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What we can learn from Beauty and the Beast About Plot, Tension and Obstacles

 

Disney’s much hyped adaptation of Beauty and the Beast was released at the weekend. The film broke box office records with an estimated $170 million, making it the seventh largest opening weekend of all time. It’s a story that engages your emotions and keeps you hooked to the end. I was discussing the film with someone today who wanted to go and see it. She said it was her favourite fairytale and we were talking about what makes this particular story stand out. It occurred to me that part of the pull is the constant tension throughout the story, the conflict of interests, and the fact that the Beast is somehow flawed as a love match for Belle.

We all know the plot – an arrogant young prince and his servants fall under the spell of a enchantress, who turns him into the Beast until he learns to love and be loved in return. The headstrong village girl Belle enters the Beast’s castle after he imprisons her father Maurice. With the help of his servants, Belle begins to draw the cold-hearted Beast out of his isolation.

There is a tension between Gaston’s claims that he will marry Belle, and her desire for independence and dislike of his puffed up ego. Part of her appeal is the fact that she doesn’t want a relationship and is a strong and independent girl. She loves books, loves her father and, unlike the other girls in the village, refuses to fall for Gaston’s false charm.  There is a tension between either Belle or her father being held prisoner in the tower.

There are obstacles in the way, in the form of wolves, Gaston, the villagers when they storm the castle, Belle’s need to rescue her father, and the Beast’s appearance and initial hostility. Every time you come up for air, another obstacle presents itself. Life can feel like this at times, but it is used as part of a plot to ramp up the tension and keep the viewer engaged and rooting for the main characters.

The fact that the Beast sees himself as unlovable and flawed because of the curse put on him, appeals to us because most of us feel flawed in some way, however big or small, aware of our less-than-perfect self. Yet, he wins her affection despite his appearance, which has kept him in his tower. It is in part because of this that we want their relationship to work.

I want to leave you with one of the highlights of the film…the library!

Beauty and the Beast

 

 


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Narrative Arc: Shaping Your Story

 

story-arc

What is a story arc and why is it important?

story arc is the episodes within a storyline; it is the narrative structure of a book or a story (or even a film, or a series of TV episodes). It is the rising and falling of tension, and the pacing and timbre of a plot. The tension should, in turn, force a shift in the behaviour of the characters and changes in their behaviour as they evolve and are changed by what happens to them.

Although an arc suggests a curve, most stories look more like a roller coaster. The image above is only one of many examples of a story arc, with a zig-zag of tension which falls at the point of obstacles in the story and ends with a denouement, a resolution. Films often use a three act structure: Setup – Confrontation – Resolution. Short stories also have a story arc, unless you are Lydia Davis! Her short story, Children, is just two sentences.

The introduction draws the reader into a setting, the characters and any potential conflict or goal. It is where the reader discovers what drives the protagonist and what will stand in their way.

A series of complications will often develop in the core of the text, leading to perhaps a crisis or a series of problems. Each of these crises may be temporarily resolved but the story will lead to a climax. There is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax.

Denouement ties up the loose ends and resolves the conflict. Tension, at this point, rapidly dissipates leading towards the ending.

The three act structure was used by Aristotle, and in Greek tragedy.

The importance of a story arc lies in the need for structure, however varied. Without it the reader will meander through the book, get lost and but the book down. As a writer, you need to keep them turning the pages. Structure is an area of writing which I am working on, as I tend to err on the side of descriptive narrative. It depends on your genre, and crime thrillers might need more plot twists and higher tension than literary fiction, for example, but the story arc should be such that the reader’s emotions rise and fall throughout the narrative. Too much high tension, and the reader will run out of steam, and too little tension will lose the reader.

Some useful links to posts on story arc:

Connecting Subplots. Victoria Grefer

What Character Arc Really Means. Jim Hull

The Importance of Story Arc. Alexis Grant

And finally, here is a humorous video of Kurt Vonnegut on Cinderella and the shapes of stories. It’s really exaggerated but comical.

