Table of Contents
- Seven Easy Steps to a Better Story
- The Armature (theme)
- What it Means to Dramatize an Idea
- The Use of Clones
- Ritual Pain
- Personal Hell exercise
- The Crucifixion
- From Butterfly to Caterpillar
- Characters who Don’t Change
- Killing the Protagonist
- Tell the Truth
- The Masculine and the Feminine
- Drama in Real Life
- The Myth of Genre
- God from the Machine
- Supporting Plots (subplots)
- Slave not Master
- Sounding Natural
- Address and Dismiss
- Address and Explain
- Superior Position
- Show Them Once so They Know
- When Bad Things Happen to Good Stories
- Judging Your Own Work
- Good Stories, Good Business
Seven Easy Steps to a Better Story
Write down each of the following numbered steps, and fill them up accordingly to get a gist of what your story is about and where it’s going.
Purpose: to inform the audience of everything they need to know to understand the story
1. Once upon a time…
What does an audience need to know?
- Your main character
- The genre of your story
2. And every day…
What are your characters like?
What happens in the day-to-day of your story’s world?
Set normalcy, so we know how characters start out, and how much they’ll change in the end.
3. Until one day…
- The inciting incident.
- Starts with either conflict or opportunity
- RAISE THE STAKES! Because this is the end of your act.
- Imagine the curtains being drawn for the intermission of the play. Audience will leave for a break. It’s your job, in this scene, to make sure that they come back for more.
- Create that “Uh-oh factor.”
What happens as a result of your inciting incident?
How do your characters respond?
4. And because of this…
- Cause and effect
- Character reacts to the inciting incident at the end of Act 1
5. And because of this…
- The fulcrum
- Act two is the body of the story, the longest part. Hence, it’s divided into two
- In this second part, there is a shift in the character’s actions and reactions.
- Maybe, instead of being just reactionary, now the character is beginning to take action
6. Until finally…
- The beginning of the end
- The clue that solves the big mystery
- Where character makes final choice between changing who she is, or staying the same.
7. And ever since that day…
- Epilogue. Denouement.
- They lived happily ever after scenes
- The place to wind down after the tension-filled climax
Chapter III: The Armature
Why do people tell stories? TO TEACH.
1. Aboriginal tribes in Australia use songs and stories in case they get lost. The songs contain information—like a map.
2. Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales has a section about the traditional Hindi medical practice of telling patients certain stories for them to ponder on and contemplate. Because of the story, the patient learns from the hero’s failures and victories, and subsequently is also able to resolves his/her own problems.
3. Alcoholics Anonymous is a program where people share their stories to help one another cope with the struggle, and facilitate healing. Here, people learn the most important thing: that they’re not alone in their struggle, and that others have been there before, and come out victorious.
The Bible could have been just a list of rules, but it’s not. Instead, it’s an epic tale.
Quotable Quote: “If you want to come off like a mature writer, be precise.”
Armature: The idea upon which we hang our story.
Also known as: THEME
It’s what you want to say with your piece.
The “moral” of the story
NOT A THEME: Competition
THEME: Competition is sometimes a necessary evil.
How to put your armature together:
1. Know where you’re going
2. Let the audience know
3. Show them the armature—the idea you want to build on.
- Have a character state it out loud
- Terminator: Sarah Conner lives a mundane, seemingly meaningless life where she feels insignificant. Then suddenly a robot arrives from the future to kill her, to prevent the birth of her son (who ends up being the biggest threat to Skynet). As it turns out, Sarah’s life does matter. She ends up being the most important woman in history.
- It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey wishes he’s never been born (similarly because he feels as though his life, and everything he’s done, is insignificant). He learns that without him, the town he lives in ends up being a radically different place.
What it means to dramatize an idea
“I have often had conversations with people who will like a film or story because it deals with a certain subject…Then later, when I see the film, I will see that the subject has not been dealt with at all, only spoken about.”
