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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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Story is Everything

Here are 25 thoughts on creating stories, in no particular order:

  1. A lot of things have beginnings, middles and ends — but that doesn’t make them stories.
  2. True stories have two parts: first something bad happens, second something bad is fixed (or a fix is at least attempted)
  3. Plot-driven and character-driven stories don’t really exist; all stories are conflict/tension driven.
  4. Suspense, tension, conflict — these things shouldn’t be limited to specific genres.
  5. Asking what happens next is probably the wrong question.
  6. Asking what is my character’s goal (or what does my character want) is probably a better question.
  7. Better yet: what can go wrong now?
  8. Ticking clocks give your story a deadline and a destination. Also, tension. Can’t ask for much more.
  9. Give your characters some story-level goals, i.e., decide what it is they want, have them go after it, and the plot will almost fill itself in.
  10. Storytelling is a timeless human instinct — trust and embrace your natural ability.
  11. Tell your stories like you’re talking to just one person — an audience of one is the right number.
  12. Start with the end, and you’ll stay on track.
  13. Most stories start too early.
  14. Many stories end too late.
  15. Stakes are essential. Usually the higher the better.
  16. In real life, we avoid conflict because it sucks. In your stories, you must embrace, chase it even.
  17. Things can always get worse — we’ll probably enjoy reading that more anyway.
  18. Not all stories have to have happy endings, neat little bows are for packages.
  19. A good story doesn’t preach or moralize — it connects and resonates.
  20. Good stories leave out the unimportant parts.
  21. You have more stories to tell than you realize. Trust. Yourself.
  22. Complex isn’t necessarily better. Some of the most powerful stories and pretty simple.
  23. Trying for theme will kill a story — theme comes last.
  24. Plot is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.
  25. And then? Keep asking until you figure it out.

This is reblogged from Justin Mclachlin’s blog.


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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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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?

Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers

Twitter: @elizabethscraig


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Plot, Characters, Homeland, and What You Need to Achieve to Keep Readers Engaged

Are you hooked on Homeland? Yes? Great, we’re on the same wavelength. No? Give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for the next episode as soon as you have watched just one. Try it and let me know what you think. There is a trailer at the end of the post. I love espionage and secret service dramas. I was hooked on Spooks, set in the UK and now Homeland, a US  TV series which was released in October 2011. I watched the latest episode last night and my final thoughts before I drifted off to sleep, and my first waking thoughts, were what makes it so gripping?

There are many good dramas, films, and books that will keep you wanting more – books that will keep you up all night, films that leave you glued to your seat long after the cinema has emptied, drama series that will leave you waiting for the next episode, but how and why does this happen? Like all of you, my life is full and busy, there isn’t much time to watch TV, get to the cinema often or read a book right through in one sitting. So it has to take a pretty good plot and compelling characters to make me want more. These are the two key elements of a good storyline. You can have a great plot with two-dimensional characters and the reader/viewer won’t engage or feel anything, apart from maybe the need to go and make a coffee. Similarly, you might have engaging characters but if nothing happens to them, then there is no tension or suspense, nothing to stay for, nothing to come back for.

I’ll fill you in quickly on the Homeland plot:

Homeland is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, following Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier returned to the US from years of captivity in Iraq, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted an unauthorised operation in Iraq and is put on probation. She is warned that an American prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda. She believes Brody is not an American Hero, but part of a sleeper cell planning a terrorist attack. The only person she can trust is Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on America. Homeland was named Best Drama Series at the Emmy Awards, with stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Lead Actor in a Drama Series, respectively.  The series also won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.

So, what is it that has made the series so successful, and why am I taking up your time in sharing all of this? Because it is important to learn what makes  the viewer keep coming back, and what keeps people reading.

Good Plot

A story has to have some element of conflict – conflict of desires, conflict of interest, conflict between characters. Without it there is very little tension. Not all books are thriller/espionage/action adventure, but even in a romance or historical fiction novel you’ll find some good areas of conflict which propel the plot forwards and drive the action. In Homeland you never really know which side Nicholas Brody is on. There are moments when you believe he wants the best for the US government and the country, and times when he wants to support the terrorist group who he became entwined with during his years in prison. He has allegiances to both sides for various reasons. As the viewer, you never know what he really believes.

Compelling Characters 

Sol Stein, author of nine novels, poet, screenplay and TV drama script writer, and creative writing lecturer, has said this of characterisation – ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’ He says that we are driven through life by needs and wants, that these desires are the driving force of characters. If a character does not want something enough, the reader or viewer will have a difficult time getting behind them, and will lack the emotional experience that they are looking for. Carrie, in Homeland, is constantly trying to prove her belief that Brody has been turned and is a ‘threat to national security.’ It is this drive in her, despite the obstacles, that keeps you hooked. You want her to succeed.

What have you seen, read or written recently that builds tension? Do you have any examples of good plot or compelling characters?

I’m off to see Skyfall on Wednesday! Enjoy the Homeland trailer…