Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Killer One-Two Punch that Launches Dramatic Tension in Your Story

You get that you need to setup your story.

You get that you need to present your hero with a problem and/or a goal.  Something to DO.  With something standing in the hero’s way, an entity with their own opposing needs and goals. 

And, with something at stake for both your hero and that opposing entity.

You may even get  — and I hope that you do –that there is a moment in your story (the First Plot Point) when the hero’s quest toward that goal fully really underway, when the first dealt hand is in play, even after what seems like a starting point but, in retrospect, was not fully informed. 

This Big Moment quest-launch arrives in context to the presence of an antagonist force, also known as the bad guy(s), which may have been off-the-grid earlier.

You get that. 

You need to get that.  Because that moment, the First Plot Point, is the most important moment in your story.  Everything that happens before it is a setup for it, and everything that happens after it is a response to it.

Do it too early and we don’t have adequate time and context to fully understand and empathize with the hero and the situation at hand.  And you need that empathy to be in play.

Do it too late and the story may be too slow, or overly complex.  You risk losing the reader to the dreaded response: “when is something going to HAPPEN in this damn story?”

You’ve been there as a reader.  You don’t want to risk being there as the writer, which is what happens when you mess up your First Plot Point.

That’s the 101 of it.  The 411 for freshmen writers.  Now…

Here’s the 202 of it, a way to make this strategy even more powerful.

Some writers hear the wrong thing when I rant and rave about the First Plot Point.  They think it’s merely a Big Twist in the story.  The unexpected happens.  A moment when everything changes.  They think that this is the criteria for the FPP, the moment when the story goes in a new direction.

That’s not wrong.  It’s just not right enough.

It’s potentially confusing because the First Plot Point IS those things. It does change the story.  It is unexpected (or can be).  

But it needs to be more.

One of the tools of dramatic tension we can apply to our Part 1 set-up quartile is the use of Inciting Incidents.  Which are, in fact, also all of those things: dropping a bomb into the story, changing it, twisting it, starting things moving.

Or, an inciting incident can be something nearly invisible, a whisper, an implication that changes everything, or means something.

You can do that multiple times in your story BEFORE you reach the First Plot Point milestone moment (at about the 20th percentile).  Your opening hook can be an Inciting Incident.  You can explode the story once or twice in the pages leading up to the FPP using other inciting incidents.

In fact, it’s a GREAT idea to do that.

But be clear. That pre-First Plot Point inciting incident moment, however huge and drastic and unexpected, may look like the FPP in the sense that it changes everything… but it’s NOT the FPP because it doesn’t do the rest of the FPP’s job.

Which is, to send the hero down a path.  A path with meaning.  With stakes.  With visible (to the reader, and often to the hero) antagonist.  And  most of all with STAKES.

That’s why the FPP is the most important moment in your story.  Because it actually launches the story by turning the corner from setup to a parted curtain.

Think of this as a one-two punch. 

You drop the bomb at, say the 15th percent mark, and then, at the FPP (say, the 22nd percent mark), you let the hero know what it means to them for the rest of the story.  By giving them something specific to respond to, to shoot for, to avoid, or to deal with.  Your hero now has a new purpose, something to deal with that has stakes attached.

The first bomb simply rocked their world.  But when the rest of it hangs there as a question posed, unaddressed and unanswered… that’s the first blow in this one-two punch strategy. 

Then comes the FPP moment, when – even if this ISN’T a bomb dropping – meaning and purpose and deeper implications are suddenly on the table. And because of that, now the real story is fully underway.

Here are Three Examples of what this looks like. 

ONE: You are writing a love story.  For forty pages we meet the players (setup), get to know them, and come to root for the hero.  Then, on page 45, the hero’s wife is murdered.  The new love interest – heretofore merely a chemical attraction with co-worker, comes forward to be our hero’s sounding board and shoulder.  Which brings them closer.

But that’s NOT the story you’re telling.  Which is why it’s not the FPP.  It’s merely the setup for it.  The first blow in a one-two punch strategy.  It’s huge.  Everything changes.  But we don’t yet know what it means… to the hero, and to the story itself.

Later, on page 70, we come to the actual, functional First Plot Point, which is the second blow in this one-two punch strategy.  Because now that first blow will suddenly take on new meaning and implication: the comforting co-worker confesses that it was who killed his wife, so they can be together.   She’s a psychopath.  She says that if he doesn’t love her back, if he goes to the police with this, she’ll kill his family, them him, then herself.

