Saturday, December 21, 2013

The "Unstoppable Beast" Story Type -- Part I: The Destructive Beast

Those who make regular visits to this blog should already be familiar with my concept of the 20 Common Plot Types. In my studies of narrative, I have discovered that nearly every well-made traditional Western-style film for the past fifty years or more (which for brevity we may call “Hollywood film,” though that label can be too limiting) contains a plot that fits with shocking consistency into one of twenty patterns. The most surprising thing about this discovery is how extremely different films can share the exact same pattern, plot point for plot point, even though they seem to have nothing else in common on their surfaces.

In this article and the next, I will explore another of these plot types. This time, it is #7 on my list, which I have labeled The Unstoppable Beast.

As defined in previous articles, The Unstoppable Beast contains a story in which:
A innocent hero is targeted by some malevolent force, a force that will not stop until the hero is destroyed. Plot develops as each escalated attempt by the protagonist to escape the force is denied. Finally, in the end, the hero chooses to fight back.

As I have found in other plot types, the Unstoppable Beast can be broken down further into two distinct subtypes. In the first subtype, the malevolent force has the single-minded goal of killing, ruining, or in some other sense destroying the protagonist, and will stop at nothing until this is accomplished. I will call this the The Destructive Beast. In the second, the malevolent force does not wish to physically destroy the protagonist, but rather to possess the protagonist. The force's goal is to destroy the protagonist's personal will so it may own, control, or even love the protagonist against the protagonist's will. This will be called The Covetous Beast. Though these subtypes share the same general premise, they differ significantly in their essential characters and major plot events. For this reason, Part One of this article will focus on the Destructive Beast while the Covetous Beast will be explored next month.


To demonstrate both subtypes, I will make use of three study films. The first will contain a simple storyline that is easy to recognize as a member of this group. Here, the obvious choice is James Cameron's The Terminator (1984).

The second film must contain a more sophisticated story, yet one with clear similarities to the first. Here we will use The Bourne Identity (2002).

Finally, our third film will be an oddball, one that on its surface seems to have nothing in common with the other two. Here I have chosen Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 misfit romance Punch-Drunk Love.

(These are, of course, not the only examples. I have found this subtype in thrillers (The Marathon Man), comedies (Pineapple Express), comic-book fantasy (The Incredible Hulk), even family films (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events)

All three of these films share identical threads in terms of their main story conflict. A relatively innocent protagonist is targeted by a vicious, single-minded antagonist (“The Beast”) who pursues the protagonist with escalating actions until one of them are destroyed. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is pursued by a killer cyborg programmed to kill her at any cost. Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, Ted Conklin uses the CIA's god-like powers to find and kill Jason Bourne. In Punch-Drunk Love, the sweet and simple Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is terrorized by a sleazebag extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who seems hellbent on ruining Barry's life.

What first must be noted is what it means to call these protagonists “innocent.” Put simply, this means from an audience standpoint, these characters do not deserve the persecution they receive from the Beast. Sarah Connor wouldn't harm a fly and wants nothing more than to live her simple life. Barry Egan is as meek as a sheep and simply wishes the world would leave him be. When we first meet Jason Bourne, his memory has been wiped as innocent as a newborn's and merely wants to learn who he is and how he fits into the world. Yet this is not to say that the Beast targets the protagonist without reason. In every case, the protagonist does something (or in the case of Terminator, will do something) that, while seemingly harmless, brings him or her to the Beast's attention and leads the Beast to decide the protagonist deserves destruction. Sarah Connor will give birth to the man who will someday be the Beast's greatest threat. Therefore, she must be terminated. Jason Bourne investigates his identity, leading Conklin to believe Bourne has gone rogue and must be eliminated. Barry Egan calls a phone sex line out of loneliness, causing his Beast to label him as a lowlife pervert who deserves exploitation.

A second essential trait of these stories is the single-minded focus of the antagonist. Once the Beast locks onto the protagonist, its efforts never waiver. It will pursue, and continue to pursue, with no change except for escalation. They are heat-seeking missiles. No matter how the protagonist zigs or zags to escape, the Beast will keep after the protagonist until he or she is utterly destroyed. Terminator's killer cyborg is Hollywood's prime example of such an antagonist, but even the low-level sleazeball who terrorizes Barry Egan demonstrates this same vicious obsession. He could at any time decide enough is enough and stop harassing Barry, yet seems to take it as a point of personal pride to go after Barry harder and harder every time Barry makes any attempt to stand up for himself.

It should also be noted that, like most concepts in screencraft, the concept of the Beast is flexible in terms of its execution. It can be interpreted literally or figuratively. The Beast may be a single character acting alone, or it may be a larger collective of which the antagonist acts on behalf. It's not the killer cyborg's idea to kill Sarah Connor. It is acting on the orders of the artificial intelligences that rule the future. Ted Conklin does not pursue Bourne out of a personal vendetta, but acts as a representative of the entire CIA. The Beast may directly attack the Protagonist, or it may act through proxies. Conklin's assassins and the goons that harass Barry Egan act as extensions of the Beast. Depending on how abstract your thinking, the Beast can even be a cosmic force. I have often mused that The Shawshank Redemption acts as an Unstoppable Beast, where the Beast the feeling of hopelessness and despair that seeks to devour Andy Dufrene.

Besides the Protagonist and the Beast, the Destructive Beast subtype typically contains a third major player. In his or her flight from the Beast, the Protagonist attaches him or herself to a person who will serve as a Sole Companion character. This character, often doubling as a Love Interest, becomes the only person the Protagonist can truly count on. We have Reese in Terminator, Marie in Bourne, and Lena in Punch-Drunk Love. The Sole Companion not only assists the Protagonist in his or her struggle, but more importantly provides the support, love, and reassurance the Protagonist desperately needs to continue against insurmountable odds. Though not absolutely essential for this plot subtype to function (for example, The Marathon Man forces the Protagonist to fight the Beast all on his own, and stories with group protagonists seem to have no need for the character), this relationship usually serves a crucial narrative role. It not only adds complexity to what might be an overly-simple plotline, but also becomes a key factor in both the Protagonist's character transformation and the ultimate expression of the story's theme (this is discussed in greater detail later in this article).

