My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: The Missing Chapter
How embarrassing is it for a writer to forget to write a chapter of his or her own book? Especially, a book about…uh…writing?
Back when my book on story structure, My Story Can Beat Up Your Story!, was in the planning stage I knew that I wanted to accomplish two things: first, I wanted to clearly detail the understanding of story structure that I had developed and field tested over the last twenty years of being a professional writer and second, I wanted to NOT write a book of screenwriting tricks. The last words I wanted to see in my book were ‘Chapter 45, Seventeen Tricks for Snappy Dialogue.’
It’s not that someone can’t come up with seventeen (or twenty-three or whatever) tricks to writing sparkly dialogue, but bad dialogue is a symptom, not a disease. The leading cause of stinky dialogue is a writer who doesn’t know what his or her characters want in a scene. And the leading cause of that is not knowing where that scene figures in the bigger life of the story. And the leading cause of THAT is not knowing story structure.
And the leading cure for that is the story structure that is My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! Why bother to write a book that treats symptoms but leaves the disease untouched? So while writing my book I focused my attention on story structure and tried as much as possible to avoid laundry lists of screenwriting sleight-of-hand tricks.
But there was one trick I wanted to include because it’s a good one and it’s all about structure and it’s saved my backside on more than a few occasions. It’s called ‘doubling up.’ I learned about doubling up a number of years ago from my friend and mentor Gilbert McLean Evans (the wise). He stumbled on it, shared it with me, and we both agreed that it was pretty awesome. When I started writing “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story!”, I left a sticky note on my desk reminding me to include a chapter on doubling up.
And then I promptly forgot all about it.
Not only did I forget, I TOTALLY forgot. I wrote rough drafts of my book, revised the book several times, read and re-read multiple revisions and still didn’t remember to talk about doubling up. It was only as I was reading the galleys of the finished book, right before it was being sent to the printers, that I had that feeling I got that time I left for a vacation and realized that I had forgotten to close the garage door. “What happened to my chapter about doubling up?! Oh yeah, I left it on a sticky note somewhere!”
Fortunately, my awesome friends at The Writers Store asked me if I’d like to write an article for their eZine in honor of the launch of My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! Realizing that this was my chance to make up for my protracted senior moment, I accepted. And so, without further blathering, I present Chapter 8a, to be inserted after chapter 8: ‘I Plot, You Plotz’, and before chapter 9: ‘I’m Not Afraid of the Dark.’
CHAPTER 8a: ‘You Hit Singles, I Double Up!’
I’ve often said that anyone can write a story up to page 55. By that I mean that it’s relatively easy to tell half a story, but just at the point that a story needs to kick into high gear many writers lose direction and focus. If your story is told well, the first half of your story will write a check that the second half of your story had better cash if you don’t want your audience to turn on you. So what do you do if you hit page 55 and are hopelessly stumped, unsure of where to take your story next? Double up!
Doubling up is a technique that helps you focus the second half of your story by repeating the major plot elements that happened in the first half. You use the events from the first half of your story to shape and inform the second half of your story by both repeating the events and amplifying them.
As I write in “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story!”, the hero of every good story moves through four archetypes: orphan, wanderer, warrior, and martyr. By dividing your story into four equal sections, you can define each section by an archetype: Act 1 is about your hero being an orphan, the first half of Act 2 is your hero turning into a wanderer, the second half of Act 2 is your hero becoming a warrior, and Act 3 is where your hero is willing to be a martyr. Doubling up happens right at the mid-point of your story -- the middle of Act 2 – right when your hero goes from wanderer to warrior. Think of it this way: at the mid-point of your story your hero is done wandering and thinks that he or she has learned the lessons needed to be successful. “Oh yeah?” you say to your hero from the mid-point of your story. “You think you can do better than you did in the first half of the story? Show me!”
And so you literally start telling your story all over again, but with amplifying and complicating the events of the first half. Your hero’s knowledge, skills and abilities (or the knowledge, skills, and abilities your hero thought he or she had) are now pushed and tested by being put into similar circumstances. He or she fails a bit, succeeds a bit, and eventually realizes that while he or she has learned some lessons from the first half of the story, there is still has a long way to go before success.
It’s not just your hero who is pulled deeper into the story through doubling up, it’s your audience, too. Part of engaging an audience is making them feel connected and involved. By doubling up, the second half of your story suddenly has a familiar feel, like a recent memory. But by amplifying the events of that memory, your story also feels more exciting and unique.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In very broad strokes, the first half of Star Wars can be summed up like this:
1. A little ship is pulled into a big ship.
2. Leia attacks Stormtroopers. Is captured.
3. R2D2 and C3PO escape.
4. Leia is brought to Vader.
5. R2D2 is attacked by gang of Jawas.
6. R2D2 and C3PO escape the Jawas by being purchased by Luke’s uncle.
7. R2D2 runs off and Luke is almost killed chasing after him.
8. Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed.
9. Luke tells Obi Wan that he wants to save the Princess.
10. Obi-Wan saves Luke in the bar with a fast light saber fight. Meet Han.
11. Escape in the Millennium Falcon.
12. They are followed and fired upon, but jump to hyperspace.
13. Death Star destroys Alderraan
14. They see the Death Star and try to escape.
So let’s say you’re George Lucas from a long time ago (1974) and moderately far, far away (Northern California) and you’ve just written Star Wars up to this point in the story but now you’re stuck. What do you do? Double up, Georgie! Take what you’ve done in the first half of your story and start repeating it, but amplify the conflicts and consequences. And even though we don’t meet the hero until a quarter of the way through the story, the events of the first half set the stage for the doubling up that happens in the second half.
Check out the rubric below and see how the events from the first half of Star Wars are doubled up and amplified in the second half of Star Wars:
If you take a look at the beats in the right hand column, you’ll notice that they’re conceptually similar to the beats on the left, only they’re bigger both in scope and in consequence. You got pulled into a big ship against your will? Well I got pulled into the friggin’ Death Star! You got attacked by a gang of Jawas? I got attacked by a phalanx of Stormtroopers! You got fired on by a single ship and had to outrun it? Dude, I just kicked the snot out of four Imperial fighters!
Practically speaking, let’s say you’re writing and you’re stuck on page 55. What you would do is lay out the key beats that you’ve already written in the first half and figure out how to ratchet them up. For instance, the very first beat of Star Wars is that a small, anonymous ship is pulled into a very large ship. What’s the amplification of that for the second half of your story? A small ship that is filled with characters you know and care about, is pulled into the biggest ship ever built.
See how this works? Now remember, not every movie doubles up. It’s not a standard structure element, but a great tool that just happens to work very well. If you start looking at some of your favorite films you’ll see other instances where the beats in the second half of the story double up on the beats from the first half. Was that intentional? I doubt it. But just because it accidentally works doesn’t mean you can’t intentionally do it. Doubling up is it a technique that can save your bacon if bacon-saving is something you desperately need.
So there it is; the missing chapter from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! I’d love to hear from people in what other movies you notice doubling up, so please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the Author: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
Jeffrey Alan Schechter has been beating up stories for more than twenty years. He is a WGA, WGC, Emmy, and BAFTA-nominated writer, producer, and director, a million-dollar spec screenplay writer, a Gemini award winning producer, and the developer of the underlying story principles behind Mariner Software’s Contour Story Development program.
Jeff's first credits were in action films such as Bloodsport 2, The Tower, and Street Knight. Turning to his love of family films, Jeff sold his spec screenplay Little Bigfoot to Working Title Film...