Tag Archives: Dramatic Structure

Writer, read your own work!

“The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of work is to leave it alone for a while.”

A FEW years ago I asked my social media followers if anyone had complete or partial manuscripts sitting around, perhaps something potentially ’embarrassing’. This question yielded some interesting answers, and many fantastic potential books. One of the reasons I started Write, Regardless! was to assist stymied writers to dust these works off and breathe new life into them. The next step is one of the hardest for independent writers – successfully rewriting your first draft.

Don’t send in your first draft… just DON’T!

The best thing writers can do with our newly-completed manuscripts is put them away. Ensure you have saved your work, backed it up to a memory stick, or at least printed it out, then bury it somewhere. Unfortunately, the negative reputation of the independent publishing industry is formed on the back of writers who complete a first draft of their books one day, then hit the publish button the next. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of our work is to leave it alone for a while; I’d recommend a few months. Use that time to keep your social media platform buoyant… you’re going to need readers and followers, so start attracting them! Of course if you have a long-buried manuscript already, it’s time to rewrite it.

Do the work!

It sounds far too simple, but the best way to rewrite great second and subsequent drafts is to learn the discipline of reading our own writingThis is harder than it sounds, but it’s become an essential tool for all writers in an age when editing and proofreading have lost currency. Even if you are gifted with the perfect writer’s pathway – your manuscript gets picked-up by a mainstream publisher, and you are assigned an editor who lovingly massages your talent – you are going to be better prepared for this luxury if you know your own work better than anyone else. The only way to achieve that is to read your manuscript. Do the work.

“Publishers are not looking for problem writers.”

Manuscripts must be fit!

Even if you are planning to approach traditional publishers with your manuscript, you’ll need to complete several drafts of it before submitting. I cannot say it enough: publishers are not looking for problem writers. They don’t have the time, money, or inclination to find a ‘genius’ and shape their work. Sending a manuscript to a publisher or literary agent is just the same as job interviewing and auditioning – you and your work must be on top form from the very first moment you have the ear of industry professionals. Do the work.

Don’t overdo every rewrite

For me, rewriting is about seeking entertainment and distraction within my own work. I figure that if I cannot move myself through my writing, then I am not offering anything to a reader. When we embark on a first read, many hours of work on our manuscripts lie ahead of us, so it’s best to avoid getting stuck in too much detail. We need to see the big picture of our story arcs, not worry about spelling and grammar at this stage. Insert notes so you remember things that spring to mind, but move swiftly through your read, trusting that next time you’ll make it even better.

Be hard on your plot!

By now you should have a good grasp on what makes a good dramatic story arc. Detailed reads of our work are our chance to see where our plotting is weak. Revisit my article on plotting many times as you reshape yours. My advice would be to correct plot failings as soon as you discover them, because there is no use trying to gloss over a story with, say, no antagonist; or a novel in which there is no conflict; or a work of non-fiction that does not have an effective resolution. Be prepared to admit your first draft is not yet complete, and go back to the drawing board. That level of honesty with your writing will pay dividends down the track.

HARD READ The Reader by Ferdinand Hodler (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
HARD READ The Reader by Ferdinand Hodler (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Writer angst

I have written plenty in Write, Regardless! about practical approaches to writing. It’s time to focus a little on the emotion. If you find yourself distracted, head in the clouds, missing appointments or late for work, chances are most of your mind is happily engaged on your plot. Don’t panic! Your family and friends will notice a change, very often they’ll interpret your daydreaming as a form of selfishness. Confessing to being a writer can trigger familial panic (we’re loose cannons in all rigid economies, we creatives). Reading, rewriting and plotting takes time, quietude and headspace, and when we don’t get these things, if we are doing the work, our brain does something clever… it takes over and does it whenever it gets a chance, such as when we wake, or as we are drifting off to sleep, or doing the dishes, or driving. Surrender to this process. In order to achieve your writing, you’ll need to do plenty of artful dodging with loved ones. Expect the odd angry outburst to surface if you are a writer doing the work. What you’re probably having trouble expressing is your need for headspace.

