Author Archives: Ace Jordyn

Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2

In my previous post Screen Play Elements – Part 1, I talked about the importance of the Three Act Structure. In this post, I’ll talk about STORY, what it means and how it’s used in the Three Act Structure. I’ll cover what makes Act One important, how Act Two is used to tell story, and Act Three’s role in ending the story.

ACT 1 – The Beginning
The first few moments during the beginning of the movie are critical to get right. The first moments establish viewer expectations wherein the writer is making a promise to tell a specific type of story. The genre, crime, comedy, drama, thriller, horror, fantasy or science fiction, must to be established up front. You can’t promise a comedy and somewhere in the script change it into a drama. Those first moments signal what type of story to expect and viewers will expect the conventions of that genre to be followed. For example, magic is acceptable in fantasy but not as a device to solve a crime in a modern setting (unless of course it’s urban fantasy).

If it’s an action story, start with action. If it’s a comedy, start with something comedic and light (including the music), if it’s a horror, start with something dark and horrible and scary. Establish the world your story takes place in. The beginning moments set tone, style and mood. Once we know what type of story to expect, the rest of Act One sets up the CENTRAL conflict and what motivates the protagonist to move forward into Act 2.

Remember the dreaded info dump that we’re told not to do at the beginning of a story? You know, explaining the world, explaining who the character is, what his or her issues are and what their favorite ice cream is? Same thing with the screen. In screen writing class, I learned a cool trick to approaching a beginning without info dumping. The trick is this:

MAKE THE AUDIENCE COME AND ASK YOU QUESTIONS

It’s that simple. Show the world, build the mood, put the protagonist into a situation or onto a course of action or set them in their regular routine but add something out of the ordinary to signal that there is a problem or to show a juxtaposition which makes us wonder WHY or WHAT IS HAPPENING? Even with an action or thriller, the first scenes may be unrelated to the central conflict, but they show action, attitude, and we are left wondering what the hero’s next dilemma will be.

Info dumping or shoveling information makes an author or screen writer look desperate – as if we’re trying to convince people to stay. It appears as if we’re desperately trying to show how much effort we’ve put into our special world and how much thought we’ve put into the character. It’s not about us. It’s about the story. STORY is what convinces viewers and readers to stay. Story is the hook. Info dumps are a NEEDY opening because it TELLS rather than shows. A CONFIDENT opening SHOWS without revealing everything. It makes us want more. Humans are curious by nature. We want to know what will happen next. If everything is explained up front, there is no reason to keep watching.

James Bond movies illustrate this point well. The opening scenes of a James Bond thriller have him involved in an action scene where the stakes are high and he’s outsmarting the villain. We don’t know the story behind this – this opening scene is there to captivate and intrigue us while setting the expectation for the type of movie we’ll see. In the next scene, James is getting his next assignment. Even then, we don’t get much information. The information we need to understand the villain and the dire situation, is meted out through the story. As James learns, so do we.

ACT 2 – The Middle
Act One establishes the plot – the genre, the world, the theme, the protagonist, the problem and the inciting incident. Unlike Act One, Act Two starts with us knowing the theme, the story and the problem. It has a clear mission for the plot.

This means that Act Two explores the ideas established in Act One. The exploration of these ideas is theme. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil, if that’s what your script is about. It can be about how people deal with death, if it’s drama. It can be about sacrifice for true love if it’s a love story. Whatever it is, understanding theme creates conflict and helps throw those proverbial rocks at the protagonist.

And throw those rocks we must, for that is how theme is explored and how action retains its momentum. The rocks get bigger, the hero is thrown into more dire situations and the issues surrounding theme become more evident. Half way through Act Two, there is the midpoint. At this midpoint, there is the AHA moment when something clicks or coalesces for our protagonist. The unsolvable problem has a solution. The protagonist beaten and thus far defeated by the villain, finds a way to beat the villain, or if inner resolve or confidence is lacking, the confidence begins to shine. The tables have turned and the protagonist finds a way to stop those rocks from being thrown. The protagonist becomes more active in his fate than merely reactive. The protagonist makes a CHOICE and that choice moves us toward Act Three and the final outcome. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no rocks left to throw because that is where the story would end and we would be missing Act Three.

The midpoint turn is structurally the fulcrum of the entire movie – the moment where the story stops being what it was at the beginning and starts becoming what it will be at the end. It is where chaos finally has a chance to become order and lack of control can become control.

But what is STORY?

Story deals with the issues which make a character sympathetic and they hook the reader into the character’s struggles. Story tells us why those rocks hurt so much. Story forms the character arc and informs the character’s choices.

