Clear Your Mind Before Writing

When beginning a new novel, writers are often faced with one of two initial problems that hinders them right from the get go.  One – sometimes you have a story concept but can’t think of what to do with it.  In other words, you know what you want to write about, but the characters and plot elude you.  Two – sometimes your head is swimming with so many ideas that you haven’t got a clue how to pull them all together into a single unified story.

Fortunately, the solution to both is the same.  In each case, you need to clear your mind of what you do know about your story to make room for what you’d like to know.

If your problem is a story concept but no content, writing it down will help focus your thinking.  In fact, once your idea for a novel is out of your head and on paper or screen, you begin to see it objectively, not just subjectively.

Often just having an external look at your idea will spur other ideas that were not apparent when you were simply mulling it over.  And at the very least, it will clarify what it is you desire to create.

If, on the other hand, your problem is that all the little thoughts, notions or concepts that sparked the idea there might be a book in there somewhere are swirling around in a chaotic maelstrom….  well, then writing them all down will make room in your mind to start organizing that material by topic, category, sequence, or structural element.

For those whose cognitive cup runneth over, the issue is that one is afraid to forget any of these wonderful ideas, or to lose track of any of the tenuous or gossamer connections among them.  And so, we keeping stirring them around and around in our minds, refreshing our memory of them, but leaving us running in circles chasing our creative tales.

By writing down everything your are thinking, not as a story per se, but just in the same fragmented glimpses in which they are presenting themselves to you, you’ll be able to let them go, one by one, until your mental processor has retreated from the edge of memory overload and you can begin to pull your material together into the beginnings of a true proto-story.

Whether you are plagued by issue one or two, don’t try to fashion a full-fledged story at this stage while you are jotting down your notions.  That would simply add an unnecessary burden to your efforts that would hobble your forward progress and likely leave you frustrated by the daunting process of trying to see your finished story before you’ve even developed it.

Sure, before you write you’re going to need that overview of where you are heading to guide you to “The End”.  But that comes later.  For now, in this step, just write down your central concept and/or all the transient inspirations you are juggling in your head.

This tip was excerpted from our free online book,

Write Your Novel Step By Step

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Narrative in the Real World

Why do I post all these articles and videos on Story Structure?

Well, aside from it being my career for the past quarter of a century, narrative theory has shown me that people think in narratives, but we also manufacture narratives in the real world from too little information and hold them to be true.

We search for meaning, create a narrative to connect the dots, but they we assume we have the meaning, not realizing there may be other narratives that would equally explain those few points we actually observed.

In our relationships, in our politics, in our own hearts and minds we build narratives that in time become resistant to change. Eventually, even if a better narrative comes along that explains more and puts things in a more accurate context, we reject it out of hand because our trusted narrative is held as true.

And so we are convinced our enemy means us harm, that our internal angsts cannot be resolved, that our associates are insensitive or up to no good.

But the real harm occurs when we act on these convictions and feel justified in getting back at others or, at worst, at taking first strikes against them because we “know” the ill will they hold against us.

This I have learned from my twenty-five year study of narrative, and specifically from my work with my partner in creating the Dramatica theory of narrative structure.

Dramatica theory is a model of how the mind constructs narratives and becomes mired in misconceptions. But is also an instruction manual for discovering inaccuracies in our views and in adjusting our narratives continually to account for new information and new understandings.

Dramatica holds the key to resolving differences with others, to becoming closer to our loved ones, and to finding peace within ourselves.

Up to now, I have focused my work on explaining narrative in fiction, for that is where Dramatica was first discovered and refined. In posting these articles and videos it had been my hope that the application of these insights would be perceived by my audience and applied to their own lives.

Alas, very few have made that connection and, after a quarter of a century of sharing what I’ve learned, there is no general awareness of the power of Dramatica to effect change in oneself and one’s interactions.

And so, having described the use of narrative in fiction with as much depth and breadth as is reasonably possible, I have determined this day to take the plunge and shift my focus to an exploration of narrative in the real world.

