Ah, the passive voice – much maligned by writers and critics alike. Search the internet for articles on the passive voice and you will find numerous exhortations to avoid it – Lazy writing! Too wordy! Overcomplicated!
Yes, the passive voice can be all of these (sometimes). But, sometimes it can be necessary or useful:
Mary was surprised. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by now.
The short paragraph above contains three passive clauses. You can spot them by looking for the to be verb + a past participle. You can also spot them by looking for the object-verb-subject structure. In the above example, there is no subject – which is why the passive voice is necessary.
Look what happens when we add a subject:
Mary was surprised at the final balance on her account statement. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched by her on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by ZombieTraders by now.
Ugh. That is one ugly paragraph. Just by flipping to an active voice sentence structure – subject-verb-object – you can make it prettier:
The final balance on Mary’s account statement surprised her. She was certain that she had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. ZombieTraders should have compensated her by now.
Notice something about the above paragraph? Both ‘had’ and ‘had been’ make an appearance – but neither create a passive clause.
She had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday. In this case, we need to make the distinction between ‘had dispatched’ (past perfect tense of the verb, dispatch) and ‘had been (dispatched)’ (past perfect tense of the verb, to be). The word ‘had’ + a past participle (dispatched) is not by itself a red flag for passive voice. Only when the had is part of the ‘to be’ verb could it indicate passive voice. Mary had dispatched the zombie – not passive. The zombie had been dispatched by Mary – passive.
She had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. In this case, we need to make the distinction between <had been + past participle> and <had been + continuous tense>. The ‘to be’ verb + another verb is not enough to indicate passive voice, the verb needs to be in the past participle form. I had been working on the zombie case – not passive. The zombie case had been worked on by me – passive.
Both criteria – the ‘to be’ verb AND a past participle – need to be present for the passive voice to be generated.
Passive voice is necessary when the subject of a clause is absent.
There are instances where passive voice is present and unnecessary, but still preferable. This is typically the case when the writer wants to emphasis the object over the subject. Consider:
The zombies were an abomination, created by the devil for his own perverted entertainment. (object-verb-subject structure, ‘to be’ verb + past participle – PASSIVE)
The devil had created the abominable zombies for his own perverted entertainment. (subject-verb-object structure, no ‘to be’ verb – ACTIVE)
So, by all means be wary of the passive voice – but please don’t avoid it at all costs.
Hope that helps. Happy writing!
Image courtesy of Daniel Hollister via Flickr Creative Commons
There is a well-worn narrative principle that often does the rounds in writer’s circles. You would have seen it on Twitter or quoted in blogs and books on writing. Chekhov, the Russian playwright and master of the modern short story, is credited with saying “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
The principle is often invoked to caution writers against irrelevant details – if it has no impact on the plot, remove it. It is sage advice, but it has a counterpart that is often overlooked – a reversal of the idiom that I would like to phrase as:
If a rifle is going to be fired in the third act, in the first act it absolutely must be hanging on the wall.
This kind of philosophy harkens back to my school debating days (sigh. remember those? good times.) As the Third Opposition Speaker (which sounds like a key councillor role in a fictional dystopia, but is not), you couldn’t bring up new information – it wasn’t fair to raise new arguments or introduce new concepts that weren’t accessible to the other team for response (and rebuttal).
It’s the same with stories. If you have something major happen in your Third Act, you must introduce it – explicitly or through foreshadowing and hinting – in the First or Second Acts.
Introducing new characters (or other plot devices) too late in the piece is disingenuous. The reader enters the Third Act expecting that everything that is to transpire is a natural progression (likely or unlikely) from the components that have already been built and developed in earlier chapters. Bringing something new in feels like a cheat.
The most common transgression of ‘reverse Chekhov’s gun’ is the much maligned ‘Deus ex Machina’ (which sounds like an awesome futuristic sci fi, but is not (although 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’ deserves a mention…)).
As Wikipedia so eloquently elaborates, Deus ex Machina (literally, God in the Machine) is “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.” The internet is full of examples.
But, more subtle transgressions are where minor characters or plot devices that make brief appearances in earlier chapters or Acts, suddenly and inexplicably become crucial elements that are central for tying up the loose ends of Act III.
If you find your story falling into the latter category, fear not! There is a solution (and it is simple):
Go back and add some foreshadowing and hinting in earlier chapters/acts.
That junior intern that has a whole two lines of overlooked dialogue in that scene jammed into the middle of chapter four? The one that will end up saving the day with her personal rocket launcher project that isn’t even mentioned in the story? Go back and beef up her role. Hint at her ingenuity. Give us a glimpse of that awesome rocket launcher. Let her reappear throughout the story, maybe at the pinch points, or points of high tension. Keep her simmering in the back of our minds, so that her reappearance will be welcome and logical (even if it is a little surprising).
What about you? Have you introduced a Deus ex Machina in your WIP or are you committing a transgression against the reverse Chekhov’s gun? Offload your guilt in the comments… 🙂
Image courtesy of Don Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons
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So, we’ve figured out that stories are about stuff happening. And the best kind of stuff happening is the stuff that happens because of a problem. Problems are what are driving your story forward – they provide tension, intrigue, character development and (by necessity of requiring a solution) they provide momentum. Problems should plague your protagonist and proliferate in your plot.
But, as I have discovered, not all problems are equal. Some problems are better at ratcheting up tension and accelerating momentum. Some are deliciously subtle. Others are explosive. And others are…well, they are just another problem – an obstacle, a thorn in the side, a stone in the shoe.
Which brings us to the three types of problems you can introduce in your story:
Causal – A problem that happens directly as a result of something else in your story.
Causal problems are those that occur as a direct result of cause and effect. It rains, you get wet. You put your hand in the fire, it gets burned.
Causal problems in your story are the explosive, flavour-packed, all the tingly feels problems that are perfect developments from situations that have come before in your story. The best of these are problems that happen because of something your protagonist has done (or failed to do), but still work well if they happen because of something else in your plot (e.g. something another character has set in motion, the result of a environmental incident, etc).
