Story Drivers

Last month I published my third novel, AndroDigm Park 2067. Much of my time since has been taken up with marketing with little time left for writing. But now it’s time to start thinking again about the next novel. I have two very different ideas I am currently exploring and it’s difficult to choose which. Any story idea is at best simply a seed. There’s a lot of a work that needs to be done before we can see if that seed can grow into something more interesting. One way is to do enough work to turn it into a story premise. That is, a brief overview of the story world, main character and story-line to be able to make an elevator pitch. My thoughts are, if I can’t convince myself the story has merit, there is precious little point in spending a year writing it. And an elevator pitch is a great way of testing it. Clearly, I’m not a Hollywood producer. Nor do I intend to ride up and down in elevators to test this.  But I’m the type of writer that needs to find my story before I write it. And finding a great story premise requires a lot of thought and planning: weeks, hopefully not months.

Thinking through some of my ideas caused me to think about different story-lines and the story drivers behind them. The main driver in any story is a highly motivated protagonist who wants something badly and will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. The first Act of any story is all about the protagonist discovering the motivation and passion for what he/she wants and finding the courage to pursue a quest. In some cases it is thrust upon him/her. In others, he/she needs to be persuaded by others to follow the quest.

The spark that ignites this process is called the story catalyst. It’s also sometimes called the inciting incident although, as I’ve explained in previous blogs, the inciting incident can mean different things to different people. For me the catalyst or inciting incident is the moment in time when the protagonist is first confronted with the big opportunity, problem, or puzzle that will eventually become the central focus of the story.

I have been thinking about story catalysts. And I believe there are three types that fit three different types of protagonists.

  • The opportunity. This usually fits with a protagonist that longs for something (or needs something) in their life when the story opens and by the end of the story they will have found it. An opportunity comes along and offers them the chance to escape from the status quo forever. For example, Erin Brockovich in the movie of the same name simply wanted a job to support her children.  But when the opportunity arose she was driven to find justice for her pro bono case victims and in the process turned herself into a highly paid lawyer. In Star Wars, A New Hope, Luke longed to go to the space academy, but it was only after his aunt and uncle were slaughtered did he get the backbone to respond to the catalyst (Lei’s message conveyed by R2D2 ‘Help me, Obi Wan…’ ). By the end of the movie Luke has transformed from a shy farm boy into a hero.
  • The problem. This type of protagonist may well be happy with their life when the story opens, but a big problem strikes that threatens him/her or his/her loved ones. The protagonist’s motivation here is to get back to the status quo before the problem arose. For example, in Taken the hero is driven by the need to rescue his kidnapped daughter from sex traffickers. In The Huger Games, Katniss volunteers for the games and faces almost certain death to protect her younger sister. Her objective was then to try to survive the games and resume her life in her District. Sometime these characters can transform and return to their starting world more confident and assured. For example, in Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) transforms from a lonely writer to the type of heroine she writes in her novels and in the process wins the love of  Jack  Colton (Michael Douglas).
  • The puzzle or mission. This catalyst usually fits the hero for hire. These heroes act out of duty and professionalism rather than from personal involvement with the victim or those at stake in the story. They are chosen by the role they play and the special skills they possess. Most detective stories fall into this category: for example, Sherlock Holmes, Colombo and Poirot are all professionals solving a problem. All-action heroes such as James Bond and Indiana Jones also fall into this category, as do law officers and military specialists. These types of heroes are brought in to do a job and they rarely transform during the course of the story.

Serendipity may play a part in the choice of protagonist where the catalyst is an opportunity of problem. Luke was fortunate to find R2D2 with the message from Leia. John McClain was unlucky to be visiting his estranged wife at an office party when the terrorists broke in. But in the case of the puzzle or mission, the detective or all-action hero is brought in to solve the case or complete the mission because they are the best at what they do.

