Monthly Archives: November 2012

How to Write Story Through Character

Chicken and eggs

The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, character or story? Does story lay the character, or character lay the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side of the fence, or, road, if you prefer. Despite the levity implicit in the metaphor, however, the topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

A Character’s Story

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer writing what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of character motivation. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story? The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing her scenes.

Scarab II

In my forthcoming science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously. In Scarab I, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react to rather than to initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character has allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.

In Summary

Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

Invitation

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How to Generate Novel Story Ideas

Head in a labyrinth with light bulb

Generating New Story Ideas

How does one generate new and exciting ideas for one’s stories? This perennial and important question has had many answers. Listed below, are some of them:

Idea-Generating Techniques

— Use personal experience to spark new and authentic story ideas. This helps to add verisimilitude and uniqueness to any piece of creative writing because it is based on first-hand knowledge of real-life situations.

— Keep a file of newspaper and magazine articles and stories; also, short notes on television documentaries and programs that have caught your eye. Use them to kick-start your thinking on a related subject.

— Use a notebook or digital device to document interesting bits of conversation, behaviour, dreams, personal encounters, dress codes.

— Explore new ideas by brainstorming a subject with colleges and friends. Free-associate fundamental aspects of that subject by introducing nouns and verbs not usually associated with it. Note the new relationships that emerge. Those may spark new ways of looking at old ideas.

— Ask that powerful idea-generating question:’What if…’. Combine it with an unexpected or opposing idea. If, for example, your subject is about a paid soldier of fortune, you could start by asking: What if a hardened mercenary is asked to assassinate a businesswoman who turns out to be his son’s wife who is pregnant with his child?

— Mind-map a subject or idea by writing down its core meaning in the middle of a blank page or screen. Create a series of associated ideas in bubbles around that core idea and draw links from one to the other. Again, try thinking laterally by linking unrelated ideas together and see what that sparks.

— When writing a scene, make it multidimensional by exploring it with all five of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. Note the dominate sense operating within the scene then replay it in your imagination, using a different sense. Note how it changes your approach to writing the scene.

Summary

There are many ways to generate new ideas for stories. Personal experience, keeping files and notebooks, brainstorming with others, using the what-if question, mind-mapping, strongly projecting one’s self into an imagined scenario by applying all five senses to it, are just some of them.

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How to Write the Moral Premise

Jesus and people

The Moral Premise

What is a story really about? By this, I don’t mean the causal chain of events that comprise the outer journey. I mean the inner core that projects these outer events and motivates the inner journey. One way to understand the essence of a story is to determine its moral premise or as I sometimes prefer to refer to it as: the pilot premise. This is the deepest layer of the story, without which, the tale is rendered rudderless.

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams makes a compelling case for the moral premise being that which explains and determines the direction and flow of events in a story. He claims that stories with a strong moral premise tend to do well at the box office. He sites films such as Starwars and Braveheart as examples of this. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides us to write a story that stays on track.

So what form does this premise take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of the premise. In a film such as The Matrix, for example, part of the premise might be: humanity’s strength (reflected in a special individual–Neo), driven by love, leads to victory. This statement allows the writers to reflect Neo’s outer journey from a novice stumbling over his own feet to an accomplished leader with supernatural abilities (inside the matrix) with aplomb.

This first part on its own, however, can’t describe Agent Smith’s journey from mastery to crushing defeat at the hands of Neo. That aspect of the journey requires an additional part: non-human constructs, under programed instructions to control unruly elements in the matrix, are doomed to failure. It can be simplified even further: love (a human quality) leads to victory but an absence of love leads to defeat.

This second part of the premise guides the writers to chart Agent Smith’s journey as it clashes with Neo’s. The complete moral premise, then, represents the genetic code for a story that describes the entire inner and outer journey of a film such as The Matrix. It takes the form: X leads to victory, but minus X leads to defeat. Working out both sides of the moral premise beforehand, therefore, allows us to keep our story on course.

Summary

The moral premise comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the genetic code of any story: one part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the moral premise in mind allows you to craft a story that stays on track.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.