Skip to content

Author: Nick Mac

Master Theme Reference

This is going to be a very short reference article for folks to see first-hand some of the Master Themes I’ve personally run in my writing over the years.

Master Theme is so absolutely critical to solid scripting and crafting genuine story, I’ve discussed it at length on the free site. I talk to it all the time here on S2S and in my writing books, but the crux of it can be found here;

One Theme to Rule Them All

More on Master Theme

Master Theme, Secondary Themes and Character Arcs

If you do nothing else as a writer, integrate a Master Theme. It is the foundation everything else builds upon.

Folks constantly over complicate the concept of the Master Theme; Master Theme is simply, your specific message to the reader.

Ok, on to the ones I’ve used over the years.

Oh, one more thing, just like illustrators often have their trademark styles, writers often write to similar Master Themes–well at least in their own work–when you freelance and work for other folks, you often have to write to the message they want to convey.

Anyway, while it’s great to be versatile, there’s nothing wrong with keeping to a wheelhouse. It’s almost like specializing in a genre.

If themes of political corruption float your boat, write about it!

If Master Themes of primal revenge fiction turn you on, do it!

Write your passion.

The unique details of every story give the story completely new life, despite how many times you’ve used the same or similar, Master Theme before. In fact, I think it’s pretty neat to see wildly different stories, from the same writer, running the same Master Theme… especially if they’re totally different genres.

Anyway, here’s my list;

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

Fundamentals to Write Better Dialogue

This is the last article you’ll ever need to read to write absolutely perfect dialogue!

Well, not really…

If you’re a member of this pro class (and not just a lurker/creeper), you know you never stop learning. Even when you become the best, there’s always some new insight or technique to discover and become even better.

I actually was planning to make this my final article on dialogue, but wound up going off on some other dialogue mechanic stuff near the end. I decided to post this really important stuff now and throw the rest up later.

So…

This is the second to last article you’ll ever need to read to write absolutely perfect dialogue! 🙂

 

I’ve been helping a lot of folks with dialogue lately and decided I should sit down and write a nice long article on dialogue. Wellz, it turns out, I’ve already gone done that. Like trying to find my car keys, it gets easier for me to lose track of what I covered as I get older and the number of articles increase every year.

Anyway, here’s a quick TOC of my dialogue articles for anyone who wants to review;

Writing Natural Dialogue

Dialogue During Action

Pacing Dialogue to Reveals

Barren Dialogue

And of course here on Story to Script;

Poetry in Dialogue

The meat and potatoes one;

Conversation Vs. Dialogue

In an effort to not cover the specific mechanics, which I’ve mostly covered in those articles, mostly, let’s get all Wassily Kandinsky up in this joint, and dive into the abstract, or more to the point; the fundamental reasoning behind the choices that shape excellent dialogue.

Ready.

Set.

Coffee!

I’ve talked extensively about the trap of talking heads, which should be avoided at all costs.

I constantly warn how talking heads break the synergy of comics, pushing the scales of narrative balance away from the visual artistic realm, and fully into the cerebral narrative realm.

In order to put your best dialogue forward, this is a critical concept to understand.

As I mentioned in newcomers ignore comictography, comic books arrive in (at least) 4 levels;

    1. The surface story script.
    2. The subtextual story script.
    3. The surface visual script.
    4. The subtextual visual script.

So at any given moment, the visuals of the comic (film/anime,etc.) tell a story; parts 3 and 4.

To some extent, I might argue that the visual story is more important than the story script itself.

Good lord, what did I just say?

OK, let me rephrase a bit. I know some of y’all writer folks just fell outta your chairs.

The visual story in a visual medium such as comics and film, is not so much as “more important”, but dominant over the non-visual story telling. The purpose of dialogue in a visual medium is to compliment, support, or enhance the visual story

Any artists reading this article might be throwing their hands up celebrating the age old (silly) question, “which is more important to a comic, the art or the story?”

But y’all need to settle down now, because while the dialogue works to compliment the visual story, the writing and story also first defined where and how the visuals began.

Story Structure – lays down the foundation that manifests…

Art – which lays down the foundation that manifests…

Dialogue – which completes the medium.

As a writer in a visual medium, your first duty is to establishing a coherent, potent, effective, engaging visual story. The writer accomplishes this starting with solid story structure, moving to express that structure through scene selection, building out the scenes utilizing the vast craft of writing as we’ve been discussing all these years, then finalizing with polished dialogue.

Script dialogue should always be included to add greater clarity, depth and complexity to the visual story.

Any moment the script takes on the entire job of carrying the story, whenever the story script replaces the visual script, you’re holding a burning hunk of metal in your bare hands. The longer you hold it, the more damage you do.

The dialogue and narrative in script, the #1 from above, isn’t meant to carry the entire, or even bulk of the narrative. That’s what a novel does. Allowing #1 to take control of expressing the story may be a lot of things, but it’s not writing for a visual medium.

