Tag Archives: novelist

Twin Premises – Planning Your Story

Macbeth and the twin story premises
Macbeth, like all great narratives, flows from
twin premises.

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message and its affects. But how does this work and why should a writer care?



For pantsers about to commence the writing of their story, the answer is that they might not care. Pantsers write from the seat of their pants, allowing inspiration to dictate their narratives.

Plotters, on the other hand, need to work out the story before hand, often meticulously planning every scene before beginning the actual writing of their screenplays or novels.

There are some, however, for whom the approach lies somewhere in between. Inspiration can indeed swoop in at any moment and take over the writing process, but in its absence, they need the security of a map. They’ve set sail too many times only to wash up on the rocks without one.

“The twin premises provide the blueprint for writing a story. The one premise indicates what sort of events need to occur and to whom. The other shapes the direction of these events into an outcome that reveals a moral lesson.“

An effective compromise, therefore, is to spend time thinking about the events and characters that would go into the story, while simultaneously trying to nail down the point of it all. Which brings us back to the first paragraph:

The Story Premise is a brief outline of the story that encapsulates the events generated by the central conflict, and the desire through-line of the protagonist. The story premise of Macbeth might be: An ambitious Scottish general embraces the prophesy of three old crones and the urging of his wife to murder King Duncan and usurp his throne only to succumb to guilt, paranoia and death.

This gives some indication of the major characters and narrative events that comprise the tale.

The Moral Premise, by contrast, is the theme of the story. It gives direction to the dramatic scenes that comprise the plot. In Macbeth this might be: Ruthless ambition leads to death and destruction while accepting one‘s place in the Great Chain of Being sustains societal order and life. Not a popular theme by today’s standards, but a central moral premise in the Elizabethan era, nonetheless.

The aim of the twin premises, then, is to create enough scaffolding to support the writing of a story. Both premises must be present for the story to work. Whether the yarn will turn out to be quite the Shakespearean masterpiece is, of course, another matter all together.

Summary

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message.

If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.

Spiritual Growth and the Age of a Character

Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet
Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet

How does spiritual growth relate to the age of a character?

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger points out that older characters in stories experience a deepening engagement with values they might not have entertained during their younger years—values relating to spiritual growth.


Forty and Beyond

Maturity often brings with it a tension between the spiritual and the material in our own lives. Stories about evolving characters, therefore, tend to explore issues that have become more pressing because of the wisdom individuals have earned through experience.

Having achieved successful careers, sometimes at the expense of the inner life, some are ready to shift focus from material pursuits to a more spiritual approach, concentrating on such values as integrity, social conscience and enduring relationships. 

”Spiritual growth in a character often, although not always, goes hand-in-hand with a growing maturity associated with age. The stories we write containing such characters should reflect this possibility.”

Some characters even factor in self-sacrifice for the greater good as a viable course of action. Films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Ghandi, Erin Brokovich, and Norma Rae touch on this directly.

The point is that as we mature so does the focus of our attention—from the visceral pleasures granted by material success to the more selfless rewards of value-driven action: from receiving to giving, from competing to sharing, from holding grudges to forgiving. The value system of the characters we write, therefore, ought to reflect this age-related shift. Stories containing such characters will resonate with more mature audiences who recognise these values in themselves.

Summary

Stories about maturing characters explore themes that weigh up spiritual growth over material gain.

Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.

With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.

“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”

But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:

“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.

KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”

The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.

Summary
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.


Great Character Description in Stories

Character description in As Good As It Gets
Great character description in As Good As It Gets

How do you write a great character description in your screenplay or novel?


Do you include detailed physical attributes and forays into backstory, thinking you’re building a solid foundation that will pay off later? That might be the norm in pulp films and novels, but discerning audiences and readers are impatient with lengthy descriptions that stop the narrative dead in its tracks.

Your characters have to make a strong impression from the get-go. The best way to achieve this is with brevity, precision, insight, and laser-sharp detail.

“Great character description highlights some inner aspect of the character; it does not solely rest on the way a character looks. At the very least, the description hints at a reality beyond the physical.”

Here are some examples of good character description from novels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Hayes Barton Press, 2005, originally published 1885). Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left. (p. 38)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998). A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair. (p. 46)

Holes by Louis Sachar (2000). They were dripping with sweat, and their faces were so dirty that it took Stanley a moment to notice that one kid was white and the other black. (p. 17)

In all three examples above, the physical description, coupled with simile or metaphor, variously conveys an attitude, demeanour or theme beyond the description itself:

A head miraculously balancing the weight of a tub while moving in quick jerks under that very weight, suggests a skill indicative of classical Indian dance.

Eyes that glinting like black beetles under all the hair lends a sinister edge to the snapshot.

Faces that were so dirty that the race of the owners is not immediately apparent, connotes far more that the denotative description—it plugs into theme, suggesting that tags such as skin colour are superficial and trivial.

Great character description in screenplays

Here are three examples of character description in screenplays:

THE MATRIX (1999) NEO, a man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one. [This is a straight-from-the-hip description of the essence of Neo Anderson. It is a sharp and accurate snapshot of who the man is.]

