The writing process

untitled-design.pngIt is almost eight years since I started writing novels, and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. It hasn’t been easy. I had a story I wanted to write and I wanted to start writing it as soon as possible. But I soon found out that you need to make some key decisions before you even start to write about point of view, person, and tense. And you need to have an understanding of story structure. So I did what I suspect many other writers have done. I read a whole host of ‘How too…” books on the subject. Many of which were helpful, and some of which lets say were a waste of time.

Remember that stereotype writer we often see portrayed in movies. The guy (or girl) with glasses who sits in front on a typewriter and bashes so many thousand words each day. Or who, stares at a blank page, swills whisky and suffers from writer’s block. This stereotype is often reinforced by successful writers, who say to be a writer you need to write every day as though this is the only process a writer needs:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down a typewriter and bleed.” ― Hemingway.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” ―
Stephen King
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ―
Ray Bradbury

It’s true that if you want to be a writer you need to write and you need a determination to see it through. Writing a book is like running a marathon you can’t give up when you hit the wall. You have to keep going or you’ll never reach the end. But writing is not just about bashing words into a keyboard. There’s a creative process by which a simple initial idea is grown into a complex narrative we call a story.

Unfortunately, analysing a writer’s published work does not necessarily give a great deal of insight into the process the writer used to get to that final point. We may well identify the key turning points in the story but this does not tell us how he/she found them or developed them.

To add to the confusion some writers claim to be ‘pantsers’ doing very little preparation work for their stories, while others are ‘outliners’ using detailed outlining techniques. Although I suspect most writers are engaged in some level of planning and analysis even if it is only in their heads developing the main character and his goals.

The point I would like to make is that you don’t have to write a story sequentially starting on page 1 and finishing with “the end”. It’s a daunting task to carry that level of detail in your head. Some pantsers might say they don’t have to know the story at the outset as they just follow the main character until they get to the end. Maybe that works for them, but not for me.

The approach I take is a layering approach, which starts with the basic elements of story and gradually expands to a basic draft and then grows into a final draft in an iterative process.

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

A story has to start somewhere with an initial idea. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible without making judgement. Usually the idea will come from one of the five main story elements:

  1. A character
  2. A challenge:  a problem or opportunity or unusual situation that will drive the story
  3. An antagonist
  4. A storyworld 
  5. An ending

Stage 2: Developing the story premise, the broad story line, and identifying the main characters.

A story idea can be turned into a story premise by bringing together the story elements into a single statement explaining who the story is about, what he or she wants, what stands in their way of getting it, and why the want it. In simple terms, the premise is a statement about the hero’s big story challenge.

The story line or main plot line is broadly what happens to the hero. Does he/she succeed or fail and what are the main sequences that get him/her there.

At this point we need to understand the main characters, their role in the story and their primary motivation.

Stage 3: Developing a beat sheet for the main story line

The Beat Sheet lists the main stepping-stones in the hero’s storyline. It will usually include the main turning points and key hero sequences of the story.

The main turning points would be at least:

  1. The catalyst/inciting incident – What starts off the story conflict and motivates the hero to eventually act
  2. Act One Break – The point where the hero commences his quest or challenge
  3. The Mid Point – Usually a major revelation or reversal
  4. The Act 2 Culmination – Usually the darkest hour for the hero
  5. The  Climax

And the key sequences are hero’s quest broken down into 6-8 logical stages.

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

The scene list or outline is a bullet list of scenes that can be easily identified from a the beat sheet. (It is not the final list which may be much longer). It is usually at this stage that I set up scene cards using Scrivener, breaking the list of scenes down under four headings:

  1. Act 1
  2. Act 2A
  3. Act 2B
  4. Act 3

The scenes themselves may well have one or two lines of text explanation. I may well add further notes where they occur to me. (Other writers may well want to turn this scene list into a more detailed outline with bullet points within each scene. I find it more effective to add detail at the time I am working on individual scenes rather than laying out all the scenes in detail in advance of the first Basic Draft.)

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

My first drafts are usually just the bare minimum to get the basic story down on paper. The word count will be substantially shorter than the eventual final draft 40-60%.

