Category Archives: Story Preparation

Young Adults Want This in a Story

Young AdulthoodAlthough young adults may share some of the themes associated with the teen years, such as the search for love and intimacy and discovering one’s identity, this thematic category digs deeper than the former – explored in last week’s post. It tends to focus more on achievement and efficacy in the world. It not only establishes the theme as a protagonist’s goal, it scratches for the truth that lies below the surface.

Stories, such as Titanic and Elizabeth, for example, respectively explore the consequences of choosing someone to love that our parents would disapprove of, or choosing duty over love.

Young Adulthood and Story Themes – Linda Seger

Because many popular stories and films tend to cater for readers and audiences in their twenties and thirties their themes center more on success and achievement – strong driving forces in that age group.

Themes about success focus on achieving success in the world’s eyes – about public achievement. If the protagonist fails to have her dream acknowledged in the public arena it may be that the dream is unimportant or insignificant. Important achievements, by contrast, carry the stamp of public approval: John Nash wins the Nobel Prize in A Beautiful Mind, the first Star Wars ends with a ceremony, and Clarice receives an award at the end of Silence of the Lambs.

Stories in the category, can, however, be more inwardly-looking, exploring the conflict between career and family (Melvin’s Room, One True Thing), or the tension between fame, materialism and integrity – Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Quiz Show. Here the storyline tends to explore the outer goal while the inner story, driven by a more intimate exploration of the theme, examines the inner world through subplot.

Regardless of the level of intimacy, however, stories that fall in the young adulthood category focus more on the consequences of pursuing success or fame through career, its rewards and costs, rather than discovering the themes as goals in the first instance – the first order search in teenage stories.

The young adulthood category, then, represents a maturing of the teenage dream into an ostensible set of goals that have public and personal effects.

Summary

Stories involving characters in the young adulthood category tend to explore the consequences, good and bad, of pursuing career, success, and fame.

Thank You, Mr. Field.

Syd Field

Syd Field (1935 – 2013)

Every once in a while I come across a nay-sayer – a writer who believes that the study of writing as a craft, and the study of structure in particular, is anathema.

Such writers believe that greatness springs ready-formed from the inspired brain – that great writing, somehow, is handed down to us, preconceived and complete, like the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

But even if it were true that genius does not require training and a writing methodology, where would that leave the majority of us typing away on our keyboards in the dark?

When I first started writing I knew little about structure other than the old Aristotelean advise that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end. My efforts were guided mainly by the aggregated jumble of books I’d read and films I’d seen.

I was not short on starts. Images, sounds, ideas came to me in a bewildering stream of disjointed segments, but like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle taken from different boxes, they did not fit together in any coherent way.

Writing a story back then was a hit-and-miss affair. It was a sweaty, messy, grinding struggle that sometimes produced good passages. Mostly, however, the writing was bad enough to convince me not to give up my day job.

None of these passages survived.

It was only when I came across Syd Field’s, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, that the light finally flicked on. Here was a book that laid out the structure of a story in a series of beats governed by turning points that spun the tale around in a zigzagging manner, weaving in surprises to keep the reader interested until the climax and resolution at the end.

Suddenly, I could take an idea and plot it out before commencing the actual writing of it, regardless of whether the Muse had scheduled to visit me that day, that week, that month. My first novel, Scarab, which shot to the #1 spot in the Sci-Fi category on Amazon’s Kindle, is a result of this process.

It was the start of a wonderful journey that has spanned three continents and continues to this day. And though Syd Field is now only one of the many teachers I have followed, I’ll always remember him as my first.

And for that, I’ll toss the nay-sayers a shrug and say, thank you, Mr. Field.

Summary

Syd Field taught me the basics of story-structure.

How Fascinating is the Idea Behind your Story?

As a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate, karma, or just plain bad luck, they ask?

Now, while it’s true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, (not sure about the other two), it’s also true that you can’t keep a good idea down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!

Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I believe I should not start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream.

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core and think about ways to make it more unique, more original. Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, well-written stories are the panacea to obscurity.

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Observe, Understand, Write.

Woman sitting on park bench

Hey, that's my spot!

People, in the main, are full of foibles, idiosyncrasies, kinks. We like to do things in a certain way, especially the small things: trace a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, even point us to some deeper truth.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other squabbling specialists offer us explanations that range from outright pathology, to the physical deepening of neuron pathways in our brains.

As a writer of novels, I am, of course, interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, quantum physics, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with describing emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story.

I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do check those boxes. The best stories endure because they offer us good drama. They engage our emotions. If they do get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people — colourful, authentic characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.

Every Friday morning, I like to eat hotcakes with butter and syrup at McDonalds before my first lecture on documentary filmmaking at a college in downtown Johannesburg. I’m usually the first customer to be served when the doors open at 6am – I leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic later.

But sometimes I am pipped to the post by an even earlier bird – the same one each time.

Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There are, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around. Besides, the bun-patty-egg meals are far more popular.

But then, there is the small matter of my favourite spot.