Though this new area of inquiry draws on all of my experience, it is essentially a whole new career for me as it applies this knowledge in a completely different realm.

Posting real world narrative articles and videos is not appropriate to all my many channels, pages, blogs, and web sites that deal with the construction and development of novels and screenplays. So, you won’t see this new work everywhere I distribute.

What you will see is the occasional link to evolving material as I build whole new sites and avenues of distribution.

For many years, I have felt that this is my true calling, and all my work in fiction was simply preparation for the journey to share the means to make a better life, not only for ourselves, but for all with whom we relate.

Perhaps it is grandiose and overly optimistic, but it is my belief that the more we grasp the reasoning behind our own narratives and those of others as well, the less judgmental we will become in our conflicts, the more tolerant we will become of differing viewpoints, and greater will be our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as members of the human tribe.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

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Storyweaving is Assembling Ideas…

We all know that writing is not just about assembling words, but also about assembling ideas. When we actually sit down to write, we may have our ideas all worked out in advance or we may have no idea what we want to say – just a desire to say something.

Some of us must labor on projects that we hate, but which have been assigned to us. Others may simply be in love with the notion of being a writer, but haven’t a thing to say. Regardless of why we are writing, we all share the desire to create an expression that has meaning to our audience.

And just who is that audience? It might be only ourselves. Often I have written material as a means of getting something off my chest, out of my thoughts, or perhaps just to get a grip on nebulous feelings or issues by forcing myself to put them into concrete terms.

Some of what I write this way has actually turned out to be saleable as essays on personal growth or insights into meaningful emotional experiences. But, most of what I have written for my audience of one remains with me. Perhaps it is too personal to share, or just too personal to have meaning to anyone else.

When I write for myself, it is seldom a story. More often than not, it isn’t even a tale. Rather, it is a snippet of my real experiences, or a flight of fancy, such as the words “red ground rover.” What does this mean? I have no idea. But I do know how it feels to me.

In fact, popping out a few nonsense but passionate words is a trick I often use to get a story going. I’ll write something like the above almost randomly. Then I’ll ask myself, “Is the ground red with some one or something roving over it, or the whole thing a nick name for a bird dog or a mail carrier in the outback?

Blurting out something that has no conscious intent behind it can be a useful trick in overcoming writer’s block. It seems that writer’s block most often occurs when we are intentionally trying to determine what we want to talk about. But, when we just put something forth and then try to figure out what it might mean, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves.

If you like, take a moment and try it. Just jot down a few nonsense words to create a phrase. Then, consider what they might mean. Rather than attempting to create, you are now in analysis mode, the inverse emotional state of trying to produce something out of nothing. You’ll probably be surprised at how many interpretations of your phrase readily come to mind.

Imagine, then, if you were to take one of those interpretations and build on it. In my example, let me pick the first interpretation – that “red ground rover” means someone or some thing that roves over red ground. Well, let’s see…. Mars is red, and the Martian Rover at one time examined the planet. Looks like I’m starting a science fiction story.

But what to do next? How about another nonsense phrase: “minion onion manner house.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s tie it in to the first phrase. Suppose there is some underling (minion) who is hunting for wild onions on Mars (onions being so suited to the nutrients in the soil that they grow wild in isolated patches). The underling works at the Manner House of a wealthy Martian frontier settler, but is known as Red Ground Rover because of his free-time onion prospecting activities.

Now, these phrases weren’t planned as examples for this book. To be fair, I just blurted them out as I suggest you do. Just as we see pictures in ink blots, animals in the clouds, and mythic figures in the constellations, we impose our desire for patterns even on the meaningless. And in so doing, we often find unexpected inspiration.

Even if none of our ideas are suited to what we are attempting to write, we have successfully dislodged our minds from the vicious cycle of trying to figure out what to say. And, returning to the specific task of our story, we are often surprised to find that writer’s block has vanished while we were distracted.

