To all the writers who have ever felt lost, alone, and completely confused during the labyrinthine journey that is writing anything, and felt like screaming this at your story …
There’s a light at the end of that darn tunnel. First, let me describe how I used to fight my way out of these periods of confusion and hopelessness.
Usually, I would try to force myself to get back into the groove of the story. I would reread it, and be yelling at myself in my head, “Remember why you love it! LOVE your book again! Keep reading and FALL IN LOVE, damn it!” I’d go over descriptions, bits of dialogue, banter between the characters. I’d go over settings and imagery, and try to make myself remember how much they’d once excited me. I’d read things that had made me laugh when I typed them, sentences that I was particularly proud of, paragraphs that made me feel particularly clever. But the thing was, it didn’t work.
I didn’t care.
What was the problem? The problem was some of those descriptions, settings, images, and witty episodes of bantering had no Story Reason to be there. They were just there because they amused me. Just because I found the imagery beautiful. Just because I found a sentence or joke really clever and wanted to share my wit with the world. But the world didn’t care about my wit. Because the world (the people reading my book) knew subconsciously that there was no story to give that so-called witty sentence substance and meaning. I could create the most breath-taking images, I could make the most well-rounded living and breathing character, I could make a setting that you wanted to run away from home and live inside … and it didn’t matter. If the thing didn’t have a purpose for being there within the narrative, nobody cared. And I didn’t either.
So what is a Story Reason?
Everything in a story exists to support one of three things.
1. The A-story: The surface plot, the quest of the main character to achieve a specific tangible goal. What the story is about on the surface.
2. The B-Story: The love story, or relationship of the thing. Usually this relationship is instrumental in causing the third element, which is …
3. The Character Arc. The theme of the story, the purpose, the piece of truth the story seeks to prove to the main character and the audience.
If something in a story doesn’t contribute to the progress of these three, there’s no reason we should care about it. It has no point. Because in the end, all we care about is the story!
When it comes to scenes, story reason means continuity. It means the way the story unfolds logically. If every scene is there for a darn good reason, the scenes after and before will make total sense, they’ll connect seamlessly, a steady progression of events. Every scene’s turn triggers the next scene.
And to do this, every scene must be able to be linked with three words:Because of that.
Because of the turn of one scene …
The next scene happens.
And because of the turn of that scene the next scene happens.
To illustrate how this works, let’s look at a small movie you might have heard about called Zootopia. (Thanks to @inked-withlove for the movie suggestion!)
So let’s start at this point, the turn of the scene with Clawhauser and Judy searching the file on Emmitt Otterton.
Turn: “I have a lead."
Because of that …
Judy has to get Nick to tell her what he knows about Otterton.
Turn: It all goes poorly, and now Nick and Judy are stuck together by an incriminating adorable carrot recorder. (The B Story, the relationship, has intertwined with the A Story.)
Because of that …
Nick takes Judy to the place he saw Otterton go, a place he thinks will cause her to give up.
Turn: She doesn’t quit, she marches right in. (B Story: Nick sounds surprised, and a little impressed, that she didn’t back down.)
Because of that …
She has to question a rude yoga-performing elephant.
Turn: Though the elephant is absolutely no help, the seemingly addled yak is more than helpful – he even remembers the license plate number of the car Emmitt left in.
Because of that …
Nick thinks his part in this endeavor is complete. But Judy remembers that she’s not in the system yet, and thus can’t run a plate. Nick, however, can. And he’s going to, or else.
Turn: It just so happens that he has a pal at the DMV.
Because of that …
Sloths. He takes her to a DMV run by sloths and wastes as much of her precious dwindling time as he can.
Turn: “It’s night?!”
Because of that …
Legitimate Enterprise Car Service (at least that’s what it’s called in the screenplay) is closed. Judy doesn’t have a warrant and Nick is enjoying her suffering tremendously. After a spat, she tosses the carrot over the fence instead of handing it to him.
Turn: Because she has now seen a shifty low-life climbing the fence, she has probable cause, and doesn’t need a warrant. She can go in. (B Story: Nick is looking at her with more respect.)
Because of that …
They find the car and begin investigating. The car is a crime scene; claw marks everywhere, the missing otter’s wallet … and a cocktail glass etched with a "B”.