Rewriting short stories

The art of writing entertaining short stories is something most writers attempt at some stage in our careers. It’s a unique form of expression that relies on being even more adept at plotting, not less. Don’t confuse ‘shorter’ with ‘easier’. Check out my notes on rewriting short stories.

Read the warning signs

The independent publishing marketplace is full of advice and tips on how to achieve success. I’ve been gleaning great ideas within it for years, but one thing I have learned to watch for are signs of back-pedalling. While the rush to the Publish Button has become a tempting shortcut, I have read plenty about self-published writers who design their book covers before embarking on the writing process; who set-up marketing campaigns before fleshing-out their novel’s plot; and quite high-profile self published authors pulling their books off the virtual shelves to rework them. They do everything, it seems, apart from sitting still and actually reading their own work.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSThere are many exclamation marks in this article! That means there is an important message you need to listen to: you are the first audience of your output. If you want to be an effective writer, you need to practice the art of reading your own work. All the secrets to improving your manuscript are on the page already, even by their absence. Read, read, and read your own manuscripts. Do the work.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, don’t lose the plot!

“The essential foundation of all good storytelling.”

THE first six sessions of Write, Regardless! are about establishing an online social media platform, something all writers need to be doing for ourselves long before we start the process of publishing our books. Think of it this way… once you’ve got the regular selling process in place, it leaves you more time and energy to focus on regularly creating. To that end, we’ll start looking in more detail at the writing process, beginning with what I believe to be the essential foundation of all good storytelling: effective plotting.

Dig away at your plot

Every writer plots differently, but plotting a story is never executed just once or in isolation, it tends to evolve throughout the process of putting a title together. This article is something you’ll probably need to dip into across the writing of your work in order to stay on course with your plot.

Plotting a first draft

I am often asked if it’s possible to plot well in a first draft, and whether writers can keep track of where we are in our unfolding plots. The short answer is that I am a great advocate for belting out a first draft without focussing too much on plot. See where the inspiration takes you. There is a payoff for this rule-free ‘luxury’, however, which is that eventually we have to get tough on our plots in order to shape subsequent drafts. Having said that, the more we write, the more we become capable of shaping a plot in a first draft.

“This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining.”

Second draft and beyond

There’s no excuse for neglecting a tough plot analysis while executing your second and subsequent drafts. This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that some literary fairy godmother is going to magically appear and make your first draft perfect. Submitting an incomplete, unworked manuscript is the height of writerly laziness and nobody in the publishing trade is paid to make your raw draft into a workable book. That’s your job. Luckily, there are tools to help.

Bite-sized plot structure

Depending on what genre and format you’re writing, there is more than one way to plot a story. The archetypal five-act plot is the classic structure for novels and can be applied to long-form non-fiction. The archetypal three-act plot is commonly applied to screenplays and plays, although it’s really a truncated form of the five-act plot. Remember, these are a plot’s starting points. The rules are not there to break (if you want to entertain readers/viewers) but rather to bend. Your ability to be flexible with the rules is what will make your writing original.

Perfect plot points

Drilling deeper into plot structure will expose more detail on precise moments that heighten the experience for readers/viewers, such as the narrative hook, the call to action, and the point of no return. Don’t complete a second or subsequent draft of your books/scripts without them.

Fighting the ‘formula’

I’ve had many animated discussions with writers who don’t believe in structured plots. I am not here to convince anyone of the need to plot their stories, but I do know that a joke has a formulaic structure (set-up, punchline) and a ghost story by a campfire has one too. Try telling such stories without sticking to tried and true plot structure will leave the teller looking as though they have no sense of humour. We all anticipate a punchline in a joke, and we know a ghost story has a chilling moment ahead, yet we submit to the formula without question. Plotting a novel or screenplay is no different, in fact these writing formats require more conscious plotting, since they are longer and fall further from the formula, especially if we seek to be original.

ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.
ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.