* Your protagonist runs away from a fight, that leads her into a dark alley where murderous thieves are lurking. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something your protagonist has done.
* Your protagonist’s sidekick tries to pick up the local barmaid and lets slip some vital intel that is overheard by the antagonist’s goons. As a result, the antagonist is able to hijack the protagonist’s mission. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something another character has done.
* An earthquake hits town, cutting off all roads and leaving the protagonist stranded and unable to get to their destination. A problem that occurs directly as a result of an environmental incident.
Correlative – A problem that is related to something else in your story, but not caused by it.
Problems that are correlated are (as the word suggest) related, but not caused by the other. I put my gumboots on, my friend grabs their umbrella. I grab frantically for a bandage, my friend screams in horror. While these things aren’t causal – they are related. My friend and I both grab our wet weather gear because it is raining. I grab for a bandage and my friend screams because I have burnt my hand in the fire.
Correlative problems are the subtle problems in your story. The problems that hint at a deeper understory or that give clues about possible plot developments, character flaws, or story complexities. They can be explicit – where the ‘binding agent’ (the third aspect that relates them) is known; implicit – where the binding agent is hinted at; or inexplicit – where the binding agent is unknown.
* The earthquake causes widespread damage and destruction. The protagonist, left without a car, heads out on foot through the city to get to their destination, vulnerable to aftershocks and violent looters. Character B, whose child is injured, races out into the city to find medical assistance. Both journeys put each character on a collision course. The two problems are caused by a known binding agent – the earthquake. –> This closely mimics a causal relationship (since the cause of these related problems is known). * People around the city are falling sick and/or dying unexpectedly. Character A frantically attends to their sick child before running out of the house. The protagonist, a renowned epidemiologist, receives a phone call in the middle of a celebration, immediately turns serious and leaves without telling anyone. The two problems are caused by a hinted binding agent – a disease outbreak of some sort. –> This is great for causing the kind of tension that comes when a reader reads on to find out if their hunch is correct. Whodunnits are famous for it – giving readers enough of a hint in order for them to form a theory of their own and keep them reading to get validation/confirmation. * Character A withdraws her life savings and buys a plane ticket. The protagonist packs up their car and heads out of town. The two problems are caused by an unknown binding agent. –> This type can seem as pure coincidence at this point in the story, but is discovered to be related later in the story (a satisfying pay off). To be effective, both incidents need to be evocative (causing the reader to wonder why these two events are happening and to keep reading to find out). It can also help if the same type of emotion is present – in this case urgency – or opposite emotions are present – e.g. extreme joy vs extreme disappointment — both of which help to establish or hint at a shared connection.
Coincidental – A problem that is neither caused by or related to anything else in your story.
Coincidental problems are those that are completely unrelated. I lose my watch and my worst enemy becomes my boss.
In stories, these problems provide points of interest and action, but can (if overused) give an episodic feel – you know, the “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” style (for more on why you should avoid this pitfall – read this).
Sometimes the coincidental problem is inevitable – and sometimes it is necessary. Accidental Hero stories depend on them – your average Jane finds herself embroiled in an international terror plot, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The best place for coincidental problems is at the inciting incident stage – where unlucky circumstances can be forgiven as a plot point. But if all your protagonist and plot problems ‘just happen to happen’, then you may need to review whether you have a plot or just a series of unfortunate events…
What problems have you introduced into your story? How do you use them to establish tension and drive momentum?
Image courtesy of Frederic Bisson via Flickr Creative Commons.
I think about story structure. A lot. I’ve read countless books and studied hundreds of movies to gain a deeper understanding of narrative structure. I’ve reviewed the classic philosophies of act, scene and beat structure – from the Three Act Structure, to the Eight Sequences, and beyond to the 15 Beats. There is a plethora of information out there, in writing guides, on websites and forums, in blog posts, and from seminars and conferences. It can be a lot to take in, and over the past year I have worked my way through them to try and translate them into a language and format my brain can understand. And, this morning, I think I have had my enlightenment moment: Everything you need to know in order to understand narrative structure – whether you write screenplays or novels – can be boiled down to the Five Turning Points and the Gaps Between them.
Warning – this is going to be long. It would have to be to give you everything you need to know about story structure in one blog post 🙂
The Five Turning Points – A Shift in Direction
The Five Turning Points are the five key events in your story where the narrative shifts direction. It’s worthwhile spending some time discussing what a ‘shift in direction’ actually entails. For me, a shift in direction can be either character-driven or plot-driven.
For character-drivenshifts, we see either a shift in technique, in action or in motivation (you can read more about character-driven shifts and how they impact on your second act here)
A shift in technique is where a character maintains the same goal (the why) and the same action (the what), but changes their technique in undertaking the action (the how). e.g. My goal is to reach the mountain summit. My action is to trek along the mountain path. My technique changes from doing it alone, to joining a group and sharing the burden.
A shift in action, is where a character maintains their goal, but changes their action. e.g. My goal is still to reach the summit, but instead of trekking to get there, I decide to charter a helicopter to drop me off.
A shift in goal, is where the character rethinks their entire motivation and finds either a) a more worthy goal or b) the deeper, subconscious goal that had yet to be recognised. e.g. I start to wonder why I want to reach the summit. a) Is it to break the world record and become wildly famous and is that still important when I see the local villages along the way struggling with poverty? OR b) Is it to prove to myself that I am worthy of recognition and is there a better way I can do this?
For plot-driven shifts, we see either an escalation, a de-escalation, or an about-face.
An escalation takes a value and increases it. In this instance, an escalation would be a situation that was bad and then became worse, or that was urgent and then became desperate, or that was scary and then became deadly.
A de-escalation takes a value and decreases it. In this instance, a de-escalation would be a situation that was impossible and then became difficult (but achievable), or that was awe-inspiring and then became mildly interesting, or that was wildly over-the-top and then became merely eccentric.
An about-face takes a value and morphs it into its opposite. In this instance, an about-face would be a situation that was deadly and then became life-giving, that was interesting and then became nauseating, that was mournful and then became joyful.
