How to Beat Writer’s Block

Ever find yourself in a creative log jam? Try the following technique excerpted from the StoryWeaver story development software to help regain your inspiration:

1. Inspiration

Inspiration can come from many sources: a conversation overheard at a coffee shop, a newspaper article, or a personal experience to name a few. And, inspiration can also take many forms: a snippet of dialogue, a bit of action, a clever concept, and so on. One thing most inspiration has in common is that it is not a story, just the beginnings of a story. To develop a complete story, you’ll need a cast of characters, a detailed plot, a thematic argument, and the trappings of genre.

But how do you come up with the extra pieces you need?

In the questions that follow StoryWeaver will help inspire you, even if you can’t come up with an idea to save your life! If you don’t yet know what your story is going to be about, StoryWeaver will help you find out. And if you do have something already worked out, these questions will help you fill in the details.

2. What do you have to start with?

If you already have an idea of what your story is about, describe it briefly in your word processor. Don’t go into great detail at this time, just the key concepts, people, and events. If you don’t yet have a story idea, advance to the next question and StoryWeaver will help you come up with one.

3. Nonsense!

If you are stuck for ideas, it’s probably because you are trying to force yourself to be creative – a situation often referred to as “Writer’s Block.” Fortunately, there is a trick you can use to break through Writer’s Block and get your creativity flowing again! First, write down three nonsense words. Don’t stop to think it over, just jot down the first words that come to mind, as in a word-association test.

4. Meaning

Now, imagine that all of your nonsense words are part of the same phrase. How many different stories can you think of that incorporate that phrase? Briefly describe each story idea.

Background:

We all try to find meaning in what we see. That is why we identify pictures in inkblots, see faces in wood grain, and animal shapes in clouds. So even when no meaning is intended, our minds can’t help but impose it. By picking words at random, stringing them together and then looking for meaning, we move our minds out of creative block and into analysis mode. In other words, we temporarily shift from creation to interpretation. In so doing, our subconscious automatically creates alternative meanings that fit what we see. Use the Reference button to look at the meanings you just described and what you originally said your story was about (if you answered that question).

5. Combining Meanings

Now, try to incorporate into a single story idea as much as you find interesting from all the different story ideas and your original idea combined.

Background:

Of course, some of the meanings you came up with may be completely ridiculous and not useful at all. And, there may be no way to work them all in, yet several ways to include some of your inspirations. If you have several ways to combine these various ideas, list them all. But if you can’t think of any way to bring these ideas together, don’t worry!

The purpose of this exercise is break free of Writer’s Block, and the very process of shifting out of forced creative mode and into analysis mode usually does the trick. So, even if none of the nonsense interpretations are usable in and of themselves, when you return to your original ideas, you’ll probably find whole new inspirations easily come to mind. Whenever you find yourself stuck, return to this method and (more times than not) the ideas will flow again.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Story Structure with the Muse in Mind

Story Structure can be a straight-jacket for your Muse. On the one hand, structure is necessary for a story to have a point or even just to make sense!  But on the other hand, structure tends to channel ideas down predictable paths and to rob a story of serendipity.

In my twenty-five years as a teacher of creative writing and story structure, I’ve developed a number of techniques to help you find your perfect balance between the rigors of structure and the free-wheeling flow of inspiration.

Here’s the short list:

Structure Hobbles the Muse

The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at … Continue reading

Let your Muse run wild

Let your Muse run wild The easiest way to give yourself writer’s block is to bridle your Muse by trying to come up with ideas. Your Muse is always coming up with ideas – just not the ones you want. … Continue reading

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Narrative Dynamics 4 – The Interface Conundrum

Unlike my usual articles, this piece is not intended to document an existing part of the Dramatica theory nor to reveal a part newly developed.  Rather, I will be sharing my speculations on a life-long thought problem of mine and, toward the end, provide a new way of looking at some old issues.