 

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories


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Argo: What We Can Learn From Film About Not Overwriting

I watched Argo over the weekend, having seen it win an impressive collection of awards. Among it’s accolades were:

Seven nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, winning three, for Best Film EditingBest Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. The film also earned five Golden Globe nominations, winning Best Picture – Drama and Best Director, while being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Arkin. It won the award for the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards and Best Film, Best Editing, and Best Director at the 66th British Academy Film Awards.

As you can imagine, I had high expectations and the film didn’t disappoint.

Here is a brief synopsis:

In 1979, the American embassy in Iran was invaded by Iranian revolutionaries and several Americans were taken hostage. However, six managed to escape to the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador and the CIA was eventually ordered to get them out of the country. With few options, exfiltration expert Tony Mendez devised a daring plan: to create a phony Canadian film project looking to shoot in Iran and smuggle the Americans out as its production crew. With the help of some trusted Hollywood contacts, Mendez created the ruse and proceed to Iran as its associate producer. However, time was running out with the Iranian security forces closing in on the truth while both his charges and the White House had grave doubts about the operation themselves.

The film is adapted from a true story, written about in the book The Master of Disguise by CIA operative Tony Mendez.

I spent a lot of time wondering how it would translate into a written story (I do this very often when watching films) and one thing stood out to me on several occasions – None of the script was overwritten. There were a small handful of tense or sensitive moments where, as a writer, it would be tempting to fill the space with dialogue, but that didn’t happen. Instead, there were delightful silences where you, the audience, knew exactly what each character was thinking, purely from the situation and from the expressions on their faces.

There was one key moment at the end of the film where, without spoiling the plot for those of you who haven’t seen it, there was a handshake, and so many things could have been said but neither character said a word. The handshake and ensuing silence was far more powerful than any dialogue which would, I expect, have destroyed the scene.

It has been rumbling through my mind for a while, the film and it’s highlights. Most of the highlight were moments where there were no words, no fill-ins from the scriptwriter to destroy the impact. The topic is of a sensitive nature and it could have easily been crushed with careless writing. It was a stark reminder for me not to overwrite, not to fill the moments with words and flowery descriptions. Sometimes, when you are writing, just a snapshot of a character’s movement or their body posture can be enough.


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How to Write a Character From Start to Finish

The best fiction is about a character who changes in some significant wayThe selfish brute learns to put others first. The woman marrying for money decides to marry for love. The career ladder climber learns to cut back on his hours to enjoy his family. The bitter old crone learns to let others in. The independent pilot of the Millennium Falcon learns to care about a cause. The owner of Rick’s Café Américain decides he will stick his neck out for somebody after all.

We love to see characters transformed. Mainly because we are being transformed. We know the painful but liberating feeling of ceasing to be one way and beginning to be another, especially if the new way results in more success in relationships or other areas of life we value.

—by Jeff Gerke

Most of the time, main characters in fiction are changing for the better. It’s uplifting to see someone make good choices and improve as a person. Probably your book will be about a character who changes for the best.

But there’s also room for characters who change for the worse. Indeed, though they may lead to depressing, poor-selling books if given the lead role, these tragic characters are fascinating to watch. Before our very eyes, Roger in Lord of the Flies, Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast and Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga all devolve into villains. It’s terrible and we want them to stop. But part of us doesn’t want them to stop.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a “bad” character who flirts for a while with the idea of being good, but then decides that his true self is on the dark side of the street. Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings is a famous example.

Of course, not every story has to be about a character who changes. Certainly we don’t expect much change from Indiana Jones. He simply is who he is. And there are wonderful stories about people whose character is so complete at the beginning of the tale that everyone else must change around them. Anne of Green Gables is a terrific example of this. Anne is out of step with everyone. She doesn’t fit in. And yet as those around her try to change her to conform, they discover that it is they who are in need of becoming a bit more like Anne. Forrest Gump, WALL-E, Don Quixote, Mary Poppins and even Jesus Christ are the agents of change though they themselves do not transform. But these characters can be difficult to write well—and they’re more the exception than the norm. So let’s focus here on a main character who changes.