The Gaps in Between – Action & Reaction
Having established our five turning points as the key shift in direction our narrative takes, we can begin to understand that the gaps in between are the spaces in which we can show how the shift has impacted on our story’s world and characters and how their reactions create the necessary environments for the next turning point (and its impact) to logically (albeit sometimes surprisingly) occur.
Essentially, the gaps present the momentum of the story and set up the tone of action. If the turning points are subtle escalations, increasing only by degrees, then the gaps between will necessarily produce a slower pace involving smaller changes in story world and characters and setting a context that is only slightly different from the one to be presented in the next gap – all of which makes for a very slow (and, possibly, boring) story.
If, however, the turning points are more dramatic, then the gaps will need to work hard to show the significant impacts on the story world and characters and to set-up a sharp contrast between the new world/character state and the state that will be produced by the next turning point – producing lots of tension, conflict and change.
This is all pretty cerebral at the moment, so why don’t we get stuck in and look in detail at each of the five turning points and their impact on the gaps that cushion them…
Turning Point 1 – the DISTURBANCE – and Gap A – the SET-UP
The disturbance is pretty much what it sounds like – something to unsettle the normal state of affairs and foreshadow a bigger change on the horizon. Known also as the Inciting Incident, it is the event that affects your story’s protagonist but does not directly engage them yet in the core conflict.
Here are some examples from popular movies:
BACK TO THE FUTURE – Marty McFly sees his friend Doc gunned down by Libyan Terrorists
CRAZY STUPID LOVE – Cal Weaver’s wife, Emily, abruptly announces that she wants a divorce
DISTRICT 9 – Wikus is sprayed with black alien goop as he carries out his eviction of District 9 residents
FINDING NEMO – Marlin watches in horror as his son, Nemo, is captured by divers
JUNO – Juno MacGuff sleeps with her boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker
OBLIVION – The Hydro rigs are destroyed by the scavengers leading to the discovery of an unknown signal
As you can see from these examples, sometimes the disturbance personally touches the protagonist (Crazy Stupid Love, District 9, Juno), sometimes it happens to a loved one (Finding Nemo, Back to the Future), and sometimes it happens to someone completely unrelated or an inanimate object (Oblivion). Sometimes it is caused by the protagonist (Juno), sometimes it happens to the protagonist (Back to the Future, Crazy Stupid Love, District 9, Finding Nemo) and sometimes it happens to something indirectly related to the protagonist (Oblivion). What they all have in common, is that each Disturbance poses a key question – What will your protagonist do now?
These characterisations are critical for writing the gaps between. With the first turning point (as with all turning points), there are two gaps between. For the Disturbance, there is the gap between the story’s very beginning and the turning point, and there is the gap between the turning point and the next turning point (in this case the Lock In). Let’s focus on Gap A – The Set-Up.
Gap A is all about detailing the current state of play, the status quo, which will provide the context as to why the Disturbance is so unsettling, so full of potential for further problems, so disturbing.
Let’s take Finding Nemo as our example – if Marlin is always losing his kids to divers, or if he has hundreds of other kids and one lost fish is but a drop in the ocean (*boom, tish*), seeing Nemo captured is likely to be only a mild disturbance – less a disaster and more an irritation. However, this is far from the truth – Marlin is an over-protective and loving father who is still struggling, thanks to a barracuda attack, with the loss of his wife and entire clutch of eggs (besides Nemo). This context is critical for giving depth and sharpness to the Disturbance.
LessonLearnt: Use your Gap A to build the necessary details that will give your Disturbance maximum impact.
Gap B – the LACK OF ACTION – and Turning Point 2 – the LOCK IN
After the first turning point, we arrive in Gap B, which is typically characterised by a lack of action. In the Hero’s Journey this is called the Rejection of the Call, but not all Gap B’s are about actively rejecting the call to action a disturbance typically presents. Sometimes there are other motivations that see our protagonist not yet directly engaging with this new conflict – no resources, no skills, no recognition of the disturbance and what it could mean.
Gap B is all about building the story towards the second turning point, the Lock In, where the protagonist is now willing and/or able to directly engage in the core conflict.
Let’s use Back to the Future as our example – the Lock In is Marty ending up in 1955 with no way of getting back to the future. Gap B sees Marty horrified by Doc’s brutal assassination, but the assassination is not what causes Marty to jump into the delorean. It is only when he is in personal danger of being shot that he needs to flee in the delorean. Marty initially fails to act for two reasons – 1) he doesn’t have the emotional stability to engage (he is in shock) and b) he doesn’t have the personal motivation to engage (he is still relatively safe).
To get Marty into the delorean and back to 1955, the writers needed to take away these two obstacles to action – they turned the gunfire towards Marty, breaking him out of his shock and giving him a reason to get into the delorean.
LessonLearnt: Identify the obstacles that are stopping your protagonist from responding to the Disturbance (these ideally will have been foreshadowed in Gap A, the Set-Up) and use Gap B to remove them.
Gap C – the PLAN A – and Turning Point 3 – the MIDPOINT
When your protagonist has no excuse for not responding to the Disturbance (or, alternatively, has no choice but to engage directly with the conflict), you’ve arrived in Gap C – what I call PLAN A and what others call the First Plot Point, and what formally announces the transition between Act One and Act Two of your narrative.
The distinction between no excuse and no choice is an important one. Many people say that the transition from the first act and second act should come from the protagonist actively choosing to engage. I don’t agree. Sometimes the lock in can be a choice, but sometimes it can be forced.
Take Juno, for example. The Lock In is when Juno discovers she is pregnant. There is no choice – it’s a fact. A situation she didn’t choose to be in, but finds herself in, nonetheless. Similarly, there are stories where the Lock In sees the protagonist kidnapped – they don’t choose to be, but are nonetheless.
What defines the Lock In is a situation where the protagonist becomes directly engaged and personally affected by the conflict, whether they choose to be or not.
It is the decision about how they will respond to this fact is what sets up Gap C and forms the basis of their Plan A.