The clearest two examples of the story script completely usurping the visual story are;

    1. Talking heads, as I’ve noted.
    2. Text on black. This is where the writer tries to mimic the dramatic narration over a blank screen of film. Usually when someone loses consciousness or falls into some deep depression or something. I don’t care what anyone says, this isn’t effective in comics. It’s hasn’t been effective in movies since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Ok, they opened the LOR with it, but really, was it effective or did you just not care cause the movie was so good? (And if it was really effective, why did the narration switch off of black, over live action after the logo crawl? Why didn’t in run 7 minutes of narration over black? You know why.)

So first and foremost when choosing your dialogue, be sure that the dialogue compliments, supports, or enhances the art.

Before we depart this point, let’s hit an example;

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

Writing ACTION

Many writing experts will tell you Action Fiction is all about the Excitement it generates…

This is a backward and incomplete assessment.

Of course, you already know this cause you’ve read my Defining Genre article and know, Action Fiction is governed and driven by anger.

When Indy punches a Nazi, is he “excited”? When Edmond Dantes clashes swords with Fernand Mondego, does he thrust his blade with excitement? When the Hulk does–well, just about anything–is he excited; or are all of these characters moved to action, wicked pissed?

We’ve all been wronged. We’ve all been so angry we could resort to violence (yet long gone are the days of pistols at twenty-paces as a cultural norm). Action fiction lets us live vicariously through the hero and channel all of those moments when we wish we could have, but never did.

The excitement of action fiction to the reader, the dazzle and spectacle, are merely byproducts of anger’s colorful work.

Because anger is fundamental to the human condition, sooner or later in every story, somebody gets angry at something. Action is the one genre that acts like a party crasher, busting into any genre’s party, at any given moment.

I have Action listed as one of the six base genres, and while it’s certainly accurate referring to it as such, in reality few pieces of fiction are written as pure Action Fiction. Usually one or more other genres works in tandem with Action, making it difficult to decipher on its own.

While everyone can recognize the core expressions of action, the novice writer often has trouble knowing exactly where Action ends and a more specific genre begins, or more precisely, where other story mechanics take control.

The Action genre is like Gin, you know the alcohol. You can drink it straight, but most of the time you’ll mix it (with another genre)… When you use Gin as the main spirit you’ll always have a similar foundation; an Action Horror story and an Action Thriller, will often feel related. But push the added ingredients a little bit too much one way, or the other, and it the Action drink really becomes a drink unto its own (Action literally morphing into another genre or subgenre).

I’ll make note about Action fiction rolling over into other genres, most notably Thriller or Adventure, as we go on. But the primary focus of this article is quintessential Action Fiction.

After reading this article you’ll be a pro at understanding the boundaries of action in all its forms.

The Action genre really should be called the Violence genre; after all, violence is where anger lives 11 months out of the year.

The core expressions of modern day violence fiction are pretty straight forward;

  • Fighting
  • Shooting
  • Explosions
  • Car Chases
  • High Body Counts
  • Beaucoup Destruction
  • Sex and,
  • Swords

(Don’t worry, I’m not getting into that 7th one in this article.)

To the novice writer, merely incorporating these eight core elements delivers on Action Fiction.

But I’ve typed up over 10,000 words in this article and you’re here reading, so we both know there’s more to it… a lot more to it.

Dunk your biscotti and let’s do this;

 

Justification for Violence

Recognizing that anger and violence are the driving forces of Action Fiction, we are immediately faced with a conundrum;

How can our protagonist initiate the anger and violence in our story?

After all, unsolicited anger and violence are the traits of villains not heroes! (hero; quiet down in the back row, we’ll talk more about different protagonists later.)

Well it’s a trick question chuckles, because the hero CAN’T initiate the anger and violence.

It always has to come from the MAF first (that’s Main Antagonistic Force to you newbies).

The MAF always throws the first punch delivering a severe moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero.

Combining all three for the trifecta is great (you’ll hear this more than once in this article), but that first one, severe moral offense, is the primary catalyst for much Action Fiction.

The MAF’s moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero, gives justification to the hero’s anger and violence. It is for all intents and purposes the opening attack in what will play out as a series of attacks between opponents.

In Action Fiction, The MAF attack serves as the inciting incident that opens the active story.

I make the distinction of “active story” understanding that NO STORY truly stops and ends, there is always content in the story universe before and after the active story in progress.

Often in Action Fiction, the story picks up with a “conflict in progress.”

For example; The Hong Kong cops trying to bust the weapon smuggling gangsters in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. The weapon smugglers didn’t just appear after Hard Boiled started, Chow Yun-Fat had been working to stop them for some undefined amount of time before the story opens.

Or Dolph Lundgren in Showdown in Little Tokyo, where he’s trying to bring down the Yakuza in Los Angeles. If I remember correctly Showdown in Little Tokyo opens with Dolph attacking a Yakuza underground fight ring in a big shootout.

At first glance of the latter, you would think, “Wait a sec, the hero is initiating the anger and violence.” But this is out of context. In reality, with this conflict already in progress, the MAF MUST HAVE delivered its initial attack somewhere in the backstory.

Cops don’t go and attack criminals before they commit a crime.

The hero can not initiate the violence.

While in theory a backstory MAF attack could serve as the inciting incident, in reality, there is always another showcase of a MAF attack opening the more focused conflict of the active story.

Let me do another one for clarity;

In the movie Predator, Arnie and his boys find the first military squad hung up and skinned. This is the MAF’s original attack (and moral offense). It justifies the squad unleashing anger and violence against the Predator.

If they had caught the Predator sitting down to breakfast, the audience would have been cool with Arnold unloading on him. That backstory MAF attack would have worked, but instead, the Predator initiates the REAL inciting incident of the active story by delivering a MAF attack in the story in progress; shooting and killing Blain (Jesse Ventura).

  • If you find yourself in an Action fiction story where the MAF’s opening attack is watered down, not severe in its intensity and/or not directly focused on the hero, the story is likely rolling into Adventure territory.

Anger and Violence, initiated by the MAF opens the door to an ongoing fight between protagonist and antagonist. This adversarial clash creates three underlying narrative directions for Action Fiction;

All Action Fiction is either Retribution, Revenge, or Survival fiction

While retribution and revenge sound similar there is a clear distinction.

Retribution based stories are about punishment for a criminal offense or infraction against the greater good.

While there’s always an air of it being personal between characters in the story (more on that later), retribution turns on the law of the land, for subverting bad outcomes, stopping and punishing folks who have done bad things, and restoring balance to world.

Basically the MAF tries to do something “wrong” or has already done something “wrong,” and stopping it or bringing the MAF to justice restores equilibrium.

Retribution fiction encompasses a lot of Action Crime Fiction. When a crime is committed in the real world, simply arresting someone is the goal. The arrest sends the criminal through the judicial process, which hopefully leads to justice.

This may work for crime and court fiction, but for Action Fiction, there is no time for satisfaction through the court.

Even when arrest is the end goal in a lot of Cop Action stories, the struggle to reach that arrest must entail measures of actual punishment. The criminals have to get punished in the active story, before getting their final long-term punishment out of story. This is why I refer to the classification as retribution and not simply “justice.”

Of course, in plenty of Retribution Action stories, the criminal is smoked before they ever get arrested at the end. Sorry not sorry, but the idea is that the hero at least tried to do it “by the book.”

Revenge stories are wholly personal.

They turn on personal satisfaction for responding to the MAF attack. It has nothing to do with law of the land, or restoring balance, in fact, revenge stories are quite happy with making an even greater mess of things as long as personal justice is delivered.

In Revenge Action Fiction, the MAF has already done something “wrong” that there’s no avenue of justice to restore equilibrium. The only thing left to the hero is personal satisfaction.

Revenge Action fiction of course is the fertile playground of Anti-heroes (more on this later).

Survival Action is not Survival Horror

In Horror, we know it’s all about survival; the sinister forces at work are literally working to murderly urder the heroes.

In Retribution and Revenge Action, survival is always at risk because the hero is engaged in his dangerous mission, the way a cop always puts his life on the line every day he goes to work, but survival is not the core focus of the character or the narrative.

Sure in all action fiction the MAF and its agents will go after the hero at some point, but it’s simply not their primary goal of the entire story, unless it’s specifically, Survival Action fiction.

Survival Action fiction isn’t motivated by anything other than the living status of the heroes. Predator is arguably Survival Action Fiction, Assault on Precinct 13, Dredd, The Running Man… all stories where the core MAF goal is the death of the protagonists and in turn, the hero’s primary goal is simply survival.

Keep in mind, in all three categories of Action Fiction (even Survival Fiction), there usually are more specific character goals.

For example; Stopping a big shipment of drugs, or guns, rescuing a group of hostages, arresting all the members of a crime syndicate, etc. In the Running Man, resistance fighters try to break the corporations tyrannical grasp by taking out their satellite, this goal eventually becomes the hero’s goal.

Where all Action Fiction is one of these three classifications of stories, it means a core narrative undercurrent directs the more specific character goals.

Combining all three categories for the trifecta makes for stand out Action Fiction.

  • Survival fiction without a human MAF rolls over into Adventure (Cast Away) or Disaster Fiction (Meteor, Volcano or Hurricane Shark stories; more on that later).
  • Survival fiction without any Retribution or Revenge underpinnings, usually rolls over into Horror.

Now that we understand;

  • Action Fiction is fueled by anger and violence,
  • perpetuated FIRST by the MAF,
  • creating a Retribution, Revenge or Survival situation for the hero,

we can now look at the executing Action Fiction at the fundamental level.

The most potent use of the eight core expressions of Action Fiction; anger and violence materializes to its highest level through;

High Tension, High Jeopardy Struggle.

In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics, I define Tension as; a heightened emotional state derived from an immediate danger or threat.

In other words, stress or anxiety from expectations of a bad outcome.