Remember when I said to make your audience want more, to come and ask you questions? In Act One, through the opening scenes we get a hint of personality, a hint of background we don’t know but are curious enough to stay with the show. We know the character is somehow broken but we don’t understand why or how. In the second Act we learn more, bit by bit although we may not yet fully understand. Act Two reveals the past, the inner conflict, and explores the fear or issue the character is in denial of. Fears explore theme, inform the character arc, and make those rocks hurt even more. The elements of theme, character background, and character arc are designed to emotionally hook viewers. and collectively they are known as STORY.

Act 3-The End
We’ve talked about moving from chaos to order and from lack of control to control. These are the important points of plot and they will be wrapped up in Act Three. The villain is caught, the murder solved, the world is saved from the evil wizard. Solve the plot issues and you’ve got a good movie. Right?

Wrong.

Story, the part which forms theme and forms the character arc and the inner conflict the protagonist suffers from, must be wrapped up satisfactorily in Act Three.

 

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean:

#1 – A plot is completed in Act Three
The boy lost his dog. (Act One). The boy searched for the dog. (Act Two). The boy found the dog. (Act Three).

#2 – Plot and story (theme and character arc) are both resolved in Act Three
Tommy is having a hard time because his mother is dying. When his dog Sam goes missing, he chooses to look for Sam rather than spending time with his mother. (Act One) On his journey, Sam feels guilty for not being with his mom but he also wants to find his dog. He gets into situations and meets people who give him a differnt perspective on life. (Act Two)

The plot arc here is the hero’s journey during which Tommy enters the world of the unfamiliar and returns to the familiar a changed person. Tommy’s character arc must take him from denial to acceptance of death. Dealing with the death of someone you love is the theme. Here, story is about Tommy’s inner conflict of dealing with his mother’s impending death, the things he experiences and the lessons he learns about life as he searches for his dog and perhaps there may be some physical danger.

How do we wrap up this story in Act Three which wraps up both plot and story??
Tommy returns home. (He’s a kid and the hero’s journey dictates he return home.)

Perhaps the dog Sam doesn’t exist but is a metaphor for the loss Tommy is about to experience. So, Tommy never finds Sam, has to deal with that reality and he returns home and is more comfortable about being with his dying mother. OR, Sam is real, and Tommy finds Sam and has hope his mother will get better. If that hope is not realized you have a character who has to face a painful reality. OR, Tommy does or doesn’t find Sam and he returns home and learns his mother has died. That’s a huge tragedy and I’m bawling my eyes out! How Tommy handles the situation upon his return will illustrate how he has changed.

See the difference in examples #1 and #2? That’s the difference between a satisfying script creating a satisfying movie. That satisfaction comes from completing Tommy’s emotional journey and his character arc. We in turn feel either happy or sad depending on the final outcome.

A great ending must also be both surprising and inevitable. The clues must be there for the viewer to feel the conclusion is logical. At the end the audience must feel they had the ability to solve the ending all along. For example, while Tommy is looking for Sam, he tells someone that Sam is the best, loyal dog in the world, or he wishes he was. If in the end we learn that Sam isn’t real, it’s a surprise but also inevitable because we were given the clue that Sam isn’t real.

Screen writing and the movie industry have some very valuable lessons for writers on using the Three Act Structure to tell a story. Here are my three take-aways:

Act One is best used to make the audience ask questions and want more;

Act Two is where theme, inner conflict and character arc make rocks hurt a lot; and

Act Three is where the story ends in both a surprising and inevitable way, and a satisfying ending is created when both plot and story are resolved.

Whether writing a acreen play or a novel, the Three Act Structure is a great tool to help us tell our stories in a compelling and memorable way.

 

Screen Play Elements – Part 1

I have no trouble suspending disbelief when I watch a movie or a television show so I wasn’t good at analyzing how movies are structured. To better understand how big screen movies, made for television movies, and television shows are structured, I took an on-line screen writing course withi Bill Radkin. During this course, I came to appreciate what is involved in creating a compelling screen play.

If I asked you what are the two key points to writing a screen play, what would you say?
Strong plot. I agree. It’s important.
Snappy dialogue. Yes, that too.
Using formatting specific to screen plays. Absolutely.
Great characters. Of course.

All these things are important but there are two things which pull this list together to make a memorable movie. These are a having a good STORY and the THREE ACT STRUCTURE.

Today, I’ll explain the Three Act Structure from a screen writer’s perspective. You may understand the Three Act Structure for novels and have a general idea about how to use it, but for screen writing it is a specific formula. STORY has a specific definition and use within the Three Act Structure. I will delve into this in tomorrow’s post Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2.