I have also noticed a repeating dichotomy between the Protagonist and the Sole Companion. Typically, one of the pair is relatively unstable (Reese, Marie, Barry), while the other is more psychologically grounded. One is a far more capable (Reese, Bourne, Lena), while the other, not so much. Which member of the pair has which trait is dependent on the story's premise, yet there is clear evidence that these “odd couple” pairings are fairly common to this subtype. The relationship need not necessarily be romantic either. It may be “bro-mantic,” (like that between the two leads in Pineapple Express), a paternal or maternal bond, (like that which forms between John Connor and his cyborg protector in Terminator 2), or one based on trust and mutual respect, (such as the friendship between Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption.)



Setup Sequence
Structurally, a Destructive Beast's setup sequence does not differ much from the norm. The Protagonist may already be targeted by the Beast, giving the setup an air of menace, or the targeting may not have yet occurred. If the Protagonist has already been targeted, neither the Protagonist nor the audience will know this. Instead, the Beast's intentions are kept a mystery. In some cases, the Beast may not need to appear in the setup at all. Likewise, the setup may or may not introduce the Sole Companion character. If the character does appear, no meaningful relationship has yet to exist between Sole Companion and Protagonist.

Inciting Incident
The inciting incident occurs with an action through which the audience becomes aware that the Protagonist has been targeted by the Beast. With this event, the Beast takes its first decisive action to ensnare the Protagonist. The cyborg starts killing women named Sarah Connor. Conklin starts tracking Bourne. The phone sex operator tries to coerce Barry into giving her money. However, at this early point, the Protagonist either remains largely unaware of the threat or does not yet realize how serious this threat may be. Sarah Connor hears of the murders, but could not yet possibly understand the full scope of the situation. Jason Bourne suspects he may be in danger, but has no idea why. Barry becomes agitated, but thinks can solve the problem by simply canceling his credit card. The full threat does not become apparent to the Protagonist - or the audience - until the End of First Act Turning Point.

The End of First Act Turning Point
Two important events occur at the end of the first act, separately but typically in succession (the order is unimportant). First, the Beast officially begins the hunt by launching its first major “attack” on the Protagonist. The cyborg makes its first attempt to kill Sarah Connor at the nightclub. Conklin activates three assassins to put “Bourne in a body bag.” Barry's Beast sends goons to beat and rob him.

The end of the first act must also feature a moment where the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion officially begins. This could be something decisive (Reese's “Come with me if you want to live”), something more unassuming (Bourne recruits Marie to drive him to Paris), or the start of a personal relationship (Lena asks Barry out to dinner and Barry accepts). Regardless of how it occurs, the important thing is that these two characters have transitioned from separate individuals into a pair.


Part 1
The Beast is still chasing the Protagonist, whether this be physically occurring on screen like in Terminator, or largely unseen in the background like in Bourne and Punch-Drunk. However, at this moment, this action is of secondary importance. More importantly, the first sequence(s) of Act 2A is where the Protagonist and Sole Companion must grow comfortable with each other and reconcile the nature of their relationship. One or both characters will have doubts or fears over whether this relationship should be continued. Sarah fears that Reese is insane. Jason Bourne seems to be more trouble than Marie wants to handle. Barry is scared of women. However this dilemma must be solved quickly when the Beast attacks again, creating the turning point that ends the sequence.

Part 2
The Beast makes its second major attack. The cyborg invades the police station. The first assassin attacks Bourne in his home. The goons beat up and rob Barry. This stretch of the narrative becomes all about escape. It may last for one sequence or two, but by the time Act 2A ends, the Protagonist is forced to come to two strong conclusions. First, the Protagonist becomes convinced that he/she and the Sole Companion must stick together. This solidifies the relationship between the two characters. (I find it inconsequential that Lena is unaware of Barry's struggle with the Beast in Punch-Drunk Love. She fulfills the same function as Reese or Marie regardless. It is impossible to think that Barry could overcome his fight with the Beast had he not chosen to continue to receive Lena's love and support.) Second, the Protagonist realizes that the Beast will never stop making attacks upon him or her. It will keep coming and coming. Because of this, the Protagonist can see only one reasonable option at the moment: tactical retreat.


Part 1
The Protagonist escapes to a safe location with the Sole Companion. Sarah and Reese find haven, first under a highway overpass and then in a cheap motel. Bourne and Marie also hole up in a hotel. Barry runs further than everyone, fleeing all the way to Hawaii to find some peace with Lena. Here, the Protagonist can regroup and come up with some sort of plan. The Protagonist is able to do so only because Beast has also found itself in a situation where it must regroup. The Beast has momentarily lost the trail of its target and must take action to once again pick up the scent.

Like Part 1 of Act 2A, this sequence is far more about the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion than the Protagonist and the Beast. In this brief respite, the pair transform into a domestic couple, “playing house” even. In all three study films, this is where Protagonist and Sole Companion consummate their romantic relationship. Yet this sweet stability is broken by the next turning point. The Beast learns of their location. It is coming for them yet again.

Part 2
Though some time may remain for the Protagonist to take actions and implement his or her new plan before the Beast arrives, eventually the Beast will come and launch a stronger and far more brutal assault than ever before. The Terminator, being the shortest and simplest of our study films, takes an uncomplicated route by using this attack to transition into the long battle that comprises Act 3. Bourne and Punch-Drunk take somewhat longer routes that mirror each other plot point for plot point. Both Protagonists are attacked by the Beast's proxy. The Protagonist defeats these proxies, but rather than be pleased with the victory, the Protagonist is FURIOUS. This time, the Beast has not only tried to harm him, but the innocent people he cares about. Both Bourne and Barry are fed up. They want to end this. And they realize only way to do so is to square off with the Beast face-to-face. In both Bourne and Punch-Drunk, the Protagonist speaks directly to the Beast for the first time and challenges it to a fight. This challenge sets up the battle that will make up Act 3.


In general, Act 3 develops as would be expected in a restorative three-act narrative. There is an conflict-intensifying sequence that leads in to the final confrontation between Protagonist and Beast, a turning point, and then the final confrontation itself. (I should point out that the final action sequence found in The Bourne Identity is much different than the one originally written. The filmmakers decided to change the ending in reaction to the events of 9/11. It was supposed to be a more intense, explosion-filled ending, much like that seen in The Terminator, as opposed to the more subdued end seen in the final film.)