Whether your protagonist ultimately turns toward or away from the light will be up to you, but we’ll look at ways to send her on a journey in which she’s transformed.

The Inner Journey

In fiction terms, a character’s transformation is called his inner journey or character arc. I like the former term as it suggests an odyssey, which it certainly will be for this poor creature you’re about to place on stage and commence to torturing.

The heart of this system is your main character’s inner journey. Other characters may be on journeys of their own, but it is the protagonist’s transformation with which we (and our readers) will be most concerned. The core temperament, the birth order, the way others respond to her, her major life events—all of those are essentialbackground, but they are background all the same, for the main event, which is her inner journey as it will be explored in your novel. A character’s inner journey has five major phases:

•                  Initial Condition (including the “Knot”)
•                  Inciting Event
•                  Escalation
•                  Moment of Truth
•                  Final State.

The Nexus

It’s imperative you understand these five phases are steps on a voyage between two points: the “knot” and the moment of truth. The journey itself is a measure of where the character is along the progression between these two points:character-writing-beginning-to-end

Everything else is preparation for this quest, progress along this quest, and aftermath of this quest. The simple graph you see is the thing that is going to ensure that your novel has both incredible characters and satisfying plot.

The Seeds of Change

The knot is the thing that is wrong with your character. It’s her flaw, her besetting sin, the unhealthy lifestyle she’s gotten herself into. It’s the harmful thing that the story’s whole point is to expose and give her the opportunity to change. In short, the knot is the thing that is messing up your character’s life.

You as novelist act as Fate or God over this character. You know exactly what’s wrong with this person, you see how it’s harming her, and you know how to bring it to her attention. You decide you’re going to force her to deal with it. You care about her too much to leave her in this handicapped state, so you’re going to make her see it and make a decision about it once and for all. This moment is your hero’s Inciting Event.

So you begin sending difficulties into her life. She wants to keep things the way they are—stay in an abu- sive relationship, give up on her dreams, not stand up for herself, hang on to her bitterness, etc.—because, despite the pain of the status quo, it beats the potential pain of change. But you won’t let her. So you, as a good fiction deity, rain on her parade. You make it progres- sively harder for her to ignore the folly of the choices she’s making. You bring in positive examples of what her life could be like if she were to try an alternative way. And then you put the squeeze on her (something I like to call Escalation). It’s all about getting her to the point where she will choose, her Moment of Truth. At the outset of the story, she had arrived at an unhappy medium, an imperfect solution that is not good but is at least better than all the other alternatives she’s found so far. But through the course of the tale you will show her clearly how her solu- tion is harming her and you will show her the bright, happy land she could enter if she went the new way. When she gets to this moment of truth, it will be as if she’s standing at a crossroads. She needs to be able to perceive what her alternatives are. “I can stay as I am and suffer these real and potential consequences, or I can make this change—at this cost—and enjoy these real and potential benefits.”

It’s that hanging-in-the-balance moment that is the point to which your entire story is heading. You could go so far as to say that this moment is the one and only purpose of the story. What the character chooses in that moment is the all-important thing, the infinite pause when heaven and earth hold their breath to see what this person elects to do in her instant of perfect free choice.

The aftermath of that choice leads to the Final State and the end of the story. That is your character’s inner journey in a nutshell. Make no mistake: Your book is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that pen- ultimate moment.

Can you see how this is an application of our simple graphic? If the destination we’re driving to is the moment of truth, then the starting point—the causation point, really—is the knot, the issue causing the problem in the first place. The trip from one to the other is your story. If you build your novel as I recommend, 75 percent of your book will consist of your main character’s inner journey.

The Role of Change

When you’re first concepting your character, you might be tempted to think only about who a character is. But to keep your characters interesting you must also think about what your character can become. Given this starting point, this temperament, and these layers, how will this character respond when shown she’s wrong or dysfunctional in some way and offered a better alternative? People don’t like to change. It’s so much easier to stay as we are, even if it’s hurting us. In fiction, as in life, people resist change.