The subject of this line of inquiry is that “magic moment” when one binary state changes into another.  To illustrate, consider a light switch.  We can tell when it is on and when it is off.  We can recognize when it has changed state from one to the other.  But what happens at that moment between the two when it is neither on nor off, or perhaps both?

This is really a restating of the uncertainty principal or even of Zeno’s Paradox or Schrodinger’s Cat, for that matter.  It touches on the potential for faster than light travel, black holes, and synchronicity.  But for me, personally, it is at the heart of the issue that has driven me since childhood with a specific curiosity that led to the development of Dramatica and still propels me today into my ongoing work on narrative dynamics.

For me, the quest began at age four or five – sometime before kindergarten – while I was on my swing set in the backyard of our home in Burbank.  This would be, perhaps, 1957 or early 1958.

I remember the moment as if it were yesterday, for it has motivated (plagued) me since it occurred.  It was a seamlessly gray overcast, that day, and as I was swinging I wondered if I could get high enough so that my entire field of vision was filled by nothing but that flat gray sky – no trees, no birds, not the neighbor’s houses nor the edges of my swing or its suspending chains.

So, I set about rocking myself higher and higher to the point I became fearful the whole contraption would collapse upon me, assuming I didn’t just fly off into space from the force.

Nonetheless, I persevered, and finally (fortunately) I rose high enough at the apex of the arc and for just one glorious instant I achieved my seamless gray experience.  As the swing set was by that time wobbling menacingly, I quickly brought myself back to rest.

And I sat there for a bit when a question arose in my young mind: If nothing existed at all, would it look black because there was no light or gray because there also no dark?  This is, of course, just another version of “if a tree falls in the forest,” but I had never heard that one, so this was news to me.

I pondered the question for a long time (for a child with a short attention span), thinking about it from both sides.  And then I had the thought that has haunted me and pretty much cast the cut of my jib for the remainder of my days (so far).  This unbidden query rose into my conscious mind: “Why can’t I figure out which it would be?”

Now that’s an awful thing for the universe to do to such an innocent kid –  a carefree (until then) child who might have just breezed through live with a 9 to 5 and weekends to play.  But once that thought was there, it would not leave.

I kept thinking about it, for days on end.  My first assessments were along the lines of, “Well it must be either black or gray.  Okay.  But why can’t I figure it out?”  You see it wasn’t the paradox itself that bothered me but the very concept of paradox – that my mind was not capable of discerning the answer, for I was sure there must be one.

In later years, I began to speculate whether God knew the answer to whether it would be black or gray.  Surely he must; He’s God, after all!  But if he does, then why did He make me in a limited sort of way, unable to see the truth of it.  And if that is the state of affairs, then how can I be sure of anything, for I’m not graced with the whole picture!  What good is it, then, to try and know anything, to try and find any meaning at all, for it is all based on a partial access to the capacity to understand the universe and therefore any conclusions are inherently suspect and likely to be overturned if we are given full access to reality when we die and go to heaven.  (Which was where my young mind took me at the time.)

Seeing the truth after death was my only hope, because if that was not the case, then I was by nature locked in a limited mind incapable of truly understanding the universe in which it existed.  Obviously, I paraphrase, but those exact lines of reasoning were coursing through my brain to me continual dissatisfaction.

So, being rather enamored of my own cognitive abilities at the time (a trait I’ve seen no reason to alter over the years), rather than imagining myself as a hero with super powers, I imagined myself as a hero with mental powers – the one individual in the history of the planet with the capacity to answer that blasted question: “Why is it that our minds are not capable of resolving paradoxical questions?”  Which later evolved into “What is the difference between observation and perception,” “How do logic and emotion affect one another,” “What is that magic moment between one binary state and another,” and, currently, “What are the physics of the interface between structure and dynamics?”

And so, you see, the same insidious line of inquiry vexes me yet today in my attempts to develop the dynamic side of the Dramatica theory and to describe how the two sides impact one another and work together – an analog of our reason and emotion, and the holy grail (as I see it) of both universe and mind and, quite naturally by extension, of the relationship between universe and mind.

