashed into the front door with both feet and blew it open. He landed inside Benji’s house, on top of his front door, as a cloud of wood chips and dust puffed up around him.

“Well well well,” said Benji, holding an axe in one hand. The dog’s head was already locked in the guillotine. “Looks like you made it after all.” He sighed, then set the weapon on a table.

“You know the deal,” said Larry. “Go tell your wife.”

A short while later, Larry sat on Benji’s couch watching the football game.

“Here you go, Larry.”

“Thanks Benji’s wife,” he said, as he took the sandwich from her then had a bite.

“So, I have to ask… Is this really your wildest fantasy?”

“Not till you put a beer in my hand it isn’t.”

* * *

Okay, that was a long one (And sorry if you hate Larry, but sometimes assholes are more fun to watch).

Let’s take a look at the various elements employed, and figure out why exactly you felt the urge to read on as you approached the scene’s climax.

1. Suspense. Right off the bat, we learned that Larry needed to get home in ten minutes in order to save his dog from being slaughtered. This raises questions in the readers mind. Why is Larry’s dog’s life at risk? Why does he have only ten minutes to save him? These types of questions will compel your readers to read on right from the get-go. People read stories to get answers – but in order for your answers to matter, you need to raise the right questions, first.

2. Conflict – there are three major elements that keep Larry from getting to Benji’s house free-and-easy. The first was the ‘fat pride’ parade, the second were the cluster of cops, and the third was the locked gate with spikes at the top.

So, what exactly caused the tension to rise?

It was the combination of these elements. The main thing that pressed you to read on was the ‘ticking clock’ mechanism. This is any deadline you give to your protagonist. Even as we are reading back story about the origin of the strange game Larry is playing, the ticking clock is in the back of your mind. You are always aware that Larry has ‘x’ amount of time to attain his objective, and the fact that this ‘x’ is dwindling every moment creates a sense of urgency in the otherwise leisurely hobby of reading.

Stakes played a large roll as well. Nobody wants Larry’s dog to be slaughtered, it’s innocent! The ticking clock wouldn’t have mattered if the dog’s life wasn’t at risk, however. Try to imagine how this scene would have read if there were no stakes –

Larry had ten minutes to get home or else Benji would be really mad at him.

I bet you’re thinking something along the lines of ‘Oh, poor Larry… Have a nice life softie, if you need me I’ll be dealing with real problems while you risk getting your feelings hurt.’

Now the other element was the pay-off. If Larry gets home in time, something really good happens to him. I wasn’t too clear as to what that would be, so there’s a touch of suspense there as well.

These three ingredients – stakes, objective, and conflict, will make a good story whenever mixed together. Learning how to weave them effectively enough to create ‘rising tension’ is a skill that can be honed, but it takes both awareness and practice, just like anything else.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Author of A New Kingdom

Conflict: Lesson 1 – Damien vs. Ronnie

CONFLICT: LESSON 1 – DAMIEN VS. RONNIE

Conflict is the most important element of storytelling. Failure to incorporate it guarantees that your works will flop. It is a subject worth going over again and again. There are more than a few types of conflict, but the common link of all forms is that they create adversity. Conflict worsens the predicament your protagonist is in, and she must grow stronger if she is to overcome it. Let’s start with an easy scene with no conflict, and watch how the scene improves as we amp up the adversity.

* * *

Level 1

Damien left the office building at five o’clock, because that’s when he got off work. Once outside, he kissed his wife on the cheek, just as he had a thousand times before.

Level 2 – Let’s add a ticking clock.

Somebody had left a time-bomb on the bottom floor. Nobody knew where it was, but word spread like wildfire – 5 O’clock it was gonna blow. Damien hurried out of the building, where his wife was already waiting for him.

“Damien, what’s-”

“I love you babe,” said Damien. He gave her a fat kiss on the cheek, and was thankful to be alive.

Level 3  – add a human antagonist (the antagonist can be a force of any kind, it doesn’t always have to be a bad guy with a mustache)

The elevator doors split open, and Damien found himself face-to-face with his greatest fear – Ronny McDee.

“Good to see you again, Damien. I noticed your wife was waiting for you outside. It’s too bad, she seemed so sweet.”

He didn’t have time for this – the bomb was set to go off at five. That gave him about three minutes to get past this lunatic clown.