The Hamlet argument

Many plotting naysayers pull the Hamlet card, suggesting the Prince of Denmark’s “To be, or not to be” speech by William Shakespeare is literature’s greatest example of a character in some fascinating kind of stasis that gives all writers an excuse to avoid plotting better stories. While it’s true Hamlet works himself into a state of not knowing what to do, his famous monologue is actually almost halfway through Shakespeare’s plot. The play opens with the unlikeliest of events – the purported appearance of a ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, and on the basis of what may be an hallucination, the hero drives the action through several major plot points before he pauses, thinks, and wonders if it might be better to die than go on. Sorry, plotting naysayers, Hamlet is not your trump card, nor is Waiting for Godot. Great stories have plots.

Create battles

When I get into a plot funk, I use a handy device to cut the crap and uncover what needs fixing by finding the ‘battle’ in my story. All journeys of protagonists (‘heroes’) and antagonists (‘villains’) involve conflict between the two. They get in each other’s way. I believe writers’ reticence to structure these conflicts is the greatest obstacle to good plotting. Name your hero and villain, and let them do battle. If you miss this fundamental core, you’ll have no plot.

When plotting and marketing combine

Rare is the writer who has not fantasised about our work in its finished form, imagining our books on shop shelves, complete with our ideas for titles and covers. This daydreaming can be an absolute writing killer, but there is a way to spin it into plotting gold… although my advice would be to try this process only when your first draft is done.

Try it on for size

If you can’t tell someone what your story is about, it’s probably not well plotted. When you have a first draft, try writing a blurb of your work. If this is hard work, it will show you where your plot is weak. If you don’t know who to focus the blurb on, it’s likely you don’t yet know who your protagonist is. Not being able to create an interesting blurb for a manuscript is a sure sign it is not well-plotted.

Synopsis vs blurb

When you’re approaching the point of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent, or you’re preparing to independently publish your work, you will need to create either a synopsis or a blurb of your title. A common trap for writers at this stage is to conflate a synopsis (an abridged version of a title allowing a quick analysis of its entire contents, including all plot points) and a blurb (a promotional ‘taster’ of the work which holds plot points back to generate interest). Writers need to reveal all plot points in a synopsis sent to prospective publishers and agents – let them in on your story’s mysteries. Independent publishers need to entice readers by holding back some plot points (particularly our story’s outcomes) when creating blurbs.

Case studies

During my research on the plotting process, I put a few well-known plots through their paces. Because the stories were not mine, the once-removed quality of the analysis made it easier, and I advise all writers to analyse the plots of their favourite books and scripts. Here are my plot examinations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Sum of Us, both works of fiction, and A Cry in Dark, a non-fiction screenplay. Try your own plot analysis as a way to grow familiar with the way stories are structured.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

Structuring an engaging story by building a great plot is not something that magically happens in the editing process. It takes an understanding of storytelling that should be second nature to good writers. But have no fear, good plotting can be learned if you’re prepared to be tough on yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A dingo took the story

DESERT CHAMELEON Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in 'A Cry in the Dark' (Photograph by Vivian Zink).
‘DINGO BABY’ Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (Photos by Vivian Zink).

Can a real-life story be plotted into a dramatic arc?

THE hardest form of plotting is the real-life story. Remember when James Cameron made you forget the Titanic was going to sink? Like or love his movie, Cameron’s masterstroke of ‘real-life’ storytelling created a new benchmark, but his love story also bent the ‘real life rule’ quite a bit by using fictitious characters within a real-life story.

The reason real life is the hardest form of fiction should be obvious – life does not slot easily into a three- or five-act dramatic arc. Producers and publishers don’t like real life – it’s never fast or entertaining enough to put bums on seats, it’s way too random, and it usually needs a bit of tweaking.

Even reality television only feels real – it’s been fictionalised ever since the quiz show hit the small screen.

One of the finest examples of a real-life dramatic arc is Fred Schepisi and Robert Caswell’s adaptation of John Bryson’s long-form work of journalism, Evil Angels, the story of the Chamberlain ‘dingo baby’ case, otherwise known as A Cry in the Dark.

Let’s put the plot through its paces… beware, there are spoilers (yeah I know, you know how the story ends… or do you?).