Sorry.  I hadn’t intended to go into such a detailed back story, but my decades long frustration with this pesky query oft gets the better of me.

Having set the stage, let’s get down to the heart of the matter.  What can we know about this limit line or interface between structure and dynamics beyond which neither can venture yet which also connects them both so that they influence one other across that great divide?

peaks and troughs

Let’s visualize the interface.  Imagine one of those 3D computer images that shows a flat plane with peaks and troughs on it, like mountains and gravity wells – essentially round-topped cones like stalagmites and stalactites, above and below the plane.

Structure takes a horizontal cross section of the cones, as if a pane of glass were placed above or below the plane.

This cross section results in a flat image with a number of circles on it.  Each circle is seen as a separate object and its edges define its extent.  Taken together, the circles form a pattern, and it is that arrangement by which structure seeks understanding.

Dynamics takes a vertical cross section of the cones as if a pane of glass were placed perpendicular to the plane.

This cross section results in a flat image with linear wave forms on it.  Each curve is seen as a separate force with its line defining its frequency.  Taken together, the wave forms create harmonics, and it is that arrangement by which dynamics seeks understanding.

So on the structural side we have patterns made of particles and on the dynamic side we have patterns made of waves. Particle or wave, digital or analog, on or off, gray or black.  Between the two sides of any paradox is an interface that generates both and created by both.  Yet neither side can see the whole of it.

Just as if you look at a scene with one eye and then the other, you now have all the information you need to create 3D, but neither eye can see it alone.  In fact, only if both eyes are looking at the same moment at the same thing (space and time in synchronicity) can the  whole of the thing be appreciated.  But even then, it is only an approximation of the true three dimensional nature of what is being viewed, made up of a left and right slice merged together.

And herein lies the essence of the paradox of mind that has hung over my head for all of these years: structure gives us one partial view of a larger Truth and dynamics give us another.  Neither view is wrong; each is incomplete.

So what are we to do?  Or, more personally, how am I ever going to resolve this durn conundrum?  The answer is to create a model of the interface itself, incorporating both structure and dynamics not as a synthesis between alternative views but as full-bodied model of the true critter, inclusive but not limited to structure and dynamics.

Fine.  So how do we do that?

Well, you’ll just have to wait for “Narrative Dynamics – the Interface Solution,” coming soon….

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

Learn more about Narrative Science

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Quick Tip: The Big Picture

Although it is important to work on the particulars of your story you can lose track of the big picture in doing so exclusively.

Step back from time to time to take in your story as a whole.  See it as the readers or audience will and appreciate it not just for how it works but for how it feels and what it means.

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A Poem Based on Dramatica

Some time ago, I decided to write a poem based on sound Dramatica Theory of Narrative concepts.  Specifically, I wanted to cover all four throughlines (I, You, We, and They) and have each follow a quad (family of four) of plot points as an illustration of signpost/journey four act/three act structure seen from all four points of view.

Here’s the result:

“Lulladie”

by Melanie Anne Phillips

My emotions are dead
and lack any resistance
to the onslaught of logic’s
relentless persistence.

I’m malleable, moveable,
flexible, still.
I succumb with aplomb,
as I alter my will

to conform to the pressures
that weigh on my soul
without motive, or method,
opinion, or goal.

They reach for the stars,
as they stand on our hearts,
and they sell us off piecemeal,
parcels and parts.

They slice us to mincemeat
and padlock the door,
while our blood runs quite freely
through holes in the floor.

But nothing is wasted,
tho’ everything’s lost.
So our blood is recycled
to offset the cost.

We huddle in darkness
yet shy from the fire
to howl at the moon
with the rest of the choir.

And when the glow wanes,
we stoke it with dreams
in hopes that the crackle
will drown out our screams.

You sleep in your bed
and you doze in your chair.
Your cushions are comfy
and so is your air.

But your heartache grows heavy,
as well as your head,
‘til you nod away, nod away,
nod away, dead.

Copyright Melanie Anne Phillips

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Protagonist and Antagonist – Who Are They?