For Juno, she is faced with numerous options for how to deal with this inconvenient and unwelcome news. Her decision to adopt out her baby is what sets her on the path of her Plan A – to give her baby to prospective adoptive parents Mark and Vanessa.
But, there is a reason I call it the Plan A. This plan, while seemingly a good one at the time, is doomed to fail. Why? Because of the Midpoint.
We’ve talked a lot about turning points – well, the Midpoint is the mother of all turning points. It is, in most cases, the most dramatic shift in direction – requiring our protagonist to develop an entirely different plan. As discussed above, the Midpoint shift can be plot-driven or character-driven, but it needs to be big enough to change the direction of your protagonist – not just a tinkering at the edges of what they want to do, but a wholesale re-think of what they are doing and what they should do.
In Juno, it is the discovery that Mark wants to leave Vanessa and his confession that he is not ready to raise a child.
Like the Disturbance, all Midpoints should have readers/viewers asking– What will the protagonist do now?
LessonLearnt: Know your midpoint from the beginning and build a Plan A that: i) given what has happened in Act One, is reasonable at the time, but ii) given what will happen at the Midpoint, is doomed to fail. Use your Gap C to either show i) the Plan A failing at each turn or ii) the Plan going along swimmingly (an unknowingly towards its eventual doom).
Gap D – the PLAN B – and Turning Point 4 – the CULMINATION
So, now your protagonist is faced with a doomed plan – they could either see it coming or it took them completely by surprise. Either way, they need a new plan. Gap D takes the changes to the story’s world and character development that occurred during Gap C and uses them as the necessary motivations, resources and opportunities for your protagonist to develop, and start implementing, their Plan B.
Unfortunately, Plan B is also doomed to fail. Not because it is a bad plan (like Plan A), but because of either a) the protagonist’s debilitating weakness or b) the antagonist’s uncompromising strength (or c) both of the above).
That is the core of what happens at Turning Point 4, the Culmination – it is your protagonist’s darkest moment, the point where they have seemingly given their all, but have been found wanting in the face of the antagonist’s dominance.
Happily, there are two sides to the Culmination – 1) the darkest moment and 2) the silver lining. The silver lining is the moment when the protagonist has an ‘a-ha!’ moment – when all of the lessons they have learnt and skills they have developed along the Plan B journey give them what they need to head towards the fifth Turning Point – the Final Battle.
In Crazy Stupid Love, Cal has realised his original plan to get over his wife and get good with the ladies is doomed when he realises he is still in love with his wife and the ladies he got good with are crazy. He quickly shifts to his Plan B – win his wife back. It’s a good plan, but ultimately also doomed to fail because Cal is prone to bad decisions and rash actions (his greatest weakness) – like losing his mind when his daughter turns up with bad boy Jacob, and his antagonist (his failing marriage) gains strength from the arrival of his wife’s romantic interest and a delicate matter involving a lovestruck babysitter.
The role of Gap D, therefore, is to:
Foreshadow the protagonist’s weakness and the antagonist’s strength
Lull the protagonist into a false sense of security as their Plan B continues to look the winner
Provide them with snippets of important knowledge, skills, traits and resources that will be the key to a final battle with the antagonist.
LessonLearnt: Use your Plan B to pull the wool over your protagonist’s eyes – keep them focused on, and confident in, their Plan B while a) sowing the seeds of currently irrelevant, but potentially crucial knowledge, skills, traits and/or resources, and b) hinting at the depths of the protagonist’s greatest weakness and antagonist’s greatest strength.
GAP E – the RE-AWAKENING – and Turning Point 5 – the FINAL BATTLE
Your protagonist has come through their darkest moment and has seen the silver lining – welcome to Gap E, the Re-Awakening. This Gap is all about taking the little threads of hope you have sprinkled through the Second Act and helping your protagonist piece them together and strengthen them until they form a weapon that is capable of both a) destroying the protagonist’s weakness and b) overcoming the antagonist’s strength.
The operative word here is capable. This new found personal discovery and growth must give the protagonist (and the reader/viewer) hope that the protagonist will prevail. Hope, but not certainty (because where is the drama in that?).
Building an effective Turning Point 5 – the Final Battle – and a strong Gap E – the Re-Awakening – is fundamentally built upon a sound understanding of the protagonist’s greatest weakness and their growing strengths, the antagonist’s greatest strength and hinted weakness, and the key factors that will bolster the protagonist whilst simultaneously undermining the antagonist.
In Oblivion, the Re-Awakening is Jack #49 reading the Flight Recorder and understanding what had happened to the Odyssey – thus gaining the critical knowledge and resolve he needs to carry through with his final battle plan against Tet – sacrificing himself and detonating the nuclear bomb aboard his ship to destroy Tet – relying on Sally’s weakness to let the ship in under the impression that it is Julia who is inside.
Lesson Learnt: Build a Final Battle that centres on the protagonist’s recently realised and newly strengthened advantages versus the antagonist’s hinted weakness. Use Gap E to show how the protagonist develops these strengths and hint at how they may be useful against the previously invincible antagonist.
GAP F – the DENOUEMENT
The protagonist and antagonist face each other in an epic battle. The protagonist digs deep and finds the inner strength to prevail. End of story. Right? Um. No. The protagonist has won, the antagonist is defeated – but has the protagonist achieved their goal? And how has the battle’s outcome created a new status quo?
Gap F – the Denouement (a fancy French word that literally means ‘to unknot’, and essentially means the conclusion or resolution of a plot) – answers the question – Okay, so the protagonist won, but…?
But, did he get the girl? But, did she get to go back home to Kansas? But, did they live happily ever after?
It’s where you wrap up the loose ends and give a sense of finality to the overall story – recognising that the antagonist was just the major/last obstacle in between the protagonist and their goal – and that the protagonist still, at the end of the battle, needs to reach out and grab that goal.
The Denouement should also, ideally, present a hint at what that means – begin to answer the question of what impact will the protagonist achieving their goal have? In this way, the Denouement is like a twisted mirror image of the Set-Up – establishing a new status quo, a new world order that is ripe for other disturbances…
And, there you have it. My complete road map to story structure.