The main driver in all these stories is what the protagonist wants. It usually falls into one of the following categories:

  • To find or recover some object of desire. This is what Hitchcock called  the McGuffin.  Examples are: the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the ark of the covenant, the plans to the Death Star, the thirty-nine steps etc.
  • To prevent something bad from happening. For example, in Die hard John McClain (Bruce Willis) wants to stop the terrorists that have taken hostages in a tower block.
  • To escape from somewhere or some condition.
  • To achieve something (e.g. to climb Everest, to become the world Champion, etc.)
  • To solve or redress some injustice. For example, Richard Kimble wants to prove his innocence in The Fugitive. Most detectives want to catch the criminal and find justice for their victim.
  • To win or resolve some relationship (e.g. Most love stories are about finding the person that completes them although at the outset neither of the parties will know or acknowledge this.)

Alongside what the protagonist wants is why he/she wants it.  For example, they may be driven by love, duty, justice, self-preservation, passion, curiosity or glory, or they may be driven by less admired qualities such as self-interest or revenge. Even heroes are not perfect and their motives may change during the course of the story.

Finding the protagonist’s story objective and motivation are key aspects of understanding a story. But it is also important to understand the antagonist forces that will oppose him/her from reaching their objective. Without opposition there is no conflict and without conflict there is no story. Fear of what antagonists may do is also one of the principal sources of tension in a story — the source of most surprises and excitement. Understanding the antagonists is therefore part of understanding the story. Truby suggests there should be about four antagonists in a story. Although an antagonist force doesn’t have to be an enemy or even a person. It could be a force of nature, or someone close to the protagonists that thinks they are acting in their best interest, or the protagonist’s own shortcomings. Anything that blocks a protagonist from reaching their objective is an antagonist. In a love story the antagonist is normally their opposite love interest.

So, the first stage of turning an idea into a working story premise is finding the story driver — what the protagonist truly wants and why he/she wants it. It sounds simple, and it is. But there are thousands of story-lines that have been written and re-written with the same story drivers. The real difficulty is finding a combination of character, driver, motivation, and antagonists that appears new and exciting to the reader. That is a big challenge for any new writer.

AndroDigm Park 2067 – published!

3DIt’s a great feeling to publish a new novel — somewhere between nirvana and just plain relief that it’s finally out. AndroDigm Park 2067 is a project I started over two years ago. The title changed from that original title several times, but the story remains the same.

So let me explain the strange title. AndroDigm in my book is the name of the largest global cyber corporation. Its name is a fusion of the words ‘Android’ and ‘Paradigm’. There are many ways to define a paradigm, but the one I like is: “a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in the intellectual disciplines.” (The Free Dictionary by Forlex).

So the AndroDigm  corporation is all about changing the way society views and accepts android technology and, of course, making money.

AndroDigm Park 2067 is a work of fiction, but any writer writing about the future is entitled to make some assumptions as to where technology may possibly take us. Even in today’s technology human-looking androids have been developed that can mimic human behaviour and  artificial intelligence systems can easily outperform human analysis. A world where intelligent Androids are economically viable as replacements for human workers is not unthinkable.

How do you think human’s will react? In the early 19th Century, Luddite workers destroyed machinery in the cotton and woollen mills of England because they thought the machinery threatened their jobs. Might we find a similar reaction by humans in the 21st Century? The catalyst for my story is the murder of the AndroDigm CEO at a violent Action Against Androids demonstration and the story is all  about the investigation that follows.

Another aspect of this future world is the domination of the cyber and media companies and the growing number of super rich.  If technology can create intelligent human-looking androids, then perhaps it can also create a paradise park for the super rich to play where any fantasy creature is possible, including dragons.

Why 2067 in the title? Well it’s exactly a hundred years since the ‘Summer of Love’ (1967) when a hundred thousand hippies descended on San Francisco  professing love and peace.  Why wouldn’t any self-respecting government and the large corporate businesses not want to take advantage of the feel-good factor from such centenary celebrations?

So there you have the title and a snapshot of the story world for the novel. But stories are about people and you’ll find that the characters in the story are just like you and me with their own faults and prejudices. Technology might change but human behaviour will always remain the same. I could tell you a lot more about my characters and their story. But that would spoil your enjoyment. AndroDigm Park 2067 is now available at Amazon in both print and kindle formats and at other retailers in print format.

