Posts Tagged videos

Give Me Structure!

I’ve read Blake Snyder.  He says that a movie is a story told in three acts.  Of course the second act is twice as long and broken into two halves, so the three act structure is really four acts. I’ve read elsewhere that three acts is right for any story, though the second act should be the longest and be broken into three acts itself, so the three act structure is really five acts.  I’ve now heard Dan Wells talk, at least on YouTube, and describe a seven point outline for every successful story.

I’m not convinced how different these all are.

First up, some viewing.  For those not aware of the Dan Wells seven point story structure (which he admits to stealing from the Star Trek RPG), there’s a talk in five parts on YouTube.  I’m going to embed Part One, the rest should show up as suggested videos at the end.  Please note, the production elements are not mine:

To provide some recap, he breaks the plots of several movies, novels, and even the short story The Tell-Tale Heart down into seven points that the story has to hit:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution

There’s a great symmetry to the structure, the story mirrors itself around the midpoint, framed at either end by an opposing hook and resolution.  If the resolution is falling in love, the hook is two strangers.  If the resolution is solving a murder, the hook is the murder happening.  If the resolution is someone fulfilling their role as a hero, the hook is the person as a regular schlub.  Plot Turn 1 is the conflict being introduced, Plot Turn 2 is the last piece the character needs.  As Dan Wells puts it “the power is in you!”.  The Pinches surround the midpoint, they apply pressure.  The first may introduce a villain, the second may strip away a mentor.  The midpoint is the center of the whole thing, it is the mirror, and it’s where the character moves from being reactive to being proactive.

This is great, this is awesome, and he does a fantastic job breaking down the seven points of multiple lengths and genres of stories, but where the lecture really kicks some ass and is in Part 4/5 starting around the 7 minute mark where he applies this seven point structure to each of the four main plots of The Matrix: Neo defeating the Agents, Neo becoming The One (he defeats the agents by becoming The One, but they are slightly different plots), Neo and Trinity falling in love, and Cypher betraying the crew of the ship.  This is where I’m going to jump shift to where I originally know Dan Wells from: the Writing Excuses podcast.

In their October 2nd, 2011 episode, the Writing Excuses crew talked to Lou Anders about the Hollywood Formula.  Give it a listen, it’s only 20 minutes long (though that’s now 70 total minutes of material I’ve assigned this post).  While largely talking about the three act structure, the podcast also talks about the increased emotional impact of scenes where multiple things happen at the same time.  Looking at the seven point structure, it’s taking points from more than one plot line (though one plot’s Pinch can be another’s Turn) and putting them together in a scene.  The capture of Morpheus, the second pinch in one plot, happens simultaneously with the resolution of the betrayal plot.  At the end of the movie, the three Neo plotlines all have resolutions nearly on top of each other.  That’s why, while the lobby scene is all whizbang cool, the two actual emotional scenes in the movie are that midpoint betrayal and the big final fight with Agent Smith.  They’re designed as big scenes where stuff happens.

Alright, so look, this is all awesome, but why am I talking about it?

Two reasons.  First is because while this presents itself as a broader interpretation of the plotting of a novel, it’s really just another approach.  If we’re going to look at the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet compared to the Dan Wells Seven Points, I can directly line them up (though I suspect others could line them differently):

  1. The Hook is The Opening Image
  2. Plot Turn 1 is the Catalyst
  3. Pinch 1 is the Break Into 2
  4. Both agree on The Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2 is the All is Lost moment
  6. Plot Turn 2 is the Break Into 3
  7. The Resolution is The Final Image

Where does that put the finale?  Between Plot Turn 2, where the hero realizes he has what he needs to defeat the villain, and the resolution where the villain is defeated.

So it’s largely all the same structuring, whether you want to talk about three, four, or five acts, or seven points.  But what got me excited about the usefulness of the seven point structure versus the Beat Sheet is the presentations of subplots.  Blake Snyder does make room for a B-plot in the Beat Sheet, but the seven point system allows the writer to break down any number of subplots into their seven points, and use that all through their outline.  Which is probably more useful than the Beat Sheet when it comes to novels.  Let’s face it, the Beat Sheet is great, and it can inform someone writing for the page, but it’s for a specific purpose.

But I just buried the important word in that last paragraph: “outline.”  In the past I’ve dabbled at being a discovery writer, which is fantastic for some but has gotten me into trouble.  So as I’ve been learning to outline (really, it’s a hybrid outline/discovery system) I’ve been looking for different ways to approach an outline.  The act structure was fine, but this is fantastic, because it allows each character’s arc to be broken into pieces at the same time as the main plotline of the book.