In the following table, I have condensed the key elements of screen plays.

Key Elements of the Three Act Structure

Act 1 Act 2 Act 3
Beginning Middle End
25%

50% (25% + midpoint + 25%)

25%

Set up

Protagonist gets up a tree

Complication

Rocks are thrown at the protagonist

Resolution

Protagonist gets down the tree

Chaos More chaos Order
Lack of control/information Lack of control– midpoint AHA moment – control begins to be established Control
Central problem with inciting incident established. Ends with a major turning point in the plot/problem complicated and stakes raised by end of Act 1 More complications, major turning point around the middle of the act which is a reversal. Ends with a major turning point (taking charge of situation but not resolving issues), complication or escalation Final confrontation. Protagonist resolves problem /overcomes issues (depends if tragic or happy ending) and order is restored.
Plot oriented (you know where to begin) Story oriented (where theme and ideas are explored) Plot oriented (you know where it ends)

The TREE refers to putting the protagonist into a threatening situation.

The ROCKS are CONFLICT. Conflict takes two forms: external and internal.

External conflict is plot oriented and forms the action. It is the problem, disaster, or situation the protagonist will try to solve, get away from, or realize.

Internal conflict happens when a character deals with internal issues and some type of change occurs (not always. James Bond is always James Bond.) Character change or growth creates the character arc. Internal conflict means fear. The protagonist is afraid of something such as losing someone (family, society); losing something like wealth, prestige, treasure, or a job; or is afraid of change as brought about by an antagonist (the world as it is known, a societal or political change).

Every movie has one major or CENTRAL conflict which creates the SET UP in Act One. The problem is evident, the solution seems impossible, and the stakes are so high that the protagonist is compelled to do something. Once the protagonist is compelled to do something, that moves the story from Act One to Act Two. The Set Up occurs in the first 25% of the movie.

Having a strong central conflict helps avoid the murky middle of Act Two. All scenes must directly involve the central conflict. If they don’t, they’re not adding to the story problems and the story is going in the wrong direction. In other words, they’re not throwing rocks at the protagonist and making matters bad enough that he or she needs to finally figure it out and find some inner resolve to overcome the problem. This is a good point to remember when revising your novel.

A strong central conflict is also used to explore THEME whether it be as simple as good versus evil, the development of a person into a hero, or privilege and income disparity. All characters, reflect the theme as they are either for, against or ambivalent towards it. In every good movie, you’ll see this is true. We stay focused on the central problem and we’re hoping for a triumphant outcome until the end.

How do you know if you’re throwing rocks at the central problem or if the story has gone in the wrong direction? Outline. If you don’t like to outline from the start, do it when you’re finished. Write one line about each scene and focus on the rock. Then decide if the one-line description illustrates the central conflict. If it does, great. If not, either delete that scene or change it.

In the first half of Act Two, the protagonist’s problem keeps getting worse and worse and there seems to be no way to resolve it. The protagonist is missing information, is the hunted or the villain untouchable and keeps jeopardising the protagonist’s mission. Then, in the middle of the act, the MID POINT TURN occurs. Almost exactly (time it, and you’ll see). That is when the protagonist has an AHA moment in which he changes from the pursues to the pursuer, from the victim to the victor. Fortunes change at this point and chaos begins to turn into order. However, it is still a dangerous time for the protagonist because although fortunes have changed, the resolution is not easy. Rocks are still thrown, but they don’t hurt quite as much.

Act Three is where the resolution occurs. The protagonist is the victor except perhaps in a tragedy but the central conflict is resolved or explored to completion. Every question or issue which was set up in Act One is resolved and order is restored.

Pick a favorite movie and with these elements from the Three Act Structure in mind, time it. Do this for the great novels which have been turned into screen plays. Do this only once or twice otherwise, movies may become predictable and it’ll be hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy them. After all, the goal of a novel or movie is to take us to another world for a short time. By understanding how movies work, it’ll empower us as writers to tell compelling stories which readers will flock to.

Join me tomorrow when I discuss STORY.

When Chronic Illness Sabotages Goals

There are many writers and aspiring writers with chronic illnesses. These illnesses sabotage our goals and writing time when we experience flare ups. Chronic illnesses can sabotage our goals and objectives and make the smallest task seem daunting. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). CFS has changed how I function as a writer. It has forced me to choose what I do and if I do it at all. It has forced me to prioritize and focus. These things are not bad in and of themselves. They simply mean that I have had to adjust but adjusting has not always been easy or simple. Here are a few Tips to Manage Writing with Chronic Illness and achieving goals:

1) Practise Self-Care.
This is one of the hardest things ever to learn. Sounds simple enough but consider the following:

A) As writers we’re driven to tell the story and to succeed in this industry. There are shining examples of successful authors who write one, two or three novels a year, and do all sorts of marketing stuff. This is who we aspire to be and when we can’t be, that voice of sabotage in our heads tells us we are failures. Self-care here means changing the expectation, accepting what we can and cannot do, setting realistic goals for ourselves. Most important, we need to change the paradigm of success we have in our heads. There are writers with chronic illness who are successful. We can do it. On our terms we certainly can!