 

Cover Reveal

I am delighted to reveal the cover of my new book scheduled to be published next month. It’s a sci-fi neo noir thriller set in the not too distant future where the large cyber-tech, media and entertainment corporations are introducing a new generation of android worker to replace their human counterparts, while the super rich indulge themselves in a fantasy park designed to meet their dreams. Against this background the CEO of AndroDigm Park is brutally murdered at an Action Against Androids demonstration. Now Marshal Shelby must track down her assassins and bring them to justice. It’s an investigation that will take him into the world of the super rich, where using cybernetics, cloning and human augmentation makes almost anything possible.

preview.jpg

It has taken over two years to produce, and has not been without a certain amount of blood sweat and tears. Kindle copies are now available to pre-order on Amazon and print copy will be available from the publication date. If you are a book reviewer or blogger and would like to review an advanced copy, please get in touch with me at jmj.williamson@gmail.com.

 

Story pacing

v1.bTsxMjQ5NjIzMTtqOzE3NjQ5OzEyMDA7MjY1Njs0MDk2One of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. For those that haven’t seen this 1982 neo-noir movie, it’s set in a 2019 dystopian world where synthetic humans known as replicants are bioengineered by a powerful corporation to work on off world colonies.  Directed by Ridley Scott and loosely based on Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it tells the story of a Blade Runner, Rick Deckard  (played by Harrison Ford) who is assigned to hunt down and terminate a group of rogue replicants who have escaped and returned to Earth.  Although not a huge box office success, the movie achieved a cult status among sci-fi followers.

So when Blade Runner 2049 was released in 2017, I was keen to see if it lived up to the original. Unfortunately, like so many other follow-ups, I was disappointed. Though the critics seemed to love it for its cinematics and dystopian mood, the public didn’t share their view. It didn’t do well at the box office, and I can see why. It wasn’t the  fault of the actors, the cinematics, or the music score. It was just painfully slow. At two hours and 32 minutes it was 35 minutes longer than the original movie, but seemed to contain less action and less plot. Ridley Scott, who served as a producer on Villeneuve’s movie, said he would have cut half an hour. I tend to agree. The movie was like watching paint dry.

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the importance of story pacing. Any story-teller whether novelist of screenwriter needs to be aware of story pacing. There are times when the action in a story needs to accelerate with an adrenaline rush  and other times when the main character needs to become reflective and the audience can relax. The example in my previous bIog gave an example of a movie with perhaps too much action. But I never thought I would see and example of too little action and with such a long running time. The audience might not just relax, but fall asleep.

Would cutting the movie back to two hours have saved the movie? Possibly. Although for me the ending lacked a clear resolution or theme in the same way the original did. The original movie was all about what it means to be human. And in some respects the replicants were more human than the humans. Blade Runner 2049 captured the same dark mood as the original but lacked any theme.

There will always be a risk in trying to build a movie on the success of a previous cult movie. Hollywood loves franchises at the moment, which usually have high box office sales. It works for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean where the follow ups use the same core actors and the audience knows what to expect. But  is it really likely to work for a 35-year-old movie? What’s Hollywood going to try next: Casablanca 2?

Killing one’s darlings

6_00 pmIf you’ve just finished your first draft of your novel, congratulations. Pour yourself a drink of your favourite tipple and celebrate. You’re half-way to completing your project. Yes — I did say half way. The editing process is just as important as the creation of the first draft. If your first draft reads like c**p. Don’t worry, that’s what editing is for. The final version will vastly out-shine the first draft. I promise.

But editing isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s part of the writing process. Even if you have someone to help, you’ll never be a good writer unless you fully embrace the process. There are three stages of editing: development editing (getting the story right), line editing (getting the English right), and proof reading (getting the nitty-gritty detail right down to that last comma). All these stages are important as part of a process that will result in a polished story.

I’ve just been through this process with my latest novel. And it was more painful than expected. I had to cut 12 scenes, nearly 12,000 words and reassemble the manuscript. And most of the scenes I cut I had edited a dozen times or more.

William Faulkner once said:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

He was right. You have to be ruthless when you edit. As writers we fall in love with our words, expressions, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. But it is not our view that matters: we must consider the reader. And if he/she wouldn’t understand an expression we want to use we shouldn’t use it. We also create expectations in the reader’s mind about the story we are telling, and we need to deliver against those expectations.