There is one significant point that must be made about these final sequences. Whether it happens midway through the act or very late, at some point the relationship between predator and prey will reverse. The Protagonist does this by entrapping the Beast. Whether it be Sarah Connor encaging cyborg inside the mechanical press, Jason Bourne cornering Conklin in the safehouse, or Barry staring down his tormentor in the back of the mattress store, this act robs the Beast of its power and ability to intimidate. The big, bad Beast has suddenly turned pathetic and weak. With this reversal of power, the Protagonist can finally defeat the Beast, either by destroying it or forcing it to back down.


Despite appearances, the Destructive Beast plot subtype is about far more than predator and prey. Any good story is “about more than it is about.” A story that lacks any meaning beyond the observable actions of its plot is always a mediocre one. Hence, I have found two surprising traits shared by every one of these stories.


The battle with the Beast may provide the action and conflict. It may provide the excitement and commercial appeal. But the real meaning in these films emerges from seeing the warm, humane, multifaceted relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion set in contrast with the cold, inhumane relationship between Protagonist and Beast.

Left to his or her own devices, the Protagonist would in all inevitability eventually succumb to the force of the Beast. However, through the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion, the Protagonist's character gains something it did not have that allows him or her to defeat the Beast. To understand how and why, we must ask two questions: “For what reason does the Beast target the Protagonist?” and “For what reason does the Sole Companion remain attached to the Protagonist despite reasons not to?”

As I have mentioned, the Beast is a single-minded creature. It targets the Protagonist for a single quality which it believes warrants the Protagonist's destruction. The machines of the future target Sarah Connor because they see her as a weak nothing than can be easily wiped out. The CIA's Treadstone sees Jason Bourne as nothing more than a soulless killing machine that needs to be deactivated. Barry's extortionists see him as nothing but a pathetic wimp with whom they can do whatever they please. More importantly, the Protagonist begins the story seeing him or herself in the same way. Sarah believe she is a weak nothing. Bourne feels that he has lost all humanity. Barry sees himself as a pathetic wimp. It seems the Protagonists agrees with the Beast. If this is the case, the Protagonist may eventually give in and let the Beast win.

But if these Protagonists really are such undesirable monotypes, why do their Sole Companions risk so much to stick by their sides? The Sole Companion remains loyal to the Protagonist because he or she is the only person in the whole wide world who sees MORE in the Protagonist. Through their personal relationship, the Sole Companion realizes that the Protagonist is far more than the trait for which he or she has been targeted. Instead, the Sole Companion recognizes so many other qualities that make the Protagonist a worthwhile human. Reese sees strength and courage in Sarah Connor that Sarah herself does not admit. Marie knows that Jason Bourne is not just a killing machine, but a good man with a good heart. Lena sees charm and beauty in Barry while everyone else can only see the wimp. Through this relationship, the Protagonist's sense of self transforms from the negative monotypical view shared by the Beast, to the positive multifaceted one of the Sole Companion. Strengthened by the Sole Companion's support, the Protagonist is able to stand up and say, “I am a worthwhile individual. I do not deserve this treatment. I am greater than the Beast and can defeat it.”

Why is this transformation so important? Aside from the pragmatic narrative concerns of story structure and character arc, this relationship provides the context through which the audience receives the story's true meaning. By recognizing the value of an individual in the face of overwhelming persecution, we learn this story subtype's subtextual theme.


In every historical case of persecution, whether it be against an entire race or a single individual, the persecutor dehumanizes its victim by degrading the whole of that person's identity down to a single undesirable trait. The persecutor does not see a unique individual with many different qualities, but only a race, a religion, a political view, or some type of behavior with negative associations attached to it. By defining its victim as one undesirable trait, the victim is turned into something no better than an animal. A dog is just a dog. A roach is like any other roach. A rat can be nothing more than a rat. And like any bothersome animal, the persecutor feels justified in exterminating the person for what it sees as the greater good.

This is why social persecution is morally wrong. It is based on a lie. No person's existence is defined by a single trait by which he or she should be approved of or condemned. We are all unique individuals, possessing hundreds of personal qualities, each with its own potential to add worth and value to the world. As unique individuals, each one of us has the right to prove our value on our own terms – not by one or two isolated behaviors, but through all of them as a whole. If an individual's worth is to be judged, it should not be by some mechanical-minded aggressor with no regard for the individual's humanity, but by the people who know and understand them.

Stories of the Destructive Beast subtype exist as lessons on social persecution. They show us the value of an individual's humanity by pitting it against an unthinking, uncaring force that chooses to ignore its victim's basic right to exist – the right to live, to love, and to bring value to their world in their own way. The Beast then does not only represent evil as it exists in the narrative, but the social evils that continue to persecute innocent victims in our own world.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

OUT TODAY! "Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: The Absolute Essentials"

Last January, I published my first book, Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: Digging Deeper into the Craft of Cinematic Storytelling, a guide for beginning and intermediate screenwriters on the unique and effective method to understanding cinematic storytelling I have developed over the past six years. At fourteen chapters and roughly 270 pages, it was written to be both comprehensive and compact. In-depth, yet easy to read. Both classic and extremely new.

Today I have released a new side-version of Atoms intended to make things even easier for developing writers. Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: The Absolute Essentials selects the four chapters that make up the core of Atoms - and by extension, the core of the entire SCRIPTMONK! method - and repackages them into a tight, roughly 50-page package that is available for download ABSOLUTELY FREE. The selected chapters, "The Basic of the Most Basic," "The Golden Key," "The Sequence Method," and "On Character" - though just a small part that contained in Atoms - represent the baseline of knowledge every writer really needs to know if he or she ever hopes to create a truly dramatic story that will engage its audience and give them the emotionally-satisfying experience they need.


At the time of this writing, Atoms: The Absolute Essentials is available only at, where it is available for download (did I mention for FREE?) in ePub for iPad, Nook, Sony Reader and other devices, Kindle format, and good old-fashioned PDF.

UPDATE: Atoms:Essentials is now also available at Barnes&, the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, and Diesel books. Availability on Amazon is forthcoming.

