Starting a Story Timeline

November 15, 2009

As I dig further into the development of the story, keeping the time-space continuum intact is getting tricky. The plot contains many twists and simultaneous or overlapping forces that come up against the hero’s efforts. Each of these forces, which include different characters or events, has its own timelines, so to speak—things that must happen before and things that must happen after—for each to make sense.  Even if the before or after moment isn’t necessary to show in the movie, I still need to at least reveal that they happened.

For example…

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a “Judas” character—a member of Joe’s police squad that is secretly undermining Joe’s efforts. After Joe catches the Judas in his deception and forces him out, he turns against Joe by supporting Joe’s main enemy, making up stories to incriminate Joe. For those two major actions of the Judas character (Joe’s exposing/shunning of the Judas, and the Judas character’s false testimony against Joe) to take place, a chain reaction of events must first happen to make these moments believable and emotionally engaging to the audience. These steps look something like this:

  • We must meet the Judas character and trust him as much as Joe trusts him.
  • We need to see that Joe knows he has a leak in the force: that someone close to him must be informing to the criminals, thwarting their efforts to bust the cartels.
  • We need to see subtle hints that Joe is beginning to question this squad member, but we must not be able to figure this out before Joe figures it out.
  • Joe must establish the importance of loyalty to his team, so we understand the consequences of disloyalty when it’s discovered.
  • We must see the status quo of loyalty in the way the squad operates, so we can empathize with Joe and the squad when the busted Judas is ousted.
  • Joe needs to test his suspicions against this officer.
  • The Judas officer needs to fail the test, revealing his guilt to Joe.

All of that must first happen before the first big moment I mentioned, where Joe confronts the officer.  Also, for the officer to become bitter enough to testify falsely against Joe later, the moment must be sufficiently degrading; i.e., in front of the squad and with Joe’s wrath against this traitor at its worst. And the other officers need to be in the right place at the right time throughout these preceding moments, so we’re “with them” emotionally at this moment.

And, while these things are happening, the story is still traveling forward, including what Joe’s older brother, the primary antagonist, is doing, and how the press is responding to the major events that Joe is creating, and how the crooked politicians are affect by and reacting to all this.

And so forth.

To keep this growing garden of forking paths smoothly interwoven, and to keep the story cohesive and interesting, I’ve come up with a solution, which is to…

“Timeline” the Story

Today, I began to map out the steps of the story outline chronologically, representing the major steps on a timeline. More than just putting the steps in order, it’s putting all the story threads on a calendar: a time breakout. What it will reveal: How many hours or days have transpired from this moment to the next and the next, and what other parallel events are happening, or need to happen?

The Goal:

I’m hoping to accomplish a few things by doing this:

  • Identify character “presence” gaps  (Hey, we just passed through two days of the story time without hearing anything about the reporter Orlando; shouldn’t he be following Joe’s activities?)
  • Reveal any impossible situations based on time (Wait a minute here … the American students on Spring break wouldn’t still be here on the Island after 14 days! Can we have them arrive later? or add a scene to explain why their trip got extended?)
  • Seek compression opportunities (Say, maybe we can combine Cain’s discovery of Joe’s actions against Bishop with Orlando’s discovery of it, since they both need to happen about the same time.)

I’m envisioning that it will a kind of Gannt chart, maybe even using Microsoft Project to do it, so I can change the view to a standard calendar format, and back, with ease. Not sure yet. But I’ll let you know how it goes.

More Work Today on Step Outline

October 30, 2009

In Act 2, several course-altering events occur in rapid succession, including:

  • Joe’s first-ever blatant refusal to subordinate himself to his elder brother, who is also a rung above Joe in the country’s police. This forces a new dynamic and tension into their relationship.
  • Joe’s active elimination of the criminal elements puts Joe’s brother Cain and the other political cronies on edge, Joe-prepares-2-fireWeaponwhich causes the politico to rise up against Cain’s unspoken authority, which further pits Cain against Joe.
  • At the same time, Joe begins to employ tactics that he’s learned from, and once despised in, his big brother: using the press to his advantage.
  • As this is developing, Joe’s new take-no-prisoners strategy puts him at odds with his mother and other family members who symbolically serve as his moral compass and have previously been his greatest ally. This puts Joe emotionally adrift, separated from his support system.
  • In the midst of all this, Joe springs a trap he had set, flushing out the suspected Judas on his team. His harsh treatment and banishment of the traitorous squad member sends a message to anyone else operating against him to watch out.