Now he has a problem.  A higher level of dramatic tension.  Much more so than when the original bomb dropped.  Now that bomb has fallout, now the story has a defined  hero’s problem and his journey is underway, with stakes and against a visible antagonist.

Bottom line: the writer needs to be clear on WHICH story they are telling.  The CORE story.  The spine of the story.  

The one-two punch strategy depends on a first blow that knocks the hero off his/her feet, and then follows up with a second blow (or a whisper) that threatens and sends the hero off on a journey toward survival, redemption or resolution. 

TWO: This is from the film Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox. 

Fox drives a taxi in Los Angeles.  He picks up a fare, Cruise, who says he needs to hire him for a few hours to make a few stops around town.

At the second stop, Cruise goes into a building, tells Fox to wait around back.  Fox does, studying his business plan for a new taxi company (backstory and our reason to root for this guy), when a body falls on top of the taxi.  Cruise had shot the guy, who then fell out of a third floor window onto Fox’s cab.

This is as huge as it gets.  Unexpected.  Out of nowhere.  A bonafide OMG. It changes everything.  It certainly implies that Fox has a problem.

But it’s just an Inciting Incident, even though it feels like a plot point, because it’s at the 15th percentile.  And moreover, because it poses more questions than it does answers… we have no idea what this really means to Fox.

Two scenes later, in a calm, action-void scene inside the taxi, Cruise explains what it all means (which is the very criteria for a First Plot Point).  He’s an assassin for hire, out mopping up the garbage of humanity for a fee.  He has more stops to make.  Fox will drive him around to make this happen, and if he keeps it together he’ll be paid $700.  If not, he’ll die.

NOW Jamie has a real problem.  He has a journey to take.  A goa to pursel.  With visible opposition, and certainly with huge stakes.  And, we’re going to root for him along the way.

This was a one-two punch in which the first blow was massive, and where the second blow, the FPP, was simply the exposing of meaning, stakes and implication for the hero.  A moment that launched the CORE story.  The murder and body dropping on the car, that was a just part of the setup.

THREE: This strategy doesn’t only apply to action stories.  The blows, both one and two, can be softer, more veiled. 

You’re writing a story about a 1930s family in rural Iowa.  The central thrust will be their challenge to keep the farm in a small town where the local banker is mercilessly scooping up delinquent loans.

In Part 1 we meet the family, including the hero (the wife), who must be strong because her husband is an alcoholic who has already given up.

The first blow, somewhere between the 12th and 16th percentile, is when the bank serves a foreclosure notice.  This is huge.  It changes everything.

But it’s NOT the story you are telling.  It is only a setup for it.

At the FPP, we learn that the banker has other options, ones that don’t result inforeclosure.  But he has a past with the alcoholic husband, something about the banker’s wife years earlier, and the banker is on a personal vendetta.  The story here is about how the wife steps up to save the farm by beating the banker at his own game, through her ingenuity in digging up dirt on the guy and forcing a stalemate.

The CORE STORY begins at the FPP, when the banker’s wife confesses the whole backstory vendetta thing to our hero (the wife) at church, and wishes her well.  Her husband is a horrible man, and she promises to help.  (Later, at the Mid-Point, she turns up dead, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.)   Our hero now has a problem, a quest, a goal, with visible stakes and on-the-table opposition.

A one-two punch that makes both the setup and the First Plot Pont even more powerful.  And we’ll be rooting for her along the way.

Not every story does this. 

But you can, if it fits your vision for the story, and if you’re looking for a way to take the tension to a higher level.  The key resides in knowing your core story (no matter how you come to know it, either through vetting expositional options in a planning phase, or a draft-writing phase). 

Once you know your story, then (and only then) can you create a sequence of scenes that OPTIMIZES the underlying story physics that dictate how the story plays.  If you’re looking to blow readers out of the water, consider a one-two punch strategy and watch it happen.

My next writing book, “Story Physics,” will come out from Writers Digest Books in 2013.  If you want a head start on how to craft stories that work, please consider my current book, “Story Engineering,” a bestseller in the writing craft niche.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Are you “Terrified” of Story Structure?

Or maybe just pissed off at it.

I’d like to share an exchange I recently had with a Storyfix reader.  I think it speaks for a silent constituency out there, those to fall into either of the categories defined above.

But don’t be scared.  Don’t be angry.  Structure loves you.  Structure wants to liberate you from frustration, it promises to set you free.  It might just get you published.  When you marry it to your muse and embrace it with your inner literary genius, miracles ensue. 