In my case, I had gone through the three stages of editing without realising that there was a major problem with my story, which I should have found at the development stage. A subplot had grown out of control so that it read as a separate story within the story. I told myself it was all about developing the two main characters’ relationship. But I didn’t need twelve scenes to do it. The answer was to cut them.

Of the three stages of editing the most difficult is the development edit. You have to get the story right. One of the best aids to help you get this right is a simple columnar scene list, where you can use different columns to analyse the different elements of the scene to provide an overview of the story design. Which elements you choose to track  is up to you. For example you might choose the following columns for each scene: point of view character,  plot action (what happens), revelations, character development points, relationship development points, tension source, level of tension, sub plot (if any), set-up/payoffs, and word count. The scene list doesn’t have to be complex; it just needs to give you an understanding of what’s happening and when it happens.

I also learned early on in my business career that any form of writing can benefit from being reviewed. I used to write technical material and find the least technical reader I could find to review it. If they found something they didn’t understand, it was obviously unclear. The same is true of writing fiction. But good beta readers are hard to find.

Line editing is difficult process, but there are spellcheckers and software programs like ProWriting Aid and Autocrit to help you find common  problems like repetition and over use of certain words. They won’t do everything you need to do, and they may flag ‘false positives’ where the text is correct. But if you’re serious about becoming a writer you need to study your discipline and brush up on your gramar.

The final stage is proofreading. However much proof reading you do yourself you will never find all those irritating errors. It is one of the few processes that I would recommend you out source. A professional proof reader is worth their weight in gold.

Connecting your story’s hero/heroine

acHave you ever read a story or watched a movie that brought a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes? Yes, of course you have. Good stories create an emotional experience for their readers or audience. It’s the reason why we like them so much. But how do their writers do it? It’s all about connecting the hero/heroine to the reader or audience so that they are invested in the outcome of the story, hoping for their hero/heroine’s success and fearing for their failure.

The protagonist (or main character) doesn’t have to be heroic, but they often are. One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is of ‘a person admired or idealised for courage and outstanding achievements or noble qualities’. They don’t have to be perfect — far from it.  Many of them must overcome their initial shortcomings to reach their story objective. But in the process, they must display courage, tenacity and resourcefulness to endear them to the reader.

The late Blake Snyder likened a movie to going on a journey with a person (the protagonist) where the single most important element in drawing us into the story was liking the person we were going on the journey with. He even named his book on screenwriting “Save the cat” after the scene in which we meet the hero and he/she does something to make us like him/her.  Snyder gives the example of Lara Croft 2 as a movie that tanked because the audience failed to connect with the Lara Croft character. He described her as cold and humorless.

Snyder was right. Take a story that did well both as a book and a movie — The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is selfless, courageous and an underdog who volunteers to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games and face almost certain death. It’s hard not to empathise with the character, and punch the air when she wins against the odds. Take another great movie – Die Hard. A New York cop trying to patch his marriage up taking on a group of ruthless terrorists. Again it’s hard not to empathise with John McClain.

But does it always work out that way? I’m not sure it necessarily applies to some movies in the horror genre, where one-by-one the cast is killed by some unthinkable monster. Snyder describes this genre of movies as Monster in the House Movies. He describes them as having three components: an evil monster, a house (an enclosed space), and a sin where someone is guilty of bringing the monster into the house.

One of my favourite movies in this genre is Alien. Clearly, in this movie there was a kick-ass protagonist we could connect with — Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who emerged as the leader after the captain was killed by the alien. She was strong and resourceful:

  • She refuses to let the infected Kane onboard the ship, but is over-ruled by Ash.
  • She deciphers the signal determining it was a warning, not a distress signal.
  • Ripley confronts Ash (the android) and overcomes him with the help of Parker.
  • She initiates the self destruct sequence on the ship
  • She saves the ship’s cat – Jones (Blake Snyder would be proud!).
  • She finally overcomes the Alien by opening the airlock in the shuttle, shoots it with a grappling hook and fires the engines to blast the alien into space

Like so many Sci-fi fans, I loved the original movie and it’s sequel, Aliens. But after the success of the first two movies, the Alien franchise seemed to lose direction. Recently, I watched the Alien Covenant movie. I was particularly looking forward to it because it was directed by Ridley Scott, the same director as the original iconic Alien movie.