These and several other interweaving threads of shifting pressures should cause us to react on several levels, if I can craft this right.

  • On one level, we revel in Joe’s victories and allow ourselves to believe that that he’s doing the right thing.
  • On another level, we know that his methods, though effective, seem morally wrong and seem to skirt the legal limits of the law. If done right, we should be torn between wanting him to do right, but wanting him to win, but not by becoming that which he’s trying to stop.
  • On a third level, we should feel alarm as we see forces rising up against him from all around, which should evoke empathy.

Keeping these threads fast and active and balanced in what will become just a 10-minute passage of screen time is the challenge of the day. And probably of tomorrow too, along with taking a morning hike with my daughter in the Verdugo mountains.

Plant, Nurture, and Release

September 6, 2009

Cotton freshly-picked from the plant is not nearly as useful to us as cotton that has been formed into threads. As a thread, it has tensile strength and can then be interwoven with other threads to form fabric. Similarly…

A story thread packs more punch than a story event

To create a story thread, I consider how a story character or other element will be more emotionally engaging or satisfying to the audience if I structured it the way you structure a story: in three acts. Here’s that three-act structure in a nutshell:

  • The first act introduces
  • The second act develops
  • The third act releases

Similarly, take any single story element and give it a similar structure: introduce it into the story, nurture it by interweaving it into the plotline, and then deliver it. Pay it out. Release it. Resolve it. That’s a story thread with tensile strength.

Simple example:

Let’s say you’ve got a story about (Act I) a timid, abused woman who finally decides (Act II) to stand up for herself. But the harder she tries, the harder it seems to get. Finally, she summons all her willpower and creativity to (Act III) launch one last desperate attempt to change her destiny. In a climatic face-to-face moment with her abusive husband where, for the first time, she has the power, the woman slaps him in the face before walking away, victorious.

We are as surprised as he is by that slap — a powerful dramatic event. But rather than make it a standalone event, here’s how you could pump up the drama by making it part of a Physical Abuse story thread:

  1. SETUP: In the first act, we see the husband slap the woman. It catches us by surprise. We see more physical abuse, and we become more alarmed or frustrated when she just takes it.
  2. NURTURE: Now, when she decides to do something about it (launching Act II) we are both excited for her and a little scared, too. As the story develops, we think she’s making some headway but then she gets slapped around by the man again, maybe even more abusively, which makes us more afraid for her and angry at him.
  3. PAYOFF: Finally, when her last great effort to win over the abusive man succeeds, we are not simply surprised when the victory moment is punctuated as she slaps him; we are enthralled and cheering for her.

In this story about a woman learning how to stand up for herself, the drama is much more intense if we interweave the abusiveness into the developing storyline. By having her get slapped early in the story, we establish abusiveness as the status quo. Because we are not comfortable with that state, we are totally on board when she finally decides to do something about it. And because we have seen how vicious the husband can be, we respect the tremendous risk she is putting herself in by going against her husband. This creates tremendous tension for us as we empathize with her, hoping that we could be so brave while also knowing how much we don’t like being slapped, which keeps happening to her.

Good stuff… dramaturgically speaking.

It then becomes great dramaturgical stuff when, after all of this terrible abuse, the husband finally gets what he’s got coming to him, as punctuated by that great reversal when she slaps him. It allows us to feel what she feels: vindicated. In fact, when she slaps him, the act becomes a symbol, proving that she has finally overcome her timidity. That’s why I like to plan out and carefully deploy story threads, because…

Surprise is nice but suspense is tense

And intensity is the heart and soul of drama — that heart-wrenching tension between what is happening and what we want to happen.

Something that I recall Oscar award-winning director-screenwriter Milos Forman mentioning more than once in his class at USC’s school of Cinema is that, while surprise is a nice tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox, it cannot compare to the power of suspense. When we know that something is going to happen and we don’t want it to but we are powerless to stop it (that’s suspense), we are considerably more emotionally invested in the drama than when we are surprised by an unexpected event.