Example: The Wizard of Oz movie
- The Scarecrow, who doesn’t have a brain, is shown to be the one who comes up with the plans
- The Tin Man, who doesn’t have a heart, is shown to tear up emotionally
- The Cowardly Lion is shown that he does possess courage and bravery when he is faced with fear.
- Chief Brody is afraid of the water all throughout the film.
- But then he has to go out to see and face the shark.
- His last line in the movie is, “You know, I used to hate the water.”
Example: Aesop’s fable, “Bundle of sticks”
- A farmer shows his sons how a bundle of sticks is stronger—and more difficult to break—than a single stick.
- Rather than tell them, “In unity there is strength,” he shows them.
Theme beats logic
Sometimes, it’s better to go with scenes that support the theme, rather than scenes that rely on logic.
Example: Groundhog Day
- Studio wanted an explanation as to why Bill Murray was experiencing the same day over and over again.
- They suggested a gypsy curse or something along those lines.
- The scene was shot, and then cut—because it didn’t work thematically.
Honestly, this is probably what makes Groundhog Day a hundred times better than other movie plots that went with crazy explanations like gypsy curses or wishing wells (Freaky Friday, The Change-Up).
The use of clones
- Also often called mirror characters or reflection characters.
- A tool for showing
- Represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path.
- Gollum and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings
- The relationship between Candy and his dog, and that of George and Lennie (and how each relationship ended with one having to kill the other)
- When Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window looks out the window of his apartment, he sees couples in various stages of their relationship (all of which are distorted reflections of Jimmy and Grace Kelly’s own relationship).
- Jesse is Woody’s clone in Toy Story 2, showing him his possible fate when Andy grows up.
“The second act is a kind of ritual pain that changes your character.”
Every character has what’s called a fatal flaw (hamartia).
Ritual pain is a way to force your character to change and rise above that fatal flaw.
“There is more than likely something about yourself that you would like to change or that you should change but it is too difficult…the things we should do are always the most difficult. So we rarely run toward change. This is true of your characters as well.”
“Because change is never easy, and is resisted, it is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible. You must back them into a corner and force them to change. Make it as painful as you can. Bring them to the brink of physical and emotional death if you possibly can. Your protagonists will be measured by the size of their struggle, so don’t pull any punches.”
Personal Hell exercise
“Find that thing that your character would rather die than do and make them do it.”
Exercise to help come up with the type of ritual pain appropriate for your character.
- King Midas wanted whatever he touched turned to gold, but then turned his beloved daughter into a gold statue
- Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he’s dropped into a tomb full of them
- Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wants to run away from home. She gets her wish, and now all she wants is to go back home.
“Sacrifice is an important part of what makes a protagonist a hero.”
We don’t have much respect for people that have had it easy.
Instead, we admire those that struggle and sacrifice.
“All characters of change have, at least, an emotional death that allows them to be resurrected anew.”
“Apply enough pressure and heat to change a lump of coal into a diamond.”
From butterfly to caterpillar
“Characters don’t always change for the better. Some stories are about how people are corrupted—how angels fall.”
These are characters that are opposites, but exchange character traits:
- Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple
- The film, The African Queen
Sometimes only one of the characters changes, and the other is the catalyst:
- Beauty and the Beast
Characters who don’t change
Not all characters change.
BUT always remember what your armature is and why you are telling the story. Let that make the decision for you. What is the best way to dramatize your point?
Example: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, episode: “It’s a Good Life”.
Killing the protagonist
Make sure your characters finish their story BEFORE you kill them off.
If you kill them in the middle of their journey (their ritual pain) the story isn’t satisfying.
Example: In Psycho, Hitchcock finishes Marion Crane’s story of redemption before he kills her. Marion has stolen money from her employer, and before she dies, she decides to give it back.
The audience is still shocked by her death, but the pain of her death is cushioned by the fact that she had changed before it happened.
- Thelma and Louise
- Ace in the Hole
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (they don’t get better, but they try before they decide that that life is not for them)
Tell the truth
It’s not about facts.
