SG1 Series Part Five: Formula – Making a Success Key Mould

Earlier posts from the SG1 Series:

What, Why, Who, How – Questioning Formula?

Many writers learn to emulate or procreate success by following or developing a specific formula. We begin the journey of a writer in the footsteps of our favorites, the classics and contemporaries who walked these hallowed halls before us, but in time we learn to strike out on our own. We develop our own voice, our own techniques and our own formulas.

Television Series are almost entirely dependent on formula. Formula allows multiple writers to follow steps to create a consistent product. Category Romance are often formulaic as well. Indeed many aspects of business (writing or otherwise) coexist around formula, from business models to time management and of course content.

Formula is about reusing what has proven to work. While there is little point in repeating actions that were unsuccessful, we know that success can often be recreated by following similar steps. The Stargate Series continued to produce successful seasons, year after year, thanks to their carefully structured formula. Category Romances are enjoyed by thousands of women around the world because we all know they have happy endings, it’s part of the formula. Success, developed into a success formula can recreate success.

For first time novelists this might seem like information you can’t use. After all, we need to have those first successes to create a success formula, right? Nope, not at all. That’s where emulation plays a significant role in the early success of writers. It is one of the reasons a love of reading is almost a prerequisite for writers. The more you read the more you will absorb the method and technique, the formulas, of other writers.

Worship at the Author Altar by Reading

Books should obviously be our first love. After all, as novelists we are determined to spend hour upon hour in company with them every single day. When we aren’t writing our own we are, hopefully, kicking back with one of the many books that gather in teetering piles on any available flat surface (or stacked neatly on a bookshelf if you’re the rare mythological being, a neat writer).

The books we read offer lessons to all writers. With time and experience writers develop an eye that tends to transform the reading process. The luckiest of us don’t find this dilutes the joy of reading but sometimes it can feel like we are still working in our off hours.

Read as much as you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your favorite authors, genres, or first publication dates. Read classics, thrillers, fillers, any book that stumbles into your hands both fiction and non-fiction. Become your libraries most loyal visitor and steal moments to read whenever you can. This firm foundation of language and technique is the cement pad on which you’ll build a house of writing.

Pester, Prod, Ask Questions, and Be Interested

We have a surprising number of opportunities throughout life to learn. Writers’ conferences, talk shows, podcasts, blogs, writers’ groups, book readings, etc. all provide a marvelous chance to pick apart the brains of other writers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you show a true interest and a willingness to learn most writers will be available for you (to a point). You can learn a great deal about writing and success from published authors, interviews, and the media. Absorb and question, analyze and compare. Become an avid busy-body and learn to ask the right questions to get the answers you can use.

Recreate a Success Formula – Write!

With what you learn from reading and questioning, from watching television and movies and listening to the world you will have found consistencies you can use to begin to develop your own success formula. Publisher guidelines and writing magazines are another place to dig. By pulling these threads of knowledge together you can structure the walls of your success.

Recreate and emulate the successful techniques you’ve discovered but be prepared to grow and adjust. A formula never works perfectly if it is identical every time. You must change as needed. This takes practice and the only way you will succeed is to learn to fail. Writers never get it right every time. We get better with failure, we learn, we develop, we grow into success.

The Book’s Formula

Just as you’ve created a formula for success many books can follow a formula that also aids their success. It is done in much the same way. By learning what works and working what you’ve learnt. Remember to adjust when needed and to practice. A Book Formula is most common for book series and some very specific genres. Many of the most prolific writers have learnt to use formula to produce multiple books that stand alone on their own merit but follow consistent patterns that fans enjoy and come to expect.

Don’t be afraid to emulate formula while you begin as a writer but don’t forget how vital it is to discover your own voice, and walk the path in your own shoes. Yes, you can learn to be successful by following in the footsteps of successful people but the most successful learn to strike out on their own, they take paths less traveled and that makes all the difference.

SG1 Series Part Four: Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events

A primary writer’s tip involves the importance of your beginning. The first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first scene, ‘begin’ your story and are, perhaps, the most important words of your entire book. The final page/paragraph of each chapter is also significant and so is the ending.

These are Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events. The Stargate SG1 Series is masterful with these three elements. It offers a fantastic opportunity to learn not only the importance of hooks, hangers and the sequence of events but key points in making your own effective.

How To Begin – The First Sentence Hook

“In medias res” = “into the middle of things” (Latin)

Every episode of Stargate starts where the action is. I mentioned the importance of action in Part Three: Action and Dialogue so you already have some idea what makes action/showing (involving the senses) an effective way to begin your story.