Right up until the moment when it hurts too much. People dislike change, but they dislike unacceptable pain and consequences even more. Wait, you mean I could go to jail for that? You mean I won’t be able to see my girl- friend anymore—ever? You mean I really am, for sure, 100 percent, going to die if I do this one more time? Dude, what do I need to do to make that not happen?

Your job as story god over this pathetic, synthetic human you’ve created is to bring the pain. You have to dislodge her from her comfortable dysfunction like a pebble you have to remove from a block of mud. The crowbar you use is pain. You have to make it more painful to stay the same than it is to contemplate some manner of char- acter revision. People don’t change until it hurts too much to stay the same. Bring that pain to enable that change, and you’ll have uncovered the inner journey.

Reblogged from Writer’s Digest, by Brian Klems. Too good not to share.

 

 


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The Best Characters Are Broken

Broken Glass

‘The best characters are broken.’

I came across this quote yesterday and it has stayed with me. I started to think about why this is the case and how the reader identifies with broken characters. The quote was a little nugget in a much longer article by writer Faith Hunter. She writes in the fantasy/thriller genre but this concept travels across all genres of fiction and, I should add, non-fiction.

Why? 

Psychologists suggest there is a part in many of us that is broken and often hidden from the world, a part of us which we are afraid to reveal for fear of other people’s reactions. As children we have no qualms about crying or screaming if something is wrong, or throwing ourselves onto the floor and lying prostrate with fists pounding the carpet. Anyone seen this? Yes, well. Somewhere along the line, though, we are told to temper our responses with phrases like –  ‘don’t cry,’ ‘try to behave,’ ‘big girls/boys don’t shout.’

While this helps to create a society which is relatively restrained (most of the time), it also teaches us to suppress our fears or pain. It tells us that emotions should be dealt with quietly and privately, and not in public. It pushes us into corners where we have to wrestle and fight against feelings of fear, inadequacy, rejection, pain and even phobias. It’s not unlike snake charming gone awry. These are just a few of the murky areas of our lives which we have been taught to just sit on and ignore, in the hope that they will just vanish.

Why do readers need this in a story?

Why do we read books at all? For a vast majority it is a means of escape, a way of entering into an imaginary world where the rules have changed and events are happening to other people, events which stir up emotions in the reader and trigger memories of their own fears. We need to feel that we are not alone and books can provide an intense range of emotions in the reader. The level of which is down to the craftsmanship of the writer.

In a good novel we are taken on a journey with a roller coaster of emotions which vary in intensity throughout the pages. The journey can be frightening and it can be comforting, it call tell us that our fears are universal, it can navigate us through the choppy waters of disbelief, it can heal the deeper parts of our soul and can remind us that all of humanity lives with these bundles of hidden thoughts, and all in the safety and privacy of a collection of words, neatly bound in a cover without us having to leave the house or to communicate these fears.

How can we find the ideas?

As writers we have fears which need to be exploited to form a convincing plot, fears which will leave the reader turning page after page. Some of these fears begin in childhood, others might be more recent, but they are there and they need to be dug up, excavated and displayed in the pages of your books. Readers connect with writers who artfully pull at these strings – strings of challenge, of hopelessness, of a fear of change. Whatever the issues with your key characters, you need to delve into the murky waters surrounding an event and pull out the rawness of the emotions.

If there is no tension or emotion in your story it won’t fly.

Open up the corridors of your inner world and pull out all that lurks in the darkness. You will help your readers to relate to the characters and bring a believable plot to life.


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Creating Intriguing Characters

Human male face made of several different people, artistic concept vertical collage

Creating interesting, engaging and intriguing characters can be most of the battle when it comes to writing fiction. It is the characters who draw the reader deep into the story and who make a compelling case for why the reader should care about the the people involved in the story. This is relevant for almost any genre of fiction and some non-fiction, although there may be some exceptions.

So how do you go about creating the kind of people who readers will be unable to leave behind? Some characters will be kind and generous, others spiteful or deceitful, some will resist elements of the plot and its events, others will be dislikeable but their flaws might resonate with the reader by exposing a certain vulnerability.