Storytellers are not concerned with facts, just truth.
Sometimes facts get in the way of the truth.
If you want to affect people deeply, tell the truth.
- the girl in the tank top and panties shouldn’t go into the basement alone, and you know that she has other options, but she goes into the basement anyway—that’s a lie.
- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy encounters a scary opponent that twirls his sword around, looking for a fight. Instead of a wrestling match, Indy simply pulls out his gun and shoots the guy. It was funny, because it was the truth.
- The old Batman TV show had villains building contraptions to kill Batman. But then even the kids wondered why no one ever pulled out a gun and shot him.
“If you can show that a hero had fears, doubts, and human foibles but did a heroic thing anyway, it makes him all the more heroic.”
“The truth will always be sadder, happier, funnier, scarier, and more profound than the best lie. More importantly, the audience never ‘sees’ it, but does feel it.”
The masculine and the feminine
Masculine story elements = External elements
Feminine story elements = Internal elements
Action = Masculine
Emotion = Feminine
Masculine traits = move the story forward externally
Masculine: A policeman discovers that the murderer in his case is another cop.
Feminine: The murderer is his best friend, who once risked his life to save him.
“It is the balance of these two elements that creates dramatic tension and keeps an audience interested.”
“Things that affect a character physically are masculine and are visible ink. How he feels about them is feminine and invisible. If you can strike a balance between these two elements, your story stands a better chance of resonating with audiences.”
“The Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan was hailed by critics as being one of the most realistic war depictions in the history of film.”
It is “realistic” because it is honest about the emotional impact of violence as well as the physical.
Actual footage of D-Day just shows men falling down dead. It feels less real because it isn’t a complete picture of the emotional roller-coaster experience that the soldiers go through.
Drama in real life
Teacher performs an experiment on racism and prejudice with the kids in school.
Blue-eyed kids are more superior than brown-eyed kids.
The next day, she says she made a mistake, and claims the opposite is true (brown-eyes better than blue-eyes).
Rather than telling the kids the lesson, she made them experience it. (Show. Don’t tell.)
“…drama is a way of getting across an intellectual idea emotionally.”
“Your responsibility as a storyteller is to be a good teacher, not a good preacher.”
The myth of genre
Genre is visible.
- Jaws sequels couldn’t repeat the success of the first
- What set Terminator and Aliens apart as monster movies, is their armature.
- What do Star Wars, E.T., 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Aliens have in common? Are they sci-fi, fantasy, or action?
“Good drama doesn’t understand the boundaries of genre.”
“Genre is irrelevant to the dramatist. A dramatist should only be concerned with drama.”
“The armature must be so strong that it makes the story universal and makes the genre inconsequential.”
“Each [medium] has its own strengths, and it is up to you to use the strengths of whichever medium you choose to help tell your story.”
“A climax is the bringing together of the masculine and feminine elements that shows the character’s change, or lack thereof. We can see how much a character has changed based on how they respond when the pressure is on.”
“…one of the things sacrifice does is allow audience members to see the sincerity of a character’s change. It gives them a yardstick by which to measure growth.”
“Simply put, the climax of a story puts the protagonist in an intense situation that forces a choice that shows growth or lack of growth.”
- Tootsie: Dustin Hoffman could continue lying about being a woman, but at the climax he has grown enough to tell the truth. At the climax, he reveals himself to be a man on live television. He does this despite the possibility of a lawsuit by his employers and the alienation of the woman he has fallen in love with. But he is an honest man now, and we see it through his extreme actions.
- Casablanca: From a man that doesn’t “stick his neck out” for others, he ends up giving up the woman he loves for the greater good.
- Jaws: The climax is when Chief Brody is alone on a sinking boat as the shark makes its way toward him. This is when he summons the courage and fights through his fears.
God from the machine
Deus ex machina: This is a storytelling technique used by ancient Greek playwrights, wherein the hero is placed in an impossible situation, and is then saved at the end by one of the Gods. “The ‘God’ would be lowered down to the stage, suspended by ropes or some such contraption or machine. This is where we get ‘God from the machine.’”