It is often tempting to digress into exposition, prologue, history, and scenic/character descriptions (telling) but these tend to be less captivating for current-day readers. There are some brilliant books that start with less dynamic openings but are rich and engaging. Classics particularly are fond modern-day rule-breakers. Older story structure allowed a slow build up of tension over the first pages but these days it is more common to start with a bang. Times have been changing and present-day readers trend toward fast paced openings. They want to get to the good stuff right off the bat and won’t wait for lengthy scene-setting or information dumps. Book buyers often scan an opening sentence, paragraph or page when deciding to purchase so it is vital you grip them. Leverage your sale potential and ensure they won’t put your book back on the shelf.

After the opening scene you have an opportunity to backtrack or fill in your readers with the details that brought your character to this point. (If it’s necessary.) Often, the vital facts can be fed through the story without interrupting the flow but sometimes it’s important to clue up your readers about exactly how we got ‘here’ in the story since most direct-to-action openings are dramatic situations full of conflict and the first climatic clink.

Some fantastic guidance about hooking your reader is available in Les Edgerton’s “Hooked”. I recommend it to all novelists.

Page Turning, Chapter Turning – Cliff Hanging or Sun Baking?

It’s up to you, your characters and your story.

There are two choices as each chapter winds to a close and it’s occasionally challenging to decide which to make. Should you close the chapter “cliff hanging” or a gentle “sun baking”?

Hangers are designed to keep the reader turning pages. Many readers use chapter breaks as an opportunity to put a book down (we have to sleep sometime). Of course, we don’t want our readers to put the book down do we? We want them to read it cover to cover so we can be sure they finish it. (Admit it; you have a collection of half-read books on your shelves.)

This is where the hanging ending comes into effect. Stargate often ended episodes with a fantastic hanger. It was especially effective for the end-of-season episodes because writers left enough questions to entice readers to hold out for several months off-season to find out what happens next. Viewers dread those evil words, “To be continued…” but they truly work. Those viewers will be back next episode to find out what happens.

When it comes to writing a book you can also entice your readers to keep turning the page. Leave a few choice questions unanswered or close the chapter on the brink of climax. In a way you could “in media res” your chapter endings. Close the chapter while “into the middle of things”.

To the other extreme you may choose to offer a “bake” option to your readers. Some books are better suited to giving your reader a chance to close the covers.

Intense stories can be draining and long stories can be time consuming. By creating an effective ‘pause’ chapter ending, you give your readers the opportunity to come back later. This is really just a reversal on the “hanger” option. Rather than leaving your characters on a cliff bring them down to earth. Close the chapter with a contented sigh of relief. You still need to leave some questions unanswered but they are less immediate.

Either option can work well and it comes down to your personal choice and what suits your story. Sometimes the characters will decide on your behalf. If you’re a planner you might choose in advance while a pantser may have to carve out and edit their chapter breaks in the second draft.

Some books don’t even have chapters but these elements can be played into all areas of your book. The chapter isn’t the only place a reader may steer away from finishing reading. Follow your instincts.

Going in the Right Direction – Always Charging Onward

The Sequence of Events is vital! Keep your facts straight.

In every novel there is a Sequence of Events. Readers start at page one and read consecutively through to “The End”. This sequence never changes and it often takes careful planning/editing to keep the sequence of events from sending mixed messages to readers.

While stories do not have to be chronological and time is flexible there are still some primary elements that must be considered to keep all details consistent and concrete.

I mentioned the remarkable foreshadowing and plotting involved in the Stargate SG1 Series in Part One: Story-Arc, Plot and SubPlot. These two atoms of every story are key factors in maintaining a solid sequence of events.

A literary technique that will strengthen your sequence of events is Chekhov’s Gun. Based on Anton Chekhov’s quote, “”One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
This covers two factors:

  1. Don’t waste words writing about anything that is not vital to your story and
  2. You can weave significant facts into the story from page one.

Stargate continues to build upon events with the introduction of many seemingly insignificant situations, people and events that later prove to be major elements in the plots. Writers must remember that the momentum is building, ever upward, tension rises until the final confrontation, the final climax when the story comes to a head and all (or most) is revealed.

Tip of the iceberg?

Sorry it’s so long.

This proved to be a rather lengthy entry but I hope you’ve learned a few things that you can carry into your current writing projects. There is much more we could cover and I probably would have done better to break this into three posts. I’ll have to make sure we come back to these topics in the future. They are intriguing enough to warrant more in-depth exploration.