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997). In the hallway. Well past 50. Unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. [A short, to-the-point summary of the protagonist. Far more powerful than a lengthy physical description about his shortcomings.]

GET OUT (2017) CHRIS WASHINGTON, 26, a handsome African-American man shuts the medicine cabinet. He’s shirtless and naturally athletic. He scrutinizes his reflection with a touch of vanity. [A clichéd, on-the-nose introduction to the character, with the exception of the last sentence, which exposes his narcissism.]

The point is to avoid superfluous physical traits and describe the way a character looks unless it is revealing of personality and plot.

Summary

When writing a character description stick to the essence of the character. Do not describe superfluous physical traits that are coincidental to the story.

Great Plot from Moral Weaknesses

Great Plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie
A great plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie

How do you generate a great plot from the moral weakness of your hero? You tailor-make the story goal to fit your hero’s weakness. Paring these two narrative events elevates your story to one of poetic justice.

One way to tie the character to the goal is to link it to the moral premise of the story. Ask, what does my character learn by pursuing and eventually gaining the goal?

If your character is stingy, he has to learn to be generous (Scrooge). If he is cowardly and narcissistic, he ends up in a situation where he has to save the world (Edge of Tomorrow.)

There is an ironic relationship between the character’s flaw or weakness and the challenge he is presented with because it is this very weakness that needs to be eliminated in order for him to become whole again.

“The point of a great plot is, at least in part, to teach the hero a moral lesson.”

Few films illustrate this better than Tootsie. In the film, Dustin Hoffman plays a man who has little respect for women, treating them poorly. But he is an out-of-work actor who desperately seeks an acting job. Ironically, he lands a part playing a woman by pretending to be a woman—a role he has to continue playing outside the studio. This exposes him to the sort of mistreatment he has subjected women to in the past. Experiencing this behaviour first hand is a lesson that causes him to grow and change. The plot is fitting because it is geared towards fixing the inner failing of the protagonist.

And so it’s should be with every great story. The plot should showcase the hero’s weakness by placing him in a situation that can only be solved by addressing that very weakness in the plot and in himself.


Summary

Behind every great plot is a protagonist who solves the story problem by addressing an inner weakness in his character.

Story Theme – What Is It?

Before the Light, and the story theme.
In Before the Light, the story theme is that of humanity having to be protected from itself.

“What is your story theme? What is your story really about?” I ask.
“It’s about a boy who embarks on a journey to find his long-lost sister—,” you answer.

“That’s not what I mean,” I say, interrupting you. “By theme I mean the essence of your story, distilled into a single sentence.”

Without it the tale is rendered rudderless. 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams explains that the moral premise (substitute the word theme here) is the force that determines the flow and direction of events in a story. He asserts that stories with a strong moral premise do well at the box office. He sites films such as Star Wars and Braveheart as examples. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides the writer to craft a story that stays on track.

So, what form does the theme take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of it.

“The story theme is the compass that allows the writer to navigate through a myriad of narrative outcomes.”

In the novella, Before the Light, for example, one part of the theme might be: Too much knowledge heaped upon an unprepared humanity leads to destruction (followed by the second part), but a well-kept secret leads to survival.

This creates an appropriate springboard for character action, for the story to explore the possible consequences of each possible outcome. The sentient quantum computer, Icarus, for example, has to choose between fulfilling the duty entrusted to it by its human creators, and risk dragging the entire world into a war, or betray the very purpose of its creation.

The story traces the tension between those two irreconcilable outcomes, right up to the moment in the climax when a decision is made—with all its concomitant consequences.

The complete moral premise, or theme, therefore, represents the genetic code for a story and takes the simple form: If X leads to a bad outcome, then MINUS X leads to a good outcome. A fully articulated theme allows us to navigate the terrain between those outcomes using this structure.

Summary

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

THE FIRST LINE OF YOUR NOVEL

George Orwell’s 1984 contains a most memorable first line.
George Orwell’s 1984 contains a most memorable first line.

How many times has the first line or paragraph of a novel persuaded us to buy the book right away?
First impressions do count, so it is important that the writer nail the start of a story from the get-go. Who can forget these immortal openings, four of which are referenced from the excellent Oxford Royale Academy site.


1. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

The first sentence of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, sets a tone through its jarring use of the number thirteen. Not only is thirteen associated with bad luck, it suggests that something is off with the world, since traditional clocks have only twelve numbers. This creates a sense of anxiety in the reader that persists throughout the entire novel and keeps us turning the pages.

2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859).

Dickens’ use of contrasting clauses in the opening of his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, balanced by the repetition of ‘it was’, ‘we had’ and ‘we were all’, prepares us for the back-and-forth conflict that occurs in London and Paris prior and during the French Revolution—essentially a struggle between good and evil. The tale is rooted in the particular and the general, and this makes it a truly timeless and universal story.

3. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)

Here Jane Austin‘s somewhat satirical tone establishes the author’s posture towards the social norms of the day. The line, we later discover, is associated with Mrs. Bennet, a persistent woman who is determined to marry off her six daughters come hell or high water. We secretly enjoy Austen’s subtle but somewhat cruel social and cultural critique, and this keeps us wanting to read more.