Jeopardy in a nutshell is danger. The distinct presence of potential loss, failure, or harm.

Since Tension is really a byproduct of jeopardy, the declaration; High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle, is a bit redundant. But it’s important enough to underscore. This concept is critical to effective action fiction.

There are three primary ways to express High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle in Action Fiction:

Battles

Direct fighting conflict between opponents. This covers everything from hand-to-hand, to gunplay. It can include only two opponents or entire armies.

Pursuits

One opponent trying to catch the other. On foot, on horseback, in cars, planes, trains, tanks, whatever…

Stunts

These are High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle situations without a human opponent.

Indy running from the boulder, Ironman flying into space where his suit can’t withstand the atmosphere, Dr. Richard Kimble jumping from the top of a dam, are all examples of stunts. Extreme Risk feats.

Since we’re talking execution now, it’s worth noting here;

  • High Tension, High Jeopardy moments with struggle but less violence, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Thriller.
  • High Tension, High Jeopardy moments without physical struggle, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Psychological Thriller.

It’s absolutely imperative to understand that the High Tension, High Jeopardy moments alone do not define Action; STRUGGLE IS KEY.

Since Action Fiction is ultimately a long, sustained battle between opponents, a lot of similarities spring up from the Ultimate Fight article. Look to that article for specifics on how to develop great action scenes in unto themselves.

However you build out your action scenes realize, the Struggle is one of the most important elements to grasp and implement.

Without struggle, we simply have displays of violence (which serve to diffuse tension and jeopardy, not build or sustain it).

Without struggle, when a character simply displays and engages in violence effortlessly (or for all intents and purposes unopposed), we devolve into a “showcase of badassery.”  As you’ll see in a second, this is useful in limited qualities to introduce or highlight a character, but no matter how you crack it, prolonged displays of violence without struggle get old real fast.

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

To Be or Not To Be In your Dialogue

If you’re a member of this site, you already know the significance and necessity of subtext.

You also know that symbolism is perhaps the most potent form of visual subtext. Today I’m going to throw you in the deep end and discuss the “symbolism of dialogue,” also known as;

Poetry.

Poetry is a beastly subject.

You’ve most assuredly studied some of the famous, great works and may even have a few poetry books on your library shelf… but few, of even us writers, actually delve into the workings of poetry;

a vast ocean of art and science.

I dare not attempt to explain the full magnitude of this ocean in an online article. I’m not going to define the different forms of poetry: Lyrical poetry, Narrative poetry, Odes, Sonnets, Triplets, Tercets, Ballads, Haiku, Tanka, Cinquains, Limericks and others.

Instead I strive to explain the relevance of including poetic influences in your work, possibly enlighten you to some of the fundamentals, to set you on a new course of bringing greater depth and meaning to your work, and perhaps most important, a stronger sense of memorability to your writing.

I encourage you to explore poetry in all its forms to expose yourself to new written frontiers and expand your personal horizons as a writer…

However, in comics, games and screenplays, you are unlikely to incorporate larger works of poetry, but rather, create moments of “poetic dialogue.”

So grab your latte and let’s get into it!

 

Metric Verse

Rhythm and Meter are broken down and assessed in spoken language by syllables and pronunciation of words. (It may sound obvious, but make sure you acknowledge this.)

More specifically, where poetry is metered (having a recurring pattern); each line can be broken down into feet, and each foot in turn, broken down into stresses.

I’m about to throw a bunch of stuff at you…

Don’t get overwhelmed.

You don’t need to memorize all this. You just need to understand the concepts.

Learning scansion (the technical term for breaking down a line into its feet and stresses), literally signals how to read a line. Ultimately, this process is very much like story structure itself. While you can’t force your reader to read dialogue the way you intend, by adding this level of thought and design, you deliver “invisible direction and influence,” just like the reader doesn’t see the structural mechanics of your narrative, yet takes the very journey you lead them on.

Metrical Lines

  • Monometer = 1 foot.
  • Dimeter = 2 feet.
  • Trimeter = 3 feet.
  • Tetrameter = 4 feet.
  • Pentameter = 5 feet.
  • Hexameter = 6 feet.
  • Heptameter = 7 feet.
  • Octameter = 8 feet.

Stresses

The most common stresses contain 2 parts;

  • Iamb = light stress then heavy stress.  (pronounced “I am”)
  • Trochee = heavy stress then light stress. (pronounced “Trow Key”)

Normally to indicate stresses you use a little floating “u” or undertie for the light stresses and a slash for the heavy. I can’t reproduce the u’y thing here, so I’ll settle for a tilde “~.”

Other stresses include;

  • Pyrrhus = two light stresses
  • Tribrach = three light stresses
  • Dactyl = heavy stress then two light stresses
  • Amphibrach = light stress then heavy stress then light stress
  • Anapest = two light stresses then heavy stress
  • Bacchius = light stress followed by two heavy stresses
  • Antibacchius = two heavy stresses then light
  • Spondee = two equal stresses
  • Cretic = heavy then light then heavy
  • Molossus = three heavy stresses
  • Catalectic = a line missing one syllable from the first or last foot

“Bat MAN. Bat MAN. nah nah nahnahnah…”

You know the song.

