WILL SHE OR WON’T SHE? – SHAPING PLOT THROUGH CHARACTER DECISIONS

Recently I attended a Screen Queensland, Wendall Thomas screenwriting workshop on developing plot through decisions.

Wendall’s main message was this – Structure your plot through character decisions.

As we know the very best plots spring from the intrinsic motivations and flaws of our characters. Their goals, hopes and weaknesses create meaningful plotlines that are compelling because we are invested in the characters. Alternatively, plots that are imposed on characters can feel contrived and don’t have the same emotional drive that keeps us reading.

According to Wendall, each decision has three elements.

MOTIVATION – what situation/idea/goal/event forces a decision upon this character?

DECISION – what choice do they make in response to that motivating factor?

And finally

CONSEQUENCES – what events does the characters decision set in motion?

These elements remind me of my days teaching kids with behaviour disorders in juvenile justice centres. On every wall were posters proclaiming a very similar process to get them to reflect before they took rash actions that could potentially land them in even deeper trouble. STOP. THINK. OPTIONS. CONSEQUENCES. ACTION.

Stop and Think before you act!

A character has to act not just react. This process of shaping the plot through their decisions forces them to take active responsibility and turns a sappy passive protagonist into a vital force in your story, novel or screenplay.

In all forms it’s important to transform these internal decisions into external actions. To not just say, Bobby realised that killing the cat would get him in trouble, but to show Bobby, swinging the cat by the tail until it shrieked, but then stopping, holding the cat to his chest, wrenching its face up to look in its eyes, then setting it free.

Dora Marr – Boy with Cat

Each decision has its consequences. Some good, some bad. As Wendall kept saying – every decision takes your character one step forward and then two steps back.

Let’s just say Bobby made that decision to set the cat free, but it was wounded and someone had already seen him with it. When it limped home, the owners called the police and Bobby was arrested. As the police approach him Bobby starts throwing punches, swearing and reacting as he’s always done, but one of the officers speaks kindly to him and Bobby thinks better of it and calms down. Goes with them peacefully. 

After the inciting incident that sets up our story, the protagonist must decide whether or not to take up the challenge it presents. Once they do, they are propelled into the second act and continue to make decisions that move them one step forward and two steps back all the way through to the climax. Some decisions seem sensible, but others, motivated perhaps by their fatal flaw or a deep-seated weakness, we know from the start are only going to make things worse, much worse.

At the watchhouse, Bobby is taken aside by a corrupt officer who tells him he’ll let him go if he becomes an informer and feeds him information about the drug running bikie gang Bobby’s violent uncle heads. Bobby shakes the corrupt officer’s hand, puts the cash in his pocket and we know things are only going to get a whole lot worse from here.

So remember, MOTIVATION, DECISION, CONSEQUENCES and show us those decisions in ACTIONS that manifest the characters feelings and realisations.

As we hurtle towards the climax of our stories, propelled by decisions that really aren’t going so well, the decisions become increasingly reckless as the character is put under more and more pressure. Consequences get more and more dangerous.

Let’s say after informing a couple of times, Bobby sees Uncle Roger stash a couple of gym bags full of cash under the house before he heads out on his Harley. Bobby gets his phone and clicks on the police officer’s number. But then, just as the officer answers, Bobby shoves the phone back in his pocket, and scrambles under the house, emerging with a bag full of cash.

Then he turns up at his young girlfriend’s place and tells her to pack a bag. They’re both heading off down the street when the cat he hurt crosses their path. His girlfriend stops to pat it and they waste precious time. The bikie gang roars around the corner.

UHOH!

Decisions that your character makes early on in the story manifest themselves in consequences in the final act. Bobby’s decision to become an informer brings him into all sorts of dangerous circumstances he could have avoided. Even the cat plays a role in delaying his escape.

In every book you read and every film or TV show you watch, keep an eye out for how those character decisions are shaping the story.

And if in your own story your character isn’t making any decisions of their own, but is only reacting to external forces, give them some backbone and get them making decisions to give your plot a whole lot more OOMPH!

Start making history with your stories

Hope that helps you whip your stories into shape.

Keep smiling and keep writing through all the madness now surrounding us.