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

This is the stage where I organise my scenes into chapters and where I add the missing scenes to the text. These could be sub plots, the story lines of other characters (eg the antagonist), or transitions. It is also where I take a further look a dialogue and descriptions and layers of further story content. This is an iterative process that continues until I reach the final draft

Stage 7: The Final Daft

My final drafts are usually complete except for proofing. I tend to edit as I go, so the final edits other that proofing are usually limited.

Looking back at what I have described above may give the impression that my writing process is planned and logical. It never feels quite like that in practice. New ideas can enter the process at any of the stages forcing a re-think, and they often do.

So there it is — my take on the story writing process. What do you think? Maybe you have something better to offer?

Plot patterns

KARecently I was looking through my blue-ray collection to find a movie to watch with my family. King Arthur: Legend of the sword (2017) caught my eye. The movie directed by Guy Richie, grossed $148m on a budget of $175m, which was pretty much a financial disaster for the producers, and the critics complained it ignored Arhurian legend. But I thought it was still enjoyable. I remembered a comment my son made the first time we first watched it. He said, “You know it’s just a grown-up version of the Lion King plot.”
He was right, of course. The movie, King Arthur, doesn’t follow the normal Arthurian legend. And it’s plot line is almost identical to the Lion King. The king’s brother kills the king to steal the thrown, while the prince runs away to live another day. And when the prince is found, he doesn’t want to be king. That’s pretty much the Lion King plot. Yes, there’s the bit of Arthurian trope thrown in about Excalibur, magic and mages. But strip the story down to the core and you’ll find the Lion King.
But then again the story of an uncle killing his brother to take the crown isn’t new. It’s at least as old as Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Yes, I know Hamlet had a very different ending because it was a tragedy. But the story premise that sets the story in motion is pretty much the same as the Lion King.
Should we be surprised that these story lines repeat? Probably not. Chris Booker, for example, suggests that all stories are based on just seven basic plot structures. Others have suggested a number up to 33 plots. But that is still a relatively small number of plots.
Take the plot pattern of typical romance story. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl and then finally wins her heart. It’s a simple formula. Yet the publishing industry produces millions of romance novels each year using it. The plot is the same, but to the readers the stories feel very different.
The point is readers don’t fall in love with a plot. They fall in love with characters and the emotional content of the story. Plot can provide tension and excitement and a reason to care for the plight of our characters. But plot alone is not story. Story is about emotion and what the reader or audience feels. It’s a form of chemistry between the characters and what happens to them that draws an emotional response from us.
Does that mean that plot is unimportant? No, of course not. If nothing happened to our characters, why would we feel any concern for them? We want to see them challenged. We want to see them win against the odds, achieve what they desire, or feel sorry for them if they fail or give up their goal. It’s human nature to empathise with other humans. And our characters, while fictional, are all too human.
But what about the darker stories? Do we empathise with Michael Corleone in the Godfather Part II? Was Michael Corleone evil, or was he only doing what he had to do to survive in a mafia world and protect his own family? In an amoral world were his actions at least understandable and relatable?
And what about those even darker characters from the Horror or Dark Fantasy genre. Why are we so fascinated by them? Does it arouse out curiosity or excite some deep primal need within us? Maybe these stories are a kind of escape valve that allows us to release our own darker emotions. As children we all played out stories of our favourite characters from TV, movies and books. Maybe as adults we’re not that different. We still need the same emotional release and we find it by becoming absorbed in a character of a novel or movie.
When choosing a novel to read I often read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. One of the harshest comments a writer can be given is when a reader says they couldn’t connect with the main character. They could have said ‘like’ or ’empathise’ but they use the word ‘connect’.
Connection is what a story is all about, and the craft of the writer is all about making it happen.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Story boarding

In my previous blog, I put forward the view that a writer should know his/her story before he/she starts writing. Once a writer has a story concept, a character with a goal, a source of conflict, and stakes at risk then they have basic ingredients for a story. But as any chef knows, ingredients can be put together in a million different ways to produce very different cuisine.