B) Self care means telling the energy drains in your life to take a back seat or to buzz off. Whether its people, involvement with social media (there’s a reason why I don’t do Face Book), or house cleaning (I had to resort to getting a housekeeper to come in every three weeks to do the cleaning I cannot. I had to give up something else but that was worth it). Some will call it selfish, but this type of selfish is healthy as is claiming your writing time and enforcing it.

C) Gratitude is really important. I’m generally optimistic but when I’m grateful for the things I can accomplish, and grateful for the writing however slow or sporadic at times, the world feels like a much more fun and wonderful place. Gratitude helps me get through the tough times because I recover more quickly if I’m not down on myself.

2) Know Your Limitations and Work Within Them
Many days, if I can write for an hour, it’s been a good day. Then, I do some of the other things and if I’m lucky, I can get more writing time in. First thing in the morning is my best writing time, when my brain is the freshest. This system works because now my brain and I have learned to work together. As I wake up, ideas emerge, scenes are visualized and when my feet hit the floor, it’s off to the laptop to write it all down. This works best, I think, because when at rest, minimal muscle energy is used, and the brain is less engaged with making the body function properly. Hence, there is more energy for thinking. I’ve written over 14,000 words this way this month and the month isn’t done yet! One of the reasons why this system works for me is that when I’m done writing, I take a minute to decide what I want to work on the next day. It seems my subconscious then ‘works’ on it while I sleep and the ideas come the next morning.

3) Use Spoons to Portion Out Your Energy and to Help Others Understand
Spoons are a way to explain available energy. Some days I don’t know how few I have because it varies and I don’t know until I’ve attempted my first activity. It can be a three spoon day where all I can do is make meals, eat and clean up. It can be a six spoon day were I can write for half an hour and then do the necessities. And if it’s an 8 spoon day, I can maybe go for groceries recognizing that driving each way is a spoon, getting the groceries is worth three spoons, unloading and putting away is another two spoons but by now I’m spent enough that it takes four spoons to do a two spoon job. By now, I’ve used either seven of the eight spoons (and I haven’t made dinner, eaten and cleaned up yet which is another three spoons) or I’ve gone over and used up nine spoons. Overdoing it will hamper my energy for the next one to three days.

This is on a good day and I haven’t written a word and won’t have enough energy for my brain to do the thinking it needs to. When it’s really bad and I’m in pain and the world seems to pass me by, writing is the furthest thing from my mind – it has to be. Practising self-care takes priority.

3) Set Your Goals and Objectives. Then Ignore, Adjust or Rethink
A goal is the long-term thing you want to accomplish. I want to write an 80,000 word novel this year. Goals give us direction, or a target if you prefer. Without knowing the target, we can’t reach it.

An objective is the series of concrete steps it takes to get to the goal. I will research the world for one month. I will outline the novel for two months. I will write the novel in eight months with the smaller objective of writing 10,000 words per month.

Illness will sabotage an objective. Objectives not met change the goal or part of the goal. I may still want to write the novel, but it may take a year and a half instead of a year to do so. Objectives are small pieces of the goal. By understanding that, I feel more in control of the outcome as I make adjustments. Most importantly, I can break down objectives into manageable parts which are more realistic for what I can accomplish in any given time period.

Here’s something I haven’t admitted publicly – there was a time last year when I was ill enough that the world seemed dark, and I wanted to give up writing. I cried a lot because I felt like I was giving up on part of my soul and I didn’t want to do that. From somewhere came the idea that if I could not write, I would take a course on writing. That saved me. It gave me purpose, and a new perspective on craft. My fatigue almost sabotaged my fledgling career as a writer, but a new direction, a new distraction saved me.

4) Be Honest with Yourself and Others
This was the hardest for the longest time. I didn’t want to be sick. Still don’t but ignoring the fact was hurting me and my writing.