That’s my exact plan.  But not yet.  Instead, I’ve suggest to my wife we use it as one of our revision tools.  Right now we’re too far into the first draft to stop and try to figure out structure breakdowns, but when we hit editing I hope breaking the story into five seven-point diagrams (main plot, and each character’s arc) and seeing where the points line up, it will show where the story as a whole is weak, and where individual character arcs are weak.  Which, hopefully, will result in a stronger story after the second draft.  In that way, this is a tool not just for the outline writer, but for the discovery writer looking towards a second draft.  Make sure the major points are hit in each plot, and work in where they could hit better when revising.  Stacking points from multiple plotlines increases the emotion of a scene (though certainly not every scene needs, or even should, have elements of multiple plotlines).  Resolve them as closely as possible.

And keep an eye and ear out for structuring tools.  You may, as I have, find one you’ve never heard of that entirely changes how you approach your process.

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Building a Team

I continue to find writing lessons in the oddest places.  Last time it was as part of a discussion for how to make better video games, now it comes from a YouTube channel that I have posted from before: Cracked After Hours.  The discussion is about the Ninja Turtles and how they relate to Sex and the City, but the context is about the four humors and how they define characters.  Alright, I’ll stop gabbing, take a look:

A lot of literature is about the lone wolf. The guy who comes in and solves problems on his own. However, there’s also a lot of fiction out there about the team, the ragtag group that has to pull together, work together even though their personalities clash. Why do the clash?  Archetypes.

Archetypes are the bedrock for characters, whether the character embodies an archetype or fights against it.  If you’ve got a team of characters, they aren’t going to be interesting if they’re all the same archetype, because at that point they might as well all be the same character.  But if you set them up with contrasting archetypes, give them that challenge to overcome, then they become a dynamic group and can be more interesting than they each would be as individuals.

And in the end that should be the goal of any group with a work of fiction: they as a whole need to be more interesting than the sum of their character traits.  And the reason you see so many groups of four in story telling is it lets the four humors come out and create base characters people can relate to.  In the end you can only hope when you create a team people will be creating personality polls about which member they are.  Just like trying to figure out which Ninja Turtle or Sex and the City character they are.

Oh, and if the answer for anyone is “the girl, because I’m always the girl” then your team still needs tweaking.  Just a little bonus thought.

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What a gamer can teach us about writing

Last night I had a devil of a time sleeping, to the point where I gave up for several hours and ended up sitting on The Escapist, a site that I visit largely for Zero Punctuation.  I sat down with a series of videos I was aware of but hadn’t watched called Extra Credits.  It’s a series of animated lectures on various topics regarding how game developers can better approach the market and in the end make better games.  Ultimately they’d love to see games be brought to the level of being widely acknowledged as an art form, much like writing and movies are.

That I’ve found some inspiration from the series, thus, shouldn’t surprise me too much.  It does often take the approach of how games can have better told stories, so that there are episodes that are applicable well beyond the field of video game design shouldn’t be a surprise.  In particular, I found two videos on the topic of horror.

And now, some required viewing with my own thoughts after.

Extra Credits: Where Did Survival Horror Go?

This touches a lot of frustrations that I have with modern horror cinema.  At some point film makers decided that the way to scare people was to throw black cats and monsters at them.  And the video touches on that exact point from the video gaming perspective: the point when the technology allowed filmmakers to get lazy by showing the evil horror lurking around the edges of older movies.  Silent Hill had atmospheric fog obscuring much of the game because the PS1 rendering engine couldn’t handle the graphics the designers want.  Jaws had a shark that you only got to see glimpses of because their mechanical shark broke down and couldn’t be used as thoroughly as planned.

In the end it comes down to the idea of sure we can but does that mean we should.  Movies can be the ultimate in survival horror because the audience isn’t allowed to make any decisions that alter the outcome of the movie.  They’re just being grabbed and dragged along for the ride.  And the most terrifying thing that any person will ever encounter is the thing in their mind, filling in all of their personal fears and neuroses.

Extra Credits: Symbolism 101

Don’t look at the name of this video.  It’s called symbolism,but a lot of it is exploring the questions of what makes horror actually work.  And it’s boiled down into the triple concept of horror: Self, The Other, and The Uncanny.  I really can’t improve on the video by commenting on it.  In the end, it’s a short and perfectly crafted exploration about what can make things scary, with an introduction to the psychology of why.

So give them a view, they’re fantastic viewing.  And if you’re entertained by the style, certainly give the rest of the series a chance.

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