Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Tag: story openings

Michael Arndt’s Eight Steps for “Setting the Story in Motion”

by on Mar.28, 2011, under Storytelling Theory, Tools of the Trade, Writing

One of the hidden gems on the 4-disc Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray package from Disney is a ten-minute short film by screenwriter Michael Arndt. In it, Arndt reveals the eight step process that he found in films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles that helped him in writing Toy Story 3. Despite its short length, Arndt’s theory is an excellent contribution that deserves a closer look.

1) Show Your Main Character

Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish him in the mind of the audience. In the case of Toy Story, this is Woody. He is a toy that comes alive when humans aren’t watching.

2) Introduce the Universe that They Live In.

Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in. In the case of Toy Story, we see that Woody lives in Andy’s room with the other toys.

3) Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion? In Woody’s case, his grand passion is his place as Andy’s favourite toy. He has the favoured position Andy’s bed and the introductory playtime sequences always show him as the star of Andy’s imagination.

4) Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw.

Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most. In Woody’s case, it’s pride. As Andy’s favourite toy, he has a lot of pride about his place in Andy’s bedroom. It is only natural that he gets his comeuppance.

5) Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon. In the case of Toy Story, those storms clouds are Andy’s birthday party. All of the other toys are afraid of being replaced. Only Woody, proud of his status as Andy’s favourite tool, is unworried.

6) Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion. In the case of Woody, the introduction of Buzz Lightyear changes everything. Because Buzz is such a cool tool, Andy and all of the other toys prefer him. Woody finds himself relegated to the Toy Chest while Buzz gets the preferred spot on Andy’s bed. Woody has lost his greatest possession: his status as Andy’s favourite toy.

7) Add Insult to Injury

If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion, you always have to humiliate him in the process. In the case of Toy Story, not only does he lose his place as favourite toy to Buzz, Buzz has no idea that he’s a toy! As Woody loses favour, you can see his frustration at Buzz’s cluelessness. He’s being replaced by an imbecile! This step is important to show your character’s frustration at a world that is completely unfair.

8) Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to Act 2. Let’s take Toy Story again. In Toy Story, Woody, having been displaced and insulted by the deluded Buzz Lightyear, decides to try to knock Buzz behind the dresser so that Andy will have to take him to Pizza Planet. The plan goes awry, Buzz is knocked out the window, and the other toys blame Woody, leaving him no choice but to find and return Buzz to Andy’s room. That leads us right into Act 2.

Arndt shows us the same structure at play in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The structure works well because the plot develops from the hero’s internal character, making it more personal. It also gives us something that character, alongside the main plot, must resolve inside himself. In the case of Toy Story, Woody not only brings back Buzz safely, but he also learns how to overcome his flaws and earn the friendship of Buzz. The hero’s journey becomes as much metaphysical as physical.

But how can we apply these lessons to our own stories. In my case, Arndt’s theory forced a number of changes in the opening Act of Evermore: Call of the Nocturne. While  I found that I had followed several of his steps already, thinking his theory allowed me to make some changes that greatly improved the opening act. Please let me go through it one step at a time.

1) Show Your Main Character

In Evermore: Call of the Nocturne, the reader is introduced to Mmorpg, a geekish computer nerd who has difficulty dealing with people directly. He prefers the virtual world to the real world as he has far more control over it.

2) Introduce the Universe that They Live In.

Mmorpg lives in Vancouver, BC. But his real home is at his laboratory at the University of British Columbia where he administrates a virtual online world known as Evermore.

3) Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Mmorpg’s greatest passion is Evermore itself. Having created the most popular Massively-Multiplayer Online (MMO) game in the world, Mmorpg is understandably proud of his accomplishment. He believes that Evermore will change the world for the better and thus he is very protective of it, allowing only himself access to the computer code that sustains it.

4) Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw.

Mmorpg’s hidden flaw is his pride towards his creation. Enamoured by its possibilities, Mmorpg is unable or unwilling to see its possible consequences, both to himself and others.

5) Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

During the opening chapters, Evermore’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) is mentioned nervously. In a few days, stock will be sold in the online world, making all of its founders, especially Mmorpg, incredibly rich.

6) Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Mmorpg’s world is shattered when a little girl dies inside Evermore. Having written the security protocols that are meant to protect people inside the virtual world, Mmorpg is dumbfounded by failure. He continually insists that they are perfect despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.

7) Add Insult to Injury

With the death of the little girl, it is obvious that the government will move in to shut down Evermore. All of Mmorpg’s hard work, all of his sacrifices will have been for nothing. While he watches helplessly, his life’s work is falling to pieces.

8) Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

Rather than choose to go straight to the authorities, as he should, Mmorpg chooses instead to perpetrate a massive coverup. He seals off the crime scene and disables the logout function, trapping everyone including the killer inside Evermore. To ensure that nobody gets wise, he tricks anyone who attempts to log out by trapping them inside another virtual reality where they log out, feel tired, and go to bed for a nap. Given that he can’t keep people locked up in the virtual world forever, Mmorpg is forced to find the killer. To that end, his organization hires a dangerous mercenary called Blue and we are into the 2nd Act.

It was here that Arndt’s advice really paid dividends. Originally, Mmorpg simply makes the choice because, well because the plot demanded it. I hadn’t made the case in the character of Mmorpg why he would do such a thing. With Arndt’s theory, I made his connection to his creation far stronger in the early going, introduced the storm crowds (the government) that threatens to take away his dream, and confront him directly with the moral choice that leads us into the 2nd Act. Now we know why Mmorpg makes that decision and more importantly, we want him to make that decision. Furthermore, this moral choice makes Mmorpg’s eventual comeuppance (no spoilers) and reconciliation far more effective.

Michael Arndt himself states that these steps are not for every story, but they are a useful tool to help you develop the opening to your story. In my case, they helped to make a good opening even better. I hope that they’ll help you too.

 

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