(NOTE: The eBook is a brand spanking-new file. If you experience anything screwy or glitchy with its presentation or formatting, please let me know at I will appreciate it.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Screenwriting Down to the Atoms excerpt: The Structure of a Scene

"Enough of your borax, Poindexter! We need action!"
- Police Chief Wiggum

Two weeks ago, I posted an excerpt from Chapter 3 of my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, asking the misleadingly simple question "How does one TELL a Story?" But lest Atoms be thought of as a work of pure theory and no practice, I follow it up this week with some boots-on-the-ground, pencil-to-paper craft, excerpted from Chapter 9, "Scene Construction." To be specific, the selection explains the structure of scenes. Not so much the structure of a scene in relation to its sequence, but the structure within the scene.


Remember how cinematic stories are best served when executed in a three-part structure. Great scenes share this trait. A well-structured scene also follows a three-part form with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Here is how it works. Characters enter a scene with certain scene goals in mind. These goals inevitably collide with those of others, inciting the scene’s conflict (providing the scene’s “inciting moment,” if you will). This begins the scene’s “first act” in which the characters pursue their respective goals in the face of this conflict. But, before long, something occurs to alter the situation. This moment is called a SCENE BEAT. Like a tiny turning point, scene beats turn the course of the scene’s conflict in a new direction. However, unlike a regular turning point, each characters’ scene goal remains the same. Instead, the scene beat merely provides an event that alters how those goals are pursued. While the context of the conflict remains the same, the characters’ method of approach to the conflict has changed.

This begins the scene’s “second act.” The characters continue to chase their individual goals, but now do so in reaction to the development caused by the first scene beat. Eventually, the conflict reaches a head, leading to a second scene beat. This second beat is more influential than the first. While the first beat merely alters the manner of the conflict, the second beat provides a moment that finally tips the scales in favor of one side or the other. This decisive event leads into the scene’s “third act,” in which the scene conflict is carried to a resolution, and the scene reaches its moment of change. 

When it comes to three-part scene structure, there are few better films for study than Joel & Ethan Cohen’s Fargo. Rarely a scene goes by in this Academy Award-winning screenplay that does not turn on two strong, identifiable beats. Let us take a look at its opening scene to demonstrate.

Jerry Lundegaard, the story’s morally bankrupt anti-hero, arrives at a bar to meet two hired goons, Carl and Gaear. Jerry’s scene goal is to finalize a scheme where Carl and Gaear will kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean in order to scam ransom money from his father-in-law. However, there is a hiccup in the plan. The scene hits its first beat when Carl announces that he and Gaear are not yet on board. They do not yet understand the plan. In fact, they do not think it makes any sense at all. Jerry must now alter his actions in order to reach his scene goal. He sits down and tries to convince the pair that the plan will work. Eventually, Carl grows tired of arguing and gives in. This action provides a second scene beat that tips the scales in Jerry’s favor. Carl and Gaear accept the job, creating the moment of change.

You may notice that the “third act” of this scene (everything after Carl gives in) last for only a few seconds. This is not unusual. Unlike the three acts of the main story structure, scene acts have no predetermined length or ratio of time that must pass between beats. A scene act can last for any amount of time, from a few seconds to several minutes. The only requirement is that there must be at least some time separating the scene’s major structural moments. The first scene beat cannot be immediately followed by the second, nor should the second scene beat be immediately followed by the scene’s end. Without time separating these events, the scene will not appear to have all three acts. The absolute minimum is to follow each beat with a pause lasting a few seconds so the characters (and the audience) can momentarily digest how the situation has changed. Though slight, this pause will constitute one of the scene’s acts.

Scene beats typically occur by one, or a combination of, the following events:

1. A Change in Strategy
A change in strategy brings variety to a scene’s conflict. Scenes become monotonous when characters stick to the same behavior from beginning to end. If a certain approach meets difficulty, it is only natural for a character to try something new. This is something we all do in real life. If we have a problem with a person, our first impulse might be to yell. However, this strategy may not work. So, we try something else. We stop yelling and try to reason with the person, or beg, or appeal to emotion. If that does not work either, we may change strategy yet again. 

A change in strategy is most useful whenever the scene conflict reaches a stalemate – that is, the conflict becomes locked into a situation where neither side can make any more progress through their current methods. Jerry and Carl reach a stalemate at the end of their second scene act. Both can continue to argue, but it would do neither of them any more good. So, Carl changes strategy. Rather than continue to question Jerry’s plan, he shrugs his shoulders and accepts him for his word.

2. A Shift in Power
Every conflict is a battle, and in battle one side is always winning and the other losing. If the tug-of-war is not moving one way or the other, the conflict seems to stand still.

A shift in power occurs when an action reverses which side holds the upper hand. This keeps the outcome unpredictable, and thus more dramatic. Though useful in any conflict, shifts in power become especially important in chases or fights. First the hero is winning the battle, then favor suddenly switches to the villain’s side. Another shift may then occur, once again giving the hero the upper hand. This back and forth keeps the audience on the edge of their seats since they have no idea how the conflict will turn out.

3. A Revelation of New Information
New information can create a scene beat when that information forces characters to reconsider how they must pursue their scene goal. The reveal could be something previously unknown to the character, something unknown to the audience, or most commonly, both. The characters must then pause, reevaluate the situation, and then choose the best way to continue.

4. A Situation-Changing Action
This beat works the same as a revelation of information, only it is the result of physical action. If Character A pulls a gun on Character B, this action changes the landscape of the conflict. Both sides must reevaluate the best way to continue the pursuit of their goals. Likewise, if a character bursts into tears, if someone trips and falls, if a gust of wind blows a note from a character’s hand, these actions can all turn a scene by forcing characters to alter their behavior.

5. An Addition or Subtraction
A beat can also occur when someone or something enters or exits the scene, as long as it significantly alters the situation. The hero’s ally may come to the rescue, or conversely, leave the hero to fend for him or herself. A character may discover an important object, or throw a key item out the window. Such changes, be they large or small, can dramatically impact the conflict and turn the tide of battle.

6. An Outside Interruption
Sometimes a conflict can turn on something as simple as a momentary distraction. Someone enters the room, the phone rings, a gunshot is heard... An interruption gives characters an opportunity to pause, rethink their strategy, and restart the conflict anew. This can be useful to break a stalemate. It is even more useful should a storyteller wish to leave a conflict unresolved so it may be continued at a later time. Early in Die Hard, John and Holly’s marital argument gets shelved when a coworker interrupts at the second beat with news from outside. This forces the scene to an end with its conflict up in the air so it may linger for the rest of the film.