Exposition – “A dingo’s got the baby”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain (the protagonists) are at their Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa for the christening of their daughter, Azaria, when passing truckers gossip about Adventists over their radios, and the family portrait is showered by their dust, revealing the Australian public’s (the antagonists) wariness of anyone they don’t understand. Michael (Sam Neill) and Lindy (Meryl Streep) leave for a holiday to Uluru (Ayers Rock), and settle in for a barbecue dinner. Lindy puts Azaria to sleep in their tent, and after she returns to the barbecue, another camper, Sally Lowe, hears the baby cry. When Lindy goes to check, she sees a dingo emerge from the tent, finds Azaria missing, and shouts the now infamous line.

Rising Action – “A lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

The Chamberlains wake to news that Azaria’s body has not been found. The media soon picks-up on the disappearance and stories spread across the Australian public’s TV screens, with an edge of eeriness and mystery. The Chamberlains return home to rebuild their lives, but the media continues its push for information, and Lindy attempts to tell her story, but it backfires as the media disseminates rumours about the family. The Australian public starts its own dialogue about the case, mainly convinced of Lindy’s guilt and the dingo’s innocence. An inquest, which clears the Chamberlains of all guilt in Azaria’s death, seems to resolve the case.

MIKL CURDLER Meryl Streep's portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.
NUT CRACKER Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.

Climax – “A face that could crack walnuts”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Disgruntled Northern Territory police consult forensic experts, who find enough evidence to re-open the case. The Chamberlain’s home is raided and items taken for testing. Witnesses are simultaneously interviewed. The media breaks the story and the Australian public devours the new information with hysteria, focussed on perceptions of Lindy’s demeanour. Lindy is heavily pregnant as the ‘trial of the century’ begins in Darwin. The jury, representatives of the Australian public, ultimately ignores eyewitness accounts in favour of forensic evidence and finds Lindy Chamberlain guilty of murder and her husband Michael an accessory. Lindy is sentenced to life imprisonment. The Australian public celebrates.

Falling Action – “I will not have another dinner party ruined by those people” 

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

Lindy is separated from her family in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter whom she is quickly forced to hand over to Michael, and she disappears from the Australian public’s consciousness while the Chamberlain’s legal team begins the long process of appealing her sentence. Despite the Australian public’s deeply-held conviction that she is guilty, cracks start to appear in the wall of opposition to Lindy. When the unexpected death of a tourist at Uluru leads to the chance discovery of Azaria’s matinee jacket (evidence the prosecutors used to paint Lindy as a liar), Lindy’s is swiftly released from prison after three years. She returns home, a stranger to her new daughter Khalia.

Dénouement – “How important innocence is to innocent people”

The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

At their church, the Chamberlains are welcomed by a cheering crowd of Adventists, and Lindy speaks about the family’s patience and endurance while the truth about Azaria’s disappearance was eventually revealed. During the applause, Khalia comes to her mother’s side, and the family group which was ripped apart is restored, albeit changed. Outside, a media pack launches itself at the Chamberlains, suggesting that their journey to exoneration is far from over, and Michael underlines the importance of the concept do innocence to innocent people.

WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.
WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains portrayed by Neill and Streep pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.

The Verdict

The screenwriters’ decision to portray the entire Australian public as the antagonist was not only genius, it was based on the truth of the Chamberlain’s story, and helped rank the movie amongst the most gripping courtroom dramas.

The dramatic arc of A Cry in the Dark hits all the right moments, the most subtle of which is the antagonist’s (the public’s) slow realisation that an error of judgement has been made. In the end, they are defeated by the evidence.

But this win for Lindy Chamberlain cannot be defined as a comedy. This is another reason why producers often avoid real-life stories: they’re hard to define and therefore hard to sell.

In 1988, when this film was released, twenty-four years were yet to pass before the true antagonist of the Chamberlain’s story – the dingo who took Azaria – was acknowledged by the Northern Territory legal system. Before this factual milestone was reached, which acknowledged the reason no body was ever found (Azaria having been consumed by dingoes), the screenwriters of A Cry in the Dark acknowledged that the dingo took not only the baby, but also her story.

WRITE REGARDLESSThat the filmmakers found a way to capture this true tale long before it was over makes A Cry in the Dark one of the best lessons in real-life storytelling.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!