So did Alien Covenant connect with a protagonist  and capture the essence of the original movie? The critics liked it;  the fan-base was split. In my view, the problem was the audience didn’t connect with the protagonist in the same way as the original and the plot was dependent on the unbelievable stupid behaviour of the Covenant’s crew.

In Alien Covenant,  the protagonist that emerges in the later stages of the movie is Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston), the widow of the ship’s captain. But for most of the movie her role is overshadowed by Oran, the acting captain, until he is tricked by the David the mad android into believing looking into an alien egg was safe. (Why the captain should believe the android after witnessing his crew members death by an alien and the android’s reaction to the killer is totally unfathomable as are a number of his decisions.)

Comparison is sometime made between Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston) and Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in Alien. Both take over when the captain is killed. But Ripley in the original Alien film was a much stronger and resourceful heroine throughout the movie. Watching Covenant for the second time it’s easier to see that the character of Daniels was developing throughout the movie, but not to the same degree as Ripley. Maybe this was intentional given the twist and negative ending to the movie. But the problem of not identifying  a strong protagonist early in the movie, means the audience is confused about which character to root for.

As a cinematic experience there is no doubt that Alien Covenant was well-directed and executed, and some of the CGI was simply amazing. But the whole plot relied on the crew of the Covenant making one unbelievable stupid mistake after another to play into the hands of David, the delusional android, who was driven insane by resentment for his mortal creator and a Norman-Bates-type obsession for the dead Elizabeth Shaw.

By all accounts, Alien Covenant was a box office success, and was probably never expected to out-shine the original Alien movie that started the franchise. And maybe that’s all that  matters to Hollywood. I’m sure it won’t stop the fan-base waiting patiently for the next Alien movie to be released.

The importance of the B Story

STCRecently  I was going through some of my old books on screenwriting and story telling and I picked up the ‘Save the Cat Goes to the Movies’ by the late Blake Snyder. I found the book inspiring the first time I read it some years ago, and as I started to read it again I found a new insight.

But before explaining the insight, I need to explain what the book is about. Snyder put forward the view that the success of any film is based on two important factors:  structure, and surpassing the expectations of its genre.   In the book, Snyder takes five examples of iconic movies in each of 10 movie genres to analyse their structure and the genre variations. Each of the genre are given catchy names by Snyder that represent the most popular movie genres:

  • Monster in the house: Alien; Fatal Attraction; Scream; The Ring; and Saw.
  • Golden Fleece: The Bad News Bears; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Saving Private Ryan; Ocean’s Eleven; and Maria Full of Grace.
  • Out of the Bottle: Freaky Friday; Cocoon; The Nutty Professor; What Women Want; and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.
  • Dude with a Problem: Three Days of the Condor, Die Hard, Sleeping with the Enemy; Deep Impact; and Open Water.
  • Rites of Passage: 10; Kramer v Kramer; Ordinary People, 28 Days; and Napoleon Dynamite.
  • Buddy Love: The Black Stallion; Lethal Weapon; When Harry met Sally; Titanic; and Brokeback  Mountain.
  • Whydunit: All the  President’s Men; Blade Runner; Fargo; Mystic River; and Brick.
  • Fool Triumphant: Being There; Tootsie; Forrest Gump; Legally Blonde; and The 40-year-old Virgin.
  • Institutionalized: M*A*S*H; Do the Right Thing; Office Space; Training Day; Crash.
  • Superhero: Raging Bull; The Lion King; The Matrix; Gladiator; and Spider-Man 2.

Some of the genre may seem oddly labeled at first. An Out of the Bottle movie refers to a movie based on magic. A Golden Fleece movie refers to a quest story movie about an object of desire – the fleece or McGuffin. A Whydunnit movie refers to a detective type story about a secret that takes a dark turn. Most of the rest of the descriptions are self-explanatory.

Now the insight. I was surprised to see one of my favourite movies, Lethal Weapon, categorised under Buddy Love and not under some action-movie type heading. In Snyder’s view there are many variations of this genre: whether it is a traditional love match of ‘boy meets girl’, two cops on the trail of a crook, or a couple of goofy pals hanging out together. The story dynamics are the same: an ‘incomplete hero’, a counterpart he needs to make his life whole, and complications that keep them apart but actually binds then together.