The table, tucked away in the far corner, is flanked on two sides by large windows that look out into the parking lot and the trees that surround it. I really like that spot. I like it almost as much as I like my hotcakes. I am convinced that they taste better eaten there.

The trouble is, so does the earlier bird.

Now, good manners would have me yield my spot to her, even if, for some reason, I clear the counter with my tray before she does.

And I do. Usually.

But pettily enough, I secretly wish I got there just a minute earlier. I find myself scanning the interior of the shop for my spot even as I’m pulling into the parking area. That long walk to the front entrance feels like a race to the finish line. It informs my behavior for the next minute or two.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help shaking my head in embarrassment.

Yet, despite this, I believe such foibles, habits, and inclinations, trivial as they are, help make us who we are – either because they speak of more a serious condition that needs identifying, or because they offer us a chance to rid ourselves of pettiness as we struggle to learn and grow from life’s lessons.

And speaking of lessons, there is that character in my next novel with a penchant for early-morning Macdonalds hotcakes and corner tables that has just decided to try out a different spot-and-meal combination, and to do so graciously…

Summary

Studying eccentric behaviour that we engage in on a daily basis helps us write captivating, fictional characters that bristle with life, authenticity, and colour.

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How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning

The Big Yawn:

An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

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How to X-Ray your Story

X-ray of a hand

How to X-Ray Your Story

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri provides us with a succinct way of x-raying our tales prior to commencing the writing of our story, in order to expose its essence, its genetic code. We do this by seeking to identify the story premise (or, what I call the theme, or moral premise—moral because it is the moral of the story and judges behaviour according to a higher justice).

Here are some examples of the (moral) premise:

King Lear: Blind trust leads to destruction.

Ghosts: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Othello : Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Tartuffe: He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

We can see from the above that the moral premise/theme reveals a character’s inner motivation and is intimately linked to his inner journey. The protagonist is relentlessly driven by this motivation to complete that journey. It’s important to note that the moral premise contains a direction and momentum, emerging from the conflict between the character’s emotions, other characters, and the world.

With that in mind, we can say that the premise = Character’s emotion + Conflict (or direction) + Results (the end).

If we plug in the premise/theme of The Matrix into this formula, for example, we may come up with: Self-belief leads to victory over the enemy.

With the theme/moral premise firmly in place, we can generate the log-line (the one-line synopsis of the plot, as opposed to the moral of the story), before moving to the synopsis itself, the treatment, and the fist draft of our screenplay, or novel.

But these latter topics are the subject of a future article.

Summary

The moral premise, or theme, is the force that drives the protagonist to complete his inner journey.

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Big Story Ideas

Tree with lights and man picking

Big Ideas:

Ideas. The fuel that powers civilizations and progress—social, political, economic, scientific, technological. Great ideas are innovative, lead to success, generate excitement.

And so it is with stories too. Hollywood calls such ideas High Concept. Pitch a truly big idea in Hollywood and producers and executives sit up and take notice. Suddenly, you are doing lunch with all sorts of people who want to hitch a ride on your wagon.

So, how do you get that big story idea? And just what is it, actually?

The truth is that ideas, or seeds of ideas, can come at you anywhere, anytime— from smells, sights, sounds, touch, distant memories. But is there a way to force-generate a truly big idea, cold, so to speak?

Here again, there are many prompts, many paths to the land of big ideas. News and documentary programs, magazines, websites, books.

As a science fiction writer, I tend to sniff around in places were great scientific ideas are already in the boiling pot. I recently purchased a magazine published by Media24, aptly titled: 20 Big Ideas. The magazine identifies 20 huge scientific topics that are currently in vogue:

The ongoing search for a Theory of Everything, Dark Energy, the Gaia Theory, Quantum Entanglement, Catastrophism, Chaos Theory, Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence—to name but a few.

These are the topics currently causing a stir in the scientific and related communities, through journals, magazines, television programs, radio stations, Internet forums, and the like.

Find a topic that fascinates you, explore the unanswered question surrounding it, and create your premise or log-line around that. If you are interested in the search for a Theory of Everything, for example, you should probably know that it has to do with trying to explain the entire spectrum of physical existence, from the very small-the quantum world, to the very large—cosmology. You should know that trying to incorporate gravity into the former is the crux of the problem.

The question is: what would the Theory of Everything be like? From there, you might think along the following lines:

What if a young theoretician working under the guidance of a supervising professor makes a startling mathematical discovery that will change the face of theoretical physics forever? What obstacles could you place in his way, and what would be the motives of the antagonist in trying to prevent him from achieving his goal?

The same initial process can be applied to the topics of Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence, and the other big ideas doing the rounds.

The next step is to develop the log-line, the structural skeleton of the story, and the one page synopsis along the lines suggested in numerous articles on this website, or others like it, before starting the actual writing of your story itself.

Summary

Big ideas make for big stories. Begin by tracking down big ideas through studying relevant journals, newspapers, conference papers, television programs, and the like, and create your log-line or premise based on one of them.

