S2_E23 – Why Establishing a Pattern and then Breaking it in Story is one of the Best Tools You can Learn
One of the primary rules that we learn as storytellers that we need to accomplish is show don't tell. But what I find is that many writers simply struggle with that concept. One reason why is because they're unclear exactly what it means, let alone how to accomplish it.
Today, I want to share with you a fantastic trick that you can use to start mastering this skill of showing vs. telling. Namely, you establish a pattern and then break it. The basic premise behind this technique is that you’re learning to think in terms of creating visual cues or images that your audience can interpret to determine what’s happening inside of the character, or where they are at emotionally. This works for their internal emotional journey as well as for developing character relationships. It’s a fantastic tool that all writers should master, because it’s so effective at communicating gobs of information to the audience.
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WHAT'S NEXT? Join us next Thursday for another layer to this technique. Here, we’ve talked about establishing a pattern and breaking it. Next week, we’ll see this applied in a variety of different ways so that you can get an idea of how helpful this tool can be.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E23. Why Establishing a Pattern and Breaking it is an Essential Technique for Writers
Published February 3, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
DISCLAIMER: So first of all, I want to apologize that the sound doesn't sound the same as it usually does on today's podcast. I am podcasting to you today from Billings, Montana, where I've been staying with my dad and helping him recover from a particularly grueling medical procedure. And so there are noises here that are not normally in my world. And I am hoping that that's not going to distract from the content because I'm very passionate about what I'm going to share with you today.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Now, I've talked about this in previous episodes of this podcast, but I've never talked about it in the way that I'm going to describe it today. And basically, what I'm revisiting here is the concept of show don't tell, because the truth is one of the primary rules that we learn as storytellers and that we need to accomplish is "Show, Don't Tell." But what I find is that many writers simply struggle with that concept. One reason why is because most people are unclear about either what it means or how to accomplish it.
For example, I'll often have students try to show by micromanaging the characters, which is where they basically use the characters like puppets. So, they'll write things like, "She looks away. She looks back. She looks down. A single tear falls from her eye." Okay, well, what they're trying to do here is they're trying to show but it's melodramatic and cliche. And it's a false kind of showing, because the rule that is being attempted here is to reveal information through character actions. But this is not a significant character action. Looking away isn't usually a significant character action. Now, there's always exceptions to the rule. So there might be a story where her averting her gaze is actually a significant action, in which case, you can ignore what I'm saying. But most of the time, things like this just aren't significant actions. They're fake actions.
A significant action, for example, would be something more like, "She grabs the coffee cup and hurls it across the room." That's significant because it does more than just describe her expressions in order to reveal her internal emotional state. It also shows the stakes of those feelings, the level of emotion. Looking away doesn't give me a gauge as to how passionate she feels about something. But picking up a coffee cup and hurling it at the wall until it shatters and brown coffee goes splattering all over the white paint -- that's a another level of revelation that we ought to be trying to get to.
And furthermore, the picking up of the coffee cup does a lot more to further the relationship development of characters. Because if I'm talking to somebody, and I pick up a coffee cup and hurl it at the wall while we're talking, it reveals that I am so frustrated by what they're saying that there's no turning back, right? It's not a casual action. It's not something I can bury or pretend didn't happen. I mean, I guess I could. But even that would be significant. It's a significant breach, then, to pretend that that didn't happen. Whereas "looking away" is so subtle, it could easily be missed. Nobody misses somebody picking up a coffee cup and hurling and at the wall. You just can't miss it. So, it's a more significant action. And notice, too, that me doing that might even cause damage to my current relationship. Because if that person's with me at the time, I'm telling them, "You make me so angry that this is the only way I can react." So it's an action that I can't go back on.
So, when you try to rely solely on the character's expressions, or in many cases, their micro expressions, to reveal their internal emotional state, it's not accomplishing nearly as much as you think it is. And in fact, it feels like you're micromanaging your characters. You're using them as miniature marionettes. They're now puppets that you're working and manipulating to try to reveal these things to your audience. But you're not thinking beyond the minutia. They're actions, but they're the wrong kind of actions. And we want to get bigger and better and bolder in terms of how we reveal what's happening internally with our characters, and the evolution of character relationships. We need to think about how to show and not tell in a way that conveys deeper meaning, and is visually dynamic.