Turn: And it all adds up for Nick. This car belongs to Mr Big, a notorious crime boss. And his polar bear henchman are right outside. They grab Judy and Nick and yank them off screen.
Because of that …
Judy and Nick are wedged between the bear henchman, on their way to face Mr Big.
Turn: Nick sold him a very expensive rug that happened to be made from the fur of a skunk’s butt. Or in other words, Mr Big really doesn’t like Nick.
Because of that …
They wait fearfully for Mr Big to appear, and even when he’s revealed to be a tiny shrew, Nick still launches into obsequious and panicked mode. He tries talking his way out of it, but Mr Big really REALLY doesn’t like him. And when Judy shouts at him that she’s a cop and she has evidence on him –
Turn: “Ice ‘em.”
Because of that …
“No icing anyone at my wedding!” Fru Fru Shrew is not a happy camper. Father and daughter bicker about his promise of no murder on her wedding day, and the fact that “I have to, baby. Daddy has to.” Until –
Turn: “She’s the bunny who saved my life yesterday. From that giant doughnut!” Well, Judy is now in Mr Big’s good books. He’s going to pay her kindness forward. Nick is floored.
I’m gonna stop there.
SO! After going through that analysis of how the scenes are linked together, let’s abandon the “everything needs a story reason to be in there” rule, and see what happens.
After the scene where Judy and Nick reluctantly join forces, we could add a scene where Nick is trying to remember the name of the place, and where it is. Then we could have them asking around, searching the city, refusing to ask for directions, lots of banter. THEN we can finally get to The Mystic Springs Oasis.
And after they get the plate number, maybe Nick grabs the carrot pen and makes a run for it. Then we can have a chase scene, but he gets away. Then we can have Judy trying to run the plate on her own, before realizing she isn’t in the system, and failing. Then we can have a scene where she has to track down Nick again. Then a scene where she figures out how to blackmail him into it. THEN they finally get to the DMV.
And you know what would have happened then?
Zootopia would have made everyone bored.
All of these inserted scenes are unnecessary. Sure, they might add conflict, add complications to Judy’s quest, but they’re ultimately just filler. They’re just there for the sake of bulking out the story. This is why that tip I hear so often in writing circles always perplexes me: “Figure out the worst possible thing that can happen to your character, then do that.” If people went with this rule, they’d just keep throwing terrible things at the characters for no apparent reason, one after another, and the reader or audience would be expected to be entertained by it (but wouldn’t be). It would be like cartoons before Mickey Mouse came along and applied story to animation: before, cartoons were just gag after gag, slapstick situations mashed together like a funny video compilation. Except with books and movies, it would just be conflict-heavy situations strung together, taking an inordinate amount of time to make any actual progress.
Once you make sure everything has a purpose within the narrative, things get so much better. And I find, when I reread my work I don’t have to scream at myself to “love your book or else” if everything has a reason for being there. And instead of feeling like yelling at my story like an angry overworked crab, I feel a lot more like this gif.
My journal today. I have this week and next week set up (which I rarely do) because it’s finals crunch time and I need to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a 5-hour still-life class today, so that’s why I have the plant, I promise I’m not just a crazy lady who brings plants to the library.
To all the writers who have ever been told they need to outline their story, and privately thought “Great. But how do you DO that? What exactly does that mean?! Is there a map? WHAT IS THE SPECIFIC DEFINITION OF THE VAGUE WORD ‘OUTLINE’?”
Good news. Stories have structure. Structure that can be learned. And a fantastic place to start learning structure?
Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. This book gives a simple outline that most stories follow. And as an introduction to story structure, it can’t be beat.
In Save the Cat, 15 plot points are spelled out in something called a beat sheet. During the outlining process, these “beats” or plot points can be used as an armature or skeleton that your story is built upon.
So what are those 15 plot points?
Opening Image: A snapshot of the hero’s problematic ordinary world, right before the story starts and changes everything.
Set-Up: Further establishing that ordinary world and what the hero does every day, impressing upon the audience or reader what’s wrong, and the idea that something needs to change.
Theme Stated: The truth that the hero will learn by experiencing the story, the statement that will be proven to the audience. But upon first encountering this truth, in this story beat right in the beginning, the hero doesn’t understand or outright refuses to believe it. The theme stated is asking a question, a question which the story will answer.