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How to Outline Your Story

Coloured post-it

Outlining Your Story:

Whether you’re a pantser or a pedantic outliner (I’m somewhat of an in-betweener), I believe that having an overall snapshot of your story raises its potential quality and lessens the time it takes to write it.

Here is the process I am currently following to outline my post apocalyptic novel, The Land Below.

I start by writing down my story’s premise. The story premise is a sentence, sometimes referred to as the logline by screenwriters, which captures the essence of your story—what is unique, but believable about it, highlights its major twists and turns, and ties the inner and outer journeys together, in part, through the knot of the moral premise, or theme.

I next tackle the outer journey. This is the what and how of your story. It defines the goal that the protagonist strives to gain by the end of the story. The goal, determined at the first turning point, is then kicked around by the midpoint and the second turning point, and is attained, or not, at the end of the final, must-have confrontation with the antagonist. Here I ensure that I have three or four major incidents in mind, including the inciting incident.

The inner journey, by contrast, is why the outer journey happens the way it does. It tries to explain the protagonist’s mental and emotional states and the decisions he takes that lead to the actions at the level of the outer journey. It also shows how and why the character changes during the story. It is a blow by blow explanation, of, at least, the turning points and the midpoint. It forces the writer to consider the reasons why the protagonist acts in the way that he does. I ensure that I have written a paragraph or two on the inner journey prior to starting the actual writing of my story.

The theme/ending: In the words of Lagos Egri, “The ending proves the theme.” Is your protagonist a good guy who manages to overcome the antagonist and save the world and win the heart of the girl he loves? If so, your theme may well be: Good guys carry the day. I always know the theme of my story before I begin to write it.

Lastly, I make sure I know who the main characters of my story will be. Each will represent a point of view and will drive the plot forward. A protagonist? Certainly. An antagonist? Check. A love interest? Yes. A mentor? A sidekick? I think of my characters in terms of the function they have to perform in the overall story argument. The details, the flesh and blood stuff, I build, from a series of traits and incidents, as I go along…

…so, while on the subject, back to outlining The Land Below!

Summary

The story premise, as well as the outer and inner journeys, the theme and ending, and cast of characters, are important elements to consider prior to commencing the writing your story.

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How Good is Your Story?

Thumbs upAs an author, and a lecturer in the craft of storytelling, I am often asked, in the first instance, and required, in the second, to evaluate work that is presented to me. I am, and always have been, uncomfortable with assigning numerical values (marks) to stories. Stories are not algebra. The final product is not right or wrong. Stories are works of art, and as such, are as slippery as eels. They are, to some extent, subject to taste, to audience/readership preferences, and to the current popularity of specific genres.

Here, I am not referring to grammatical errors, faulty sentence construction, spelling mistakes—to editing. Those are all perfectly quantifiable. I am talking about the perceived worth of more nebulous concepts such as “up” versus “down” endings, relevance of theme, effectiveness of writing style, and even to such technical aspects as judging whether the right balance between characterisation and the relentless forward thrust of the story, has been achieved.

In the past few days I have had to provide guidance regarding the appropriateness of selecting one director over another for study, asked to evaluate a story-in-progress by an indie colleague, and implored to give a rating, as a number out of ten, of a completed first draft of a novel by another.

My answer to the first request was that any director whose body of work has solicited varied opinions, and is of interest to the student, is worthy of study; to the second, that the writer finish the story before seeking the opinion of others; to the third, that I would not give a mark out of ten, but I would offer my opinion as to whether I thought the story to be poor, show promise, or be ready-to-go.

This reluctance to provide a hard judgment on stories is less an indication of temerity or ignorance on my part than it is a response to the changing environment of story reception. Certainly, with regard to indie films and novels, the public is the ultimate judge of whether a story will sink or swim. I know of many instances where work has been turned down by publishers and producers and then has gone on to achieve extraordinary success on amazon, or through Internet channels such as YouTube, resulting in burgeoning writing and film making careers on the part of the writers and filmmakers.

Does this challenge the belief that some works are genuinely better than others? Certainly, not in terms of quantifiable technical aspects that are subject to proper editing; but it does acknowledge the proliferation of relativism with regards to theme and subject matter. In a fast-changing, technologically-driven world where the boundaries of nationality and personal identity (and, by implication, genre), are bleeding into each other, these aspects of a story are a lot harder to pin down, let alone, evaluate. My advise to story tellers is simply this: Write your stories to the best of your ability and let your readership or audience decide on whether they succeed or fail.

Summary

The success or failure of your stories, especially for indie writers and filmmakers, ultimately lies in the hands of your readership or audience. Solicit the opinion of experts on technical aspects of your work, but leave the judgment about your subject matter and its stylistic treatment to the latter.

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Writers’ Winning Ways

Winning Writing Habits

Although neither sacrosanct nor replete the list below reveals some of the winning habits of writers and creatives across the world.

1. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

2. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

6. Write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point here is to support the writing habit and it will support you.

7. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage.

8. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

Summary

Becoming a successful writer often involves traveling down a long and difficult road—it is not for the faint-hearted. Fostering healthy habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals easier to achieve.