As always, if you have comments, suggestions, or ideas of your own, please comment. Your thoughts are very welcome and I’d love to know how you’ve dealt with Hooks, Hangers and The Sequence of Events in your own writing. Do you have any resources you recommend for finding out more? What do you know that I didn’t cover today?

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SG1 Series Part Three: Action & Dialogue

All Show, No Tell – The Audio/Visual Experience

One of the greatest lessons writers can gain by watching television series (and movies) is the importance of action and dialogue. In today’s world, we expect richer, active, even sensual experiences. We fill our entertainment hours with games, movies, soap operas, drama, theatre, ballet, situational comedy and reality television. Tangible, engaging experience involves interactions with all of our senses.

Thankfully, written media offers a wonderful opportunity to reach readers on a level of expression that goes far and beyond other forms. With words we can cause readers to see, feel, taste, smell and hear. The only way to truly allow a reader to experience a story is to show it, rather than tell it.

The Stargate Series, thanks to its audio/visual medium, is ALL SHOW AND NO TELL. Viewers watch the characters through every interaction, through every scene. We never experience internal monologue or exposition. Every vital element must be expressed to viewers through action and dialogue. The writers and producers of the Stargate SG1 series have mastered the subtlety needed to get the vital facts to viewers. They cut the chaff and engage viewers in this rich, science fiction environment.

ACTION – Something is ALWAYS happening.

In fiction we can resort to other forms of narration to tell the story but the most engaging, interesting and enriching is to ‘show’ the story through a series of SCENES. (Note: Fiction isn’t ‘all show’ and ‘no tell’ – read more but “show, don’t tell” is a vital writer tip – learn why.)

Every move your characters make, everything they see and experience, everything that happens to and around them is action. Whenever the SG1 step through the Stargate they’re taking action. What they do on the other side is action-packed.

Action isn’t always about guns blazing and car chases. Simple things like dinner, work and even sex involve action. The important thing to remember is anything you show happening must move the story forward. Every scene should take the story toward its climax, its ending.

DIALOGUE – Communication with purpose.

Getting characters to communicate is a significant action that offers writers a chance to use language between characters to share other important information. All dialogue should serve a purpose in your story. It could be character development, fact expression, or relationship based but it must move the story forward.

I’ll go into dialogue more in future Writer’s Round-About entries. Meanwhile read more about dialogue, writing dialogue, dialogue tips, and dialogue in scripts vs. novels.

Television series are rich with elements that involve viewers. We reach into the stories, interacting on a cerebral level that generates interest in the characters and what happens to them. We see it happening, we hear it happening and the audio/visual cues pull us into the action. The exact same scene could be written in two different ways, ‘show’ or ‘tell’.

If you tell the story to someone it creates the distance of a second-hand account. As writers we want to close that gap as much as possible. Sometimes it’s appropriate to give your readers distance but most of the time readers want to be fully engaged. Pull them in by showing them the action. Then they can use all their senses to experience a story, rather than just read about it.

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SG1 Series Part Two: Character Development

Characters are an elemental part of every story. An intriguing plot with a good story-arc is important but without approachable characters your story will never connect with an audience. Readers need characters. Characters are the socket for your stories power supply. It is through your characters that readers can plug into the plot and experience the life of your story.

The Stargate series introduces a multitude of characters in various stages and of differing quality and consideration. Some play bit parts as extras or body count but others grow into the story, we come to love them or hate them, we come to care for the part they play in the story, their injuries and deaths bring anguish and grief or heartfelt cheers.

SG1 – Jack, Daniel, Sam and Teal’c

The original SG1 is a team of four diverse characters. Their differences create an initial challenge; they struggle as a unit until they learn to use each others strengths to counter their own weaknesses. It shows the importance of bringing opposites together. These characters are unique in their own fields. It is their united purposes, each individual to their character, which brings them together. A bond is formed that gives this eclectic community a solid friendship. We see the bond develop and grow with the characters as the series progresses.

It is important to blend characters but avoid carbon copies. Each character should be unique and individual. Distinguish them with separate goals, established histories, areas of interest and technique.

The SGC and General Hammond

The Stargate Command is an entity in its own right. It is actually a collection of individuals that work in regulated ways to create a standardized base of operations. There are many faceless characters lead by the General. Most of the time we don’t connect with these individuals but General Hammond represents the unity. His personality molds the actions of the SGC.