Catalyst: The ordinary world is shattered. Something unexpected happens, and this event triggers all the conflict and change of the whole story. Life will never be the same after this moment. This is the Call to Adventure.
Debate: But for a moment, the hero won’t be quite sure about answering that call. Leaving behind the ordinary world is difficult – even if the catalyst has come along and disrupted everything – because the ordinary means safety, it means not being challenged, it means avoiding conflict and heartache. Yes, that existence they’re stuck in might be stagnant and unpleasant, but it protects them from facing the intimidating task of growth, of becoming something better.
Break Into 2: And this is when the hero decides to answer the call and cross the threshold of act two, determined to pursue their goal.
B Story: This is when the relationship – which usually carries and proves the theme – starts in earnest.
Fun & Games: This is just what it says: the premise promised a certain type of pure entertainment, and this beat is where we get to experience it fully.
Midpoint: This is either a false victory or a false defeat. Something really really good happens. Or something the exact opposite.
Bad Guys Close In: Forces of opposition and conflict begin to converge on the hero and his goal. Everything begins to fall apart for the hero, the defeats piling up one after another, the main character punching back.
All Is Lost: This is the sequence where absolutely everything falls apart for the hero. The plans fail, the goal is lost, the mentor dies, the villain wins. All is, quite literally, lost.
Dark Night of the Soul: The hero’s bleakest moment is right here. In addition to all of the tangible things that have been lost, hope and the gumption to continue with the story have also vanished. There is usually a hint of death here, of some kind. An actual death, or an emotional or spiritual death.
Break into 3: Ah, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Inspiration occurs, hope is rekindled, courage to pursue the story returns. Usually, this is the moment where the main character learns what they NEED, the truth which will heal them, and allow them to fix their own lives. With this, they are able to snatch victory from defeat.
Finale: And in here, the story goal is pursued once more, but this time from the stronger version of the hero – the version that has learned the theme, and committed to act accordingly.
Closing Image: The opposite of the opening image. This is a snapshot of life after the story, the problems of the ordinary world solved or banished, a new world opening up for the hero. If the opening is the equivalent of “once upon a time” this is saying “And every day after … “
So let’s see how that works! And to see it, let’s look at my favorite short film of all time – Paperman (because this gave me an excuse to watch it several times and listen to the music while writing it.)
1) Opening Image
We see George, a twenty-something in a sixty-something’s suit and tie, obviously on his way to work, and not looking at all enthused about it. He stares straight ahead, expression bored, lifeless, right on the edge of depressed. Wind from a passing train pushes him slightly, and he lets it, demeanor unchanging.
But then a sheet of paper, caught on the wind, hits his shoulder. The paper flies off again, and a young woman appears onscreen, chasing after the paper, as the surprised George watches.
After catching it offscreen, the girl returns, tucking the paper into the stack she carries, smiling slightly. They both face forward, waiting for the train side-by-side, in silence. She’s glancing sideways at him, he’s smiling and fidgeting nervously, but still resolutely facing forward; they’re both aware of each other, seemingly hoping the other will be braver, but neither able to overcome their shyness and the unspoken rules of everyday life.
3) Theme Stated
As a train charges into the station, a paper from George’s stack is snatched by the wind and lands flat on the woman’s face. When he pulls the paper away, she laughs: her lipstick left a perfect kiss mark on the sheet. When George spots it, he laughs too …
but when he opens his eyes, she’s gone. She’s boarded a different train. The kiss-mark paper flaps in the wind as the train begins to move, taking her away. He watches, crestfallen. She glances back. Looks of regret and disappointment are exchanged, both a little wistful. The paper, the symbol of their fleeting memorable meeting, waves goodbye.
Through this little sequence of images, the question of the whole story is asked: Was there a connection between them? Will they find each other again? And on a wider level: What does it take to find love?
And cut to George behind a desk, in a gray office, dark file cabinets towering behind him, clocks on the wall ticking away his life. Miserable again, he stares at the lipsticked paper. A stack of documents slams onto the desk from on high. The grim-faced boss of the office scowls down at him. George frowns at the stack, then at his boss, who stomps away.
Breeze pulls the kissed paper off his desk and out the open window. He catches it just in time, breathing a sigh of relief. And then he sees something. The girl! She’s there! She’s right across the street!
He needs to get her attention! He dithers for a moment, then throws the window wide and enthusiastically waves his arms.
