Story by Numbers

Recently I bought Story by Numbers by Adam Skelter. I had watched a number of YouTube presentations on the “The Art of Story Channel” and was impressed with the quality of the presentations and movie analysis, and wanted to delve further into his approach to story development.

First, a warning. Skelter uses some colourful language to describe his approach to storytelling. If the odd four-letter word offends you, then this book is not for you. On the positive side, his choice language gets over the points he wants to make very effectively and it is cram packed with useful advice.

The book is essentially about story structure and outlining, but it also has a lot to say about character development. Skelton doesn’t see any difference between the two.

Don’t be put off by the title. This is not a mechanistic approach to structure. Although Skelter uses a 24- step story template, he states that it is designed to be disrespected. If your story doesn’t fit then adapt the template in whatever way works for you. The 24 steps are not new but a synthesis of ideas he has taken from may other writers. It is basically a 4-Act, 8-sequence structure, with milestones at the end of each sequence, and with 3 scenes in each sequence. In that respect the format is not vastly different from Eric Edson’sStory Solution”.

He explains that story development is messy. And it doesn’t much matter where you start: with an idea, a quirky character, a problem, a premise, a theme — it’s what works for you. One useful piece of advice he gives is to use an Idea’s Inventory. This is where you simply write down in an unstructured form any ideas about a story that may or may not work — possible action sequences, unusual motivations, story goals, unusual characters, traits — anything that stirs your imagination. The point he makes is when we commit our ideas to words on the page, the seeds take root and begin to flourish. He’s right. And it’s not so dissimilar from my own process of ‘development’. It’s hard to go straight from a story idea to a structured outline. Ideas need to be captured, they can always be organised later. Better to jot down all those crazy ideas and notes that may or may not work before getting to a structured outline.

He comments that all great writing comes from curiosity. The passion for exploring new ideas and concepts. A lack of curiosity results in bad writing.

Another great snippet he gives is to choose the protagonist that is the worst possible person for the job. That isn’t to say our hero can’t be an expert at what he does — like James Bond. But it makes our character more human if he struggles with his/her own flaws and if he/she is far from perfect. When we choose the worst person, it raises the stakes and creates compelling conflict that forces the character out of their comfort zone and confront their own weaknesses.

Interestingly, he defines structure as the process of organising events in your story so they have emotional impact. In this respect he sees little difference between the revelation of character and a plot event. We learn a lot about people by the way they solve problems. The problems they choose to solve and the way they solve them is literally the definition of both character and plot. Or put another way, the plot events are the way we reveal character.

For a book on structure he spends a considerable amount of emphasise on psychology and character development.

“…humans are predictive, pattern-seeking , GOAL-BASED CREATURES… We are petty little apenoids, obsessed with status and goals. We are constantly scanning our environment and peers for pecking order and defining everything around us based on utility.”

He distinguishes between a character’s conscious desire–what they want–that drives the plot; and their unconscious drive–why they want it.

“When we introduce the character, we reveal what is important to them by the way they navigate their world. They have an unconscious drive, a through-line that dictates their choices and expresses their values. The conscious desire is what they want. The conscious drive is WHY they want it.”

Our subconscious is a vast network of priorities that what we give important to, based in our past experiences and traumas. Within the unconscious drive lies a character’s Achilles’ heal–their false belief, flaw or vulnerability.

Skelter explains that a narrative is an ongoing belief system composed of values that inform the way we live our lives. These form an algorithm that prescribe our reactions to certain threats and opportunities when they present themselves. A value is simply the priority we give in our emotional world view. The unconscious drive is the protagonists map of values.

He quotes Durkheim that all humans are basically religious– we develop our sense of right and wrong, or good and evil from moral reasoning that is highly biased by the groups we grow up in–and we adopt metaphors, totems, or tokens to represent good and bad. The sacred is that which is regarded as vital to survival. The profane is that which threatens the sacred. And he refers to Haidt:

…that most of our values are completely unconscious and emerge from repeated patterns of experiences, traumas, group relations, communities, cultures — so many factors contribute to what we value and what gives us meaning and very little of it is rational. In fact Haidt points out that our unconscious has already decided what choices we will make in most circumstances and reasoning is just the tool we use to justify and rationalize those choices.

Another concept he develops is the Moral Imperative. This is a moral law that determines the conditions of survival within a given sphere–the rules for behaviour. It is the lesson the protagonist must learn from the story if he/she is to survive and reach their goal. For example, in Game of Thrones the lesson maybe that to survive in that world you must be cunning and devious. Thus the moral imperative need not be moral in a good sense. But it is a lesson the protagonist must learn.

For a book with such a strange title, it has little to do with mechanistic story design. Yes, it has a 24-step story template and 37 more questions that will help you complete it. But you don’t need to take them that seriously. More important are some of concepts he uses: the character’s conscious and unconscious desire, the character’s Achilles’ heal and the moral imperative. I like the book, but if you don’t want the expense of purchasing it, there is always the Art of Story Channel to sample first. It’s what initially hooked me onto some of the ideas in this book.

The book is a fresh look at character from the point of view of story design and outlining. I like it. Tell me what you think?

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