Larger forces need a strong head character to represent their interests. Armies can seem like a long column of faceless men but a charismatic leader will show a distinguishing command of his forces. Each of his men is ultimately the voice of this man and a solid leader is one whose men will lay down their own lives to support the orders he puts forth. This is true of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys.

The Goa’uld

While the Goa’uld are a nasty bunch in their own right they are an ideal antagonist. They aren’t evil. They have solid reasoning and a collection of emotional reactions that allow readers to associate with them. The Goa’uld act entirely out of an arrogant sense of self preservation and domination. As a people (um… symbiotic race) they act with rational, intelligent thought. They are challenging but not insurmountable.

Antagonists should be normal people. You can create more impact with a sympathetic antagonist then with a diabolical freak. If a reader can see themselves in a protagonist you have a good story but if readers can see themselves to some small degree in the antagonist then you have a charged situation that will keep a reader tied to the outcome.

There are many more characters involved in the Stargate series. Each new person (or group of people) is shown in snippets. Base motivations appear and personality traits are revealed but characters always have an element that remains unseen. It is impossible to know everything and it is important that characters can still do something unexpected or unpredictable.

Over time, we get to know the main characters. Their own personal stories are revealed and delved into. The primary characters are challenged with personal situations forcing them to make choices that distinguish them. Whole episodes play a vital role in adding depth to these characters and introduce situations that push their qualities forward.

  • Use time in your story to slowly reveal your characters.
  • Allow their actions and reactions to portray the depth of their beliefs and desires.
  • Each scene should use your characters strengths and weaknesses.
  • 3D characters have sides we cannot see.
  • A characters relationships reveal vital clues to their personality.
  • Characters always continue to grow and change based on the situations that occur in each moment of their lives.

Finally, just because your story has reached ‘The End’ does not mean your characters have. Characters should still be imperfect in the final scene. Their growth remains incomplete. Some of your characters may have died but most will live on beyond your closing paragraph and while they began at one point and progressed to another in this story there should always be another world to save, another enemy to fight, another day to live and another dream to follow.

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Story-Arc, Plot and SubPlot – SG1 Series – Part One

Stargate SG-1 Cast Of CharactersOne of the most remarkable things I’ve noticed with the Stargate SG1 series is the almost decorative design of the story-arc. Each episode has one but each season also has one and the series as a whole has one as well. The three story-arcs work in unison to develop an intricate weave of plot and subplot that can be devoured in 42-minute segments.

As you watch from season one through to season ten you notice the major story-arc, the one that arches over all of the seasons is huge. Episodes become more dramatic, problems compact on top of each other and characters strengths and weakness grow and shift into complex creations that significantly impact the outcome of every choice.

Story Structure: The Story-Arc - Elements of a Novel

When we start smaller we see the simplicity of a single episode. One central idea/problem is introduced. This problem is always slammed home in the first few minutes, prior the opening credits. But I’ll talk more about that in Part Four: Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events. We start with what Les Edgerton (Author of Hooked) called “the story-worthy problem”.

This opening scene may or may not involve the main characters but we are always brought to their point-of-view immediately after the opening credits. We see the problem then we backtrack to where the protagonists are right now. They obviously want to solve the problem. As the episode continues they discover that the problem becomes harder to solve, a plausible solution doesn’t work, there are unseen challenges that have to be confronted first, something else happens to compact the situation.

The conflict reaches climax. It’s a crisis moment and a make or break action tips the scales toward success (or failure). Generally the good guys win against the odds but it is not always in a way that means everyone lives happily ever after (more about this in Part Two: Character Development).

The Goa'uld, Apophis - In Stargate SG1 we are constantly left with the initial story-worthy problem. Will Earth ever be safe from the Goa'uld?The ending is a rush of released tension BUT we are always a left a few points higher on the y-axis (tension) then when the episode began. There are always questions left unanswered. New elements are introduced that may (or may not) play a significant part in the shows future but always leaves us wondering what is next for these characters. The overall series story-arc is never complete (except, perhaps at the end of the series).

Each season has its own story-arc as well. When you see the season as a complete picture you recognize that most of that season’s episodes have contributed to the season’s thread. It is often brought to climax in the final episode and often left hanging between seasons so that viewers are left on the edge of their seat with incentive to hold out for the next season during off-season months.

All of these seasons are held together by the solidity of the overall plot. Questions are introduced that won’t be answered right away. Each of these unanswered questions build upon the plot. The original series worthy problem continues to grow until it too, reaches climax. In fact, it’s often the climax of each season that spikes this major arc over the series to greater heights.