Light stress Bat, Heavy stress Man.

Trying singing it in reverse and see how awkward it feels…

or how bout this one;

“SPI der MAN. SPI der MAN.

Does whatever a spider can.”

That first bit of the SpiderMan song is cretic. Again try singing it with different stresses and see how alien it feels!

It sounds complicated, but it’s that simple!

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

The Art and Science of Killing Characters

I was recently watching the Korean Series SWEET HOME on Netflix… toward the later issues, I mean episodes, the series changed its narrative approach and started killing off many of the characters.

Oh, sorry, spoiler alert (not really you don’t know who they killed.)

Anyway, this is a trend in a lot of modern fiction, Walking Dead and Game of Thrones come to mind.

So how does some fiction get away with it, where other fiction falls to pieces because of it?

Glad you asked.

Bad fiction introduces a character, begins developing the character, creates interest between reader and character, then kills said character unexpectedly for shock value.

Don’t do this.

This is low art and bad science character murder.

You might be able to get away with it, if the other elements of your story cover up the crime, but why force extra work and responsibility on the rest of your story? They’ve already got enough to do.

Instead, hire a professional assassin from the start, and let the other elements of your story focus on their own jobs!

Ok, so to explain why you don’t want to do it dirty like this, let’s talk about the three types of characters in your story. The Hero/Protagonist, Core Cast Characters and Red Shirts/Extras

Let’s start at the top;

Hero/Protagonist

I want you to think for a second;

If you’re going to kill the hero of your story, when in the story would you do it?

Forget about a fractured narrative…

or flashback narratives…

or a story that switches protagonists half-way through…

or one guy’s telling of another guy’s story…

or whatever…

In a standard, single-hero, sequential story, when would you most likely kill the hero?

At the end, of course.

Either in the climatic battle of act 3, or possibly shortly after as part of the denouement to the climax. While we could argue a number of narrative reasons why you would do this, the core reason is simple;

The hero is the most important character of the story. The reader experiences the story through the hero.

If the hero dies early on, the hero never has time to develop.

Meaning either, the hero wasn’t actually the most important character of the story to begin with, or the reader never gets a chance to fully engage and empathize with them…

In either case, killing the hero of the story early, pretty much guarantees the story is going to fall apart.

Luckily, because this cause and effect is so fundamental to story structure, most writers never really run into a problem here. Even newbie writers get this one instinctively.

The real problems arise with Core Cast Characters.

 

Core Cast Characters

Core cast characters are the main and secondary characters supporting the hero. (Technically, potentially the protagonists themselves in an ensemble cast story, but let’s not add Vodka to the well water.)

  • Han Solo
  • Ned Stark (GOT),
  • Alfred Pennyworth (Batman)

are all examples of Core Cast characters.

Core cast characters are the ones bad fiction falls upon to kill as a means to jolt the reader. The shock value of their death is used as a gimmick to establish narrative tension; to scare the reader into thinking, “well, if they just killed that dude, who are they going to kill next? Holy crap, I better read some more.”

When applied strictly from a shock value perspective, there’s an old writing adage that warns us why it doesn’t work!

Every character is the hero in their own story.

When bad fiction kills a character for shock value, by its nature, in order to be “shocking,” it has to come before the character’s arc is completed.

It’s not the means of death itself that shocks the reader, but the timing of the death relevant to the character’s personal journey (arc) and the readers engagement to the character.

In other words, if the murder comes after the character’s natural progression to the end of their development, if the character actually reaches their climatic hero moment (see above) of facing–whatever ‘they’re suppose to be facing’–their death would not necessarily be expected, but would fundamentally be accepted. A natural end to the character’s journey (for better or worse).

Only by cutting the character’s journey short, does a character’s death really come across, at the deepest level, as shocking. (We’re not talking jump scares here, we’re talking psychological.)

And there in lies the rub.

By not allowing the character to reach their personal climax, the writer completely undermines the worth of the character and the bond between character and reader.

Murdering for shock value, literally tells the reader “Nope, this character is NOT the hero of THEIR own story. They’re a loser… irrelevant.”

Killing irrelevant characters for shock value, disengages readers.

It instantly reduces the character to a mere story mechanic and undoes all the empathy established between the reader and character. It tells the reader, their time building empathetic bonds to the characters… and even the story itself as a whole, is not respected.

A reader who empathizes with a character, who begins to build a connection with a character and then see them exterminated outside of their proper climatic conclusion, can not possibly feel satisfaction–in fact, in almost every scenario, they will feel robbed, cheated and disengaged from the rest of the story.

Readers don’t dictate the pace or direction of a story, but their effort and time is always respected by good fiction.

 

Murder Artistically. Murder Scientifically.

So when you want to murder your Core Cast characters, here’s how you do it.