To see these scene beats in action, let us return to Fargo with a selection of scenes from the late first act. (If you have not yet viewed Fargo, I suggest you become familiar with it before reading on.)

 Scenes 1 & 2
  1. Jerry meets with his father-in-law Wade, planning to trick him out of a large loan under the guise of a phony investment deal. The scene meets its first beat when Wade asks Jerry what kind of finder’s fee he wants for bringing him this deal (a reveal of information). It turns out Wade misunderstands Jerry’s intentions, and wants to invest in the deal himself. Jerry then tries to persuade Wade to loan him the money directly. Wade refuses. The argument reaches a stalemate, causing Wade to put his foot down (a change in strategy). This seals the conflict. Jerry has no choice but to back down. Winner of the conflict: Wade.

  2. A frustrated Jerry returns to his car to find the windshield covered in ice (the inciting moment). The scene’s conflict is Jerry vs. the ice. Though short, this scene still contains three acts. In the first, Jerry attempts to clear his windshield with an icescraper. However, frustration builds and Jerry throws the scraper in a fit of anger (a change in strategy). This new strategy, of course, does not help. So, Jerry must pick up the scraper and start again (another change in strategy). Winner: the ice.

     Scenes 3, 4 & 5

  3. Jerry’s wife Jean watches television at home. She then sees Carl approach her back door wearing a ski mask (the inciting moment). At first, Jean’s only reaction is curiosity. Then, Carl smashes the glass (a situation-changing action). Jean runs. Gaear grabs her. Jean bites Gaear’s hand (a shift in power), allowing her to flee upstairs. Winner: Jean.

  4. Jean locks herself in the bathroom and tries to use the phone. But, the phone is yanked from her grasp (a shift in power). Because of this, Jean must search for a new plan. Carl and Gaear bust open the door, only to find what seems to be an empty room (reveal of information). Assuming Jean escaped through the window, Carl takes off after her. Winner: Jean (for the moment).

  5. Gaear stays in the bathroom. He hears a noise (inciting moment). Jean jumps from her hiding place behind the shower curtain (a combination of action/revelation of information). She runs and falls down the stairs (another situation-changing action). Jean is knocked unconscious, allowing the goons to capture her. Winners: Carl & Gaear. (Though there is no break in time or location between this scene and the previous, there is a slight pause in action to indicate a new scene action has begun. More on this will be explained in the following section.) 
  6. Carl & Gaear drive down a deserted highway with Jean tied up in the back. Suddenly, a state trooper appears in their rearview and signals for them to pull over (inciting moment). Carl & Gaear’s goal: get rid of the trooper. Carl’s first strategy is to bribe the trooper. However, this does not work. The trooper then hears Jean whimper (an action), forcing Gaear to shoot him in the head, (a change in strategy). In doing so, Gaear resolves the scene’s conflict. Winner: Carl & Gaear.

  7. With the trooper dead, Carl and Gaear have a new goal: hide the body before it can be seen. However, a pair of headlights appear in the distance (the inciting moment). As the car passes, its occupants see the dead trooper (a shift in power) and speed away (an action). This beat forces Gaear to chase after them. Winner: the witnesses.

  8. The chase. Gaear’s goal: catch the witnesses. However, the taillights of the witnesses’ car suddenly disappear (a subtraction). Gaear fears he has lost them, until he sees the car overturned in a ditch (reveal of new information). Gaear stops the car. Winner: Gaear.

  9. Gaear exits his car. His goal: kill the witnesses. The male witness climbs from the overturned car and runs (an action). Gaear takes aim and shoots him (another action). With no more conflict opposing Gaear, he kills the helpless second witness and ends the scene. Winner: Gaear.
You may notice some scenes contain a short setup before an inciting moment, while others begin with the conflict already engaged. Some scenes do not require their inciting moment to be shown since the conflict has already been set up by the preceding moment of change. Storytellers should opt for this approach whenever possible, since it provides more momentum and begins the scene with dramatic tension already underway.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Atoms" Excerpt: How a Story is TOLD

Call it a change of pace, call it a preview, call it me taking it easy this time. This month, instead of an original article, I am posting a short excerpt from Chapter 3 of my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, "The Basic of the Most Basic." I know, I know, it's a cheat. But I am in the middle of a number of craft-related subjects that will eventually work their way into articles, but none are currently ready for the light of day. So please enjoy the excerpt, and in case you have not yet had a chance to read it, Screenwriting Down to the Atoms is available in paperback from online retailers everywhere, and in e-book exclusively on

“Storytelling” is a two-part term. First, there is the “story.” Then, there is the “telling.” It is not enough to simply have a good story. Equally important is how that story is told. Even the best of stories can be sunk by poor telling. So, with that said, we must ask-


To be more specific to our purposes, how does one tell a cinematic story? Storytelling has many forms: novels, stage plays, operas, anecdotes, comic strips, dirty jokes, even song lyrics. Each tell a story in a different way, each with its own inherent advantages and limitations. But how does cinema tell its story?

Cinema is possibly the most complex form of storytelling. It is definitely the most complex art form. Most methods of storytelling use only words to communicate. Some only images. Others only sound. Cinema, on the other hand, uses words, images, sounds, light, movement, color, time, space, editing, and camerawork. Where does one begin to break down something so densely layered?

To find out, we must put the entire field under the microscope. We start once again by seeking the most basic, of the most basic, of the most basic.


Consider the word “atom.” Though used most often in chemistry, the word itself refers to any element so basic that it cannot be broken down into smaller units. Its origin dates back to the fifth century BC, when the Greek philosopher Democritus proposed (quite rightly) that everything in the universe was made of tiny particles. He believed that if one had a knife sharp enough, an apple could be sliced thinner and thinner, until it came to a point where it could be sliced no further, down to the very particles that held it together. Democritus called these particles atoms – Greek for “uncuttable.”

Not only was Democritus’ idea revolutionary, but so was his approach. He knew the key to study was to first break the subject down to its MOST BASIC ELEMENT. The whole is best understood by first identifying the tiniest building blocks by which everything is constructed.