Protagonist tries to achieve the goal.

Antagonist tries to stop him.

That’s the simple answer, and it is true enough.  But there is a lot more to know about these two essential characters, and the more you learn, the more powerful and effective your Protagonists and Antagonists will be.

To begin with, a Protagonist is not a Hero.  A Hero is a compound character who, in addition to being a Protagonist is ALSO the Main Character (the one we identify with).

When these two elements are combined, you get a typical Hero.  But these elements don’t have to be in the same single character.  The Protagonist might be one character who is driving the quest forward, but the reader/audience identifies with a different character (sees the story through their eyes).

In fact, that is exactly how it is done in To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, is an open-minded lawyer in a racially biased Southern town in the 1930s, trying to get a fair trial for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl.  But we don’t see the story through his eyes, but through those of his young daughter, Scout.  Scout is the Main Character and Atticus is the Protagonist.

In a similar manner, an Antagonist is not a Villain.  A Villain is another compound character who is both an Antagonist and ALSO the Influence Character.   (The Influence Character is the one who’s point of activities and attitudes bring the Main Character to the point of considering changing or violating his own beliefs, morals, or standards.

When these two elements are combined, you get a typical Villain.  But, as with the Hero, they don’t have to be in the character.  So, the Antagonist might be pushing to stop the Protagonist, but another character is the one pressuring the Main Character to abandon his or her beliefs.

Again, we can see this at work in To Kill A Mockingbird.  Bob Ewell is the father of the white girl who the black man is accused of raping.  He wants to have the man lynched, so clearly he is out to stop Atticus, the Protagonist, and that makes Ewell the Antagonist.

But, it isn’t Mr. Ewell who puts any pressure on Scout (the Main Character) to change her beliefs.  That role goes to Boo Radley, the mysterious boogeyman who lives down the street.  Since Scout is the Main Character we see prejudice through her eyes – through the eyes of a child.  And because we identify with her, we are as fearful as she is of Boo.  All the kids are sure he is a monster that does terrible things to children, and Scout believes it to.

But in the end, it turns out Boo has been protecting Scout and the other children all along from Bob Ewell who wanted to harm them to get back at Atticus.  And Boo even left little toys for the kids to find.  Scout must now realize she herself was prejudice against Boo without ever having any direct information about him.  And it was Boo’s actions and attitudes that eventually caused her to change her beliefs.

 

So in summary, the Protagonist is the Prime Mover of the effort to achieve the Story’s Goal – that and nothing more. The Antagonist is the Chief Obstacle to that effort and that’s all he is, functionally.  In a sense, Protagonist is the irresistible force and Antagonist is the immovable object.

Because they have specific dramatic functions not based on personality or perspective, the Protagonist and Antagonist are archetypal characters, simple as that.

Having refined our definition of what a Protagonist and Antagonist truly are, we’re going to put aside compound characters and focus solely on the archetypal functions.

To begin our exploration we might ask, “Where do the Protagonist and Antagonist come from?”  Simple answer is they come from us – from the roles we play when we form a group or team for a common purpose.

When we gather in groups to solve common problems, we get a lot more done if we specialize so that one person becomes the voice of reason and another the resident skeptic.  This way, each of the specialists can give his or her full attention to the problem from his perspective, and as a whole, the group gets a deeper dive into the issues that if we all tried to do all the jobs ourselves.

So, in a sense, the functions that emerge in a group, represent the same traits we have in our own minds as individuals.  For example, in our own minds, we have reason and skepticism, and as a group organizes, one member will emerge as the voice of reason, and another as the resident skeptic.

And, of course, every group has a Protagonist who wants to set and achieve a goal, and an Antagonist wants to stop him.  So, in a word, the Protagonist represents elements of ourselves.  Protagonist is our Initiative, the motivation to change the status quo. The Antagonist embodies our Reticence to change the status quo. These are perhaps our two most obvious human traits – the drive to alter our environment and the drive to keep things the way they are. That is likely why the Archetypes that represent them are usually the two most visible in a story.