Think about the people who you have met, seen in films, read about in compelling books, or interacted with in business or by other means. Who do you remember and why? What sort of character traits make a person likeable or dislikeable? What has happened in their life to make them behave in a certain way? There are cultural differences to consider – how does the character’s ethnicity and cultural background shape them as a person?

Dig deep into the each character’s psyche and tease out the details of their life, their surroundings, family, experiences, passions, dislikes and fears. Often a character’s fears, especially that of your protagonist, will be rooted in an event or a set of events which might be familiar to people on a larger scale. Are they afraid of change, restrictions, loss, death, illness? Do they have an inability to make decisions?

Take time to profile your characters – brainstorm, make notes, paste photographs into a notebook or onto a Pinterest board (see my post on using Pinterest to improve your writing). Make sure that you know your characters to the very core and then let them loose in a situation, a setting, a crisis and you will know how they respond and why, you will know the decisions they need to make or are afraid to make.

Can you think of interesting characters you have read about recently? Do you have any tips on creating realistic and engaging characters?


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Developing Conflict and Tension

Today’s guest post is written by Elizabeth Craig who writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink.

She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Her most recent releases are Quilt or Innocence (June 2012) , Hickory Smoked Homicide (a November 2011 release), and A Dyeing Shame a Myrtle Clover mystery (December 2011).  Her next release will be February 5, 2013–Knot What it Seams.

Elizabeth is active in the online writing community.  She shares writing-related links on Twitter as @elizabethscraig and posts on craft and the publishing industry on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. She and Mike Fleming of Hiveword also manage the Writer’s Knowledge Base–a free search engine to help writers find resources.

Developing Conflict and Tension in Our Story

Conflict is one of the elements of an interesting story.  As much as we love our characters, if everything goes smoothly for them, then it’s hard to keep our readers reading.  After all—if it’s just an ordinary day for our protagonist, then we really don’t have much of a story.

A few tips for developing conflict and tension:

Quickly introduce conflict into your story.  If it’s delayed too long, the reader might start flipping ahead through the set-up and back story to see where the story really gets started.

Use both larger conflicts and smaller ones.  A lower level of conflict can be easily maintained by introducing tension in our story.  Maybe we’ve got a character who lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet.  He finally snares a job interview—and it’s for his dream job.  His car breaks down on the way to the interview. He was in a hurry when he left, and forgot his phone.  This approach can resonate with readers, too—it’s realistic and relatable. It can also give us an opportunity for us to display a character’s personality to our readers…when we show how the character reacts to the problem.

Provide conflict through other characters.  Here we do need to watch our character motivation and know our character and what matches his personality.  Who rubs our character the wrong way and why can tell us a lot about the protagonist as well as the other character.  We could bring in an ex-wife, an overprotective father, an annoying neighbor, or a backstabbing co-worker.  Every time we have a scene with one of the troublesome characters, we have the opportunity for tension.

Use both internal conflict and external conflict. What are our character’s inner demons?  What’s our character fighting with himself over?  Consider how his internal conflict can shape the story and his reaction to events. What external conflict prevents him from obtaining his goal?

Raise the stakes to create a faster pace.  Raising the stakes and making the conflicts and outcomes increasingly dire for the protagonist is one way to increase our story’s pace and keep readers turning pages.

Try to delay resolution. One thing that’s been difficult for me as a writer is delaying resolution of the protagonist’s problems.  I’m a problem-solver in life and I want to solve my character’s problems, too.  But letting problems spiral out of control and allowing them to gnaw at my protagonist can add excitement and tension to a story.

Give readers some breathing room.  Some of this is personal taste, but as a reader, I really enjoy having breaks in the tension and conflict.  This break can be accomplished through humor, or a subplot that’s moving along the path to resolution when hope in the main plot seems to be lost.

Make the protagonist’s external conflict and internal conflict collide.  What if our character had to sacrifice what’s most important to him in order to accomplish his main goal?  What if he’s got to face his inner demons to save the world?

Tension and conflict are two ways to keep readers turning pages.  What tips have you got for developing them in a story?

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Twitter: @elizabethscraig