Nearly every legitimate field of science is built upon a most basic element. Chemistry procured the word atom for itself to label the swirling particles that make up matter. The chemistry atom is uncuttable. If an atom were split, the result would not be two half-atoms, but a useless scatter of subparticles. Biology is the study of life. Its most basic element is a single living cell. A single cell can carry out all requirements of life, but if cut into smaller parts, it ceases to function. Sociology studies behavior in human societies. Societies are made up of individuals, making a single person sociology’s most basic element.

Any field of study will suffer until it discovers its most basic element. Chemistry was a rather hit or miss pursuit before the theory of atomic structure. Biology developed slowly until cells were discovered inside a piece of tree cork. Identifying the most basic element makes an entire field far easier to comprehend.

But, can this method be applied to cinema? Does cinematic storytelling have a most basic element? Many would refuse to even consider the question, simply because chemistry and biology are sciences, while cinema is an art. People tend to segregate art and science into isolated categories. Nevertheless, can an understanding of an art be found in the same manner as a science?

To answer the question, it is first necessary to figure out what it means to call cinema an art.


Art. It is a word of such high and mighty connotation that many dare not define it. In this case, let us first ask, why do people create art? Works of art have no practical purpose. Officially, art must be non-utilitarian in nature, meaning it has no use other than the aesthetic. A beautifully crafted sculpture is art, but a beautifully crafted lamp is not. A novel can be art, but the book you read now is not. If art has no practical use, then what is its purpose?

The answer is found in the artistic process itself. The artistic process is made of three parts: the artist who creates the work, the medium the artist works through (paint, dance, music, etc.), and finally the audience who ultimately receives the work. One must not overlook the importance of the audience. It is the audience who brings the process to its completion. Art without an audience is like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. What is the point of a novel that is never read? Music that is never played? A film that no one sees? “Artistic expression” implies a second party to whom the artist’s efforts are addressed. Only the most vain of artists would create something to put in a closet. Real artists create because they have something to express to the world: an idea, an opinion, an emotion... Artists create in order to communicate.  Art is about communication.

Art is the communication of meaning, from artist to audience, through a creative medium.

Since the purpose of art is to communicate meaning, how then is meaning communicated in something such as literature? Through words, of course. The most basic element of literature – its atom – is a single word. An author can communicate meaning with one word, but not with a single letter or detached syllable. It is by the accumulation of words into larger structures that the novelist makes his or her art. The art of dance communicates through movement. Its most basic element is a single movement of the body. Music is made of a collection of singular notes. Painting is an accumulation of individual brush strokes. Photography is the manipulation of individual photons of light. Thus, we see that like science, the arts have their own atoms. Each has a basic building block with which the artist constructs a greater meaning.

However, things become far more complicated when it comes to cinema. Cinema combines elements from nearly every art form; from photography, to theatre, to music, to the graphic and plastic arts. In addition, cinema has its own unique attributes, such as the ability to elongate or compress time, or to change perspective through editing. If cinema contains the most basic elements of all other art forms, plus elements of its own, what could possibly be the single, most basic building block of cinema itself? Can cinema be boiled down to a single element? Or is it just a hodgepodge?

The search proves difficult. Cinema’s most basic element cannot be a single image, since that would ignore cinema’s use of sound. It is not a spoken word, since dialogue makes up only a small part of any film. It also cannot be a single scene, or a shot within that scene, because both of these elements can be broken down further.

It turns out the answer is right under our noses. Cinema is an art. Art communicates. And what is transmitted by the act of communication?


The cinematic experience is created by a constant transmission of story information from storyteller to audience. Whether it be seen or heard, everything presented to the viewer is part of an intentional act of communication. Every detail; a line of dialogue, the look of a room, an expression on an actor’s face, an off-screen sound effect, exists to advance the story with NEW INFORMATION. If a character is murdered, that is information. If someone reveals a secret, that is information. If a character walks across the room, that is information. It is through this steady flow of information, communicated one piece at a time, that the cinematic storyteller makes his or her art. Each piece builds upon that which preceded it, advancing the narrative and developing the audience’s comprehension of the story as a whole.

This is cinema’s atom: the communication of a single piece of information from storyteller to audience; whether it be communicated by audio, visual, or any other means. Cinematic storytellers make their art through the creative control of this information – knowing what information to give, and when to give it. By gradually accumulating this information, the audience is able to understand, and enjoy, the cinematic narrative.

So, to return to our original question: How is a cinematic story told?

A cinematic story is told through the creative communication of information, given one piece at a time, from storyteller to audience.

How the storyteller chooses to communicate makes all the difference. Have you ever heard two people tell the exact same joke, and watch it generate a huge laugh for one, yet nothing but silence for the other? The difference was not the joke, but how that joke was told. This is what is meant by story-telling: the proper and effective execution of a story’s information. Good storytellers know how to communicate information in a way audiences will best understand and appreciate. The true skill of storytelling comes not simply from the story, but from how that story is told.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Story Structure: The ABSOLUTE Essentials (and the ONLY Absolutes) -- Part 2

(If you're reading this part first, you're doing it backwards! Click HERE for Part 1.

Otherwise, on to Part 2!)

2. The story must have a SPINE.

The Story Spine is one big secret I reveal in Screenwriting Down to the Atoms. The Story Spine is not a recent invention. It is not some trick or tool like a “beat sheet” formulated as a cheap and lazy shortcut. The Story Spine is something that has been present in all good storytelling since the beginning of time. Whether it be by instinct or trial and error, great storytellers have always realized that certain fundamental components must be contained in a story if the audience is to care about it and stick with it to the end.

The Story Spine is the basic structure of all storytelling, whether that story be in the form of a film, a novel, a folktale, an anecdote, or even a dirty joke. It fulfills the four qualifications of a story in a manner that gives the narrative focus, direction, and drive. It is the lifeblood of drama. Without a Spine, a story will fail to come together in anything but the weakest, most ineffectual way. But sadly, no “gurus” teach this concept. Few developing writers understand the Story Spine or even know of its existence. This is unfortunate, since an overwhelming majority of the flawed screenplays I have ever read can trace their most glaring problems back to a simple ignorance of the Story Spine.