So, to that end, I want to introduce one of the best tricks I know that can help you master this very essential skill. This is one of the primary ways that you can use to do this consistently, over and over and over again in your story. And basically, it's a way for you to reframe how you do this. It's about focusing on the idea of creating visual cues for your audience, so that the audience can interpret those cues and figure out what that means for where your character is at. You start conceiving your story according to the visible cues that you can use to help us see character transformation, relationship transformation, along the way. And as you write, you'll be thinking about which visible cues you need to create in order to cue the audience in to whatever is internally happening to that character, and/or the status of that character's relationships with other characters in the story.
Now, if you're confused, don't worry, I'm going to break it down, I'm going to put it into straightforward terms that you can understand. But I also just want to mention that I'm also in the process of developing an entire full length course dedicated to this subject, because it's so key in taking us as a community to the next level in terms of our craft and our art. But in the meantime, I'm going to break this down for you. I'm going to give you the main technique that we're working with. And then I'm going to go over a couple of ways that you can use that technique in different venues.
MAIN IDEA: So here it is, are you ready? One of the very best things that you can do to show and not tell, is to establish a pattern, and then break it.
And now I shall explain. So this came up recently in one of my clients screenplays. His main character was playing a video game. And this particular story is set in the future. So, it's a much more involved sequence, this opening sequence of his film. The character is wearing VR goggles and some kind of techno suit and standing in this pool of light, so that when we see him involved in the video game, we are seeing that he is fully bodily involved. And then of course, when we cut to the video game world, he is the Avatar. He's doing everything that the avatar is doing. He is submerged in the game. So, here the character is in the game. And we're already establishing quite a few things in that opening sequence, like we're trying to get the audience caught up into the rules of the universe itself, right?
But then on top of that, what [the writer] wanted to show is that somehow, as [this character] is playing the game, which the character has played 1000's of times, the game diverges from the norm. But the problem with this, as I pointed out, is how will the audience know that the game has diverged from the normal way it's supposed to be played? Because the audience has never seen this game played out before. They've never seen the game at all. They've never met this character before. They've never met any of the supporting characters. So how do we show the audience that there's something fishy with the game, when the audience has nothing to compare it to in the first place?
The solution is that you first have to establish the pattern -- establish what the norm is -- you have to establish the pattern before you can break it. And then when you break that pattern, guess what? It means more. And in fact, the more you establish a pattern, any deviation from it becomes huge. The bigger the meaning is. And this applies to many areas of the story.
For example, it applies to two characters in relationship, right? You establish the pattern. What is their relationship like? How do they relate to each other? How do they treat each other on a normal day to day basis? You establish the norm. You show them interacting with each other like they normally do. And then you break that pattern and then boom, it takes on meaning. All of a sudden, we're witnessing and seeing the evolution of their relationship. It's changed. Something's different. Now, it might be because one of the characters is growing and changing and the other isn't. Or it might be that their relationship is evolving together and closer. Maybe they've always treated each other with friend gloves and now they're getting romantically involved, I'm not sure. But the point is, we've established a pattern, and then deviated from that previously established pattern, which is a major development in the story, and gives us even more momentum, then, moving forward. It actually gives energy to the story. And it feels like progression. We get excited as readers and viewers when we see these things happen.
So, let me give you a few examples of this. Recently, I saw the film Free Guy with Ryan Reynolds, where he is a background player on a video game app. And yet he develops a consciousness and becomes a character in the game over the course of the telling. And somehow, he starts trying to defend the little guys, which are all the other background players in the game. And they are usually collateral damage to everyone else who plays the game. But they're real to him. Okay, so what the writers needed to do to show us this evolution, before any of this could happen, is, first of all, A.) some sort of awakening on the part of free guy that would allow him to take up this duty. And second of all, B.) how the character grows and changes over time. And how did they accomplish this? Pretty much by establishing the pattern and then breaking it over and over and over. In fact, what they end up doing is, first they establish a pattern, and then they break it, and then that becomes the new pattern. And then they break that. And then that becomes the new pattern. And then they break that. They kept doing this over and over. This is the primary technique that the movie uses over and over. And it's what moves the story forward. It's what allows the character relationships to progress and evolve. And it's what spawns the internal emotional growth or arc of the character himself. And all they did was establish the pattern and then break it over and over and over again.