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

the Writer’s Logline

In the Writer’s Guide to Comics I explain what a log line is.

In Storycraft to Comics, I explain the fundamental structure to a good logline and give some examples.

On NickMacari.com “Loglines: Is my story any good,” I explain the significance of the logline, today, I’m going to further the discussion of their importance, and break down the process of making a successful one.

If you’re not running a logline on your typical story build, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

For those coming to the concept for the first time, a logline is merely a single sentence summary of your story

Too often, even in the shi-shi’est of writing circles, folks abandon the idea of structure to the logline. Instead, they focus on trying to be clever, distilling the story down, not to a technical reflection of the story, but to a flashy or ambiguous hook… a marketing gimmick. Or a one-line pitch (not an actual Logline); “Rambo in space.”

Because most script writers don’t release loglines with their published work, the internet is awash with clever gimmick loglines to the most famous stories and pitches masking as genuine loglines.

Of course these are all writer interpretations.

“A Jersey kid learns karate from an L.A. janitor.” – Karate Kid

I mean it’s not wrong.

It’s just doesn’t really tell us much of anything.

A real logline, one that actually conveys the story, is what I refer to as the Writer’s Logline, and it’s the one you’re here to master.

The Writer’s Logline includes a few specific points.

From Storycraft;

“In strict writing terms, loglines are stated in a single sentence. We capture the story goal and summary with a bit more detail, anchoring it with the main character, their goal, the force working against them, and the stakes if they fail. Stand out loglines usually incorporate a sense of irony. They come across with a clever, fresh angle, which like the high-concept, immediately drums forth visuals and potential.”

Only a writer intimately familiar with his story can write a proper Writer’s Logline, and there in lies its supreme power.

The single sentence summary, forces the writer to distill the story down to its key essence… and when written with purpose, reveals the story’s CORE STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS.

I snatched this one off the internet;

CASABLANCA

Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

Let’s put it to the test;

  • Story goal/summary
  • Main character,
  • MC goal,
  • The force working against them
  • Stakes
  • Irony.
You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

Writing HORROR

Put up some coffee and grab a notebook.

You’ll need both to tackle this 8500 word article, but if you have the courage to do it, you’ll be writing some of the best horror you’ve ever written in your life.

Horror covers a lot of territory and can be broken down into a number of subgenres, each with distinct considerations. I have a passion for most of them, but I’m not going to try and tackle all of them here.

For the focus of this article, we’re going to discuss what I consider the quintessential horror story, which stems not from the origin of horror itself, not from Walpole, Shelly or Poe (all of whom are profound in their influence), but from Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Carpenter; primarily stories from the 70’s & 80’s that directly gave birth to horror as an industry we recognize today.

Horror is such a fundamental part of being human (chew on that for a while), we all know what it is, but sometimes it’s a bit hard to articulate into words. The most commonly held definition of horror is that it’s story that scares or elicits a sense of dread.

While both true, I expect a little more from horror fiction, I think it’s deserved it as a genre, and like to define it as;

Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.

Notice I did not simply say, “Expectation of a worst case scenario.” If it’s simply a worst case scenario, we know or presume what that scenario is… if it’s an UNIMAGINABLE worst case scenario, that means we as readers, recognize that we don’t know what it is. That the scenario about to unravel before us, while clearly bad, is beyond anything we can expect.

This expectation of the unexpected is where true horror lives.

Genuine Horror always surprises us, subverting and exceeding our expectations far more than we could have imagined.

In other words, we know going in, the vampire story is going to have vampires drinking peoples’ blood, and the zombie story will have lots of zombies being shot in their heads and burned alive (well undead), but we expect that these things are going to happen in a horrific manner we haven’t seen before.

After all, nothing is ever quite as horrific once it’s been seen.

It is the fiction that breaks beyond what we expect, that enters new territory, that truly terrifies us.

Which coincidentally, is why so many works of horror fiction fall flat, because they simply never go beyond what we assume is coming in one way or another… or have simply seen many times before.

Hold these truths tight when you develop the core concept to your story.

Either innovate with something completely new, OR, if you go down a familiar path, bring a fresh new take on it. Doing the same that’s been done before, in horror, is the fast track to an ineffective forgettable story.

 

Fear

The king emotion of the Horror story, of course, is fear.

You may find it valuable for your horror writing to understand why readers find fear so alluring. We all know fear is a primal, maybe THE MOST primal emotion of them all… but why are we so drawn to it in fiction (well, at least some of us, my girlfriend hates horror flicks–it’s something I still cope with daily.)

Back on point.

Personally, I believe that human existence has always existed intimately with danger. For most of our species’ history, there were surely more questions than answers to much of this danger. So unexpected death and the unknown (to which we use our imagination to somehow make sense of things) are hardwired into the human condition.

Today, most of us live fairly safe lives, under the impression that humanity has a lot of, if not most of, the answers.

Again this is only my personal interpretation on the subject here; but I think this disconnect leaves us with a macabre sense that something is lacking or missing from our lives.