Let me know in the comments whether you’ve found it useful!
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Over the last couple of weeks I have been looking at story structure – from the global level of the story itself, to the macro level of each act within the story. This week, I am looking at story structure at the micro level – Sequences, Scenes and Beats.
Before we move on into the discussion, let’s do a quick recap:
1. The novel is like a Russian Doll – the biggest doll (our novel) contains smaller replicas of itself within itself. The content won’t necessarily replicate in miniature, but the structure will (as will, to different degrees, the tone and theme).
2. The structure is many things to many people – countless authors and writing gurus have all attempted to distil structure into the key building blocks (Snyder’s Save the Cat, Aristotle’s Three Act Structure, Bell’s LOCK and Two Doorways, Coyne’s Story Grid, Brooks’ Four Boxes) – but sometimes you just have to build something that works for you.
Today, let’s see how the model presents in the micro components of a novel – sequences, scenes and beats.
Sequences, Scenes and Beats
Sequences, scenes and beats are possibly the hardest parts of structure to bed down – primarily because there are lots of definitions out there on what each of them is, but also because they are more directly associated with films rather than novels.
Let’s look at each in turn…
Sequences are the next doll to come out of the shell – the miniature replica of the act.
I find that Wikipedia has the best definition:
In film, a sequence is a series of scenes that form a distinct narrative unit, which is usually connected either by unity of location or unity of time.
When I first started planning my debut novel, Divided Elements – Resistance, I found that my outlining process consisted entirely of acts and sequences. Sequences are the large chunks of story that give structure to the acts. They’re also likely to be the structural elements people use to summarise your story.
This happens to me all the time – I’ll be talking to someone about a movie I saw on the weekend and the first question they will ask is “What was it about?”
“Well,” I’ll say. “It was this sci-fi movie called Snowpiercer, where there is this train hurtling through the snow and ice, and people are divided into classes and designated to different carriages, and there’s a plot afoot to get to the engine and basically start a revolution – you know, power to the people.”
And then, if they’re not particularly interested in seeing the film, but still a little intrigued, they will ask “What happens?”. And this is where I launch into the rundown of sequences:
“Well! The plebs in the back carriage are receiving revolutionary messages and intel in the soylent green like food bars they get dished up and so they stage a revolt to find the one person who can get them to the engine room. They make it to the jail carriage where they release the drug-addled mastermind that can get them through the next few carriages and all the way to the engine room – He gets them to the the next carriage but it is filled with murderous guards with some serious technology and killer weapons, leading the charge is the creepy Prime Minister of the train. She gets captured and forced into helping them get to the front on pain of death…” etc etc
It’s the Cliff Notes version of the story – just enough detail to get a sense of the story and how it unfolds, but not enough detail to get a sense of the world complexities or character motivations and development. In this way, sequences tend to be action-driven – they detail what is happening – the physical/tangible triggers for story and character development.
The sequences focus on what happens, leaving it to the scenes to answer the more difficult questions of why and how, to explore the more complex story elements of worldbuilding, character development, inner turmoil and tension.
But like their own mama doll, sequences still follow the same structure of status quo, call to action, engagement, crisis point, directed action and outcome.
Let’s take the Snowpiercer example – Sequence 1 would be the “Stage revolt and get to jail carriage”.
The status quo details the conditions of the last carriage and the frustration and fears of its occupants. The call to action is the latest message found in the food bar – it’s time to start this revolution. The engagement is the fight with the guards. The crisis point is where the protagonist is confronted with a gun-bearing guard and he has to decide whether to trust the intel (that the guns aren’t loaded) or back down. The directed action is where he back the intel and his instincts and doesn’t back down. He leads the surge through to the next carriage. The outcome is arriving at the jail carriage and the cell of the key person they are after.
Scenes are the next doll to emerge. If I could establish a definition for them, I would use something very similar to that of sequences:
A scenes is a collection of beats that form a distinct event, which usually takes place within one location or one time period.
Think of them like the building blocks you need to achieve the overarching premise of your sequence. The protagonist and his friends need to successfully stage a revolt and make it to the jail carriage. What ingredients are needed to make this cake rise? Well, we will need a scene that shows a kind of ‘tipping point’ of frustration amongst the occupants of the carriage and the introduction of a ‘safe breaker’ – something that will enable them to vent their frustrations. That’s our scene: “Just as the tension is about to turn critical, they receive a secret message that gives them the key to success”.
Like a sequence, it also gets fleshed out with the structural elements. The status quo is the tension. The call to action is the realisation that the tension will hit the tipping point soon and potentially cause a lot of grief – something needs to be done. The engagement is the futile attempts to calm everyone down. The crisis pointis when the protagonist considers starting the revolt without knowing it is the right time. The directed action is the protagonist waiting – tense, yet patiently – to receive word before he acts. The outcome is the protagonist being rewarded with the secret message that tells him the time is right.
Beats are tricky things. I am wary of approaching them – they seem as if they exist on Planck Scale, where things don’t play according to the normal rules.
Like most of the other dolls that have gone before them, beats are indeed a miniature replica. Unlike the other dolls, they have no additional, smaller doll within them. They are the last component. As such, beats themselves are not further divided into smaller parts – they are the smaller parts.
Film-makers like to break down their scenes into two components – the beat and the shot. Both are like twin atoms – equally representing the smallest unit of the story. The beat refers to the narrative unit, the shot to the visual unit. Both explain what is happening – they literally tell the story.
Let’s use an example: Let’s say that in this paticular scene in your story you want to write about a teenager named Izzy switching on the memory-erasing machine.
Okay, let’s start with the ‘beat’. From what I can understand, there a few types of ‘beats’ – the most common being action beats, dialogue beats and internalisation beats. There are also, from my observation, explanation/exposition beats, description beats and flash-back beats:
The time machine stood gleaming like a metal meerkat, perched on tippy-toes, standing as straight as could be in anticipation of the excitement or danger that could come next [description]. Izzy crept forward, her grin growing wider with each step[action]. “Eliana would be flipping out…”, she whispered to hersel[dialogue]. The thought of her best friend, Eliana – former best friend [internalisation] – draws Izzy up short. Her grin wavers as she recalls their last conversation. Ten years as best friends had fizzled in a space of ten minutes .