Because you see, structure is inevitable.  You can’t escape it.  It’s not even a story until structure gets in the game.  Even when you think you’ve eluded it, perhaps conquered it through the sheer force of your lyric writing voice, after you’re beaten your story into submission with a deliberate obliviousness to it… when the story finally works, structure will be there.  Uninvited, silently liberating your frustrated self.

It will be why it works.  

Because story structure is synomymous with effective storytelling.  Structure is the vehicle for all things artistic about a story: dramatic tension, pace, empathy for the hero, a vicarious experience, and emotional Epiphany, a window into truth.  They are all born on the wings of structure.

Dear Storfixer:

I just read your latest blog installment and the comments left by those that “get it”. I am left wondering what the hell is wrong with me? I purchased your book, Story Structure – Demystified when it came out and everytime I read it I just become overwhelmed and I don’t understand why. I actually have physical symptoms of the shoulders creeping up to my neck until cramping starts, a sheer sign of that nasty “s” word, stress, and it is curtains from there.
I have what I think is a decent story but I can’t figure out how to make it structured the way you’ve written. I have tried bite sized pieces and still I sit with a blinking cursor and blankity, blank curse words stomping around in my head because I’m stuck at go. Obviously your book works, there are too many successful testimonials to attest to this fact.  Soooooo…that means it’s gotta be me. I’m so irked with whatever is keeping me from getting the meat of the lesson. I’m not an idiot so that makes this even harder to swallow. Can you help?

Sincerely, Scared in Sarasota.

Dear Scared:

I feel your pain.  This is challenging stuff.  so be patient with yourself, nobody totally gets it at first.  Here are some thoughts that might bring you closer to getting it.

Structure defins and manages the dramatic arc of your story.   Something you absolutely need.  You don’t have to make it up, it’s already there, as a theory, as a sequence, waiting to make your story better.  You don’t even have to fully understand it — though you’ll want to when you see what it does for you — you just have to apply it.

Structure gives sequence and placement to the PRIMARY CONFLICT and HERO’S QUEST in a story.  It’s a time management tool, making sure that your exposition of these things isn’t too fast, too slow or otherwise off topic.  These are things that, ultimately, at some point in your search for story, you absolutely need to know about.  When you do, it is structure that defines pacing through specific milestones, which are points at which the story changes in a certain contextual direction, for a certain reason.  That reason being… it works better this way.

It’s physics.  And like other kinds of physics, these principles are there to be harnessed for good.   

Here’s what might be going on for you. 

If you are focusing elsewhere in your storytelling (setting, character, theme, true facts), then this can lead to weak or nearly absent dramatic tension (plot), favoring episodic vignettes instead.  Episodic scenes are a virus in a story, they’ll kill it if they take it over.  A story without linear, accellerating tension driving forward motion and exposition is a story that won’t be as good as it could be.  A story that won’t make the cut. 

Instead, try to isolate what your story is about, OTHER THAN character and theme and a cool setting.  Make it about something unfolding, emerging, and finally revolving.  Avoid episodic storytelling by sequencing scenes and story points as parts of a whole that LEAD somewhere, rather than simply EXPLORING something (like a character, a place, a time, or an issue).

Start here at the very root of it all: a story is about a hero who is given a problem, a need, sent on a quest, with a goal at the end of it.  There are stakes at hand.  There is opposition to the hero’s intentions.  We care about this hero, about this outcome, because we can relate to the stakes.  This is what makes a story work.  An effective story asks a dramatic question that demands an answer, rather than painting a freeze frame of an isolated… something.

Writers who don’t see this, or agree with this… they struggle.  Their stories become a focus on a thing, a time, a place.  They are about something… when it would be better served to be about something happening.  The solving of the hero’s dilemna or problem.  The reaching of the hero’s goal.  Not merely a tour of the times.

When Dickens said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he was setting a stage upon which to introduce a cast of characters with needs and goals, not telling you what the story was about. 

Try this focus on dramatic tension.  Strip your story down to its essence in terms of CONFLICT and OUTCOME, and then see how much more powerful your themes — the “things” you care about and want to explore in your story — become.  The part of structure that intimidates is just the vernacular and the rhetoric of it, when in fact structure is the essentials physics of storytelling, the very things you seek in the first place. 

And it is a language, a template, that can be learned.

Once you do, you’ll see it everywhere. in every bestseller, in every good film.  You’ll wonder why you never saw it before, and you’ll be certain, once you connect its presence to the effectiveness of these stories, you won’t ever take it for granted again.

Hope this helps. 


Hope it helps you, too.


Filed under getting published