So what happens at the beginning? Well, when we start at the beginning, we established the norm of the world, which is that these characters, these background characters, exist in a world where bad things happen to them all the time, because of course, these players are coming in and they're robbing you and beaten up people and stealing money and blowing things up. There's just all sorts of havoc in this world, which is normal for free guy and everybody else since they were designed to be background players for this game. So we see him wake up in the morning, and he's happy, he's got his own little apartment, and we see him talk to his goldfish. And then we see him go to the coffee shop and get the same kind of coffee that he gets all the time. And then we see him go into the bank where he works and they get robbed. And it's no big deal because it happens all the time. And he's there with his best friend, the security guard. And as they get on the floor, not being heroes, which they're told not to do, their blase attitudes suggest that this is something that happens all the time, and they're just kind of used to it. And then he and his BFF have the same conversation that they've always had every single day, about how Ryan's still dreaming of that one true love, who probably doesn't exist, but he's holding out for it. He believes she's out there. And someday he'll find it, yada, yada, yada. And we learned that they've talked about this 1000 times, but nothing ever changes. And then they live out their day normally, they leave work, until one of them gets killed. And then boom, it's okay. They start the day all over again. They wake up the next day and go through the same patterns which have been established in a constant loop.
But then something happens. The inciting incident, which rocks that character's world and changes the story. At one point, Ryan Reynolds is walking down the street and boom, he sees a woman he's never seen before. And it triggers something in him; a desire that he's never had before; a longing that's been latent, that comes out; a desire to be alive, to be with her to have romance, to earn her, or whatever the case may be. And this in turn begins to break down his denial of really the whole system; his lack of awareness of this world. It starts changing things. It causes him to make different choices than what the pattern has established. Now, it doesn't happen all at once. He still wakes up the next morning and says the same thing to his goldfish. But the morning after he's met the gal, it does make him feel alive in a new way. So when he goes into that coffee shop, he decides he wants something different. And he orders something different from the established pattern. And everybody in the coffee shop looks at him. All the chatter ceases, every head turns, staring daggers at him, like, "What in the world is going on?" And then the world even starts kind of shaking, because he's so upsetting the way things are, like, "This isn't right. You're deviating from the pattern." And then he finally alleviates the tension by saying, "Hey, I'm just kidding. What am I thinking? I want a medium coffee, two sugars, like I've always wanted. It's my favorite." And everybody's like, "Oh, okay, good. Oh, good, good, good, good." And it goes back to the norm. And yet, even the fact that he did that, he's changed something in the system. He has now spawned change in the heart of the coffee gal, who now is thinking beyond the kind of coffee she serves. Now she wants to learn how to make a latte or how to make a macchiato whatever. She is now thinking beyond the established pattern that she's been given. So he triggers a chain of events. Which then spurs on a revolution in terms of character evolution.
Okay, so the point, though, is that you need to first establish the norm. You establish the pattern before you can break it. But then breaking the pattern can show significant growth on the part of the character.
So, for example, let's say you have a character who's really standoffish to others. Maybe they don't like people. They don't let people in. They pretty much keep to themselves. And they don't want anything to do with any of their peers because they're all jerks. But then, supposing that there's another character who comes into play, and they're all out on the playground, and this gal gets picked on by some bullies. Now, our hero watches from the shadows, he watches from afar, because remember, he doesn't get involved. But he did take notice. So already, his icy detached demeanor has been cracked. Maybe not enough to act on it yet. But the next day, they're back in school and it happens again, only this time one of the bullies tugs the girl, knocks her down, maybe she gets a scraped elbow. And now she's got a bloody shirt. And this time our character is compelled to act. He finds the girl who got bullied behind the school and she's crying, and he brings a clean shirt out of his backpack. It's one without blood on it, and he gives it to her to change into. Well, now we see that something has deviated from the norm. He's gone from being completely detached to getting involved, which shows not only internal emotional growth on his part, but also you're establishing an essential character relationship, which will ultimately continue evolving over the course of the story. And these are essential things to do in storytelling.
CONCLUSION: So again, the main principle here that we're going to unpack over the next several episodes is "establish the pattern and then break it." So I hope that this is already igniting your imagination because there's a lot more fun stuff with this concept that I am excited to share with you.
CALL TO ACTION: In the meantime, if there is something that I can do to be of service to you, you can go to the website at www.thewww.thestorytellersmission.com, and as we start finishing up these classes, I'll be making announcements there. So if that's interesting to you, then I would encourage you to just go on over, sign up for The Storyteller's Digest.
OUTRO: In the meantime, I want to thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.