“A great first line serves as a secret fountain to our story, allowing us to drink from it when all other sources dry up.”

4. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit, Tolkien (1932).

The unassuming simplicity of this line is precisely what makes it work so well as an opening salvo, harking back to countless fairytales. Furthermore, we are immediately intrigued by the word, ‘hobbit’. We ask ourselves, what kind of creature is a hobbit? And why does he live in a hole in the ground? We seek answers to these questions and so we keep reading.

And lastly, if I may be permitted the presumption of intruding upon such illustrious company:

“WHEN I was a young man and my life was bursting through like a newly sprung carnation, I thought about time as a phenomenon flowing from the equations of physics, something to be answered by the math; but now that I am older and given to bouts of melancholy during my ambles along the shore, time and space have become a longing and the equations have been tamed by syrup poured over waffles baked to a golden hue.” The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Stavros Halvatzis (2015).

Here, the narrator’s romanticised sense of nostalgia about his youth immediately betrays itself through the phrase ‘newly sprung carnation’. It also characterises him as something of a dandy. His initial belief in the equations of physics has been ‘tamed’, ironically enough, by time itself. There is something touching, however, about his failure to solve the intractable mathematical equation that has consumed his life, a sentiment bolstered by words such as ‘melancholy’, ‘ambles’ and ‘longing’. The impression that we are left with is of a once brilliant man in decline, forced to spend his time reminiscing about the past over ‘waffles baked to a golden hue’.

Summary

A great first line does one or more of several things: It establishes mood, theme, and genre. It showcases the main character. It hints at the main conflict. It poses story questions. And it does this in an unexpected or eccentric way. That’s a lot of technique packed into a single sentence.

How Character shapes action

Character shapes action in Braveheart

Character shapes action and ultimately story. But no two people are exactly the same and, therefore, neither is the motivation behind their actions. 

Slap one person across the face and he might turn the other cheek. Slap another and he might punch you in the gut. A pacifist responds differently to a threat than would a war-monger. Different actions lead to different stories.

Personality shapes action. The inner life of a character is moulded by that character’s genetics, but also her hopes, desires, fears and wounds. It is these differences within a character that create the full tapestry of human response.

But personality is not static. Fears migrate, change, increase or decrease. Hope grows, shrinks, is fulfilled or snuffed out. To write a viable character arc, namely, the growth of the hero from ignorance to knowledge, or vice to virtue, we need to track the transformation of the elements that define personality.

In Braveheart, William Wallace goes from a disinterested farmer to a courageous and engaged rebel leader seeking to overthrow the English yoke. In Edge of Tomorrow Major William Cage goes from a cowardly public relations officer to a fearless soldier willing to die over and over again in order to save humanity by defeating an insidious alien enemy.

“Character shapes action. Write stories that tie the character arc to the plot in order to ensure the verisimilitude of your tale.”

If the above is true then it stands to reason that the growth of character helps to order the sequence of the narrative events that make up the story.

Tracking the change of say, cowardice to heroism through four or five stages, provides a roadmap for creating ‘ action’ scenes that feel authentic and believable. The result is stories that are motivated and well written—never a bad thing in the pursuit of success.

Summary

Character shapes action. Write believable and successful stories by tying your hero’s character arc to the flow of narrative events that comprise your plot.

Start Writing, but How?

Start writing - Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker’s hidden lineage provides a great springboard to start writing a great character

How do you start the writing process? Do you develop your characters and backstory first before growing the plot, or visa versa? Or does the pantser in you choose a genre and strike off immediately, finding your characters and story as you go along?

There is probably no single answer to that question. So much depends upon the personality and style of the writer. I can tell you what my approach is, though.

I fall somewhere between being a pantser and plotter. Some structural pre-planning of the story is needed, especially for screenplays, to guide my writing, but I don’t want to suffocate any spontaneous creativity that might occur when I’m half-way up the mountain.

I start by knowing which genre I want to write in. Drama? Science fiction? The mood, characters and plot will differ greatly based upon genre.

I then think about the protagonist and his goal. What problem does he have to solve in order to save himself, his loved ones, the world? Crucially, I think about an impediment or reluctance stemming from some past wound or secret that the character harbours. This plants the seed deeper into the soil and allows me to grow my story in a more rooted and viable way.

Before you start writing ask yourself, “What is my protagonist’s weakness or wound? How does this weakness make him suited, or unsuited, for the task ahead?

In The nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos needs to solve a intractable mathematical problem in order to achieve his goal—undo a past event that cost his wife her life. But his nostalgia and a deeply suppressed secret about his past gets in the way of achieving that very goal.

Luke Skywalker has a terrible secret that he himself is unaware of. He is the son of Darth Vader, the very man who threatens the Rebellion. Luke’s pedigree explains his facility with the Force, but it also makes him vulnerable to the dark side. The tension between the goal and an inherent weakness is a great generator of any story.

Summary

Start writing by exploiting your protagonist’s weakness or vulnerability. You’ll not only create twists and turns in your plot, you will also allow your characters to act in a more unique and authentic way, adding to their credibility and hence to the overall success of your stories.