Now you may have noticed that in the example we just explored, there are elements of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre. The Genre appears to be a variety of Science fiction. The Theme would seem to revolve around the class system on a frontier Mars and the implications of interjecting one natural ecosystem willy nilly into another. The plot involves an individual out to better his lot by working outside the system, and whatever difficulties that may create for him. And, we have at least two characters already suggested – the Red Ground Rover explicitly and the Lord or Lady of the Manner House implicitly (plus whatever servants or staff they may employ.)

This is a good illustration of the fact that when we seek to impose patterns on our world (real or imagined) we actually project the image of our mind’s operating system on what we consider. Characters form themselves as avatars of our motivations. Theme intrudes as representations of our values. Plot outlines the problem solving mechanisms we employ. And Genre describes the overall experience, from setting to style.

We cannot help but project these aspects of ourselves on our work. The key to inspiration is to develop the ability to see the patterns that we have subliminally put there. Almost as important is knowing when to be spontaneous and when to analyze the results, looking for the beginnings of a structure.

If you are a structuralist writer, you’d probably prefer to have the whole story worked out either on paper (or at least in your head) before you ever sat down to write. If you are an inspirationist writer, you probably wouldn’t have a clue what you were going to write when you began. You’d sit down, bop around your material and eventually find your story somewhere in the process, as you wrote. The final story would be worked out through multiple drafts. Most writer’s fall somewhere in between these two extremes. An idea pops into our head for a clever bit of action, an interesting line of dialog, or a topic we’d like to explore. Maybe it comes from something we are experiencing, have experienced, see on television, read in the newspaper, or perhaps it just pops up into our conscious mind unbidden.

Almost immediately a number of other associated ideas often come to mind. If there are enough of them, a writer begins to think, “story.” We then ponder the ideas with purpose, seeing where they will lead and what else we might dig up and add to the mix.

Eventually we have gathered enough material to satisfy our own personal assessment that we actually have the beginnings of a story and are ready to begin serious work on it. Then, structuralists set about working out the details and inspirationists set about finding the details as they go along.

Yet there is a problem for both kinds of writers. What holds all these ideas together is a common subject matter. But just because they all deal with the same issues does not mean they all belong in the same store.

It is common for authors to become frustrated trying to make all the pieces fit, when in fact it may be impossible for them to all fit. Perhaps several different combinations can be worked out that gather most of the material into the semblance of a structure. But odds are there will be a significant amount of the material that gets left out no matter how you try to include it. Even if each potential structure leaves out a different part and incorporates material left out in another potential structure, there is no single structure that includes all.

Like trying to pick up chicken fat on a plate with the flat side of a fork, we chase a structure all around our subject matter until we run ourselves ragged. Then we stare at the paper or the screen, realizing we’ve tried every combination we can think of and nothing works. It is this dilemma we call writer’s block.

It is much easier when we realize that stories are not life; they are about life. In the real world, we group our experiences together by subject matter, not by the underlying structure that describes it. For example, we are more likely to see the issues regarding the disciplining of our children as being lumped into one category of consideration whereas getting chewed out by our boss is another.

In truth, if our child tells a lie, it is not necessarily the same issue at all as when he or she doesn’t do the assigned homework. But, not doing homework may have a much closer structural connection to our getting in trouble with our boss because we failed to file all of the expense reports he requested.

We can avoid writer’s block. We can recognize that the material we create at the beginning of our efforts is not the story itself, but merely the inspiration for the story. Then we can stop chasing our mental tails and pick the structure that is most acceptable rather than cease writing until we can find the impossible structure that would pull in all the material.

Based on this understanding, it is not hard to see that we come to Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre not on a structural basis but on a subject matter basis as well. And, there is nothing wrong with that. As was said in the beginning of this article, we don’t write because of the desire for a perfect structure. We write because we are passionate about our subject matter. Yet sooner or later, the structure needs to be there to support our passions.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Can There Be More Than One Protagonist In A Story?

A writer recently asked:

I write Western genre screenplays. And I love to use Dramatica Pro. In Western Genre sometime I will run into more than one  protagonist more than one antagonist . I name my antagonist in Dramatica Pro and then when I try to name another antagonist it will not allow me to go any further down the road in story. Will there be another advanced software in Dramatica Pro that will allow me to name more than one antagonist and let me go on with my story and continue to use Dramatica Pro?