“You are so selfish!” Eliana had raged.
“I’m not selfish,” Izzy had retorted. “You’re scared!” [flash-back]
Okay, so the above example is a little convoluted – courtesy of trying to fit in all the beat types – but you see the point. There are a lot of beat types and each presents an interesting way of conveying information.
Now, let’s turn to the less popular ‘shot’.
Again, Wikipedia brings the goods with a useful description:
[A] shot is a series of frames, that runs for an uninterrupted period of time. Film shots are an essential aspect of a movie where angles, transition and cuts are used to further express emotion, ideas and movement.
Film shots are typically defined by three criteria – Subject (who or what is predominantly captured); Field Size (how much of the subject and its surrounding environment is captured); and Camera Placement (from what angle or perspective the image is being captured).
Compare the following:
Subject: > Backyard > Fountain > Foliage
Field Size: Wide Shot > Mid Shot > Close Up
Camera Placement: Aerial > Profile > Behind
Even though, as authors, we are dealing with the narrative (and not the visual) – we can still take some lessons away:
The true importance of beats lies not with them, in and of themselves – but with the juxtaposition of, and transition between, them.
Positioning a wide-shot beat (where we see the chaotic movement of a crowd, which includes the protagonist) next to a close-up beat (where we see in full detail the protagonist’s smile) – conveys a very precise tone and emotion. Without any explanation necessary, we know instinctively that the protagonist is smiling either because she likes the chaos or feels responsible for it.
Positioned deep within the large crowd of frenetic bodies, Jane whirled her limbs in a frenzy, mimicing and leading the replicated chaos around her. Shouts and smells assaulted her senses as she jostled, and was jostled back.
This tone can be sharpened by using a cut-away shot – i.e. juxtaposing a ‘shot’ of the crowd in chaos, with the protagonist nowhere to be seen, and then cutting sharply to a close-up of the protagonist’s smile.
The crowd was an angry mass of frenetic limbs. People of all shapes and sizes jostled and heaved. From the balconies above it appeared as if the large gathering was boiling, bubbling desperately and breaking into large pockets of isolated and connected violence.
Away from the crowd, on the isolated street corner, Jane watched on. Her eyes never wavered from the chaos – taking in every movement, every assault, every climbing degree of violence.
Alone and unwatched, she smiled.
Each beat conveys a very specific tone and emotion. In the first example, seeing Jane in the midst of the chaos from the very beginning, gives us a very different feel to the second example, where we don’t know of Jane yet and don’t know where she is. Finding her alone and isolated from the chaos provides a darker tone. And, even though both examples end with her smiling – one feels more sinister than the other.
Both seem to also serve different purposes for the scene. The first is more likely to be an Engagement beat – it speaks of fun & games. The second appears to be a Directed Action beat – there is something decidedly conscious and calculating about this smile.
Within any given scene, there will be multiple and various beats – some will be status quo beats, some will be call to action beats. You could have multiple call to action beats, all ‘shot’ from different lengths and perspectives and juxtaposed to create the overall mood you are aiming for, and just one outcome beat – a final ‘fullstop’ at the end of the scene.
In that way, beats live up to their musical etymology – stringing together short beats and long beats, loud beats and soft beats, slow beats and fast beats – it’s what gives you the narrative music 🙂
So, there you have it – the final look at Story Structure from a micro perspective. I hope you have found it useful!
(Featured Image derived from “365/173: Building Blocks” courtesy of Kaytee Riek via Flickr Creative Commons)
Earlier this week I began discussing story structure – looking at the macro structure of entire novels and their component Acts.
You’ll remember from the last post that I described story structure as a Russian Doll – the novel structure replicating itself in miniature with each of the smaller dolls it held inside. With that being said, now is probably a good time to reflect on that structure and pull out the key elements that form a clear beginning, middle and end:
1. An indication of what is normal or usual in the world of the protagonist
2. A trigger event that shakes up the protagonist’s world and gives them a new objective
3. Rising conflict and tension cause by obstacles of increasing significance, preventing the protagonist from achieving their objective
4. A major challenge that demands the protagonist make a decision
5. The response of the protagonist to this question
6. The outcome that flows from the protagonist’s decision and response
Looking at these elements we can identify the: (1) Status Quo, (2) Call to Action, (3) Engagement, (4) Crisis Point (5) Directed Action, and (6) Outcome.
Before I explore this structure is mirrored in Sequences, Scenes and Beats – Let’s review in more detail how these six elements play out in each of the acts in the Three Act Structure.
1. STATUS QUO: The opening scene(s) that introduce the world and the protagonist.
2. CALL TO ACTION: The disturbance (also known as the Inciting Incident)
3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Zero. The reluctance of the protagonist to engage due to the call not being strong enough, or personal enough.
4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the moment where the protagonist can no longer ignore the call to action. The question posed: Do I run away or Do I engage? To be or not to be?
5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages. James Scott Bell calls this the First Doorway – the first point of no return for our protagonist. It’s the “We’re not in Kansas, anymore” moment – where the world will never be the same again, regardless of what subsequent decisions the protagonist makes.