The Story Spine is a five-component structure that can be visualized as so:

The Spine's five components are:
A. The protagonist’s STORY PROBLEM. This problem is what incites the protagonist to act and originates the story premise. This starts the story journey.
B. The protagonist’s STORY GOAL. The protagonist chooses this goal out the the belief that reaching it will solve the Story Problem and resolve the situation. Reaching it will end the story journey.
C. The protagonist’s PATH OF ACTION. This path is composed of all actions the protagonist takes in his or her efforts to get to the Story Goal. This makes up the bulk of the story action.
D. The MAIN STORY CONFLICT. This is a force that resists the protagonist's efforts to reach the Story Goal.
E. The MAIN STORY STAKES. This is a counter-force that compels the protagonist onward, despite the Main Conflict’s resistance.

All five components must be present for the Story Spine to exist. If any component is missing, the Spine will not function, just as an engine will not function if one of its vital components were removed. This matter deserves further explanation, but rather than take up space here, I invite you to read the original article I wrote on the subject back in 2009. It behooves you to take time to learn this. If a writer should know only one thing about storytelling, it should be this.

3. Longer stories require some form of ADDITIONAL STRUCTURE

Very short forms of story, such as anecdotes and folktales, need only a simple Story Spine to function. The main character encounters a problem, takes a single set of actions towards a goal, and then either reaches that goal or meets failure. The telling of these stories take no longer than a few minutes. However, as storytellers moves on to longer story forms; such as novels, stageplays, or feature films; one must deal with the issue of the audience’s attention span. Even when strongly engaged, attentions will wane with time. Often this time frame is as short as five to ten minutes. Unless the storyteller finds a way to continually renew attention, he or she will not be able to retain the audience’s interest until the story's end.

Take another look at the Story Spine diagram and you should notice that the Path of Action takes up the majority of any narrative. While an anecdote or folktale's Path of Action can be kept simple since it lasts only a few minutes, a novel or feature film's Path may need to stretch on for hours without end. How then does the storyteller keep an easily-distracted audience engaged and attentive over such a long period of time? The answer to create structure within the existing story structure.

Long narratives must be broken up into STORY SEQUENCES. Story sequences can be thought of as sub-narratives that directly relate to and develop the main Story Spine. In them, the character deals with some smaller issue directly related to the Main Story Problem. If the character successfully manages this smaller yet related issue, he or she moves one step closer to reaching the Main Story Goal. In other words, the protagonist handles the story's narrative issue in pieces; like a long journey taken one “leg” at a time. Rather than asking the audience to swallow the entire long-form narrative as a whole, story sequences deliver it to them one short yet interesting sub-story at a time, managing the limits of human memory and attention while keeping them engaged in the over-arching narrative. The story is not a marathon, but a series of sprints.

Novels and stageplays have obvious methods to break up their narratives for easier ingestion. Novels have chapters that suggest points where readers can start and stop. Plays close the curtain at the end of each act or scene. However, since the action of a feature film is continuous and expected to be enjoyed in one sitting, its demarcations between sequences can seem invisible without a trained eye. But whether you are currently able to notice them or not, trust me, this structure exists in every competent film ever made. The average feature film consists of nine to fourteen story sequences, each running a consistent pace of eight to twelve minutes apiece (though I have seen films with a pace as short as six minutes or as long as sixteen). Each sequence focuses character behavior upon a single, smaller objective that manages to advance the story situation and move the protagonist closer to his or her Main Story Goal. Story sequences are brought to an end with story events known as TURNING POINTS. As the name suggests, turning points literally turn the course of the story in a new direction by providing some occurrence that brings the action of the current sequence to an end and launches the action of the next. Turning points are also essential for necessities of good storytelling such as development, momentum, and escalation. Once again, this is a topic that requires more explanation than can be provided here. For more, you may check out this previous article or this one, or even better, Chapter 5 of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms.

Why is sequence structure an absolute of cinematic storytelling? Read some amateur screenplays that do not contain this structure and you will see why. So many aspiring screenwriters struggle, falter, and fail between inciting incident and climax because they do not know how to keep narrative momentum or provide the proper development and escalation that comes naturally with sequence structure. These long, structureless scripts then become lost, confused, lethargic, chaotic, or simply boring as hell. Like the Story Spine, sequence structure is a fundamental of good storytelling that most never teach and many fail to learn. Why? Because most “gurus” have the nasty habit of skipping over structural Steps #1 and #2, and blindly leaping straight to Step #3. Gurus love Step #3. But it is not exactly the magic pill some make it out to be. Of course, I am talking about the beloved 3-Act Structure.

What about 3-Act Structure?

Contrary to what some teach, the 3-Act Structure is not a method of story creation. Nor is it the primary level of cinematic story structure. If anything, it is the tertiary level – that is, the third level (“tertiary” is just much more fun word to say). There is a certain folly to the fact that 3-Act Structure is what most beginning writers are first taught. Equally foolish is how many begin a new screenplay by focusing upon it. As the tertiary level of narrative structure, this this is like constructing a building by starting with the third floor.

The 3-Act model is nothing more than a specialization of the sequence structure, specifically adapted to the feature-length narrative film. Its discovery came about through simple observation and analysis. Narrative arts like literature and theater have used sequence structure for centuries, producing tens of thousands of works. Narrative cinema, on the other hand, is a young enough art that its evolution could be observed from its beginnings to the present day. In addition, there are few enough feature films produced each year that one can come close to something resembling a comprehensive analysis. Through historical observation of successes and failures, especially cinema’s rocky trial-and-error period from 1910-1950, dramatists noticed that a large number of films found more success when certain sequences and turning points performed certain special duties according to where they occurred in the narrative. Modern films that emulated this pattern seemed to corroborate this. All this evidence led those working in the industry to believe they had discovered a roadmap to success, and to a certain degree they were right.

However, what was originally perceived as simply smart business has grown over the course of the last few decades to be thought of as some sort of screenplay law, and then into unquestionable dogma. Because if there is a natural formula to write a money-maker every time, why not use it, right? Right? But audiences have caught on. 3-Act Structure has gone from being a natural execution of the story’s Spine to something forced upon any and every narrative whether it fits its story's requirements or not. Remember from Part 1 of this article how each story has its own needs to which the structure must adapt, not the other way around. The 3-Act model is not a narrative absolute, yet many treat it as if it is. This is the cause of much frustration and confusion amongst developing writers. They are given valuable information, but the context in which it is given is often false.