Here’s my reply:

There is only one protagonist and antagonist in a story, but there may be more than one story in a single book or movie.

The protagonist is defined as the character who is leading the effort to achieve the Story Goal, and the antagonist is trying to prevent him from doing that.

The protagonist and antagonist represent initiative and reticence in our own minds – the force to effect change and the force to prevent change or to embrace or return to the status quo.

There can be a protagonistic group where, as an assembly they all function as a single protagonist, but if there were just two protagonists, they would both have to be the prime mover of the quest to the goal and they both can’t be, by definition. Or, each could have a separate Story Goal that affected everyone, but then you really have two stories.

In a nut shell, here’s why narrative works that way. Narratives reflect how people interact in real life. As individuals, we all have a sense of initiative, reason, emotion, skepticism and so on. And in solving personal problems we use all of these to try and find the solution.

But when we come together as a group toward a common purpose, we quickly self-organize into specialities, where one person becomes the Voice of Reason, another as the resident Skeptic and another as the Prime Operative who pushes everyone else forward toward completion of the group’s goal.

The “specialists” are represented in narrative as the archetypes, and each is just one facet of all the traits an individual has, yet each function just as we do in groups, focusing on just one aspect of the problem solving so that, collectively, the group can go into more detail and thought than if we were all general practitioners, each trying to be a jack of all trades (as we have to do for our personal issues.

Now the protagonist in the group – the one leading the effort – does not have to also be the main character. The main character is the group’s identity – the character who represents the spirit of the group – its personality in a sense. Sometimes the leader of the effort is also heart and soul of the group, in which case you have a typical hero who not only does the job, but also has to grapple with a personal issue – a decision about his own value standards that can make or break the overall effort depending on how he decides to see things, often in a leap of faith, as when Scrooge changes in A Christmas Carol.

So, only one protagonist or antagonist or reason archetype or emotion archetype, etc. per narrative.

BUT, often stories have sub-narratives built around some of the archetypes. Everyone has a story of their own. And so does every character in an overall story. We just don’t always choose to sell those “sub-stories” because we want to focus on the principals and not clutter things up.

But, you can take any character and create a sub-story around a personal goal in which he is the protagonist and main character in his own personal narrative that is not at all the issue the whole group is dealing with. This sub-story might be completely independent of the main story, or it might be hinged so that events in a character’s personal narrative are so potent than it causes the character to step out of his function in the overall story in a surprising way.

After all, our own personal narratives tend to be more important to us than the narrative of the overall group with whom we are associated.

So, with sub-stories, it can seem as if there are two protagonists in the story and even two antagonists, but they aren’t really in the same story but in a sub-story in the same overall “world” you’ve created in your story telling – your story universe.

I hope this helps provide some new ways in which to think about your characters and plot.

Let me know if you have any additional questions and may the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

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Stories on the Mind

As with people, your story’s mind has different aspects. These are represented in your Genre, Theme, Plot, and Characters. Genre is the overall personality of the Story Mind. Theme represents its conflicted value standards. Plot describes the methods the Story Mind uses as it tries to work out its problems. Characters are the underlying drives of the Story Mind.

Genre  

To an audience, every story has a distinct personality, as if it were a person rather than a work of fiction. When we first encounter a person or a story, we tend to classify it in broad categories. For stories, we call the category into which we place its overall personality its Genre.

These categories reflect whatever attributes strike us as the most notable. With people this might be their profession, interests, attitudes, style, or manner of expression, for example. With stories this might be their setting, subject matter, point of view, atmosphere, or storytelling.

We might initially classify someone as a star-crossed lover, a cowboy, or a practical joker who likes to scare people. Similarly, we might categorize a story as a Romance, a Western, or a Horror story.

As with the people we meet, some stories are memorable and others we forget as soon as they are gone. Some are the life of the party, but get stale rather quickly. Some initially strike us as dull, but become familiar to the point we look forward to seeing them again. This is all due to what someone has to say and how they go about saying it.