All is well. 

Lots of love

Edwina xx

HOW TO WRITE A SCENE IN 6 EASY STEPS

Are you stuck in telling mode and don’t really know how to make the radical leap into writing scenes? Telling is easy, we tell people our stories every day when we get home. However, you’ll notice that gifted story tellers, those we love to hear stories from, paint a picture with their words. They include setting details and dialogue and make us feel as if we were really there too. That’s the trick when we move from TELLING to SHOWING.

Our job as writers is to make our readers feel as if the story is real, happening in real time, that they are experiencing it. When we bring our stories to life with setting details, action and dialogue, we make our stories feel as real as possible.

But how do you write a scene?

It’s really not that tricky.

Start by writing your first draft of your whole story – don’t worry whether you’re telling or showing. Go for it, tell as much as you like, just get those words and basic story ideas down onto the page. Create your big baggy first draft to sculpt your finished story from. 

Augusta Savage, trailblazing artist

Then once you’ve had a chance to separate from the story a bit, go back and find places within that big baggy draft where you were telling rather than showing. Or if your whole piece is stuck in telling mode, then find a key turning point in the action or an interaction between characters that feels important and get ready to turn it into a scene.

ARE YOU READY? 

Let’s do it!

First, spend a few minutes with your eyes closed envisioning the scene as if it’s on a movie scene, taking note of how it’s all unfolding as if you’re the camera. 

Think about each character in the scene. What does each one want from this scene? Each character wants different things, so thinking about this early will help you build conflict. 

Think about the conflict in your scene. If there isn’t any, there should be, so dream up some point of difference to generate more energy and forward motion.

Now write your scene.

6 EASY STEPS TO WRITE A SCENE 

  1. Where is it taking place? This is your setting and it’s important to ground your reader in that setting at the opening of your scene. Find a few specific sensory details that give us a good idea of where and when we are, and perhaps even demonstrate an aspect of your character, or the mood of the scene, or both. 

For example: It had rained all night that summer of 1852 as The Enforcer wound its way between the outer islands of New Guinea.

2. Who is there? Your characters, that’s who! Now show your character or characters doing something in that setting, preferably doing something that demonstrates who they are and what they want from this scene.

Example: Fred the cabin boy clung to the ropes as he climbed up the rigging to the crows-nest, cursing the captain under his breath for sending him up.

3. What is going on? What action is taking place? How is this scene furthering your plot? Remember that ACTing is the main job of a charACTer.

Example: From the lookout Fred saw the sun’s glow leaking out under mounds of cloud. They were steering perilously close to a storm with all sails flying. The captain was a madman. A wave crashed against the merchant ship and almost sent Fred flying, but he grabbed hold of the mast as it swung and lurched, creaking.

4. Add some dialogue. Some folk find writing dialogue very tricky. My best advice is to just write any old blather that comes into your head and then later edit it down to be as minimal as it can be while retaining meaning. Make sure your characters speak at cross-purposes, all following their own agendas.

Example: Fred called down to the captain at the wheel, “Storm ahead! Pull in the rigging?”

“You giving orders now? I’ll have your hide. Just keep your eyes out for rocks boy!” the captain roared up.

“But the storm!”

“No storm’s ever stopped me.” The captain turned the wheel hard left, heading straight for the black-bellied clouds.

5. End the scene on a cliffhanger. Don’t tie up all the ends but leave the reader still needing to find something out. For example, I wouldn’t show the ship reaching the storm in this scene, only that Fred was very worried and in danger. 

Yosemite National Park USA

6. Follow with a scene not immediately answering that question. For example, to increase suspense, instead of going straight to the ship in the storm scene, I’d perhaps do a flashback scene of Fred being punished by the captain earlier, wrongly accused of stealing bread. Rations are low. So not only is there a storm coming but we know the captain and Fred have a troubled history, and not only that, the ship’s rations are dangerously low.

Following those 6 easy steps should set you on your way to writing in scenes. Use all your senses, make sure your characters are DOING not just THINKING, add dialogue and build suspense.

I hope my ideas have helped demystify writing in scenes for you. Let me know how you go.

GOOD LUCK!

Lots of love

Edwina