“Audiences got tired of this trick very fast. It’s not very satisfying to have your hero not save himself. It’s a cheat and it’s lazy.”
“Sure, it works when Bugs Bunny does it, because it is so ridiculous it’s funny. But most of the time, even in comedy, it is better to let your hero solve the problem—no invisible pockets.”
“Trouble is good, because trouble is conflict, and conflict is ritual pain.”
Supporting plots (subplots)
“I like to call them supporting plots. They are there to support the main plot. Everything should hang off the same armature.”
“There is nothing subordinate about these plots… [I]f you think of them as supporting plots, it will lead you down a path that supports what you are trying to say.”
- There’s Something About Mary: the other “stalkers” in the movie are clones, and supporting plots.
- Tootsie: Other womanizers exist to put pressure on Hoffman’s character to see himself in another light and change.
Slave, not master
“You are a slave to your story, not a master. Your characters, places, scenes, and sequences must be built around the armature.”
“[I]f you write without a destination, it’s a sure bet that you’ll never get there.”
“[I]nvisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. This invisible ink keeps the audience’s brains active. Subtext is a kind of invisible ink.”
“Lots is being said, but not spoken.”
“Subtext is all in the setup. Once you establish that two characters hate each other, for instance, all you need to do is put them in the same room together and have them talk about the weather—the audience will do most of the work for you.”
“Dialogue is a tool…you use it when you need it. It can be used to define your armature, give essential plot information, or reveal character. If it isn’t doing that it isn’t doing anything.”
“Exposition is some of the hardest writing to do. Finding a natural way to have characters speak things they already know can seem impossible at times. It is easy to do it clumsily. This is the kind of thing you should learn from observing the way others do it.”
“When you write dialogue, or anything else, think of yourself as a puppeteer. You are hiding under the table; you don’t want anyone to be thinking of you. You want their attention on the puppet. Once they are thinking of you, you’ve lost them.”
“…it had better be the character talking, not you.”
“It may be about what you have to say, but it isn’t about you. Let go of your ego.”
Address and dismiss
“Sometimes audience members need a representative within the narrative. It allows you to address and dismiss their concerns so that they can stay engrossed in the story.”
“It’s a tricky tool because it could pull people out of the scene. It is a kind of wink to the audience that lets them know the storyteller knows that maybe she’s gone too far; but when used correctly, it is seamless—invisible.”
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: When they are trying to escape the super-posse by jumping off a cliff into a river, Sundance admits he can’t swim. Butch laughs and says, “Well, hell, the fall will probably kill you!” This example cuts the audience off at the pass, so to speak, before they can say, “Give me a break, there is no way they could make that jump!”
- Tootsie: In order for us, the audience to believe that Dustin Hoffman is a woman, the film shows the many comments made by other characters about how unattractive Tootsie is. This is an excellent use of address and dismiss.
Address and explain
“Some of the best dialogue is quiet and subtle and reveals things about plot, theme, or character, with the precision of a surgeon. Sometimes that means it’s not quotable, but quotable dialogue is not the primary job of a storyteller.”
Star Wars: When Luke Skywalker sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time… After it was revealed, a hush came over the audience as they took in the magnificent ship. Then Luke exclaims, “What a piece of junk!”
The crowd erupted with laughter, because that’s not at all what we were thinking.
This was George Lucas’s world and we knew nothing about it. There is no way we would have known that the ship was considered a piece of junk without that clever bit of dialogue.
Example of the difference between suspense and surprise (by Alfred Hitchcock)
Two people having a little chat. There is a bomb in the table underneath them. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised.
The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, maybe because they saw the anarchist put it there. The public is away that the bomb will explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same conversation is suddenly more interesting because the public is participating in the scene. The audience longs to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
Superior position: When the audience knows something that the characters do not know (also known as dramatic irony).