Functionally, the character you choose as your Protagonist will exhibit unswerving drive. No matter what the obstacles, no matter what the price, the Protagonist will charge forward and try to convince everyone else to follow.

Without a Protagonist, your story would have no directed drive. It would likely meander through a series of events without any sense of compelling inevitability. When the climax arrives, it would likely be weak, not seen as the culmination and moment of truth so much as simply the end.

This is not to say that the Protagonist won’t be misled or even temporarily convinced to stop trying, but like a smoldering fire the Protagonist is a self-starter. Eventually, he or she will ignite again and once more resume the drive toward the goal.

What, now, of the Antagonist? We have all heard the idioms, Let sleeping dogs lie, Leave well enough alone, and If it works – don’t fix it. All of these express that very same human quality embodied by the Antagonist: Reticence.

To be clear, Reticence does not mean that the Antagonist is afraid of change. While that may be true, it may instead be that the Antagonist is simply comfortable with the way things are or may even be ecstatic about them. Or, he or she may not care about the way things are but hate the way they would become if the goal were achieved.

Functionally, your Antagonist will try anything and everything to prevent the goal from being achieved. No matter what the cost, any price would not seem as bad to this character as the conditions he or she would endure if the goal comes to be. The Antagonist will never cease in its efforts, and will marshal every resource (human and material) to see that the Protagonist fails in his efforts.

Without an Antagonist, your story would have no concerted force directed against the Protagonist. Obstacles would seem arbitrary and inconsequential. When the climax arrives, it would likely seem insignificant, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

As with the Protagonist, don’t be trapped into building an Antagonist with a mean personality. There are many stories with Antagonist’s who are actually right in trying to stop the goal.

Think of James Bond for a moment.  The “Bond Villain” is almost always the Protagonist – starting some new scheme with a goal to change the world.  Bond himself is the Antagonist, as strange as it may seem, for his job is to prevent the change and/or put things back the way they were.  So, as described earlier, it may well be that the Protagonist is the Bad Guy and the Antagonist is the Good Guy. Or, in fact both may be Good or both Bad, as often happens in more sophisticated stories.

The important thing is that the Antagonist must be in a position in the plot to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist, not just to make the quest more difficult (another archetype does that), but to actually try to prevent the Protagonist from succeeding.

Now that you know a bit more about who the Protagonist and Antagonist really are, see if you can’t refine their dramatic functions in your next story or even the one you may currently have in development

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Archetypal Characters

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About StoryWeaver Software…

A writer recently asked:

Just purchased the software. But am clueless how to use it and how to derive the maximum benefit out of it. Kindly mail me the links/articles which will help me understand the program and its concept better.

My reply:

The concept is simple. It is nothing more than a list of about 200 questions you answer in order. By the time you get through all 200 questions, you’ll have completely developed your story.

Here’s how it works. You go to the list of folders on the left hand side of the StoryWeaver window. You open the top folder by clicking on it. You click on the first item in the folder and follow the instructions. You then go to the second item down in the folder and follow the instructions. When you finish with the items in that folder, you open the next folder down and do the same. Just work from top to bottom of the question list and you’ll go through them all in the proper order.

What it does. As you answer questions, StoryWeaver from time to time will automatically show you your answers to previous questions as reference to help you answer the current question. in addition, every few questions StoryWeaver will present you with all the material you’ve most recently developed and ask you to blend it all into a synopsis of your story so far. As you go, you will keep blending new material into that ever growing synopsis, which eventually becomes your fully developed story.

Also, near the end, you will determine how you want to reveal your story to your readers/audience and it will help you outline all your chapters or acts and scenes.

In the end (or at any time) you can print out all your work or export it to a file you can open in your word processor for further polish.

That’s all there is to it.

Here’s a link to some articles about StoryWeaver:

http://dramaticapedia.com/category/storyweaver-software/

Here’s a link to some videos about StoryWeaver:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6C93E466CCA3BBE1

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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