In the overall series plot a number of subplots are woven. These are almost a filler, bulking out the story but also adding elements to enrich the characters and the story as a whole. They stack the odds and continue to develop tension. Sub-plots are often less sub than they originally appear. An alliance formed (or broken) in an earlier episode might seem like a sub-plot but proves to be a significant factor in the major plot events.

Thor of the Asgard: First introduced as a recording in season one, he later proves to be a significant character recalled throughout the series.For Example: In season one – episode ten – Jack and Teal’c come across a recording of Thor in the labyrinth of Thor’s Hammer.

In that episode it seems of minor consequence. They’re forced to destroy the Hammer on Cimmeria to rescue Teal’c. The escape from the labyrinth makes up the climax of the episode and we might assume the end of this sub-plot. In season two – episode six – we discover that the destruction of Thor’s Hammer has a significant impact on Cimmeria and their whole world is put at risk. We discover that Thor isn’t just a recording of a mythical God.

In season three we come across Thor again and again and again throughout the series. Thor (and his race, the Asgard) are actually an incredibly important part of the series plot that originated in what seemed like an insignificant sub-plot.

How does all this relate to our own writing? It throws into perspective the perfection of the story-arc. We are given the opportunity to monitor the development of the plot (and of subplot) through an intricate construction over a well developed and very successful series. In some books or even movies it can be easy to lose sight of the beautiful design that a plot takes but it is there, underlining every work of fiction. It is a clarified manifestation of the “Beginning, Middle, and End” concept.

If you’ve ever considered writing a novel or a series of novels it’s important to understand how this structure plays a significant role in your creation. This weave is never perfect in a first draft. To bring the threads together you must pay attention to your story-arc. Weaknesses need to be tightened. Planning your plot in advance is a great way to develop an idea of how your novels various elements come together but you can also see this to some degree in second drafts. The shaping of your story-arc should be an important part of your editing process.

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Five Part Series: Writing Lessons From Stargate SG-1

It’s interesting to watch television in the writer frame of mind. What would be, to the average viewer, an enjoyable and almost effortless opportunity to relax in the world’s of our fictional friends, becomes an intriguing weave of technique, language, structure, and seamless formula; a masterful journey through character development, plot, sub-plot, continuity, hooks and hangers.

I’ve been watching Stargate SG-1 for hours this week all in the name of research. (I wonder if I can write the DVDs off as a tax deduction.) Often the trusty t.v. is the portal through which our brains seep but I’ve found that there are also some incredible lessons we can learn. Stargate isn’t the only television series to offer these lessons. My other personal favorites are Dark Angel, House, Californication, Heroes and Charmed.

What these six television series have in common is their complex meta-story and character development. I’m sure there are other series that have shared this asset. Each of these series starts from episode one, season one and tells a story, through every episode which ties to every thread from the beginning to end of the series as a whole.

Other shows, such as The Simpsons, Futurama, and NCIS each take a cut of life. Their episodes could be watched out of order, with zero continuity and still be as enjoyable but with my favourite six, if you miss an episode you’ll have a significant gap in events. Every episode is important because they are woven together, like a brilliantly structured series of novels.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore what I’ve learnt in a five part series.

  • Part One: Story-Arc, Plot and Sub-Plot
    We’ll explore the familiar curves of story arc over episodes, seasons and series then delve into the complex unity of plot and the careful techniques used to tie sub-plot into a cohesive story.
  • Part Two: Character Development
    We watch the growth of loved and loathed characters as they develop through a series. These characters share their past and present with us; we develop emotional connections that leave us intimately involved in their future.
  • Part Three: Action and Dialogue
    Why t.v. and movies are a fantastic way to encourage powerful writing. All “Show” and no “Tell”. How can we incorporate this audio/visual experience and translate it for written media?
  • Part Four: Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events
    How t.v. series writers have mastered the “Story Hook”. They grip us in the first few minutes pre opening credits and leave us hanging as the final credits roll across the screen. How does the sequence of events hold an audience? We’ll explore the finer points of when to push and when to pull your viewers/readers.
  • Part Five: Formula – Making A Success Key Mould
    The most successful t.v. series follow a very specific formula, so do many writers. What keeps this formula fresh and interesting? How can we make a mould of our own successes so we can replicate them in the future?

I hope you’re as intrigued by the idea as I am. If you’ve been looking for a legitimate excuse to spend a few hours watching old episodes of your favourite t.v. shows you now have one. Consider it homework if you like. Watch t.v. with your writer’s mind fully switched on and tuned in. What do you learn about writing from your favourite t.v. series?