The incomplete hero in Lethal Weapon  is Roger Murtaugh, a veteran  policeman who’s facing retirement and is not coping well. The counterpart is Martin Riggs, a cop with suicidal tendencies. Together they uncover a drug-smuggling operation and as the story unfolds their friendship grows. There are therefore two storylines going on. The first, or A story plot, is the uncovering the drug-smuggling operation. The second, or B story is the relationship between the two detectives. Snyder however seems to put the B story first in determining its genre.

Why do I find this so interesting? It’s because stories are often classified as either plot-driven or character-driven stories. Most literary fiction falls into character-driven category. Most genre stories (Action, Romance, Thriller, Horror) fall into plot-driven category. We know what these labels mean, but in reality the labels make poor descriptors. All stories are in fact character-driven. Without a protagonist with an overall story objective there is no plot driver. All stories must have a plot or they have no direction or purpose. So the labels of character-driven or plot-driven stories are at best an emphasis of the story on either the internal or external storylines.

Now consider what Lethal Weapon would have looked like if Murtaugh and Riggs had just been regular cops? It would have been just another action movie that you would soon forget. What makes it great and original is the relationship storyline – the B Story.

And this is the same with all great stories. There is often more than one storyline (or story arc) going on in a story. And one or more of the main characters may well undergo a transformation (a character arc) as the story progresses. Plot (the cause and effect sequence of events in a story) is simply a combination of the events from all the storylines and arcs. So to understand plot fully, you may need to break the main events  down into their separate storylines and character arcs, rather than consider plot to be one single time line of events.

The idea of breaking a story into more than one storyline is not new. Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure uses the concept of an inner journey (character arc) and outer journey for the protagonist. Christopher Vogler’s  The Hero’s Journey also has a separate Character Arc for the hero. So if it helps to analyse story by adding a third story line for a key relationship between two main characters it makes sense to use it.

Great stories have multiple layers of complexity:  a plot, sub-plots, character arcs, and relationships. How you choose to plan and organise your story is up to you.

A Story Blueprint for the Action / Adventure genre

Over the last three blogs I have looked at the five core elements of any story design:

  • The Protagonist’s Characterisation
  • The Big Problem or Opportunity that enters their life and acts as the Catalyst for the Central Conflict
  • Opposition – Antagonist forces and obstacles that stand in his/her way
  • A Story World
  • A Satisfying Resolution.

And in previous blogs I have looked at some of the structural frameworks used  by screenwriters in story development: namely the three-act structure, the sequence method, and the mythic structure. Putting all these ideas together into one story planning guide has been a labour of love. The Blueprint is 5% inspiration and 95% a mash-up of the best ideas drawn from different screenwriting gurus. For the want of a better word I call it a Blueprint. But it’s only meant to be high level planning guide for your story to give you a helicopter viewpoint of your story design to see if it works before you commit to writing or further outlining.

To some writers, I’m sure the idea of any story blueprint is an anathema. Novels and the storylines within them are far too complex to be reduced to just eight sequences or a given number of turning points. They’re absolutely right. But at the heart of any novel or movie is a simple story which follows a simple pattern. And if the simple story doesn’t work, neither will the novel or movie on which it is based.

The Blueprint is based on an Action/Adventure genre, but can be easily adapted for other genre or different types of endings (e.g. tragic). The link below is to a pdf file freely available on Dropbox. There is no need to register or any other requirement. Just download and use it as you see fit.

Blueprint

I would love to hear from anyone that has used it or reviewed it.

 

Story Design — Characterisation

Some very successful writers claim to produce stories without any apparent planning or preparation. Story design must be built into their DNA. Others, which I suggest is the vast majority of writers like me, struggle to find the stories within them through a variety of different processes. Some write by the seat of their pants (pantsers) and discover the story as they go along. Others use varying degrees of planning and plotting to map out their stories before commencing to write.

