Does anyone get rejections that say, “Some strong writing here, but this isn’t a story; there’s no arc” or “I like your character but where’s the conflict?” Have you thought, “This editor is nuts! A guy’s chasing her. She has a gun. She shoots him. Isn’t that enough conflict?”
No actually it isn’t. What that is is action which is different from conflict. Action is movement. Conflict is choice followed by movement. What??? What I’m talking about here is structure, what Randall Brown pointed out in a recent post at Flash Fiction Chronicles, “Who Cares?”: The Nuts & Bolts of Making Narrative Matter:
Something happens (precipitating incident) to create a desire, and that desire creates a need for action that is thwarted by this and that and this and that until, finally, there’s resolution.
Movies are a great way to learn structure and what exactly a story arc is. One of my favorite movies to illustrate structure in that old reliable action flick ( I know, I didn’t say “structure flick”), Die Hard, made back in 1988 when Bruce Willis was moving from Moonlighting on TV to the Big Screen.
Get the Die Hard DVD and watch it with a pen and paper and the timer on your DVD player. Number the lines on your paper from 1 to maybe 120 or so. Maybe skip lines to make sure you can write big if you get excited. Record what happens every minute or so all the way through. This may seem like a tedious exercise, but it’s amazing to just how carefully the story is constructed. For the hot-shot movie critics out there who love those ponderous three-hour think pieces, Die Hard is too “on the nose,” but for learning about structure and character development, it is one of the best.
Act 1 starts with a character in his regular life, something happens to turn his life on its head, and by the beginning of Act 2 (approximately 30 minutes in), the character’s life is 180 degrees different from what it once was and the character sets out to either change his or her life back or to figure out how to make the best of things. He’s not trying all that hard because frankly, he can’t really believe things could go this wrong. Then something else goes wrong.
About a quarter way through Act 2 (around 45 pages in) the character has some kind of epiphany that he’s going to have to work a helluva lot hard than he thought. The simple solution isn’t working. He needs a better plan.
About half way through (60 minutes) he realizes who the enemy is (himself, his best friend, the woman with the man hands) and at the same time, there is a coming together between the character and his/her main relationship usually washing wounds or sex).
In the second half of Act 2 some new effort is launched, but it doesn’t work and leads to a dark moment around 75 minutes in. The character gives up the game as hopeless.
But by 90 minutes, the beginning of Act 3, the character has come up with new energy, a new plan, a new assault on his problem and works through his conflict until he either wins or loses.
Notice as you are jotting down what is happening on your lined paper, about when these things happen in Die Hard. The timing won’t be perfect, but you’ll be shocked to see how close it is.
Look for: Set-ups and pay-offs: On the plane McClane talks with the other passenger about being afraid of flying. The passenger offers a suggestion. Watch for this to pay-off when he is in the bathroom of the Nakatomi building, and then later when he’s in the elevator and later when he’s being chased. This suggestion from the passenger pays off about 6 times in this move. THAT’s good structure.
Look for how exposition is handled: On the plane, in the taxi, between McClane’s wife and her boss, when McClane gets to the Nakatomi building and looks his wife up on the list of employees. Then think about set-up and pay-offs again. How is information given to the viewer?
Look for character development: The characters in this piece are so well-defined and consistent in their traits. We get them quickly and their motivation and subsequent behavior holds the structure together when the twists are thrown in. There is suspense without confusion.
Setting: Think about the airplane, the limo, and the high rise Century City building. Then think about how this movement evolves and what happens in the building and how each of these places have their own twists and turns.
Pacing??? Remarkably fast, but with the right amount of time spent on reflection so the movie has meaning. And it does. It’s about loyalty, determination, married love, brotherhood, evil….
Okay enough. Now if you decide to do the jot down what’s happening thing, here’s what to look for. By the first three or so minutes you know who McClane is, what his problem is, and how he thinks he’s going to solve it. Notice he HAS a problem. A personal goal to find out what the hell is going on between him and his wife. That isn’t the PLOT of the movie, it’s a subplot, but it’s what gives the movie some universal meaning.
About thirty minutes in you might notice that everything has changed 180 degrees from the beginning of the movie (this is about where ACT 1 ends). The building is taken over and the story problem isn’t just about McClane and his wife, but it’s about surviving the “terrorist” attack.
Act 2 come next from around 30 or so minutes to about 90 minutes in. In that time it is McClane fighting the bad guys.
The first part of act 2 is all about getting the police’s attention and he assumes of course that the police will solve the problem. He has to just survive and create enough chaos to keep the bad guys busy until the cops save the day.
But in the middle of the movie around 60 minutes in we see that McClane isn’t going to get any help. As a matter of fact he’s now perceived as one of the bad guys. The stakes are ramped up. There is no help coming. He’s got to do it himself. However, if I’m remembering correctly this is about the time John McClane’s wife begins to feel more kindly toward her estranged husband.
And then at about 90 minutes when Act three begins, John McClane makes his final assault to save his wife and everyone else who has survived. And he manages to do that in true action hero form.
The end? The enemy is defeated and he regains his wife.
Okay. Formula. Over the top. Right? Yeah but it’s a learning tool too. Knowing why this movie works has helped me to have answers to story problems whenever I get stuck. What does the formula say at this point??? Do I want to do that? If yes, may it a unique with details. If I dn’t, make sure that what does happen has the same kind of emotional effect.
I didn’t make this up. If this idea of studying movies to help understand structure appeals to you you might consider reading one of the books I mentioned earlier.
I can’t remember all the movies I did this with, but it is amazing to see how close movies THAT WORK stick to this.
Movies I logged
Suspicion (wrong ending really but I still love it)
That’s all I can remember off the top of my head! Happy movie watching!
Gay Degani writes surrounded by the frantic chortles of parrots. She has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and TWO (2009). Her stories online can be read at The Battered Suitcase, Night Train, 10 Flash, 3 A.M. Magazine, as well as other publications. Pomegranate Stories is a collection of eight stories by Gay. She is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles.