This first technique holds audience interest by revealing the true size of something over the course of the story until it can be seen to be either larger or smaller than it originally appeared. This makes things appear to grow or diminish as the story unfolds.
Conspiracy stories are usually good examples of increasing scope, as only the tip of the iceberg first comes to light and the full extent is ultimately much bigger. The motion picture All The President’s Men illustrates this nicely. Stories about things being less extensive than they originally appear are not unlike The Wizard Of Oz in which a seemingly huge network of power turns out to be just one man behind a curtain.
Realize that your mind is a narrative-generating machine. That is why narratives exist in the first place: because they mirror the processes of the mind. But the mind is also a repository of topical information – subject matter – and engages in the process of synthesizing two or more old ideas into a new one. The new ideas may or may not fit into the narrative the mind is constructing. And yet the heart is drawn more to the new ideas, just as the mind is drawn more to a balanced and complete structure.
And so, in waking and in sleeping our conscious and subconscious minds each rule for part of our lives, with the other being the opposition party for a few hours. And in the term of office of each, they push through their agendas: more subject matter, ever-expanding or more accurate structure, ever-refining.
The act of creation is a political war between our conscious and sub-conscious selves – our hearts and our minds – our love of a subject and our need to put that subject in a contextual framework.
Only when negotiations commence and compromises are made is a balance between topic and matrix achieved. And then, though our hearts and minds will never be fully satisfied with the treaty between them, they will let the work of art go out into the world and call it complete, as the loss of some of our most important story elements ultimately is less than the ongoing losses within us in a war between our emotions and our reason.
You can make your story a lot more focused and targeted if you know what kind of a story you are creating. A good place to start is to figure out which of the four basic types of stories yours is.
Now, these four story categories are a lot like the basic colors – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. In practice there’s really a whole spectrum of stories out there, but you can begin adding clarity to your story by dividing them into these four groups: Situation, Activity, Mind Set, and Manner of Thinking.
Situation stories are like Poseidon Adventure where folks are trapped in an overturned cruise ship in the middle of the ocean or the original Die Hard where terrorists have trapped people in a skyscraper. Each is a fixed situation and until they get out of that situation, they’re just stuck in a real problem.
Activity stories are more like The African Queen where the characters have to make it down a jungle river in order to blow up an enemy ship or The Great Race where the characters have to participate in a turn-of-the-19th-century auto race from New York to Paris, the hard way around. Each of these stories is about a an ongoing physical effort, and is quite unlike a fixed situation story.
Mind Set stories are like A Christmas Carol where it is Scrooge’s attitude that is the underlying problem or like To Kill a Mockingbird in which people’s prejudice is the mind set that is causing the story’s problem. Each of these stories is about an unchanging state of mind, and the story’s problems will continue until that mind set is changed or overcome.
Manner of Thinking stories are like Hamlet where his father has been murdered and he wants to take revenge but keeps overthinking the plumbing and getting lost in his own ponderings or like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in which the characters are out to cause as much emotional pain as they can in their ceaseless predatory bickering. Each of these stories is about problems created by people who’s way of thinking is off-kilter and problematic, and the difficulties will continue unless the some to grips with things.
So, fixed situations, ongoing activities, fixed mind sets, and ongoing problems with the way folks are thinking. Those are the primary colors of types of stories.
Now, just knowing what type of story you are writing doesn’t write it for you. But by understanding which of these categories your story falls into, you can better target your efforts and give your plot, in fact your entire structure, a consistent and focused core.
Some time ago I wrote an article explaining how plot wasn’t the order in which events appeared in a story, but the order in which they happened to the characters. The storytelling order can be all mixed up for effect. As an example, consider the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, in which several interconnected story lines are presented quite out of order from how they actually came down. A large part of the fun for the audience is to try to put the pieces together in the right sequence so they understand the meaning of the story.
Of course, that’s an extreme example. Much more common is the simple flashback (or flash forward). But even here, some flashbacks are plot, and others are storytelling. First, consider a story in which the story opens in a given year and then the next section begins with the introduction, “Three years earlier…” In this case, the characters aren’t being transported back in time, just the reader or audience. The author is showing us what happened that led up to where things are “now” in the story. That is all storytelling, and can be quite effective.
But now consider a flashback in which a character recalls some incident in the past. The character drifts off into reverie and then we, the readers or audience, watch those events as if they are in the present, observing the memories as the character experiences them. This is plot, not storytelling, because neither character nor readers are transport back in time. Rather, we are just observing just what the character is reminiscing about in the here and now. And so, this trip to the past does affect the character – it changes how they feel and perhaps what they will do next.
This is also true of flash forwards: Do we jump into the future to see where a character will end up, or is the character projecting where they might end up and we are seeing what they are thinking? The first variation is storytelling, the second is plot.
Of course things can get really out of whack in time-travel stories, especially since you can add both plot flashbacks and storytelling flashbacks also. The important thing here is to know when you are actually altering your plot or just changing the order in which the readers or audience are shown parts of the plot. If you are aware, you can play these techniques like a virtuoso, but if you treat them all the same, you’ll just end up with a cacophony.
But, as I said, that was covered in an earlier article I wrote, but I am repeating it here as a necessary foundation to what comes next. And that is, the difference between Static Plot Points and Sequential Plot Points. Very important.
To begin, if you strip away all the storytelling aspects of plot and get down to just the structure (the order in which things happen to the characters), you’ll find there are two kinds of plot points: One, Static Plot Points, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Plot Points, such as Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Beats within a scene, in which the story moves from one to the next to the next until the progression of the plot arrives at the climax, resolves and ends.
And that is what this article is about – giving you a glimpse into those two aspects of plot.
First, let’s look at the static plot points. We’ll cover just four in this article to make the point about static vs. progressive and address others in later articles. Here’s the four we’ll explore:
Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings.
Here’s a brief description of each:
Goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve and the antagonist is trying to stop. Each probably has recruited their own team of helpers enlisted to aid in their two contradictory quest, but it is ultimately the protagonist and antagonist who have to duke it out to determine if the effort to achieve the goal ends in success or failure.
Now we all know that some goals turn out to be not worth achieving and that some goals are born of a misguided understanding, and also that goals can be partially achieved so, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get everything they want but enough to cover what they really need. No matter how you temper it, the story Goal is the biggest linchpin in your story’s plot.
Requirements are what’s needed to achieve that Goal. Requirements might be a shopping list of things the characters need to obtain or accomplish in any order (like a scavenger hunt) or Requirements could be a series of steps that need to be checked off in order.
Now you’d think that would make Requirements a sequential plot point, but it doesn’t because the Requirements remain the same for the entire story. So, just because you have to fulfill requirement 1 and then 2 and then 3, doesn’t make them sequential. Sequential plot points are like gears that turn to a different setting every act, sequence, or scene. The focus of each act, for example, is different than the last one, while the Requirements remain the same, even if they have to be accomplished in a certain order.
Yeah, this stuff can get pretty complex. That’s why you have me, your friendly neighborhood teach of story structure and storytelling to guide you through these tricky little story structure quagmires.
Consequences, are sort of like an Anti-Goal. Consequences are what will happen if the goal is not accomplished. It’s kind of like the flip-side of the coin. One the one side is the positive desired future and on the other side is the negative undesired alternative if that future isn’t achieved.
Consequences are really important because they double the dramatic tension of the story. The character are just chasing something positive, they are also being chased by something negative. Will they catch the Goal before the Consequences catch them? That’s where plot tension comes from. Right there.
Forewarnings… Just as Requirements are how you can chart the progress toward the Goal, Forewarnings are how you can chart how close the Consequences are to happening. Consequences can be cracks in a dam, follow by a small drip, a few little leaks, and so on. Everyone knows that at some point, the dam is going to bust – unless the characters achieve the Goal first, such as diverting the upstream flow, or opening the jammed overflow gates.
Forewarings can also be emotional too. A man must make his fortune to satisfy a woman’s father before he can get permission to marry her. But, there is another suitor. While he’s off looking for a legendary treasure, the woman has a casual conversation with the rival. As the man remains away, the woman and the rival share a meal, have a picnic, sit close together on the beach, watching the sunset. We all know that if the man doesn’t return with the treasure soon, the woman will go with the suitor who is there, rather than the man who isn’t.
So those are four examples of static plot points. There are many more. You’d be surprised! Some of them are extremely handy in making a plot click like clockwork. Alas, those are beyond the scope of this particular article. But don’t worry, I’ll be covering those in the not too distant future. Was that a flash forward?
All right. Now what about the Sequential Plot Points? A storya unfolds over time – not just in the telling, but the whole point of a story is to follow a journey and learn if the characters involved make the right decisions or not to get what they are after, both materially and emotionally. And we, the readers or audience, gain from that experience so we are better prepared if we ever face that kind of human issue in our own lives.
Now of course nobody thinks about that while following a story, but that’s how it works at the structural level. That’s part of the craft of authorship: to structure a story to affect readers or audience in a certain way intentionally to move them to feel or respond in a desired fashion when all is said and done.
To this end, think of a story as a symphony. You may know that symphonies are made of of movements – large sections of time in which certain themes are explored. And then the symphony shifts into another movement in which a different theme is explored. By the end of the symphony, all the variations of the theme that the composer wanted the audience to experience have been related, leading to a final climax and conclusion. How very like a story.
In stories, the largest of these movements are the acts. You can feel them when watching a movie or reading a book. There comes a point where something major is completed and the characters move on to a different kind of effort or understanding. Or, some major event occurs that sends everything off in a different direction. You get a sense of completion when you reach an act break, and also the sense that the next stage or phase of the story’s journey is about to begin.
Within acts are smaller movements called Sequences. Sequences usually follow an arc that spans several scenes. It may be a character arc or a kind of effort or process that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story as a whole. For example, we’ve all heard of the “chase sequence” that often occurs in action movies. That’s how they come across, basically.
Scenes are smaller units and are more defined. They are like little dramatic circuits that have a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (Power). Each scene is a little machine – a miniature story within an act. Each scene starts with some dramatic potential, runs into a resistance, presses forward, and ends with a resolution to that original potential.
One of the most elegant things about scenes is that the way a scene ends set up the dramatic potential that will start another scene later. Elegant, but hard to get your head around. Again, not to worry, I’ll be covering that aspect of plot in another article soon.
Point being, that each scene is a tooth on the cog of an act. And together all these act cogs work together as part of the plot machinery of your story.
And finally, just as I covered four of the most basic static plot points, here is the fourth and final sequential plot point I’ll give you for now: Beats.
Beats are the turning of the gears within each scene. They are the steps within the scene that introduce the potential, bring into play the resistance, pit those against each other, and spit out the outcome.
What those beats are and how to use them is, again, the subject of another article. But the point here is that the sequential progression of a plot isn’t just one event after another; it is more like wheels within wheels.
And so, I believe we have accomplish our goal of the moment, which is that you are now probably quite away that the order of events in a finished story is not at all the plot. The plot is the order in which events happen to the characters.
And plot has two kinds: static, and sequential. The static point points include such things as Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings, and never change their nature over the course of the story. The sequential plot points are like gears that move the machinery of the plot forward, act by act, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat.
And that, my fellow writers, is how a story rolls.
Main characters don’t have to change to grow. They can grow in their resolve.
It is a common misconception among authors that the main character in a story must change in order to grow. Certainly, that is one kind of story, as in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge alters his way of looking at the world and his role in it. But other stories are about characters overcoming pressures put upon them to change their view point and holding on to their beliefs, such as in Field of Dreams where main character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball stadium in his corn field believing the old time players (and eventually even his father) will come to play. In the end, he is not dissuaded from what appears to be an quixotic plan of a misguided mind, and his steadfastness results in the achievement of his dreams.
It is essential in any novel or movie for the readers/audience to understand whether or not the main character ultimately changes to adopt a new point of view or holds on to his beliefs. Only then can the story provide a message that a particular point of view is (in the author’s opinion) the right or wrong way of thinking to achieve success and personal fulfillment.
But not all stories have happy endings. Sometimes, the main character changes when he should have stuck with his guns in regard to his beliefs and becomes corrupted or diminished or fails to achieve his goals A good example of this is in the movie The Mist (based on a Stephen King novel) in which the main character finally decides to give up on trying to find safety from monsters and shoots his son and surrogate family to save them from a horrible death only to have rescuers show up a moment later.
Other times, holding onto a belief system leads to tragic endings as well, as in Moby Dick in which the main character, Captain Ahab (Ishmael is the narrator), holds onto his quest for revenge until it leads to the death of himself and the destruction of his ship and the death of all his crew, save Ismael who lived to tell the tale.
Though writing is an organic endeavor, when you make specific decisions such as whether your main character will change or remain steadfast and what outcome that will bring about, you strengthen your message and provide a clear purpose to your storytelling that results in a strong spine in your novel or screenplay.
Whether your main character changes or remains steadfast is one of the questions we ask about your story in our Dramatica story structure software. You can try it risk-free for 90 days and return it for a full refund if it isn’t a good fit for your writing style.
Here are some general guidelines to help you structure your story’s plot, step by step.
Act One Beginning
The beginning of act one is the teaser. It may or may not have anything to do with the actual plot of the story. This is where you get the feel of the story and the feel of the main character. A good example is in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the very beginning Indiana Jones replaces a statue with a bag of sand and then gets chased through a lot of booby traps. This actually has nothing to do with the story to come, but it sets the tone and grips the audience.
Act One Middle
The middle of act one is the set up of the situation and goal. Even though you should reveal the goal in this section, you don’t need to have the protagonist accept the goal.
If your goal requires a lot of preparation before starting on the quest, then you might want to have the acceptance of the goal by the end of this section and the preparation in the next section.
In contrast, if your protagonist needs to think or do something before accepting the goal and/or there is no preparation needed for the goal, then the acceptance of the goal can happen in the end section of the first act instead.
Act One Ending
By the end of this section everything should be ready to embark on the quest. All preparation, all acceptance is completed. Just as when you are going on vacation you turn off all the lights, pet the dogs, lock the doors, put the suitcases in the car, get in the car, put on your seatbelt, start the car and drive off out of sight… all this is the first act. The second act begins with the car on the road.
Act Two Beginning
This section presents the beginning of the quest. It is the start of the actual journey. In many stories, this is an upbeat or at least hopeful time. Everything goes as planned. Keep in mind that throughout act two the difficulties in achieving the goal are constantly increasing. This is the section before that starts to happen; when it seems as if the journey will be a piece of cake.
Act Two Middle
This is possibly the most important section you will write. It is the midpoint, the exact middle of your story.
Act two has in it, either in the this second or the end section, a special problem, often called a “plot twist.” The stakes are raised in an unexpected form, and in so-doing the whole picture is changed.
In an action story it will change what the characters think they need to do and make the goal more difficult to achieve. In a character piece, this problem makes it more difficult to resolve their personal problems; it complicates them.
Now you have a choice to make. If your plot twist will require reorganization or recovery by the characters, then it should be in this section. But if the plot twist simply sends things in a new direction, then it should be at the end of the next section.
Act Two Ending
Now you have either put the ground shaking problem in the previous middle section, or you are planning to put it in this one. Remember that if your problem requires reorganization of material or the scheme, then the problem should have been in the last section leaving this section for reorganization and/or recovery. If you want to put the problem in this section, make sure the problem does not require reorganization.
So you can have act two go out with a bang if you drop your plot twist right at the end of this section. Or, if the the bang was in the middle section you can have this section (and act two) go out with a whimper.
Now don’t let the name fool you, a whimper can be very effective. As an example, suppose in the middle of Act Two a natural disaster occurs as the Plot Twist bang. All the food the group has with them is scattered to the winds. After this disaster, all the food that can be found must be found.
The end section of act two in this story would involve finding the food, patching bags, rounding up lost horses, fixing what’s broken and so on, recovering. At the very last, everything is ready to go, and the man who is carrying the food sees a last grain of rice on a rock, picks it up, drops it in a bag, gets on his horse and leaves.
That moment with the single grain of rice is the whimper. It ends the act with a subtle sense of closure and the anticipation that Act Three will begin with a new sense of purpose for the characters.
Act Three Beginning
Act three is the buildup to and, of course, the climax itself. All the plot points in the story have been set up in the first act, developed in the second, and the third act is where everything comes together for better or for worse.
The beginning of the third act is a response to the plot twist of the second act. If you put the twist in the middle of the second act, then the characters spent the remaining part of act two recovering from that set back and getting ready to start again. In such a case, the beginning of act three feels like the beginning of the quest all over again – with renewed resolve.
If you put the twist at the end of the second act, then it dropped like a bombshell and changed the whole purpose of what the characters are trying to achieve. In this case, act three begins with the characters setting off in a whole new direction than at the beginning of the quest.
Either way, the reader/audience should be made to know that this is the start of the final push toward the ultimate climax or reckoning.
Act Three Middle
Throughout the story, although the Protagonist and Antagonist may have come into conflict, there have always been extenuating circumstances that prevented an ultimate conflict. In the middle of act three, these circumstances are dismantled, one by one, until nothing more stands between these two principal characters.
At the end of this section it is clear that a final face-off is inevitable.
Act Three Ending
This is climax of your story. It is where the antagonist and protagonist meet for the final conflict. Your entire story has been leading up to this moment, with rising tension and suspense. All the stops are removed and the momentum cannot be turned aside.
When the Protagonist and Antagonist meet, they start with the small stuff, sizing each other up. This is true whether it is an action-oriented story or a character study. The dynamics are the same – only the weapons they use are different.
In action stories there will be physical weapons. In character stories, the weapons will be emotional. In stories about a single character grappling with personal problems, his or her demons come to bear, slowly but directly, building to the final breaking point.
In all kinds of stories, this section builds as the two camps (and their followers) pull stronger and stronger weapons out of their arsenal, since the smaller ones have proven ineffective.
The battle quickly becomes more heated, more imperative, and riskier. Eventually both the antagonist and protagonist have employing all the weapons they have at their disposal except one. They each retain a trump card, one last weapon that they have not yet used for fear that it might backfire or take them down along with their opponent. With the use of this last weapon the battle will be decided, one way or another.
The final moments of the ending of act three might take one of two directions:
1. The weapon (physical or emotion) is employed and the results are seen as the smoke clears.
2. The weapon is employed and the result is left in limbo until the conclusion (epilog, dénouement or “wrap-up”)
The Denouement is defined as the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.
The denouement is the aftermath and epilogue. The climax is over and it’s time to take stock of all that has happened. This is both a cool down period for the reader/audience after the excitement of the climax and a tidying up of loose ends.
How did it all turn out? What was gained and what was lost? Was the effort to achieve the goal successful or not? Or, what the Goal only partially achieved, and was it enough to satisfy the characters?
In addition, you may want to show where things are likely to proceed from here, now that everything is said and done. You may even want to jump to the future to let your readers/audience in on what will become of your characters in later life.
In a sense, the conclusion is a new “set-up.” Just as the opening of your story set-up the way things are when the problem begins, the conclusion sets up how things are, now that it is over. What kind of new situation has come into being through the changes wrought by the climax?
Now your plot (and your story as a whole) have come to an end. And while every plot has it own unique twists and turns, these common touch points can help guide you along the way.
Dramatica is a theory of story that offers both writers and critics a clear view of what story structure is and how it works. Dramatica is also the inspiration behind the line of story development software products that bear its name.
The central concept of the Dramatica theory is a notion called the “Story Mind.” In a nutshell, this simply means that every story has a mind of its own – its own personality; its own psychology. A story’s personality is developed by an author’s style and subject matter; its psychology is determined by the underlying dramatic structure.
The Story Mind
The Story Mind is at the heart of Dramatica, and everything else about the theory grows out of that. If you don’t buy into it, at least a little, then you’re not going to find much use for the rest of this book. So let’s take look into the Story Mind right off the bat to see if it is worth your while to keep reading…
Simply put, the Story Mind means that we can think of a story as if it were a person. The storytelling style and the subject matter determine the story’s personality, and the underlying dramatic structure determines its psychology.
Now the personality of a story is a touchy-feely thing, while the psychology is a nuts-and-bolts mechanical thing. Let’s consider the personality part first, and then turn our attention to the psychology.
Like anyone you meet, a story has a personality. And what makes up a personality? Well, everything from the subject matter a person talks about to their attitude toward life. Similarly, a story might be about the Old West or Outer Space, and its attitude could be somber, sneaky, lively, hilarious, or any combination of other human qualities.
Is this a useful perspective? Can be. Many writers get so wrapped up in the details of a story that they lose track of the overview. For example, you might spend all kinds of time working out the specifics of each character’s personality yet have your story take a direction that is completely out of character for its personality. But if you step back every once and a while and think of the story as a single person, you can really get a sense of whether or not it is acting in character.
Imagine that you have invited your story to dinner. You have a pleasant conversation with it over the meal. Of course, it is more like a monologue because your story does all the talking – just as it will to your audience or reader.
Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavor (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties.
You want to ask yourself if it’s story makes sense. If not, you need to work on the logic of your story. Does it feel right, as if the Story Mind is telling you everything, or does it seem like it is holding something back? If so, your story has holes that need filling. And does your story hold your interest for two hours or more while it delivers it’s monologue? If not, it’s going to bore it’s captive audience in the theater, or the reader of its report (your book), and you need to send it back to finishing school for another draft.
Again, authors get so wrapped up in the details that they lose the big picture. But by thinking of your story as a person, you can get a sense of the overall attraction, believability, and humanity of your story before you foist it off on an unsuspecting public.
There’s much more we’ll have to say about the personality of the Story Mind and how to leverage it to your advantage. But, our purpose right now is just to see if Dramatica might be of use to you. So, let’s examine the other side of the Story Mind concept – the story’s psychology as represented in its structure.
The Dramatica theory is primarily concerned with the structure of a story. Everything in that structure represents an aspect of the human mind, almost as if the processes of the mind had been made tangible and projected out externally for the audience to observe.
Do you remember the model kit of the “Visible Man?” It was a 12″ human figure made out of clear plastic so you could see the skeleton and all the organs on the inside. Well that is how the Story Mind works. it takes the processes of the human mind, and turns them into characters, plot, theme, and genre, so we can study them in detail. In this way, an author can provide understanding to an audience of the best way to deal with problems. And, of course, all of this is wrapped up and disguised in the particular subject matter, style, and techniques of the storyteller.
Now this makes it sound as if the real meat of a story, the real people, places, events, and topics, are just window dressing to distract the audience from the serious business of the structure. But that’s not what we’re saying here. In fact, structure and storytelling work side by side, hand in hand, to create an audience/reader experience that transcends the power of either by itself.
Therefore, structure and storytelling are neither completely dependent upon each other, nor are they wholly independent. One structure might be told in a myriad of ways, like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, any given group of characters dealing with a particular realm of subject matter might be wrapped around any number of different structures, like weekly television series.
But let’s get back to the nature of the structure itself and to the elements that make up the Story Mind. If characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible, what are they?
Characters represent the conflicting drives of our own minds. For example, in our own minds, our reason and our emotions are often at war with one another. Sometimes what makes the most sense doesn’t feel right at all. And conversely, what feels so right might not make any sense at all. Then again, there are times when both agree and what makes the most sense also feels right on.
Reason and Emotion then, become two archetypal characters in the Story Mind that illustrate that inner conflict that rages within ourselves. And in the structure of stories, just as in our minds, sometimes these two basic attributes conflict, and other times they concur.
Theme, on the other hand, illustrates our troubled value standards. We are all plagued with uncertainties regarding the right attitude to take, the best qualities to emulate, and whether our principles should remain fixed and constant or should bend in context to particular circumstances.
Plot compares the relative value of the methods we might employ within our minds in our attempt to press on through these conflicting points of view on the way toward a mental consensus.
And genre explores the overall attitude of the Story Mind – the points of view we take as we watch the parade of our own thoughts unfold, and the psychological foundation upon which our personality is built.
Before you write your first chapter, ponder your opening sentence, or jot down a single word, there’s one step you should always do first, no matter your genre or style.
First, the problem, then the solution:
When you first come up with a concept for a story your head begins to fill with ideas for it – the genre, setting, year or historic era, a concept for a main character or an intriguing subordinate one, a few twists for the plot, a few examples that illustrate your theme and/or support your message, and many, many more.
Before long, you have hundreds of notions running around in your head bumping into each other. You don’t want to forget any so you either keep revisiting them over and over again or you jot them down on napkins, sticky notes, or even index cards.
At the same time, you are trying to figure out how to make all these mosaic pieces fit together into the single image of your story, and that just adds to the chaos going on in your creative mind.
You might as well admit it – it’s a mess in there. And the problem is that there is so much going on you don’t have room to stand back and see the big picture much less space to come up with new ideas either. This leads to gridlock, anxiety, and frustration, all of which are the breeding ground for writer’s block.
That’s no way to start the story development process. It might even stall you out before you really get started.
So here’s the solution:
The moment you decide you have enough ideas that you’d like to develop them into a story, sit yourself down and do a “core dump” of everything you already have rattling around in your head.
Just start jotting it all down with no rhyme or reason – every character trait, storytelling trick, plot twist, genre element, dialog or style notion that you are juggling in your mind.
This isn’t the time to try an organize it or make sense of it or try to make it all work in concert. This is just the time to clear you mind by getting all the ideas into one place, safe and saved in a document.
There’s no limit to how long or short your list of ideas needs to be. You write them down until you run out of them. And there’s no rule about how to format them – it can’ be in a list, a series of sentences, or even short descriptive paragraphs that really capture the flavor of what you have in mind.
The magic happens when you are finally done and the myriad of creative notions you’ve been entertaining are all in front of you in one place. Then, you can finally clear your mind, stand back, and see the big picture.
Just in looking them over you might see connections among the concept that never came to mind before because you’d never been able to directly bring two ideas together in the ongoing stream.
And you also will be able to see where you have lots of development and where it is thin or even missing. For example, you may find you have a really well delineated plot but only a couple of characters and no message.
It will be different every time you do this for every story you write. But once your mind is clear and you can get that overview and also start playing one idea against others, you’ll find that from that point forward your story development takes off like a rocket.
Here is a writing prompt picture I posted recently and the amazingly creative response by writer Bill Williams
Bill Williams –
This is actually pretty easy to explain.
The cats in the front are feline overlords. They were testing a new human control virus on the people in the so-called “party” (Humans got a fake invitation to a pseudo-party where the drinks were spiked with FeCV (Feline Control Virus)).
Anyway, the cats in the front of the photo are contorting themselves to see if they can get the humans to do the same thing; the humans, forced to attempt to comply, are trying their best even though it’s causing some of them great pain (clearly). The female in the back of the photo with her hand on her head has just come in and hasn’t had a drink yet. She is clearly astonished at what she sees. Of course the infected humans not dancing are controlled to pretend nothing unusual is happening …
*sips coffee, brushes intruding pet cat off the chair*
I saw this once before. I believe it was 1962, San Diego CA. There were no … HUMAN survivors. (No cats were found either, but we all know just how crafty the little bastards are.)
So far their experiments have not been successful – in fact I thought they had given up on it. The photo you have presented is clear evidence they haven’t stopped trying.
My coffee tastes funny … I wonder if – DAMN CAT! OK, that’s it, I’m going national with th-
I have been instructed to tell you it is a photoshopped collage of people and animals. Nothing usual in the slightest ever happened. Please disregard what were clearly insane ramblings.
Yes, Sammie, I’ll get your cat food right now, baby. On my way!!!
One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.
Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:
I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.
You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.
The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them. I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.
Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.
I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.
You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.
So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.
But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.
In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.
This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.
That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.
One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.
Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.
So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”
Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.
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