For some writers the ingredients are enough for them to start writing and see where their characters take them. And some very successful authors write this way. For me, there are still too many different paths a story could take and I need to feel out which is best path before I commit to write.

There are lots of ways a writer can do this: working on character  sketches and story lines for each of the main characters, identifying the key scenes, obstacles  and story turns that will impact the characters, and working back from desired ending. My favourite approach is story boarding –mapping out the key elements of the story line on scene cards.

There are many different ways you can do this. You can use a whiteboard marked out into four equal vertical sections, being Act 1, Act 2 (i), Act 2(ii), and Act 3. Scenes can then be added using post it notes to each area of the board as the scene ideas unfold.

An alternative approach is to use 5 x 3 cards and lay them out on the floor, or on a cork board.

Or you can use a powerful program like Scrivener to do the same thing . This is the cork board view of Scrivener for the first Act of my book, Alien Hothouse. Each card is colour coded to tell me the point of view character for each scene. Scrivener is an amazingly powerful piece of software for any writer and my chosen medium for writing all my books. But the purpose of my blog today is not sing the praises of this software, but to explain the storyboarding approach.

Scivener

Alternatively, you can use storyboarding  software designed for screenwriters. I have experimented with one of these products, Plot Control 2. Here is same first act mapped out under Plot Control 2. (There is also a further version – Plot control 3 that allows the main headings to be modified)

hothouse

The main difference between using this approach and a cork board is that the scenes are entered under twelve different captions:

  • Opening scene
  • Setup
  • Inciting Incident
  • Movement to Resolution
  • Plot Point One
  • Act 2: Tier 1
  • Midpoint
  • Act 2: Tier 2
  • Plot Point 2
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • End Scene

Of course, if you wanted to use the same kind of structure in Scrivener it is quite easy to do so. You simply set up the twelve structural elements as though they were twelve  chapters. As a personal preference,  I like to use Plot Control 2 to ‘mess about’ with the scenes until I have the makings of the story and then I set up the the appropriate scene structure in Scrivener.

For my latest novel, I have taken the process one step further by turning the scene cards into a twenty page ‘treatment’ by adding further detail to the scenes. It is a bit like layering in further elements of detail as the story gets clearer in your mind. Hopefully, this should make the writing process more efficient.

No one can tell you which writing approach is right for you. But if you haven’t looked at storyboarding you might like to try it. You don’t have to use expensive software. You can use a pack of cards or post-it notes on a whiteboard, or  Scrivener. The approach is the same. It gives you a helicopter view of your story.

Pacing and escalating tension

star-wars-7

A few weeks ago, I went to see Star Wars The Force Awakens. What a movie! Of course, with all the hype about the movie there was always a risk that it wouldn’t live up to fans expectation, or that it would not true be to the the original trilogy.  But most of the critics liked it and it did’t seem to upset what is a very sensitive the fan base. I certainly loved it, and can’t wait for the next two movies.

I’m not going to critique the movie or give any spoilers out for those that haven’t seen it yet. But one feature of the movie that struck me was the sheer intensity of the action in the storyline of the movie. One action sequence would lead to another and another with little time for the actors to reflect on what was going on. It made for great cinema sequences, but with little time for the audience to catch their breath. Don’t get me wrong on this: I enjoyed the ride… even though it was at times exhausting.

One of the thoughts I had was whether it was possible, or for that matter even desirable, for a fiction writer to pace their stories at this continuous level of intensity. Most stories have a natural flow of escalating action through the story leading to a climax in the final act, but that action is not continuous. There are ups and downs, and times where the characters have time to reflect and where the reader and character can bond. The same is true in movies, even action movies. So why not in the Force Awakens?

Maybe the answer lies in the fact that The Force Awakens is a trilogy. The action sequences are just a way of introducing the characters and setting up the central conflict between the forces of good and evil. New Hope was also full of great action sequences, certainly more so than The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Perhaps JJ Abrams was trying to remain true to the original spirit of New Hope. Or maybe there was just too much action to fit into the movie and the more reflective scenes fell to the cutting room floor.