“Shouldn’t you be flipping patties somewhere,” Damien said back to him. It wasn’t until then that the words sunk in – Ronny McDee had seen his wife outside. Had he done something to her?

“Hahaha!” Began Ronnie. “I moved on from that long ago.”

“To killing innocent civilians?”

“No, fries mostly.”

“Cut the shit,” said Damien. “What happened to my wife? If you did something to her I swear I’ll-”

“Relax!” said Ronnie. “I would never harm your wife. Gentleman’s agreement.”

“Oh. Well… I appreciate that.”

“It’s nothing. Now we should really get going and work out our differences elsewhere. I’d hate to still be here when my bomb goes off.”

“Good point,” said Damien. He jogged out the office building alongside Ronny, then found his wife waiting for him there.

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m good. The chicken’s in the oven already so we should really get going.”

“Oh, alright,” said Damien, before turning to Ronny. “How bout I come by your place tomorrow and we settle this?”

“Sure, that’d be fine. Just look for the palace with the golden arches.”

“Ok.”

* * *

I know that the last scene got a bit wacky, but that was partly because I wanted to illustrate a point. Do you notice how the moment Ronny and Damien began speaking on friendly terms it took dedication to keep on reading? When you diffuse conflict in the middle of a scene, you require your readers to continue on out of kindness, rather than desire. We all want to see conflict resolved – but once it is, the story, or an individual scene within the story, is over. That is what happens after the climax – the conflict is resolved. But up until then, you must maintain conflict at all times, and the best writers are able to effectively increase conflict heading into the climax, something known as ‘rising tension’.

Notice also how corny this scene is? You feel like you’ve seen/read it a hundred times, don’t you?

But you still felt compelled to keep reading it.

Don’t be so hard on authors who are commercially successful. If you want to be a best selling author, you’re going to have to accept the fact that constant arguments, time-bombs, evil villains, and dames in distress are all useful ingredients worth including in any story, no matter how much of a literary ‘genius’ you’ve already discovered yourself to be. Don’t ever become formulaic, that’s not what I’m saying – just pay more attention to best selling works, and figure out why they’re best sellers. Don’t fall in line with those who praise works of literature that will never appeal to a mass-market audience, unless you’ve decided that artistic expression is more important to you than big-time sales. Neither approach is wrong, but you should seriously think about the path you’d like to take, and write accordingly. Don’t complain about the failure of the masses to recognize true brilliance. It has more to do with them not caring, anyway – the masses flock to stories that entertain them, and that’s never going to change.

Let’s return to this scene later. If you have any suggestions to increase the conflict, feel free to include them in the comment section below. It’s always good practice to find new and exciting ways to amp up the tension in any given scene. If you want to steal this scene and make it your own, feel free to do so. I don’t care.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for SpecScout.com

– Author of A New Kingdom

STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: How to Create Intriguing Characters

STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: How to Create Intriguing Characters

 

A common divide among great writers is plot vs. character. Some authors are better at creating vivid, so-real-they’re-human figures, while others are better at taking us through winding, fascinating, perfectly-calculated plots.

Great character writers – John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Stephen King

Great plotters – Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Suzanne Collins

The debate of whether character or plot is more integral in crafting a compelling story has gone on since the beginning of time. That is not what this post is about. This post is about what separates cardboard cut-outs from fascinating personalities. Let us begin with two short examples. See if you can figure out the major difference before I point it out.

* * *

Scene 1:

Brad put the seventy-pound dumbbells back on the rack. He sat down, let out a giant groan, then smeared the sweat from his forehead with his towel. He stared eye-to-eye with his own reflection, glaring so intense that any lesser man would have looked away. His stare didn’t waver until she caught his eye.

She was blond, blue eyed, and kept her blond hair in a pony tail. Her outfit was hot pink, as were her lips. She caught him staring, then let out a short chuckle.Brad returned his gaze to his own reflection. He didn’t smile from her laugh – he never smiled. He was there to workout. And if some new beef wanted to flirt, then so be it. For now it was time for another set.

Brad picked the seventy-pounders back up and got back to work.

Scene 2:

Angela cut-short her chuckle. She’d caught the rough-and-tough guy staring at her and laughed. Maybe that was a mistake… just another, stupid mistake.

