Why writers are like Indiana Jones.

The best stories I’ve read, watched, and listened to have high, obvious and dramatic arcs.  The writer(s) start you off slow, and then over the course of a number of pages or a number of minutes, they take you up a hill and then down again in such a thrilling fashion that you wish you had a seat belt.

If you’re having trouble with your story, then you need to think like Indiana and find that lost arc.  Where is the beginning?  The top of the coaster?  And the smooth release to the end?

And if you’re starting off from scratch, here’s a tip:  take a clue from so many great dramatic tales out there and pick something that has a built in arc.

What do I mean?

Do you think it’s a coincidence that courtroom dramas are some of the most popular on and off the stage?  A Few Good Men, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict . . . The OJ Trial???   Their arcs are built into the story.  The audience knows from the get go that the story will be over when the defendant is innocent or guilty.  Everyone knows exactly where they are headed (and its the dramatists job to add some twists and turns and a few loop-de-loops before the end).

Or what about Sports Dramas?  Or American Idol?  Or . . . and here’s the commonality amongst them all . . . any story that is a contest with a black and white/win or lose finish.

I was watching a slice-o’-life drama the other day, and I worried that tomorrow’s audiences, who grew up on video games and Survivor and political elections that played out like boxing matches in their living rooms, won’t take to those shows the way yesterday’s audiences did.

And that means it’s going to be even more important that all of us act like Indy.  Find the “arc.”  And don’t let it go.  With it you can find riches beyond your imagination and beat the Nazis.

And without it, you’re just another “arc”-haeologist.


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  • Insightful post on the value of arcs. The forward-looking query about arcs and tomorrow’s audiences had not been considered.

    What is the next generation’s Rent or Cats? And will it be made in the U.S.?

  • PDXComposer says:

    Wow! Dunno if this isn’t a massive over-simplification of a fairly complex process most writers get right only some of the time. When queried, I too will mention Indiana Jones in discussing dramatic writing, however, I note these two things immediately:

    Raiders of the Lost Ark does not start slowly (which is an awful idea), but sets off with big action conflict as a means to hook the viewer immediately into wanting to know more. And they do that by purposely withholding tons of exposition (which most writers mistakenly heap on at the start of a show)and getting us hooked into wanting to know who this guy is, why he’s almost killed and why he has an adversary that robs him.

    And secondly, hooked into the movie in the first 5 minutes, our next scene takes us to his college classroom where we get just enough character exposition to understand why he was robbed, who robbed him and why he’s willing to take on a museum search assignment that launches him on the adventure we’ll see unfold before us. That is a brilliant move and an example of withholding exposition until the last possible moment, when it’s needed to advance plot.

    But, many writers rarely figure this out. They write tons of opening exposition, hang opening character songs on backstory and grind the forward exposition of the story to a dead halt.

    And that’s why too many opening scenes are so slow. They go nowhere while the author focuses on material that SHOULD be withheld till it’s critical to the story telling.

    Those are the lessons one should learn from Indiana Jones.

    And finally, if any writer is having trouble with their story arc, they need to identify these three crucial things: what does the protagonist want, what is the obstacle causing the conflict in getting it and will the protagonist get it(comedy) or not (tragedy?) If you know these three things, the story ought to easily unfold. (What we audience witness, then, is the struggle to get what he or she wants and the ways in which they are stalled or make steps to achieve it. Along the way, the person or thing that is the obstacle, and the mechanations working against the protagonist, are revealed. That is the story arc journey.)

    Unfortunately, far too many writers don’t even get this. They seems to think that keeping the audience in the dark as to what the character’s goal is makes for better drama. No, it makes an occasionally better mystery. But, if you’re not writing a mystery, where the goal is to uncover the hidden or twisted truth, this does not make for drama.

    Drama is in the conflict struggle, it’s building audience expectation to anticipate some resolution, having them know the secrets the character have not yet learned, and anxiously awaiting the moment when it is revealed to the characters. And most of all, for a successful story, the audience must want to see the goal conclusion – must be anxiously awaiting it as the protagonists struggles to overcome the obstacle(s.) (Will Indiana Jones get the ark, beating the Nazi’s?)

    No conflict = no drama. No struggle = no drama.

    A simple example is unrequited love. Take a character who wants to give to and receive the love of another – the audience wants to see if they can get it. They anxiously await the moment when the person reveals their feelings to themselves (soliloquy) or to their intended (declaration) and what outcome occurs as a result of this.

    Conversely, if the audience doesn’t know that the unrequited love is present, then there is no dramatic tension leading to the discovery. The audience cannot anticipate something they don’t know about.

    And when discussing this very important principle (ignored or abused by many writers), I like to use another movie example.

    Imagine two men playing cards at a table. The camera starts in a close-up of the cards and slowly dollies back to reveal the men playing. The men conclude and leave the room and only then, as the camera pulls back, do we see the time-bomb hidden under the table.

    Now let’s inform the audience FIRST and see which has more dramatic tension.

    The men are playing cards as the camera pulls away from a close-up of the time-bomb. As the camera dollies back, they play an unhurried hand to it’s conclusion and then exit.

    Same action sequence. Nothing different about the staged scene or dialog. So which is more dramatic?

    Naturally it’s the one where the audience knows something the characters don’t and anticipate the moment when the secret may get revealed. Most writers just do NOT get this. I see this poor writing over and over in new musical plays.

    But, even this discussion is an oversimplification of the art of play-writing as other events are critical to the story arc (such as cathartic change, the use of penultimate and ultimate scenes, etc.) This is a subject of much greater depth then we can discuss here.

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