And that’s why I dig threads. 🙂 A writer can ensure that the influencing and influenced story elements enrich the story and grip the heart and mind of the viewer (or reader) if they give the element a life, not just a moment; if they set it up, nurture it, and then release it into the protagonist’s world, giving the element its big dramatic moment – the payoff.

That’s the power of the story thread.

Maybe Just One More Analogy…

September 5, 2009

To summarize my last post: A writer can infuse a scene or moment with dimensional richness by planning out and artfully revealing story threads. Largely, this richness comes from giving the viewer (or reader) a completely different perspective on the plot and the protagonist.

Maybe you’ve also seen this?

image I remember watching a chess player in a very intense match who, after studying the board for several minutes to strategize his next move, suddenly got up and walked over to his opponent’s side of the board to study it from that viewpoint before eventually returning to his side and making his move.

Obviously, he was seeking to optimize his strategy by…

Getting a fresh perspective

Nearly always, the storyline is centered on the hero, right?

Right. But what or who influences the hero as the story unfolds? And what or who does the hero effect?

While screenwriters are inclined to write from the perspective of the hero/protagonist as they create each moment, the story can have greater realism and richness if they also take the time to look at what else is (or could be) happening in the unfolding moment, and consider what fresh insights the viewer may enjoy from the vantage points of your protagonist’s influencers or influenced.

While planning out a story, I think about events or conditions or people — the influencing and influenced — and consider where a moment in the story might be much more dramatic or meaningful if I pump it up by revealing the moment from those alternative perspectives, not just the protagonist’s.

But as I suggested in The Five Steps of Story Deconstruction, such elements or characters have limited dramatic value if presented as a singular event or “beat.” They gain their greatest impact when they are strung together to form a series of building story revelations. That’s a story thread.

More on the power of the story thread tomorrow…

Putting Meat on Their Bones

September 3, 2009

I had to break today from developing the Act 2 step outline when I hit scenes that demand development of the five US College-Spring-Break Students and their parents. Without unique personalities, I quickly became bogged down in generalities.

About those “other guys”

In the first act, I was able to get by with only one of the five students named and fleshed out, while simply referring to her traveling mates as “the other well-bred American students.” No problem with that … until now.

I put away the step outline and jumped right into the character sheet, which is where I’m listing all the characters by name and giving each a short description. This morning, I filled in the gaps for these American students and their parents, most of whom need to be socially powerful — monetarily, politically, and such (you’ll see why later).

Apart from this, at least for the primary story characters, I’m also creating detailed character descriptions — a few paragraphs usually, or even a few pages for major or more complicated, dramaturgically pivotal characters. But not this morning.

More on that later. Today, I just honed in on the character sheet, with an eye on…

Connecting the students to the plot line

I already had a general idea of what personalities would need to be represented among the students, and how their parents would later alter the course of the storyline. Now, having reached a point where I could no longer go on until I took the time to make these kids real, I reviewed all the major plot points, looking for opportunities to heighten the drama or strengthened the story’s emotional spine by interjecting the students or their parents. From that, I gave them distinct personalities that would support those plot points, and also endowed them with real names that felt “right” to me.

That’s now done. And, let me tell you, it was both…

A worthwhile diversion, and well-timed!

Had I tried to mold them into dimensional characters earlier, before the storyline was sufficiently formed, it likely would have been a meandering guessing game, based less on how they would each effect the lead characters or the plot, and more on generic assumptions about what I think might be fun for people to watch.



But breaking to do this now, the story was hungry, greedy for their existence. It anxiously reached in to my subconscious and ripped the characters out, effectively forcing them into being.

Don’t worry, it’s not as painful as it sounds. Invigorating, actually. I just kinda’ sat back and watched.

So, who are they?

Going forward, instead of just “Sandy, and the other students,” here’s what I’ve got to work with:

SANDY BROUGHAM — A confident, comely, well-bred American lass on spring break from college. She is graceful and intelligent, and smitten by Sean, who is smitten by her.

JIM BROUGHAM — Sandy’s brother. An athletic and affable young man, lacking in the looks department. Not witty, but laughs easily, enjoying the humors of others.

MRS. VICTORIA BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s loving mother, and also a state supreme court judge. Quick to judge, but, once beyond her initial reaction, she’s able to assess accurately, wisely.

MR. JOHN BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s father. A US senator.

JANICE HOROWITZ — Also well bred and intelligent, but this Spring breaker is sorely lacking in self-confidence and social graces … when sober.

COLLEEN SMITH — Rather attractive American Spring breaker. Not from money or power, and not very studious. An athletic daredevil and wicked prankster. Funny as hell.

MR. JERRY SMITH — Colleen’s father. A widower of limited financial means. Dearly (smotheringly) loves his daughter — his only child.

JOSH KINGSLEY — Another US Spring breaker: a lanky and quick witted poli-sci major. He loves a good political battle, but too likeable to get rankled about it, as he artfully employs humor to defuse and persuade.

MR . CAMERON KINGSLEY — Josh’s “Type A” father. A nationally known American TV political commentator. Loves his son, and dearly loves his work.

MRS. RAMONA KINGSLEY — Josh’s devoted mother. A quiet woman, honest as the day is long; naturally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

Much more satisfying! Now, I’m charging back into the step outline with this bevy of clearly formed characters at my side, spurring me on.

It just gets more fun every day. Tally ho….

Four Steps Forward, One Step Back

August 21, 2009

It was a creatively envigorating day, with much forward progress in spite of the need to go back and edit one of the story threads. Let’s call it four steps forward and one step back then.

The steps forward:

I got much further in the story’s step outline development today, which I found to be more uplifting than a quad-shot Venti mocha. It’s at this stage that the story begins to materialize and show its potential.

I finally got around to naming several of the primary characters that, up till now, had only been identified in some generic fashion on the index cards, such as “The Judas Type Character” or “The Supportive Press Guy” or “The Acerbic Talk Show Host.” Once I started working on the step sheet in earnest, those generic descriptions of the characters became laborious and distracting. Having real names for the characters freed up the creative process in my brain, since that naming task was like an annoying fly buzzing around my face. Consider it swatted.

The steps back:

At this early juncture in the step outline development, I find it necessary to occasionally move back and forth between writing out the details of the step outline and going back to adjust the details of the story threads.

It doesn’t bother me when that happens; I feel this is a natural result of the interweaving process. The very act of defining where, how, and whether to weave each story thread into the fabric of a particular stage of the step outline reveals both gaps and opportunities in the story threads I may have overlooked earlier. It’s not painful to go back and tinker with the story thread because I haven’t yet wasted any significant effort in writing out actual scenes that would now need to be deleted or severely altered. That’s one of the big advantages of planning out the structure carefully before writing the screenplay; once I go back and adjust the affected story thread, the resulting adjustments to the step outline requires just minutes, not hours.

Here’s an example…

As I worked yesterday and today on the step outline for the first act, I quickly realized that my first draft of The Press story thread was insufficiently developed — too high-level to plot out or represent along the story timeline. Also, in the process of stepping out the first act, a couple of pursuit-worthy ideas came to mind on how to use the press to more effectively form a pervasive undercurrent of antagonism that I had not originally considered when developing The Press story thread.

So today I revisited that thread, deleting a couple of elements and adding several more, including a whole new character: a “John the Baptist” type of political talk show host whose presence, though minimal, will serve the story well in three key ways:

  • Adding a counterpoint to the general position of the press
  • Supporting the spiritual symbolism already present in the story
  • Creating a strong point of historical identification for the Trinidad & Tobago viewers, who may find that this story character’s controversial rhetoric reminds them of their former radio commentator Morgan Job, whose hard-hitting broadcasts inspired about as many as they angered.

So… while I had to go back and adjust one of the story threads, the positive effect of that effort propelled the story development forward by leaps and bounds (hereby defined as five steps).

The Five Steps of Story Deconstruction

August 19, 2009

In short, the screenply story deconstruction process I employ looks like this:

  1. Analyze the story summary to define at a granular level key story elements or “beats.”
  2. Group these elements topically into individual story threads.
  3. Represent the elements and threads visually and physically on printed index cards.
  4. Arrange the story threads on a large bulletin board from left to right according to where they fit on the story timeline.
  5. Use this visual mapping to aid in planning how and when and where to reveal each thread and its elements on the movie’s timeline.

Following these steps is the creation of the step outline, although I often overlap Step 5 with the step sheet development, as they tend to feed off each other.

In a later post, I’ll describe these five steps in more than single sentences. For now though, I’m keeping my hand to the plow, burying myself in the step outline process.