Of course, nobody I know on Facebook, wants to be eaten by a large predator… And I’d guess throughout all of human history, the folks who did get eaten by large predators, were pretty upset about it.

But the point is, by exposing ourselves to this missing element, perhaps it helps us feel “more complete.” I think Nine Inch Nails might have said it best; “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…”

Taking a journey into horror fiction presents one other very important element on a fundamentally psychological level.

Only by facing fear, do we find courage.

We can tell others and ourselves all day long how courageous we are, but until we’re actually tested and live through something, it’s all talk.

So not only do horror stories give us a connection to a dangerous horrific side of life, most of us are no longer attached to, but it gives us a chance to prove we have the courage to face that dangerous horrific part of life… and survive.

In my travels, I’ve found that horror fans are always more adventurous, willing to try new things, accepting of challenges, and at the end of the day, some of the most courageous people I know.

Imagine that?

We can’t proceed any further without mentioning the second emotion closely tied to the Horror genre;

Disgust

Since disgust often travels hand-in-hand with Fear when it comes to horror, I refer to it as the Queen emotion of the Horror story.

Disgust is more closely associated with anger than fear.

Disgust supports our macabre sense of Fear as we discussed above, in the sense that by seeing it unfold before us, we are immediately reminded of our appreciation for our safe lives.

“Ok, danger, death, and unknown… I see you… and, now that I think about it… I’m good. Sitting behind a computer desk all day not getting my head smashed like a rotten grape, yeah this life is fine.”

Disgust removes any romantic element of death.

As disgust triggers closer to anger, when we are totally disgusted, we want it to stop with more urgency. That is to say, if you read a slasher story, and every time the killer killed someone the writing cut away and left out the gory descriptions, you might grow a little distant or indifferent… but when you see and experience the grotesquerie first-hand, an urgency develops for it (and by proxy, the source responsible for it) to be stopped.

While torture porn, splatter films, and hard-core gore stories are always thrown in the horror genre, I would make an argument that disgust alone does not make a horror story. While disgust is potent, useful, and supportive, fear makes horror. Period.

Alright campers, we’ve got a fundamental understanding of what horror is and the underlying emotions that control it.

Sharpen up the machetes; grab your crucifix and let’s breakdown the essential elements into writing stories that will scare the shit out of your readers.

 

Terrified Characters

It’s near impossible to have an effective horror story if the protagonists aren’t scared themselves.

Always remember that readers empathize and live vicariously through the characters. If the characters are not afraid, if the cast shows courage, no matter how effective your atmosphere and no matter how hard you hit the other elements discussed in this article, your readers will not feel fear–they will be bolstered by the confidence and courage the characters exude.

This concept leads us to our golden rule;

Where the MAF performs violence, we generate fear and horror.
Where the Hero performs violence, we generate action/violence.

So while, of course, your heroes may express moments of courage, especially toward the end of the story, in the third act where they move toward conquering the MAF, the more you push the source of violence onto your heroes, the further away you move from horror to action/violence.

For maximum fear transference to the reader, keep your heroes terrified as much as possible, and where they find the courage and confidence to stand against the horror, never let them do it with 100% conviction. Instead, even when they find courage, make it clear, they are still terrified, using every ounce of strength to stand strong despite their intense fear!

 

Survival Horror

Survival horror is a subgenre first coined from the Resident Evil game series (as far as I recall offhand), where the protagonist is trapped alone in a mansion and left to face an undead horde with extremely limited resources.

In truth, ALL horror is about survival.

We’ll talk more about this in “stakes” later, but make no mistake, in genuine horror stories the character’s always face a struggle for survival.

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

Writing DRAMA

In Defining Genre, we already defined the parent genre, Drama as;

  • more serious in tone
  • focusing on character arc development and theme
  • digging deep into the humanity behind the story
  • encompassing not one primary human emotion (as with other genres), but many, or all of them.

In Getting Drama on Point, I gave some practical general tips in establishing drama in any written work. Today, in this first article on the “workings of genre”, we’re going to look more at depth at the parent genre.

Before we get started, let’s digress for a moment;

Character Driven vs. Plot Driven

Read a dozen different blogs on this topic, and you’ll get a dozen different answers on this. Some of them a bit more off than others. The truth is, many folks make it more complicated than it needs to be. After all the answer is literally right in the title.

Here’s the crux of it;

Character driven is just how it sounds, the story is literally, driven by the characters… and when we say the characters, we primarily mean the main character. More specifically, the main character(s) are more often the catalyst for their own problems/obstacles in the story. (The external manifests from their internal.)

Marky Marks Gambler movie is a perfect example that comes to mind. The dude is a gambling addict and as soon as he gets money, he runs to the casino and gambles it all away. When he meets the love interest in the story, his addiction takes priority, he puts it ahead of the girl, and creates a further mess of things. At every turn, his own personal issues manifest into the major problems/obstacles/events of the story.

Contrast this to plot driven, where the source of problems/obstacles are more often initiated outside the realm of the main character’s influence. (The external manifests from the external.)