In a previous blog, I suggested that any  writer, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, can benefit from understanding the dynamics of their story before they write it. To do this requires you to analyse and understand the five core elements of your story. These are:

5_Elements

Once a writer has identified the five elements, there is still the question of whether the story proposal is a good one or not. If you have a burning desire to write it, I suggest you do. If like me, you have a hundred and one ideas floating in you head and you don’t know which is the best one for you, then you need to perform some kind of appraisal.

In my previous blog, I set out twenty questions to help evaluate a story proposal. The first ten questions were included in that blog. This blog deals with the remaining ten, which are all about the protagonist’s characterisation.

Characterisation  

By characterisation I mean those elements of the protagonist’s character that impact on the story design. A protagonist’s character must fit the story, or the story must fit the character.   They are two parts of a jig-saw puzzle that have to fit together.

The first five questions are all about the protagonist’s key characteristics:

  • What are his/her physical attributes Notice that it is only those physical characteristics that affect the story we are concerned about. The writer may well want to record all the physical attributes of each character in a separate file or database in order to ensure consistency in describing characters throughout the narrative, such as hair colour, eye colour, looks, clothes, etc. However, such detailed features don’t normally affect the story. Major features are aspects such as  Age/Sex/Strength.  Imagine what the Hunger Games would look like if Katnis Everdeen was a male, or Harry Potter was an adult female. The story would change and feel very different.
  • What are his/her psychological traits? Are they stoical, easy-going, comical, obstinate, hot-headed, arrogant, over-bearing etc? These will affect how they will react to story events.
  • What skills/strengths and occupation does he/she have? What are they really good at? Are they a James Bond super agent character, or a fish out of water character? Are they clever like Sherlock Holmes, or highly skilled like Katnis Everdeen with her bow and arrows?
  • What is his/her flaw, weakness, or need? All characters have a need and this is usually story related. The character must often learn something about himself or overcome his weakness in order to succeed in the story. However, some flaws are simply quirks that make the character more comical or interesting. For example: Indiana Jones fear of snakes. Both types of flaws help to make the character who they are.
  • What does he/she long for before the story commences? This is unrelated to the plot but may have a significant effect on the story. For example, in Die Hard, John McClane, a NYPD cop, wants to reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly, who’s living and working in Los Angeles. Some writer’s refer to this as the personal goal. The theme of the story is often found in the protagonist’s longing.

Empathy factors

  • What makes the reader want to empathise with the protagonist? Reader’s are more likely to connect with a character if they can empathise with them. Readers generally empathise with protagonists that are highly resourceful in the pursuit of their objectives, even if their characters are not particularly likeable. Other factors that help to build empathy are being funny, clever, an underdog in jeopardy, selfless, and resolute.

Back Story and character Arc

  •  How does the protagonist’s back story affect the story? All characters have a past and a reason for behaving in the way they do. From a writer’s perspective, only that element of back story that is relevant to the story should be brought into the story. It should be introduced sparingly and not at the start of the story.
  •  How does the protagonist change as a result of the story? Obviously for some stories the protagonist goes through an enormous transformation as a result of the events in the story: e.g. Scrooge. Other transformations can be more subtle.

Plot Objective or goal

  • What does the protagonist want and how does it change during the story? This is the desire created by the story catalyst. A problem or opportunity comes into the protagonist’s world and as a result of the new situation, the protagonist must act. This is the plot driver that moves the story forward.  Sometimes the plot objective grows into something bigger.  For example, in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, Luke’s initial objective is to take R2D2 and the Death Star plans to Alderaan. Then on the Death Star he changes his plans to rescue Princess Leia. And finally his objective is to destroy the Death Star. Many writer’s refer to this as the protagonist’s ‘goal’ or ‘outer goal’. I don’t particularly like the term ‘goal’ as for me it doesn’t reflect the obsessive nature of the desire behind the goal. Perhaps that’s because goals to me are like New Year’s resolutions — easily abandoned. ‘Want’ is a simpler word and easier to use.