An ominous "ahem” from the boss brings him back inside, and back to his desk. But his attention is still on the girl, and the need to get her attention. He folds a paper airplane, stands before the window, poises the airplane to fly … but he glances at his boss’s office before he throws it. Should he?
6) Break Into Act 2
Yes. Yes, he should. He sends the little airplane messenger to bridge the distance between himself and the girl.
7) B Story
What he should have done while waiting for the train, he’s committed to do now. Talk to her. The relationship of the story has started officially.
8) Fun & Games
In this moment, he becomes the “paper man” of the title. He folds and throws paper airplane after paper airplane. The boss shows up, shoves him back and slams his window. George pauses until he’s gone, then just keeps sending airplanes. They sail over the street, but are intercepted or miss their mark every time.
He reaches for more paper … and knocks an empty tray off the desk. He’s run out. Except for one paper, the kissed one, the only one he’s held onto. With a determined look, he folds it precisely into an airplane, stands before the window, breathes to steady himself …
And the wind steals the airplane from his hand, sending it spiraling to the street below, George reaching out pointlessly. On top of this defeat, the girl leaves the office.
10) Bad Guys Close In
Immediately, the boss emerges from his lair. The other office workers hurriedly return to their scribbling, hunched to avoid drawing attention. The girl is leaving the building across the street! George turns from the window … and finds the boss looming above him, glowering, delivering another tall pile of meaningless work.
George sinks into his chair, defeated. But something happens as he watches his boss walk away, as he sees the office workers in neat rows; all of them older versions of George, reflections of what he will become … if he doesn’t do something right now.
He runs, sending paper from the perfect stacks flying in his wake.
11) All Is Lost
But when he escapes the building, and attempts to cross the street, cars nearly kill him. And when he finally makes it to the opposite sidewalk, the girl is nowhere in sight. She’s lost again.
And all he manages to find is the little traitorous paper airplane. The paper he’d believed might mean something, might have signified something important and maybe a little magical. Which it obviously never did.
12) Dark Night of the Soul
Angry, he grabs the plane and throws it with all his strength. He’s lost his job, he’s lost the girl, he’s lost all faith in the magic he’d just started to believe might be real. He stomps towards the train station, returning home.
13) Break Into 3
But fate has other plans. The airplane glides over the city, almost supernaturally graceful and purposeful. It dives between buildings, and lands in the middle of the alley where all the paper planes have collected.
It sits immobile. Then it moves. Moves again. And jumps into flight. The airplane flies over the rest, stirring them into motion, into the air. In a place where not even a breath of wind could reach, there is now a whirlwind of George’s airplanes.
Though the forces of mediocrity tried to keep them apart, something greater has recognized George’s efforts and is going to see things through.
A parade of airplanes follows George down the street.
The leader attaches to his leg. He brushes it off, mad. A flurry of them attach to him, then carry him down the street, unfazed by his fighting.
The leader airplane rockets over the city purposefully, finds the girl, then lures her to follow.
She chases after.
Somewhere else in the city, George is being pushed wherever the paper airplanes want him to go. We switch back and forth between George and the girl, as the airplanes push him and beckon her.
Until they’re both on different trains, which stop simultaneously, on opposite sides of the platform. The girl gets out. She fiddles with the airplane, like she’s trying to get it to work again. And just then, a breeze brings hundreds of paper planes skittering all around the platform.
She looks up …
15) Closing Image
And there’s George, covered in paper planes.
He lurches towards Meg, and the airplanes falls away, their work done.
George and Meg face each other, smiling, the barriers of routine and shyness overcome. Exactly what should have happened, exactly what was meant to happen. Putting effort into connection and love prevailed in the end, defeating the allure of life spent in safety and mediocrity. The closing image is the opposite of the opening: he’s not alone, he’s not facing the train leading to his mundane job, he’s not looking miserable and hopeless. He’s facing the girl, his bright and meaningful new future.
So! Those are the 15 plot points. This is a fantastic way to begin learning what story structure is, why it works the way it does, and how to precisely pull it off.
For a more in-depth explanation, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Save the Cat. (It holds a special place in my heart; it was the first screenwriting book I ever read, and started obsessive study of storytelling.)
I had always assumed that the Beast heard Belle say “I love you” before he “died.” But no, your hearing doesn’t miraculously stay or something weird like that. Adam didn’t hear her say it.