When Luke is chilling on Tatooine, he’s got nothing to do with Vader capturing Leia. In fact, we can go further back, and say, Luke had nothing to do with being born as Vader’s son. These external problems/obstacles/events arrive irregardless of the problems Luke faces as a person.

So in a character driven story, the character makes a mess of things, then has to deal with his mess. In a plot driven story, life makes a mess of things and the character has to deal with the mess. Notice there is always a mess… and we get to see the character’s internal struggle whichever way conflict arises.

In both of the definitions, I specifically use the term “more often” because the truth is much of fiction is both character driven, and plot driven at the same time. Meaning at times the characters are driving the bus, other times, the plot is.

We only “define” stories as character driven or plot driven, when the clear majority of bus driving is done by one or the other.

While we could analyze this topic further, producing more specific rules for every possible version of story, the amount of fiction outside this presented definition of character driven vs. plot driven is pretty small. It pays, to keep it simple.

Before we get back to all the points we’re going to discuss about writing the Drama, note that by understanding the difference between these two approaches to story, we can apply this focus to one specific area for big results;

Make KEY TURNS your character’s fault

Particularly;

  • The 1st Act Turn
  • The Midpoint Turn
  • The 2nd Act Turn

While it’s not 100% required to do this to create an effective story, (again, you can let the plot drive the bus at times) anchoring these three key turns of the story, to your character (or more specifically your character’s flaw), instead of some outside forces, will push the story deep into Drama territory.

Ok, so now that we have a clearer idea of character driven vs. plot driven, let’s get back to it.

First and foremost, writing the drama is about characters and their relationships.

This may sound obvious.

And of course, to some degree, all writing is about the characters and their relationships. But where other genres may take advantage of characters and their relationships, for the drama, it is the primary vehicle of the story.

It is, after all, certainly plausible to enjoy the spectacle script, for the thing(s) it makes a spectacle of; watching a boxing movie for the boxing, a kung-fu flick for the kung-fu, and a war movie for the clash of heavy weaponry, none of these movies outside the drama genre require an in-depth understanding of what personal sacrifices the boxer made, what personal demons the martial artist struggles with, or how the soldier manning the 50 caliber gets along with his drunkard brother.

So the question simply becomes; how do we capture characters and their relationships effectively enough to carry a script?

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

Violet Sun Outline

Below is the Comprehensive Outline for an original sci-fi horror story I wrote. You may notice in this 8000 word, 38 page outline, there is a distinct current of the protagonist running from one point to another, with a specific series of highly defined goals.

Violet Sun was originally conceived as a story to a video game (never published), with a focus on level-by-level game play progression. Even the main alien antagonists were built with a game-play progression in mind.

I’ve always loved this story; from the religious vs science undertones, the zealot Minister villain, the crumbling Earth solar system, and insane escalation toward the ending…

I’ve pitched this story as a mini-series to a publisher that expressed interest (but never followed up) and discussed it with a couple of different comic book artists. Nothing’s come of it yet, but…

It’s high on my priority list to bring to life in comic format some day.

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us

Focused Writing

In a recent podcast I was talking about how a writer doesn’t get a chance to explain their work.

When a reader or audience engages with your writing, your work stands or falls on its own legs. Period.

Often, when I give editorial comments to newer writers on why something doesn’t work, they’ll try and defend their writing.

“Well the hero does that in this scene, because this, this and this.”

The minute you have to explain it, you’ve failed. Clear, effective writing requires no explanation.

So even if your argument is valid, you’ve still failed because you did not express your elements effectively enough that they need no explanation.

This concept circles back to one of writing’s most fundamental covenants, something you hear me say all the time;

“At any given moment, you must know the narrative significance of what you’re trying to express. Whether it’s at the act, sequence, scene, page, panel, dialogue bubble level, single line, or even word.”

With this level of constant awareness, you can then keep three considerations in mind at all times;

  • Intention to Express. Or simply, Intent.
  • Execution of Intention. Or simply, Execution.
  • Effectiveness of Execution. Or simply Effectiveness.

Keeping IEE in mind, allows focused writing. There are no complicated tricks here. The hardest part is merely taking the time and effort. Let’s break it down;

As an example, I’m gonna reverse engineer a panel from my new series Peerless.

Panel 1

EXT. SHIP AT SEA – DAY

KIARA leans against the deck railing of a large ship on a choppy sea. She holds a well-worn letter in her hands, a letter she’s read many times and contemplates reading again while she stares off across the water, with a distant, brooding look on her face. Her hair rustles in the sea wind.

CAP           36 hours earlier.

Think you can guess what the intent is?

Well, this one is too tricky for you to guess, you can guess the obvious one, but there are actually 2 equally important narrative expressions in this panel; the second is only understood within the context of an upcoming panel, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Let me explain;

You need to login to view the rest of the content. Please . Not a Member? Join Us
All content © 2017-2021 Nick Macari and may not be reproduced without written permission. Author Theme by Compete Themes