The more time we spend with specific stories or people the less we see them as generalized types and the more we see the traits that define them as individuals. So, although we might initially label a story as a particular Genre, we ultimately come to find that every story has its own unique personality that sets it apart from all others in that Genre, in at least a few notable respects.

Theme

Everyone has value standards, and the Story Mind has them as well. Some people are pig-headed and see issues as cut and dried. Others are wishy-washy and flip-flop on the issues. The most sophisticated people and stories see the pros and cons of both sides of a moral argument and present their conclusions in shades of gray, rather than in simple black & white. All these outlooks can be reflected in the Story Mind.

No matter what approach or which specific value is explored, the key structural point about value standards is that they are all comprised of two parts: the issues and one’s attitude toward them. It is not enough to only have a subject (abortion, gay rights, or greed) for that says nothing about whether they are good, bad, or somewhere in between. Similarly, attitudes (I hate, I believe in, or I don’t approve of) are meaningless until they are applied to something.

An attitude is essentially a point of view. The issue is the object under observation. When an author determines what he wants to look at it and from where he wants it to be seen, he creates perspective. It is this perspective that comprises a large part of the story’s message.

Still, simply stating one’s attitudes toward the issues does little to convince someone else to see things the same way. Unless the author’s message is preaching to the audience’s choir, he’s going to need to convince them to share his attitude. To do this, he will need to make a thematic argument over the course of the story which will slowly dislodge the audience from their previously held beliefs and reposition them so that they adopt the author’s beliefs by the time the story is over.

Plot  

Novice authors often assume the order in which events transpire in a story is the order in which they are revealed to the audience, but these are not necessarily the same. Through exposition, an author unfolds the story, dropping bits and pieces that the audience rearranges until the true meaning of the story becomes clear. This technique involves the audience as an active participant in the story rather than simply being a passive observer. It also reflects the way people go about solving their own problems.

When people try to work out ways of dealing with their problems they tend to identify and organize the pieces before they assemble them into a plan of action. So, they often jump around the timeline, filling in the different steps in their plan out of sequence as they gather additional information and draw new conclusions.

In the Story Mind, both of these attributes are represented as well. We refer to the internal logic of the story – the order in which the events in the problem solving approach actually occurred – as the Plot. The order in which the Story Mind deals with the events as it develops its problem solving plan is called Storyweaving.

If an author blends these two aspects together, it is very easy miss holes in the internal logic because they are glossed over by smooth exposition. By separating them, an author gains complete control of the progression of the story as well as the audience’s progressive experience

Characters  

If Characters represent the conflicting drives in our own minds yet they each have a personal point of view, where is out sense of self represented in the Story Mind? After all, every real person has a unique point of view that defines his or her own self-awareness.

In fact, there is one special character in a story that represents the Story Mind’s identity. This character, the Main Character, functions as the audience position in the story. He, she or it is the eye of the story – the story’s ego.

In an earlier tip I described how we might look at characters by their dramatic function, as seen from the perspective of a General on a hill. But what if we zoomed down and stood in the shoes of just one of those characters, we would have a much more personal view of the story from the inside looking out.

But which character should be our Main Character? Most often authors select the Protagonist to represent the audience position in the story. This creates the stereotypical Hero who both drives the plot forward and also provides the personal view of the audience. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement but it limits the audience to always experiencing what the quarterback feels, never the linemen or the water boy.

In real life we are more often one of the supporting characters in an endeavor than we are the leader of the effort. If you have always made your Protagonist the Main Character, you have been limiting your possibilities.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

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The StoryWeaver Method – Step 2

The StoryWeaver Method is a step by step approach to developing your novel or screenplay.

StoryWeaver will help you create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

The StoryWeaver Method ~ Step 2

Introduction to 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 inspirations have in common is that they are not stories, just the beginnings of stories.  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 steps 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.

In the next step, you’ll begin your story development process by writing a short synopsis of what your story is about.  But, if you are starting from scratch without a story concept, StoryWeaver will help you to develop one.


The StoryWeaver method is based on our

StoryWeaver Story Development Software

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