So imagine him fading away thinking that even though his life had been horrible, there was one small light that really truly meant the world over and more to him, and that he was glad that her face would be the last thing he’d ever see…
…then suddenly he’s feeling less cold and much more warm, and there’s a golden light at the end of a tunnel, and he’s still not sure if he’s alive, but then there’s more and more of it and he’s back in the West Wing, standing upright, his bare feet cold on the tile floor, his hair tickling his face and neck, claws absent from smaller, thinner hands, fingers, and it’s not a dream, it’s not a dream, it’s not a dream
And then he turns around and sees Belle standing there, shocked into silence but unafraid, fearless. He stares at her incredulously because there’s only one way this could be happening: she loves him. He used to think such an emotion was impossible and yet here he is and she loves him
He wants to run into her arms and laugh and cry and jump but he can only convey this with a look, an expression. The night is over, the sun has risen, and the curse is lifted, but he did nothing, it was her, his beauty, his angel, his saving grace.
She smiles in realization, their lips touch, and his world is ablaze with life, love, color. The ground shakes beneath their feet and dawn breaks across the castle. This is his new beginning, his rebirth into a better life, a better man, and he is not alone anymore, he will never be alone again.
Here’s the thing, I’m the first one to say Mickey deserved better. But think about what that really entails. What we actually mean when we say he deserved better, is that he deserves to be happy. Ergo: He deserves Ian. Because, Ian made him happy.
I’ve seen a lot of commentary about how Mickey loved Ian more. Some weird internet pissing contest because, let’s face it, Mickey is love goals isn’t he? He’s a man who went from this scared shitless, self-hating, insecure child and grew into a strong, caring, and passionate man. One you’d kill to have fight for you. He came out of the closet for Ian.
Let me emphasize that point. In a homophobic upbringing, environment, in front of the man that literally beat the shit out of him for being gay, (before having him raped by a prostitute to “fuck the faggot” out of him); Mickey Milkovich came out as gay, in a dive bar on the Southside, for Ian Gallagher. Whether you love or hate Mickey, that is goddamn significant.
Now, possible domestic abuse issues aside, cuz, let’s face it folks: we’re cutting both Ian and Mickey a lot of slack when it comes to the fact that there was physical abuse in their relationship. But that’s what makes it so beautifully real. It’s not that the writers are glorifying an unhealthy relationship, or even that the fans are. It’s real. This is EXACTLY what it would look like if two, fucked up, Southside thugs, fell in love against the societal expectations of their socioeconomic status and environment. And to quote Tupac, their love is a rose that grew from the concrete.
THAT is what is so beautiful about this pairing. Again, I am not advocating or condoning IPV (Intimate Partner Violence), which is actually a problem in the LGBT community; what I am saying is the reason there’s an inordinate amount of people who ship Ian and Mickey is because they were a light at the end of a dark and dismal tunnel. Well, they were until reality literally bitchslapped both of them.
But I think there’s something pretty damn important we are all forgetting: and that’s the hell Mickey put Ian through in the beginning. I’m not trying to justify the shit Ian pulled after Mickey had his personal epiphany that made him into the man we have all grown to adore. But here’s the thing:
Ian was falling for Mickey when shit was still raw and relatively unrequited.
Ian loved Mickey when he was still just a filthy thug. Ian loved Mickey, despite his refusal to kiss him. Ian loved Mickey, despite the serious internalized homophobia. Ian loved Mickey when he knew he shouldn’t, when Mickey made it clear that Ian was nothing more than a warm mouth to him.
So, here’s the thing. Mickey deserved better… but so did Ian. They both deserved better. And what I mean by that, is not that Mickey deserved better than Ian, or Ian deserved better than Mickey. No. They both deserved to be happy. And honestly? They were their happiest together. Whatever bullshit aside, what their relationship represented was a love that managed to bloom from a dark and hopeless place. And if they could find love, couldn’t we all?
It’s finally here! I wanted to host one of these a while back. :p
More importantly, thank you SO MUCH for helping me out through sharing, encouragement, commissions, Patreon support, and more. My financial situation wasn’t too great before, but I’m starting to see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. This giveaway is a little something in return for your awesomeness.
Two winners, chosen at random, will receive an HD digital illustration of one character of their choice. I will contact the winners through Tumblr messages after the deadline.