Relationships

  • How does the protagonist’s relationship with the other key characters impact on the story? The main key characters will have their own plot objectives which may well conflict with those of the protagonist. How the protagonist relates to these key characters will help reveal the protagonist’s true character. The main key characters include:
    • Love interest
    • Main antagonist
    • Mentor
    • Side Kick

In my view, these are the ten most important questions about characterisation when considering story design. Some of them are difficult to answer without thinking more about what the story is about. But that’s their purpose.  Are they the only questions you need ask? Perhaps not. I’ve seen some lists and questionnaires by other writers with over one hundred questions, including the character’s education, family, history etc. These are useful in putting flesh onto the story skeleton and getting to know your character better, but for the purpose of story design I think it’s easier to limit the questions to those relating solely to the ‘big picture’ of the story.

Tell me what you think? Are the twenty questions (including the ten questions in the  previous blog) sufficient to decide whether a story idea is worth pursuing further?

Story Design – Twenty Key Questions

As a new writer one of the most difficult decisions to make is about what to write about. There is plenty of advice from experienced writers out there who say just sit in the chair and write.  And that if you don’t write, you can’t become a writer. But that doesn’t help the newbie author sitting in the chair and staring at a blank screen with a thousand-and-one ideas buzzing through his/her head and wondering which path to take. For me developing and writing a novel takes at least twelve months. That’s a considerable commitment and one which you don’t want to abandon half-way through, because of a failure to plan adequately.

Clearly if you have a story you want to tell that’s just bursting to be told, then write it.  And don’t stop until you finish it. But if you’re like me and have different ideas competing with each other in your head, you need to choose the best. And you’ll only achieve this if you do some work on developing the story design. Notice I’m talking about story design and not outlining. Story design is about the dynamics of the story, not about the structure.

In the previous blog, I introduced the idea of the five core story elements a writer needs to identify before he/she has a story proposition.

5_Elements

To help evaluate a story design I’ve tried to put together a simple blueprint. Part of this blueprint is twenty questions about the story design. Ten of those questions are about the characterisation of the protagonist, which I’ll deal with in the next blog. The other ten questions are about story design and are as follows:

  1. What is the idea at the heart of you story that makes it new and interesting? This is usually expressed as a ‘what if…’ question. It’s probably the most difficult question to answer. The previous blog sets out some of the ways of creating them.
  2. How does the setting affect the story? 
  3. What does the protagonist want that drives the central plot? This is set in  motion by the protagonist’s response to the Catalyst (see 8 below)  in the first Act .
  4. What stands in the protagonist’s way from getting what he/she wants? (Eg. a difficult quest, a difficult mystery/conundrum to solve, natural forces, or other antagonist forces.)
  5. What are the consequences if the protagonist fails to get what he/she wants? Are these stakes big enough?
  6. What is the central dramatic question at the heart of the story that drives the reader’s hopes and fears for the story outcome? Example: Will Katniss Everdeen survive the Hunger Games? Will Luke Skywalker rescue the princess and destroy the Death Star?
  7. How does the story end?
  8. What is the catalyst that sets up the central plot in motion? This is the Big Problem or Opportunity that disturbs the protagonist’s world in the first act. Example: Katniss Everdeen’s sister’s name  is drawn in the Hunger Games lottery.
  9. What is the log line for your story.  Example: (‘Star Wars:A New Hope’) is a (science fiction fantasy) story about (a young farm boy) who teams up with (a Jedi Knight and a mercenary pilot) to (rescue a princess and lead a rag-tag rebellion) in order to stop (the evil forces of the Galactic Empire) from (destroying their world).
  10. What is the underlying theme / moral premise of your story? Example: ‘Even death cannot conquer the power of love’ (Romeo and Juliet).

Once you’ve answered the ten questions there’s probably another question you could ask yourself. Would you want to read this story? If it doesn’t excite you, what chance have other readers of finding it exciting.

As mentioned above, the characterisation of the protagonist is part of the story design. The character has to fit the story, or the story has to fit the character.  In the next blog I’ll deal with the ten elements of the protagonist’s characterisation.

In the meantime, I would welcome any comments on the five core elements or the key questions on story design. No doubt there are many more questions that could be asked about a story that would flesh more detail. I’ve seen some story checklists with a hundred-and-one different questions to answer about a story.  Such checklist may well be useful for assessing the final draft, but are too detailed for the initial stages of story design.  In comparison, the key questions are concerned with whether you have a core story that will work before you outline it, or write it.