She shook her head, then walked behind him and over to the rack. She picked up the five pound weights and returned to her bench. He didn’t even notice her – didn’t even care. Was it her laugh?

She’d assumed he had been looking at her because she looked pretty good in her new, hot-pink get-up. Maybe he was staring because she looked stupid.

“Shut-up,” she mumbled to herself, then begin her triceps exercises.

Her friends suggested she wear this stupid thing, not her. This wasn’t her. Angela preferred sweat pants and a jacket when she went to the gym. This wasn’t her – God she felt stupid.

Angela quit halfway through her set. She moved to the front of her bench and stared at herself in the mirror. Who was she fooling? She wasn’t the flirty blond girl she felt pressured to be. She was the ice-cream-devouring, wannabe-mom who texted stupid sweet smiles to boys who didn’t even care about her.

Angela shook her head, then rushed over to return her weights. Her head was down when she bumped into somebody – oh great, it was the rough and tough guy who thought she looked stupid.

“Hey girl-”

“Get out of my way,” she said back.

She hurried around him, put back her weights, then stormed out of the gym. Time for some Ben and Jerry’s.

* * *

Spot the difference? If not, that’s okay.

But I bet you found Angela much more intriguing than Brad. You might be willing to follow her around for a while, stick with her as she tries to build-up her self esteem. One major difference between Brad and Angela is that Brad is a cock, whereas Angela is a sweet girl who we’d like to see believe in herself a little more. Depreciating persons are more likable even in real life, and in works of fiction they are easier to empathize with. Keep this is mind when you draw up your protagonist.

Yet still, this is not the major separation between these two characters.Brad is a meat head. Short and simple. What we know of him so far is entirely predictable – I’m sure he works out, hits the bar scene, gets laid, does it again. He’s that dickhead who greets cashiers with a stern expression no matter how brightly they smile at him and ask, “How are you doing today?”

These qualities themselves are by no means boring qualities – in all likelihood, Brad’s life of lifting weights and finding ‘beef’ is probably quite interesting. So why don’t we care to follow him around for a full length novel? Let’s examine Angela, and why we’re intrigued by her, to find our answer.

What did you think of Angela before you got to know her? I’m sure if you’re a girl it was something along the lines of, “Oh, there’s that stupid ditsy blond girl who every guy likes even though she’s a stupid idiot.” Or, if you’re a guy, it was probably something like, “Oh, there’s that dumb girl who’ll play you the second you treat her nice.” Up until her own scene, Angela was cardboard – she appeared to be just as stereotypical as Brad, and we assumed she would think accordingly.

But she didn’t.

Much rather, Angela was uncomfortable wearing her ‘stupid pink outfit’. She didn’t like the way she laughed, she didn’t even like the way she looked. Angela was so convinced she was unattractive that she ran away from Brad before he had a chance to hit on her. Even more intriguing, she doesn’t really care about having a lot of eyes on her.

She wants one boyfriend, she wants to get married, she wants to have kids. But she doesn’t know how to go about doing any of those things, so she took up the suggestion from her friends to make herself more presentable. The funny part is, she is getting more attention from a guy – but her real issue isn’t presentation, it’s her self-esteem, which still hasn’t been resolved (And that’s probably what her inner conflict would be throughout a novel in which she is the protagonist).

One more spin before I tell you exactly what the major difference is between these two, if you haven’t figured it out already -Imagine Angela never wore that hot-pink outfit. Imagine she showed up in a pair of dirty sweatpants and a jacket. Imagine she sat down without ever smiling at Brad, and from Brad’s perspective she seemed depressed. The more we got to know her, the more we came to realize that this girl is the same self-loathing person we anticipated she’d be.

She wouldn’t have been as captivating, would she have been?

The number one way to create compelling characters is this – Give them contradictions. Show us elements of their personality that surprise us. Have them take actions that are out of the ordinary, that even you, their writer, didn’t expect them to take. Strange personality quirks create dynamic characters, and unexpected courses of action create memorable experiences.

Adding this depth to your protagonist will leave your readers with an intense desire to better understand them. Always remember, questions compel us to seek answers.

If you can get your readers to ask questions about your story on their own terms (such as, why doesn’t Angela believe in herself, and will she land the man of her dreams?), than you are going to give them a reason keep reading.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for Specscout.com

– Author of A New Kingdom