6. OUTCOME: The entry into the story of ACT II – PART II…
1. STATUS QUO: The new world the protagonist now finds themselves in – the one brought about by their Act I decision, action and its outcome. (ACT II – PART I)
2. CALL TO ACTION: The new objective the protagonist has, now that they have chosen to accept their mission. This is usually overly-simplified – e.g. beat the baddie. It signals the protagonist’s Plan A. (ACT II – PART I)
3. ENGAGE: Engagement Status = Pathetic. The inability of the protagonist to do anything useful due to them being a total noob in this strange and threatening world. Cue subplot and fun & games… (ACT II – PART I)
4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the culmination of urgency, growing strength of the baddie and developing skills and expertise of our protagonist. The question posed: Am I ready to trade my defense strategy for an attack strategy? Am I ready to flex my newly-formed muscle and take the fight to the bad guy? (MIDPOINT)
5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages more fully and with more focus. It signals the protagonist’s Plan B – which is either a complete re-imagining of the Act II – Part I objective or a more detailed version – e.g. I don’t want to beat the baddie, I want to convert them to the light! or I want to beat the baddie by amassing an army of flying monkeys. The protagonist has a better plan and more skills to implement it. But the antagonist isn’t resting on their laurels – they come to the party. Cue ramping up of tension… (ACT II – PART II)
6. OUTCOME: The Darkest Moment. The protagonist is so close to victory, only to have it snatched from their grasp and their greatest weakness laid bare before the greatest strength of the antagonist. The quest is over. The protagonist has failed. (ACT II – PART II)
1. STATUS QUO: The new world of pain and hurt and bruised ego and despair the protagonist now finds themself in.
2. CALL TO ACTION: The Glimmer of Hope. That thing whose use becomes suddenly apparent, that grumpy old hag that is now seen as a wise old mentor, the useless hunk of metal that is recognised a key. All is not lost – victory can still be the protagonist’s! This signals the protagonist’s Plan C. Not as vague as Plan A, not as ambitious or ignorant as Plan B.
3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Reinvigorated. The protagonist is not holding back. They are throwing all they have at the antagonist. They are not going down without a full-on Rocky IV fight.
4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the part in the battle between the protagonist and antagonist where it is looking pretty dicey. It’s the All is Lost moment, when it seems the hero has finally run out of luck. In the Karate Kid, it is that moment when Daniel San falls victim to Cobra Kai’s dirty tactics – a cowardly leg sweep by the jerk Johnny that exacerbates Daniel San’s already-weakened leg. The question posed: Do I surrender? Have I given everything? Is there something left in the dregs of this frail and beaten body/mind/soul that I can still draw on.
5. DIRECTED ACTION: The protagonist identifies that last bastion of hope and in a singular display of courage, strength, integrity (and all the other noble adjectives we can throw at them), plays their final card to defeat the antagonist.
6. OUTCOME: The tying up of loose ends. Defeating the antagonist should always be a means to an end – not the end itself. In winning the battle, did the protagonist win the war? Did they achieve their real, true goal? It’s the: “You’re alright, Larusso”. (you’re still a jerk, Johnny).
So, that’s the detailed look at Acts. Stay tuned for a detailed look at LITTLE STRUCTURE – the story of Sequences, Scenes and Beats.
(Featured Images courtesy of a) evil_mel via Flickr Creative Commons, and b) Colombia Pictures Corporation)
If there is one thing you should learn before embarking on writing your first novel, it is story structure. Bookstores and the internet abound with all sorts of guidance on how to structure your novel, build your plot, engineer your story.
With all of that information, sometimes it is a good idea to take a step back and put it all in terms that you, as the unique author you are, can understand and implement. Which is what I am about to do, with the aims of:
* Exploring the different levels of structure – from macro (the novel and its component acts) to micro (sequences, scenes and beats)
* Re-imagining the necessary story elements that give structure to each of the levels
I’ll attempt to explore and discuss these points over the course of the next few posts – and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
For those who want a ticket on this magical, mystery tour, please note the following:
* These posts are just the cerebral ramblings of an author with her own unique understanding and take on the story structure world.
* Also, this is a really long post. Feel free to read a bit and come back later to read a bit more.
* Finally, these musings are the culmination of my own learning from great mentors such as Blake Snyder, Larry Brooks, Janice Hardy, James Scott Bell, Shawn Coyne… the list goes on.
And so, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s start big…
Big Structure – Engineering Your Novel and its Acts
Let’s imagine a novel like a Russian Doll. The big doll has smaller and smaller dolls inside, each a mini replica of the original. The Novel Russian Doll has five dolls. The overall novel is the big mama – it’s structure is replicated, in miniature, by the Acts, Sequences, Scenes and Beats. Note, I said STRUCTURE, not detail. The details (and impact) will vary between the levels (or dolls), but the structure will essentially remain the same – the skeleton will be shared, but the painted features complimentary but unique.
So, what structure does a novel follow? The simple answer is:
Beginning, Middle & End
Human brains have been hardwired to tell and respond to this simple story structure.
Once upon a time, there lived a queen who was haunted daily by the spectre of her dead rival. Desperate to rid herself of this menace, the queen issued a royal challenge, that whoever could banish this ghost would be granted any object of their desire within the castle walls. A young knight, brash and full of confidence, accepted the challenge and used her wiles to successfully exorcise the ghost. When the queen asked this young knight what she desired most within the castle, the knave answered brightly: “Your throne”. And so it came to pass that a young and clever and roguish knight became the new queen.
Beginning – the haunted queen and her quest to rid herself of the ghost.
Middle – the challenge begins and the young knight successfully banishes the ghost.
End – the knight makes good on the queen’s promise, demanding the throne and ousting her as regent.
This essentially translates to the famous Three Act Structure, with one distinction…
The Three Act Structure
The Three Act Structure is pretty much a fancy name for Beginning, Middle & End – except that it recognises the natural partition of the Middle, thus separating it into Act II – Part I and Act II – Part II.
In doing so, it creates a clear line that separates the first half of the story from the second half. That clear line is the signpost that redirects your story’s traffic. The first half is heading in one direction, the halfway point (also known as the “Midpoint”) presents the need for a detour and sends your story in a slightly different or altogether new direction.
With the Three Act Structure, each Act has its own purpose –
The First Act
Act I is all about the set-up – establishing the world, establishing the protagonist (their strengths and weaknesses), introducing protagonist’s objective as well hinting at the conflict that will plague them in reaching that objective. It’s major elements are:
* The status quo: The usual, the norm. The general workings of the world and the protagonist before…
* The call to action: The disturbance that throws a spanner in the works, that upsets the natural balance and status quo of the world and/or the protagonist. At this stage it can be a minor irritant or impersonal disruption – something to grab the attention of the protagonist but not necessarily engage them in the fight… which leads us to…
* The reluctance of the protagonist to engage: Not having our protagonist immediately whip off their Clark Kent business suit and jet off with their cape and red undies flashing in the sunlight to save the day is important. If the protagonist can easily deal with the problem and encounters no inner turmoil or conflict in doing so leads to a pretty average story.