Seriously – be honest with yourself and others whether it be friends, family or colleagues. Chronic illness is an energy suck. It can flare up unexpectedly. We have limitations. We can’t be all things to anyone. No ever again. I used to be able to do it all – work, family, write, family dinners, garden – have an endless amount of energy and be all things to all people. Now, I have to manage energy and plan. If we go see the grandchildren at Christmas, how much energy will it take and how do I portion it out for the things I want to do like make or buy Christmas presents, travel, and so on. It all gets done, differently than when I had boundless energy.

The great thing is that the family and friends who care are respectful and make accommodations when I give them, like when I need to rest in quiet for an hour. Those who choose not to understand are no longer part of my life in any significant way. They can’t be. That goes back to the first principle of self care.

Honesty has a painful angle. There was a time when I could write 3,000 words a day and have a novel written in a month! That is no longer my reality. I had to own up to that and set more realistic goals and objectives. Doing that has staved off feeling worthless, the sabotaging voice in my head and has allowed me to write again.

The Final Word
So dear reader, I have taken the time to write this blog this morning because I thought it was important and I wanted to. It’s such a relief to be able to share this. I wrote this post knowing that the likelihood of my working on my novel today is zero spoons. But that’s okay. My remaining energy will be spent on going for a walk, reading, or listening to an audio book. These things I love and they are important too as is the delicious dinner I’m making tonight.

Stay well my friends and practice self care!

We Always Need a Goal

Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

We all want something. It could be a new car, paying the rent on time, having a family, writing a novel, being a politician, or simply enjoying a nice cup of tea at 3 o’clock. It doesn’t matter if the want can be achieved quickly or if it takes several years to realize. Without the want, and without the conscious desire to reach it, there is no goal and nothing will happen.

Having a goal involves choice. We can choose to work toward or do something, or we can choose not to do anything. Either way, there will be an outcome, a goal achieved. Whether that goal is personally fulfilling or productive, whether it enriches or sabotages your life, that is another matter,. No matter the outcome, we all have goals.

These atatements may seem rather philosophical, but it’s important to understand that we always have a goal, whether we’re actively or inactively achieving it. Knowing that we have free agency to determine outcomes, frees us to set goals which are not only achievable but also fulfilling. And no, setting unrealistic goals in which one doesn’t participate to achieve the final outcome, doesn’t count. Unrealistic goals are simply fights of fancy or dreams. A goal should be something which spurs us into action (or inaction, but arguably, that is an action in and of itself).

A dream becomes a goal when action is taken toward its achievement.
Bo Bennett

Reaching the target may or may not always happen in the way it was envisioned. That’s okay. Without a goal you can’t get close to the target. For example, in high school and university, I always strived for 100% on exams. Did I achieve that? Sometimes but if not, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I figured out early on that I always made mistakes, or forgot something. That wasn’t the point. When I strived for the highest mark, my grades were higher than when I didn’t. Having a goal meant caring. If I cared a lot, the results were better becasue I rose to the challenge. If my goal was low, my grades were lower. It was that simple.

So, what does this mean for me as a writer?

I want to write a best seller. So I read best sellers. I study them. I study as well as practice the craft. Will I ever write a book that has the potential to be a best seller. Yes. After writing the book, will my goals include all the promotion and marketing needed? Yes. How hard will I work to realize this goal? That is always the question. But my point here is is that without the goal, I can’t do the work. The goal is my motivation for writing what I deem to be a good novel. I don’t want to self publish messy first drafts. It’s about doing it the best I can. The added benefit is that having a goal and working toward it makes me happy.

People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.
Elon Musk

We all have goals. We all need goals. Goals give us direction, purpose and ultimately the process of achieving them should make us happy. Achieving them should elate us but I’ve always found it important to understand that goals change and the art of moving toward the goal can influence and change the outcome.

In many ways, our goals are not that much different from a story or character goal. Like the characters we write, we have desires, passions, and needs. We strive to fulfill those passions. There are ups and downs, set-backs and rewards. We get more information, something interrupts our progress, we persevere, we fight, and ultimately, we come out the other side to laugh, celebrate, or cry.

Most of our goals are active goals. We need them. Through them, we find meaning in our lives and pass down that meaning through our characters, Incidentally, that meaning is also called theme and it makes sense when you remember the addage that we shoul dwrite what we know best. Story is about goals both achieved and thwarted. When we recognize our goals and work toward them, we compel ourselves to actively participate in their achievement. We give meaning, not only to our lives, but also to our characters.

Goals are important. Striving to reach them is important. Whether they are reached as initially dreamed of, may not be as important as having a dream and striving to fulfill that dream.

It’s not an accident that musicians become musicians and engineers become engineers: it’s what they’re born to do. If you can tune into your purpose and really align with it, setting goals so that your vision is an expression of that purpose, then life flows much more easily.
Jack Canfield