Show them once so they know
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind: When Richard Dreyfuss is in his truck at night, and is lost. He stops in the middle of the road to check his map. A pair of headlights pull up behind him, and a car beeps. Dreyfuss waves the car around, and the driver goes around Dreyfuss’s truck.
Shortly after, a second pair of headlights come up behind him. Dreyfuss waves the car around again without looking up from his map. And unbeknownst to him, the lights behind the truck rise vertically.
It works so well because we saw the previous headlights behave in a normal fashion, so now we have a comparison for what is normal and what is strange.
- Jurassic Park: Know that the Tyrannosaurus rex’s vision is based on motion, Sam Neil’s character throws a road flare off into the distance so that the T. Rex will follow the flare away from the kids it’s attempting to eat. It works.
Shortly after this, Jeff Goldblum’s character tries the same thing. He waves the flare to get the dinosaur’s attention. The T. Rex chases Goldblum. Then Goldblum throws the flare off to the side expecting the monster to follow—it does not. It never misses a step and continues after Goldblum.
This creates a tension in the audience because we know what was supposed to happen and how it went wrong.
- Finding Nemo: The plan to escape the tank. As the plan is being unveiled, the filmmakers show exactly how it’s supposed to work. So later, when it goes wrong the audience knows where and how the plan derails.
This creates a kind of wonderful anxiety in the audience members. They bite their collective nails as they follow along and the plan is carried out. Will it work?
When bad things happen to good stories
One day I was watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind and I realized that it had the wrong ending.
Richard Dreyfuss, who sees a UFO one night and becomes obsessed with seeing it again, is invited, at the end of the movie, to leave with the aliens. This is what he’s wanted, so he leaps at the chance and boards the spaceship. It flies into the sky over the closing credits, taking Richard Dreyfuss away on a wondrous journey to parts unknown.
The End. This is the wrong ending.
Richard Dreyfuss has a wife and kids he’s leaving behind. He didn’t make a sacrifice. What he does is selfish. He has not grown from this experience at all.
The ending would have been stronger if Dreyfuss had to watch as the spaceship disappears into the sky while he stayed behind.
That’s just my opinion, right? No, it isn’t. After I noticed this problem with the film, I heard Spielberg himself say that he would have chosen a different ending now.
When he wrote the script, he didn’t have a family and now he does. He said that he would make a different decision now.
THE MISTAKE: Spielberg was having the character do what he himself would have done in a given situation without really looking at what needed to happen for the story.
LESSON: You are the slave of your story, not its master. You don’t make decisions, you make discoveries.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark: Where Indy, who doesn’t believe in God, suddenly gets the notion to close his eyes when the Ark is opened. (the deus ex machina is the fact that Indy was never given any evidence to suddenly believe in the Almighty)
- Albert Brooks’ film Mother: Two characters, a son and his mother, hate each other but live together. The conflict feels forced because the audience is always aware that Albert could leave anytime he wants. They keep asking themselves, “Why doesn’t he just leave?” It isn’t honest. Remember to tell the truth.
Judging your own work
“Don’t write for other writers. People are drawn to writing for different reasons and many people do it to seem smart.”
“The one thing I have noticed about people who are exceptional in their creative work is that they are always trying to get better. That’s how they got good in the first place. These people judge themselves against the best work. They aim for the top.”
“Stories are not about the storyteller.”
“Learn to look at your work as if it isn’t your work. Be as hard on yourself as you would anyone else.”
“Learn from the masters. Figure out how they did what they did, why it worked, and apply it.”
“Don’t be fooled by flash-in-the-pan successes and don’t try to imitate what is new and novel.”
“Respect your audience. It’s not their job to ‘get it’; it’s your job to communicate it to them.”
“Understand that you are only as good as you are today, and you don’t beat yourself up. You’ll get better.”
Good stories, good business
“A film or book can be a hit for many reasons—timing, new technology, hip language. But only one thing makes a classic—a good story that speaks to the truth of being human.”