Is 3-Act Structure an absolute? Certainly not. One can create a perfectly effective cinematic story with nothing but the Story Spine and sequence structure. Is the use of 3-Act Structure a good idea? In most cases, yes. Don’t reject something useful just for the sake of rebellion. That is a false absolute of its own. The 3-Act model may be exactly what your particular story needs. But don't force it upon your story just because you think it is mandatory. No matter your intentions or how you see yourself as a writer, Semper Gumby.

So in conclusion, the only absolutes in cinematic storytelling are the same as those in any narrative. A story must exist. The story must have a Spine. The long-form narrative must contain additional structure. The rest is simply good advice that is often relevant to your particular story, but may not always be so. Instructors on the craft may give you the tools, but it is up to you as an intelligent and flexible-minded storyteller to figure out when and how to use them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Story Structure: The ABSOLUTE Essentials (and the ONLY Absolutes) -- part 1

Here is the problem many people have with “script gurus.” They tend to speak in absolutes. Some suggestion is either implied by the writing or inferred by the reader that there is only one way to do certain things or else the writer’s work will end in failure. This then causes confusion, arguments, even anger amongst communities of cinematic storytellers, especially after the discovery of examples that fail to conform to such rigid preconceptions.

One thing that must be understood is that the gurus’ absolutes are rarely universalities. They do not apply to cinematic storytelling in its entirety. If there is any truth in the guru’s absolutes, it is only in reference to an exclusive group found within narrative cinema, one that may make up the majority of what the author considers traditional, commercial-oriented narrative filmmaking (roughly 75-90% of the films available to the paying public), but certainly does not represent all of it. Whether it be for convenience, clarity, or simple short-sightedness, many “gurus” choose to treat the minorities that fall outside of this group as if they simply do not exist. If challenged to explain one of these films, the offending work is frequently brushed off as a fluke, freak accident, a film that should not or in fact does not work, or my personal favorite, the guru hides behind that old William Goldman saw “nobody knows anything” – even when there is a perfectly viable explanation as to why these outliers work despite failing to conform. This causes a surprising amount of indignation from beginning or developing writers which can be seen on practically any internet message board. They see a piece that does not fit into so-called “absolutes” and are offered no reasonable explanation. This even seems to compel some to throw out the baby with the bathwater out of disgust, rejecting all instruction on narrative structure even though a great portion may still hold truth and value.

There are true absolutes within cinematic storytelling. However, they number very few. The rest is simply good advice. However, advice is only good when it applies to the specifics of the situation at hand. For instance, the best advice on how to survive a shark attack does me little good if I am being attacked by a bear. Each story is different, and therefore has its own particular needs. Even within the exclusive group which gurus tend to focus, the “absolutes” are rarely universals. Every story has unique content and form to which its craft is required to adjust and adapt. If the battle cry of the Marine Corp is Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”), then the cry of the cinematic storyteller must be SEMPER GUMBY (“Always Flexible.”)

But like I said, there are certain absolutes to cinematic storytelling, as few as they may be – absolutes that for a large part hold true for all storytelling in general. Without these fundamental basics, a “story” will not adequately form, and the narrative will be unable to gain and hold an audience’s attention. The rest of this article is dedicated to these absolutes.

(But first, lest I leave my underbelly exposed to ravenous critics, I must make a caveat of my own. The content of this article (as well as all the articles on this blog) refers to only traditional narrative cinematic storytelling – and primarily Western-style cinema at that. It is not meant to apply to anything than could be labeled as “art cinema.” The very nature of art cinema is to experiment and explore. Rules do not apply to it since its very purpose is to break or redefine rules. In fact, much of art cinema, in sharp contrast to commercial cinema, does not even consider narrative its primary concern. It rather concerns itself with the creative use of the entire audio-visual medium of which narrative is often only a small or nonexistent part.)

1. The story must be a STORY.

The first absolute is that a cinematic narrative must contain a story. Well, no sh*t Sherlock, I hear you say. However, anyone who has spent a lot of time reading amateur screenplays will tell you it is never a given that a script will contain anything remotely resembling a real “story.” Just because stuff happens, that doesn’t mean a story exists. In my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, I point out the great difference between a simple “narrative” and anything we can actually consider a “story.” A narrative is merely a series of events arranged in some sort of temporal order: “I woke up. I washed my face. The mail came. A plane landed in Portugal. I went to bed.” A disconnected series of events is not interesting to hear or read, yet I have encountered dozens of amateur screenplays that contain nothing more than this from beginning to end. To make things clear, these writers were not trying to be the next Michelangelo Antonioni. They simply had no clue as to what makes a story a STORY.

To be a story, and thus become capable of attracting an audience’s interest, a narrative must at bare minimum meet four qualifications (each qualification is expanded upon in greater detail in my book). A STORY must be a series of events –
  1. about CHARACTERS
  2. dealing with a PROBLEM,
  3. unified by a PREMISE,
  4. told in some sort of STRUCTURED ORDER.

Now the first qualification is obvious. You can’t make a story with an empty room. There must be some animate object capable of taking actions and causing events to occur. The second qualification is also obvious, though most people never realize it. Every story ever told, from The Three Little Pigs to Gone With the Wind to “How I Found my Car Keys” is about a problem and the efforts made to deal with that problem. Something must give characters a reason to act. I am not going to grant myself permission to go into a tangent to explain, but problems’ central importance to storytelling relates to the social and psychological reasons stories exist. People create stories to make sense of the world. They tell us that things happen for a reason. Each story is a lesson on how problems can be dealt with and overcome.

The premise is the unifying focus of a story. Story events cannot be chosen randomly. They must all somehow relate. The premise decides what the story “is about.” It is the umbrella that decides what is relevant and what is not. “How I Found my Car Keys” should only contain events that have something to do with the search for the keys. The Three Little Pigs only contains material on the Pigs and the Wolf who wishes to devour them.

Though events may be unified under a premise, the audience must still be able to make sense of them. This is why a story’s events must be arranged in a structured order. This happens because of that, which is then followed by that. A structured order gives a narrative a logic that connects each dot in a way the audience can easily comprehend. Sometimes chronological order is enough: “A happens, and then B happens,” but in most cases events will lack logical interconnection unless they have a causal (cause-and-effect) order: “A happens, which causes B to happen, which results in C.”

These four qualifications are the most basic of absolutes. Without all four, a narrative will not be a story and will be incapable of gaining or holding an audience’s interest.

2. The story must have a SPINE.