The kitten is stuck in the tree. Eloise leaps from branch to branch, whizzing up the tree with nary a glance below. She plucks the kitten effortlessly from the precarious branch and turns a triple twist, double somersault to land with her and the kitten unharmed. The End.
The kitten is stuck up the tree. Eloise hates trees. She hates kittens. She hates heights. But Sam is watching her from his backyard trampoline, his eyes travelling from the mewling kitten to Eloise. A grin appears on his face – challenging her to rescue the kitten, doubting that she will be brave enough to do it.
“I’ll show him!”, she thinks as she strides towards the tree. Where she promptly stops. “Wow, that tree is high”, she whispers to herself. Stupid kitten. It got itself up there, surely it can get itself down. And why does she care what Sam thinks of her, anyway? Not counting the massive crush she has had on him for the entire month since he moved in next door and stood up for her in front of the six-grade crew…
First of all, the second one is much longer – there’s so much more to explore and detail.
Second of all, the second one is much more interesting (hopefully). It sets up lots of intrigue about what will happen next – will she climb the tree, if she does will she fall flat on her bum or rescue the kitten, AND if she rescues the kitten, will she earn the admiration and adoration of Sam?
Third of all, the second one amps up the call to action. At first it was just the kitten mewling. Eloise can ignore that. But then Sam is watching and now she has a decision to make…
* The decision of the protagonist to engage: The situation is now dire enough, or personal enough, for the protagonist to throw their hat in the ring.
The Second Act – Part I
Act II – Part I is all about the response – detailing the protagonist’s Plan A and their initial reactions and general failings to adapt and thrive in their new circumstances and get closer to reaching their objective.
Since the protagonist is fairly useless at the major stuff (reaching their objective) in this part, you’ll tend to find that Act II – Part II is all about the sub-plot and fun & games.
The sub-plot is the realm of the secondary or minor objective. If getting Sam’s attention is Eloise’s primary or major objective, then conquering her fear of trees, kittens and heights is her minor or secondary objective. True to form, many subplots are focused on internal challenges and development – which is why you see a lot of romance subplots or personal hardship subplots. In many instances, the protagonist won’t know their secondary objective – but the reader will, and that can also create delicious tension. We’ll cringe and squeal and tap our fingers impatiently – seeing what the protagonist can’t, knowing what they should do, but n0t being able to reach into the story and tell them 🙂
The fun & games is all about ‘fluffy’ stuff. Because the protagonist is currently incapable of gaining any real progress against their objective, you can hold off on all the serious stuff that reaching the objective necessarily demands, and lose yourself (and your protagonist) in the fun stuff. Think car chases, manic shopping sprees, long nights at the carnival, mammoth bar crawls.
But, beware! Yes, subplots and fun & games are more lighthearted and less urgent than their primary counterparts – but, they still need a purpose. The best executions of subplots and fun & games are those where the subplot develops the character in a way that enables them to get closer to solving the key problem, or gives them the moral fortitude and courage to try a more dangerous, yet effective, means of getting their goal.
Fun & games can similarly be enlightening, providing insight into the character and a light counterpoint to the key themes the novel is exploring – e.g. the emotions a protagonist feels during the car chase and the decisions they make about avoiding street art, yet gleefully crashing into parking metres, can tell us more about the character and about the novel’s theme of “the best things in life are free”.
The Second Act – Part II
As with life, all good things must come to an end. The subplot must give way to the primary plot and the fun & games must transition to hard work and steely determination.
This is what Act II – Part II is all about – the protagonist’s resolve and their real progress towards achieving their goal.
The transition isn’t an easy one nor does it come about by coincidence or chance. The barrier between the first part and second part of Act II is the Midpoint. The midpoint is light-bulb moment – where the subplot and fun & games have culminated in a epiphany for the protagonist. Whereas, at the start of the Second Act, they had no clue and no skills, now they have enough of both to approach their goal with gusto – and a real chance at success. Plan A wasn’t working. The protagonist now has a Plan B.
Typically, Act II – Part II focuses on ramping up the tension. It’s two steps forward, one step back. The protagonist gets closer to their goal, but not without challenges. And each challenge is harder – demanding a higher sacrifice, upping the already-high stakes, causing the protagonist to draw deeper on their reserves of skill, courage, knowledge and commitment.
And just when it seems that the protagonist will snatch victory from the jaws of their antagonist, the protagonist’s greatest weakness and the antagonist’s greatest strength are revealed in their true glory. The protagonist has reached their darkest moment and failure is all but assured.
The Third Act
And so we start Act III – with our protagonist defeated and ready to give up the fight. But, they don’t. Because the trials and tribulations of Act II – Part II have taught our protagonist something or gifted them with the key to success (a mentor, a key piece of not-so-irrelevant information, an unlikely weapon, or (to be extremely literal) a key). When they realise they have this previously-hidden piece of the puzzle, the darkest moment turns into a glimmer of hope.
They jump on this new chance at success and begin their Plan C. And Plan C is all about the major battle with the antagonist. Which they win.
But, winning isn’t everything, you know? 🙂
The win is the climax – now we need the denouement (a fancy french word for the final outcome). Yes, the protagonist won, but did winning have the impact they thought and hoped it would? Did Eloise defeating the Sixth Grade Crew win over Sam?
Yep, the Third Act is about kicking ass and tying up loose ends. It’s the finale and resolution of both your primary plot and your subplot. The battle AND what comes after.
So, that’s BIG STRUCTURE covered. Stay tuned for LITTLE STRUCTURE, where I look at Sequences, Scenes and Beats.
In the meantime, leave me a comment to let me know whether this helped or whether you have a different take on big structure.
(Featured Image courtesy of Shaheer Shahid via Flickr Creative Commons)